COAL: 1967 Datsun Sports 1600 • The First Car That Was Legally Mine

No, that’s not me in the picture!

Here’s the first car that I legally owned (as opposed to driving a car registered to my parents). When I turned 21 in 1974 Dad gave me $1,000 to buy a car of my own.  He’d done that with my older brother, who chose a rather mundane 1963 Ford Custom 500 sedan, courtesy of our neighbor Bill Pierre, who owned one of the largest Ford dealerships in Seattle.  When it was my turn, I wanted something more sporty than a boring sedan or my old Buick station wagon.

At the time I was living in my fraternity house on the University of Washington campus.  My fraternity brothers drove cool cars, like Mustangs or Camaros or Javelins.  I had a general idea that I wanted something that was sporty; economical, and had a manual transmission—my loathing of my Buick’s two-speed Super Turbine 300 was at play here.

This was long before the era of Car Max or Carvana or the internet, so I started scouring the used-car section of The Seattle Times classifieds, and the cars-for-sale booklets you found in newsstands.  My first search was for a pony car.

I really liked the lines of the 1967-9 Plymouth Barracuda, even though I knew it was basically a tarted-up Valiant.  I also wanted something that was economical, since this was the time of the first oil crisis.  Gas was up to 50 cents a gallon! As a cash-strapped college student I didn’t want a gas guzzler.  Alas, all the cars I saw for sale were either automatics, or manual transmissions behind big-block V-8s. I didn’t need a vroom-vroom speed machine, so I searched elsewhere.

A friend of a friend of a friend advertised a Fiat 850 sports car in the University of Washington student newspaper.  I loved the odd, ugly-duckling look of it, so I went and checked it out.  It was in rather tattered condition, and it needed a new top. The existing top had a hole in it, and there was mold inside.  Now, if you have spent time in Seattle you know we have cold, drizzly rain about six months of the year.  A convertible with a hole in the top just wouldn’t do.  Plus, dad reminded me of our family experience with a Fiat when we lived in Europe.  He said “Steve, FIAT stands for “Fix It Again, Tony!”.  So I passed on that one.

No, that’s not me in this picture, either; this is from the internet.

Another friend of a friend of a friend had a 1967 Datsun 1600 for sale, so I checked that one out.  It was silver, just like this car.  It had an OHV 4 cylinder engine and a four-speed stick shift.  It also came with a tonneau cover that snapped into place over the interior, which I thought was neat.  So I took it for a test drive.

Now, I had never driven a stick shift car before, except when I had to move cars in the fraternity parking lot.  Seattle has a lot of hills, and on the test drive I ended up at a stop light on James Street heading uphill from downtown. That is a very steep street. I stalled the car several times trying to get going.  The owner was super annoyed with me.  He told me to use the parking brake to hold the car while I got it going.  After a few tries I got the hang of things. Dad was not thrilled with my choice, suggesting instead a nice, practical A-body Buick Special like the one he bought for Grandmama.  I was 21 and headstrong, so I took the $1,000 and bought the Datsun.  It was even titled in my name, making it the first car that was legally mine! I was so excited!

I drove that car for about a year.  It got good gas mileage, and was a lot of fun to drive.  During sunny days in the middle of winter (a rarity in Seattle) I would put the top down, put on the parka I wore skiing, and run about with the heater of high.  The only impracticality was that the spare took up most of the space in the trunk.  I ended up stuffing the spare tire on the package shelf behind the seats, where it JUST fit.  The car was fairly reliable.  The only issue I had was when the clutch went out.  I contacted a foreign car repair shop down the hill from my fraternity house to come look at it.  He put the car in reverse, and used the starter to back the car out into the street.  He shifted to first, got the car going, and coasted it down the hill to the repair shop. It set me back $200, which was a lot for me at the time.  But that was the only major problem I had with the car.

Around this time I was dating someone who lived in Chehalis, Washington.  That’s about  80 miles south of Seattle.  One time I was coming back into town cruising along I-5 about 70 miles an hour.  Unfortunately, this was the era of the 55 mph speed limit, and I gulped as I sped past a radar traffic cop.  I quickly got off the interstate before the state trooper could get back to his car.  I waited a few minutes to see if I was followed.  After awhile I headed back north on the interstate.  I passed the same trooper in a heated argument with the driver of a silver Datsun 1600 he had pulled off to the side.  I was lucky!

The little car served me well during my senior year of college.  I commuted from home to the University for the fall term in 1974 – my sister’s psychiatric condition had worsened and I wanted to help. Alas, she took her own life the following spring.  Dad and I were devastated, but we realized that her prognosis was so dismal that this must have been her way out.

Taken outside the hospital after I learned dad would be OK. That’s not his car; he would never drive a Chrysler product.

In 1975 I graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in economics and history.  And since this is a Crutchfield story, there is of course some family drama involved with that.  I was in line waiting to go into the commencement ceremonies when I noticed the lady who later become my stepmother coming out with a police officer looking for me.  It seems Dad had a heart attack climbing the stairs in the auditorium.  Stepmama-to-be was taken by the police officer to the hospital, so I had to trek across campus to get Dad’s car and meet them there.  I was in a daze, and when I got to the hospital I went running up and down the corridors asking for Dr. Crutchfield (Dad had a Ph.D in economics).  I kept getting odd looks, and a nurse asked if I belonged in the psych ward.  It was then that I realized that I was still wearing my cap and gown.  Oops!

Dad recovered, aided by one of the first heart artery bypass operations.  That August, I sold the Datsun to the little brother of a friend, since I was heading back east.  I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Yale, where I would study for my doctorate in economics.  I would be living on campus, and so I would not need a car.

Next up: a pair of Pintos, and a several cross-country drives.

COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.

COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret

COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car

Further reading:

Ed Hardey’s COAL about the Fiat 850 Spider

Paul’s post about the Datsun Fairlady/1600