It was 1979. I was still in Vermont and after almost a year with last week’s Dodge Dart I was ready for something that could better scratch my driving itch. The human mind is resilient. Any psychic scars associated with the dependability of cars I had owned prior to the Dart had faded. The Dart had proven to be Xanax on wheels.
I admired the BMW 2002 but financially it was not to be. I was someone who bought off-brand macaroni and cheese for 17 cents a box because Kraft was too expensive at 33 cents a box. A BMW, even a bad BMW, was out of my league. Enter the poor man’s version – the Datsun 510. After a little looking I found a ’71 two-door with a four speed manual transmission, and blood shot MOON eyes painted on the hood…
I don’t remember the seller’s name, let’s call him Mountain Man, but I do remember where he lived. There was a failed condominium development in the Mad River Valley – the Fly-In – conceived as a vacation residence for private pilots. There was a runway and near its end was a small shack, maybe five by ten feet. That was Mountain Man’s home. When I saw the Datsun there I knew I had a responsibility to take it home and care for it.
The Datsun had originally been orange, a common color for the 510, but at some point Mountain Man had painted the car black – with a brush – and added the blood shot eyes. I’ve never been much for aesthetics, but I quickly invested in a small can of black paint and eradicated the eyes. There was a little bit of rust at the tail end of the front fenders à la unrestored ‘60s Porsches and under the driver’s floor mat a hole which I covered with an old plastic laminate sign. Overall the little sedan was stylish despite the visible brush marks. Its design was reminiscent of the boxy but sensuous Italian sedans produced by Alfa, Fiat and Lancia. It was a common misconception that the 510 was designed by Pininfarina but it was actually its predecessor, the 410 Bluebird, that had these Italian roots. The 510 itself was designed in house by Nissan.
Yutaka Katayama, best known as Mr. K – the father of the Datsun Z car, was president of Nissan USA during the 510 era. He loved sporty cars and thought they were a key component to success in the US market. He insisted the Japanese moniker for the 510, the Bluebird, was not appropriate for the States. He also made sure the 510 used a larger engine than in Japan – a 1.6 liter inline four cylinder that produced 96 horsepower.
Independent suspension at all four corners assured crisp, contemporary handling, but I set out to improve it. I added nylon suspension bushings in front and KYB shocks all around along with plus sized tires. The Other Michael even hooked me up with a MOMO steering wheel that had been only slightly bent in one of his numerous accidents. Night driving was always a challenge in Vermont so I also added J. C. Whitney driving and fog lights.
A few weeks into ownership a burning smell in the engine bay led me go looking for an electrical short. Under the hood I noticed that the heavy gauge wire that carried juice from the alternator to the fuse box was wrapped with electrical tape. Removing the tape, I discovered that at some point a ten-inch stretch of this wire had been replaced with a coat hanger. It was time to learn about wiring.
The wiring project ended up being bigger than just replacing the hanger. I was still working at the ski area and the mountain operation guys had grown fond of me that summer as I was responsible for keeping them supplied with dynamite and blasting caps. Consequently, I was able to work on the Datsun in the maintenance shop after hours. Many evenings were spent replacing wires and crimping on new connectors.
The final touch for the 510 was vanity plates, a new thing at the time, which cost an extra $10 per year in Vermont. The first year I went with my last name – IONNO. The second year I went with my name upside down – ONNOI – so that if I ever flipped the car anyone driving by would be able to more easily identify me.
That summer and fall were the glory days for the Datsun. After several months of blissful driving in the Valley it was time for a road trip to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix where I met up with the Other Michael. It was our sophomore visit to the Glen and through circumstances that shall not be revealed we both had press and photo credentials that allowed us to go anywhere. Despite the rainy weather we thought it ideal to stand at the Armco barrier at turn nine, the exit of the Glen’s fabled Boot. Other highlights of the weekend included planting a kiss on the cheek of the Penthouse Pet of the Year at a press party and seeing Datsun 510 race car driver and occasional actor P. L. Newman walk by (such blue eyes!).
By far the best part of the weekend was meeting our hero Rob Walker who, in addition to his Road & Track writing duties was the official lap timer for 1978 champion Mario Andretti’s Lotus team.
The Sunday night drive from the Glen back to Vermont was memorable for a couple of reasons. Leaving the Glen, I fell in with a pack of real sports cars and we drove “spiritedly” east on the New York Thruway. As darkness descended I noticed my headlights were growing dim and the alternator light had come on. In Albany I found that last open gas station and bought a new and freshly charged battery. It provided just enough juice to make the last 100 miles home and with headlights again fading I made it to my apartment where the car immediately stalled and did not have enough power to restart. Getting the disabled car to the mechanic the next morning was actually easy. I was lucky to live near the top of the Sugarbush Access Road while the repair shop was at the bottom – two miles but all downhill so I could coast all the way.
My spidy-senses told me more trouble might be ahead. I had the opportunity to pick up a four-door automatic 510 for $100 and it became my parts car. At some point that winter I swapped the engines on the two Datsuns. I also installed a block heater which proved its worth when the temperature on Christmas day dropped to 30 below zero Fahrenheit. Few cars started that day but it was no problem for the preheated Datsun. I was persuaded by a visiting skier to go to his condo and try to start his car. No dice. Other stranded vacationers in the same complex then poured out and each had me try to jump his car. Ultimately none of them started, but each owner slipped a small gratuity into my gloved fist. A family of five had dinner reservations so they all piled into the Datsun with me and I shuttled them to and from their swanky restaurant.
Fast forward to January of 1981. I ended my four-year semester off and returned to school in Philadelphia. Amazingly the Datsun had been relatively dependable and thoroughly enjoyable in the interim. To pay the bills I had a part time job and three mornings per week I commuted out from Philadelphia to Chester County where I would grab huge rings of keys and then travel around Pennsylvania and New Jersey harvesting quarters from laundry machines in down market apartment complexes. Fortunately, my company provided a car for this activity meaning I would not be at risk of a break down in the 510 and would be relatively safe at least when I was driving between sites. The sites themselves could be a little scary as this was in the early days of the crack cocaine era and I was frequently carrying twenty pounds in quarters.
During my commutes to the suburbs I began to notice that the rear brakes of the Datsun were failing to engage fully. The adjusting screws for the drums were frozen so the rear brakes were going to require a full rebuild. In the interim planned braking was the solution so each stop was proceeded by an extra pump or two of the pedal.
The semester was coming to an end after which I would be returning to Vermont for the summer. The reading days prior to finals seemed a good time to undertake the brake project. I rationalized that studying for finals was cheating as any last minute knowledge gained distorted the measurement of what I had actually learned during the term.
The Other Michael was now living in a Victorian house in a small town in South Jersey about an hour from Philadelphia. The defining feature of the property was a large carriage house that could easily hold four cars and their many detached parts. It was our automotive playground.
After a pilgrimage to Manny, Moe and Jack for discs, brake shoes and rebuild kits I headed to the carriage house where the Other Michael and I undertook an afternoon of brake renovation culminating in a brake bleeding session that was so successful it would have made a medieval physician envious. The brakes worked perfectly. The pedal was firmer than it had ever been and the car tracked straight and true in simulated panic stops.
After finals I packed up the Datsun and began my drive to Vermont. Did you know that there is actually a town named Catskill in the Catskill mountains of New York? I didn’t either until the 510 engine gave out near the picturesque hamlet. Sadly, Catskill became the final resting place for the Datsun. The economics and logistics of finding another engine for the Datsun and getting it repaired in a town far from home did not square. I hitchhiked to Vermont, borrowed a car from my old boss, Bob, and drove back to Catskill where I collected my worldly goods. I also removed the MOMO steering wheel with its Datsun logo center hub and it remains hanging in my workshop to this day – a fitting reminder of the many good times and mechanical challenges associated with the Datsun 510.
Next week – Infected by the Trollhättan bug.
Last week – 1967 Dodge Dart Sedan Slant-6 – A School Teacher Car.
Nice write up. I myself have a few connections with 510’s including the L20 I swapped into a ’70 510, and did make a Quadrajet 4bbl work on it.
Beautiful. My life shared many of the same fond memories… a ’72 Orange 510, (which was the upgrade from a ’72 Ford Maverick), Lime Rock, Paul Newman, and a MOMO steering wheel. Also; a slight incident with a deer, on the twisty back roads of Connecticut, which required pulling out the radiator support, and fussing with the bent hood to get it to latch. Instead of the blood shot eyes, I went with the black racing stripe down the center of the front & rear bonnets via rattle can! The Datsun (the poor man’s BMW) is long gone & sadly any photo’s of it. (I also yearned for my brother’s ’72 BMW 2002, which I acquired in ’86, & still own to this day).
I saw very few of these in England in the early 70s, the C pillar and vent looks very Mk2 Cortina.
About this same time (maybe starting a couple years earlier) , I was also living in Vermont (in Shelburne, south of Burlington) and also driving a (slightly newer model) Datsun 710 while a student at UVM. I’m sure the 710 wasn’t as fun as the 510 (and even worse it was an Automatic) but it did well in daily driver duties, always parked outside, it only failed to start once (but that was for a week, during the blizzard of ’78…I lived with my parents and had to drive into school with my father that whole week….I still remember that the drivers seat of the car felt like lead when I tried to get into it to start the car).
My sister also would borrow the car to go to her job at the Mary Fletcher hospital in Burlington…the car had an automatic choke, and I told her to make sure to shift the car into neutral at stops until the car warmed up when the roads were covered since the rear end would fishtail as the auto transmission still tried to spin the rear tires (not exactly burning rubber)….of course she forgot, wouldn’t take to coaching over the phone and I had to rescue her at the end of her shift in my parent’s car.
The 710 got me through my undergraduate years, and almost 1 year after I got my first job out of college (in Massachusetts). It was pretty rusty by then, and being a light car with rear wheel drive wasn’t great on traction, which led to our parting, when it bit a guardrail after I hit some black ice around the Sharon exit off I89 (north of White River Junction) driving back to Vermont after work on a Friday night…didn’t hit too hard, and side that hit was on the non-battery side, so after I got the car off the (cable) guardrail, i was able to nurse the car another 60 miles or so up to Shelburne, I got the bodywork done, and decided to sell the car…funny thing is the timing was such that any car with good gas mileage was a hot seller, and during the test drive for the actual buyer, parts came off the car (trim parts, but still) due to the rust, but he still bought it.
I had bought my first VW (Scirocco this time) of 3 (one of which I still own today)…in fact the Datsun was my last non-VW brand car. I learned a lot working on that car, some of which quickly became obsolete (my VW had electronic ignition, and fuel injection, so my learning how to do tuneup with points in distributor and rebuild carburator on the Datsun didn’t help me with the VW). The VW was way more of a fun car, but needed regular maintenance, no longer had the automatic, and was a hatchback, which I’ve since repeated buying in my subsequent cars to the present day.
One of my pot-smoking buddies from high school got a used ’72 510 when he graduated in ’75 to replace his really cool ’67 410. I’ll never forget how he ruined it. Last time I saw it, he had flipped the 510 on its left side, but was still driving it, unrepaired. Tough little beast. I would love to have either of those cars in the condition they were in before my friend got them.
As to my buddy, I googled him a while back. He’s living on the coast, but had a DUI at the age of 57. Sad.
Again, I love this series. The cars. (and bikes) of my youth.
What good story telling .
I never quite managed to buy one of these but they’re fine little buzz bombs and very fun to drive .
Way back in the late 70s-early 80s my shift supervisor had one of these as his only car. I rode in it once or twice and was surprised that a car built in the late 60s-early 70s DIDN’T have carpeting but had rubber matting on the floor….was that just his car?
It rode okay and looked attractive back then, but I was still prejudiced against Japanese cars back then so didn’t really notice these until they started disappearing.
It’s a bit less sophisticated, but I’d rather own a Cortina especially now that folks are “dropping” DuraTec and Zetec engines into Cortinas.
My dad bought an ’83 Nissan Sentra with rubber mats and vinyl seats, so at least some Datsun/Nissan cars still did without carpet into the 80s.
The ornage 510 in the top pic would look so much better with blacked-out window frames…
Although not Datsuns my ’67 Dodge Dart, ’69 Plymouth Valiant & ’67,’69 & ’72 Dodge Camper Special PU’s all had rubber floor mats instead of carpeting. So it was not unheard of in the day.
I have heard that rubber floor mats were a 2dr sedan only thing, 510s anyway, which from experience seems to hold true. My ’69 wagon had carpet front and back with vinyl mat in the cargo area. My ’69 2dr had rubber floor mats throughout. My current 510longroof, a ’71, also has carpet with vinyl mat in the cargo area. I have had many parts cars since 1985 and most of them were 4dr sedans which also had carpet front and rear. The carpets wore out pretty quickly.
Nope that was usually what most stripper cars had.
My 2011 Chevy Colorado has rubber flooring and vinyl seats
” Night driving was always a challenge in Vermont so I also added J. C. Whitney driving and fog lights.” One of the many “joys” of living in Vermont I have discovered. If it’s raining or snowing at night my wife will not drive.
This has been one of my wife’s objections to moving back. That and the lack of a real lap pool in the Mad River Valley. So, when we move I’m committed to driving her to Montpelier or Burlington for Masters’ Swimming.
Toyota vs. Datsun, lust like Ford vs. Chevvy:
I’m (just barely) old enough to recall when the Datusn 510 and the Toyota Carona both started getting popular here in New Orleans; around 1971/72.
I drove and rode in more than a few of these 2 cars.
The 510 had a “sportier” engine and suspension than the Carona, no doubt about THAT. The 510 was “revvable” and the suspension made the car “tossable” and fun to fling into corners.
The Carona felt like a better built, more solid, higher quality car. The engine, smoother than the 510’s, didn’t like to rev quite as much, though. They Toyota 4 speed manual even then, was a smooth shifting, “snick snick”, joy to use trannny. The interior parts were of higher quantity and longer lasting materials than the cheap-when-new looking 510. Seems like the manual steering required less effort in the Datsun than in the Toyota.
Even in 1971, Toyotas had freezing c-c-cold A/C systems (SO very useful in Hot & Humid New Orelans!) The Nissan units were …just there.
Seems like, from a 45 year memory disadvantage, that the 510 was slightly less expensive than the Carona. (Or perhaps the Toyota dealers were already flexing their well known dear greed?)
My 16 year old (at the time) opinion was: Datsun for fun, Toyota for the long haul.
Just MY opinion. Opinions, like gas mileage, may vary.
I share and have always shared your opinion about Datsun/Nissan vs Toyota…..at least as far as their “mainstream” sedans. But then, Nissan never built a car (at least for the U.S. market) that was sportier than any generation of the MR2.
Another fun read. In the years when these could still be found cheaply, they simply did not scratch where I itched. But as the years have passed, I have liked these more and more, to the point that had I been buying a new inexpensive car in 1972 or so, one of these might have been it.
And if a 67 Dart is automotive novacaine to you, I hate to think of what your opinion might have been of many of the cars I was driving in those years. 🙂
It could be exciting when I drove it too fast through the twisties. Not refined, just exciting.
Ive always liked 510s. A clean simple 2 door with good all around performance and handling. Whats NOT to like? The beauty of these cars was that they could play the everyday reliable appliance to the person who only wanted such. But the platform had the chops to become a respectable performance car if you just put in the effort. A true do-it-all platform if there ever was one.
Nice story. You walked away from your 510 only a couple of years before I aquired my first wagon. My friend didn’t want it, it was his grandfather’s car, so I traded a set of wheels and tires for it. I managed to dip a wheel in two oceans on epic road trips. A life long addiction followed.
I love the burnt orange. I bought a 710 in that colour with a satin black hood and cowl. My current 510 longroof is in the other popular 70’s colour. Sand Gold.
I’ve always liked the 510 for its clean lines and decent performance. Our beat reporter at the radio station in BC had a blue two door with an automatic. It was still in decent condition in 1977. At the same time there was a young man who worked at Safeway who modified his 510, in and out including the engine. Needless to say he dominated at Gymkana events in the city. No one could beat that car. I would prefer my dream 510 modified too. Sadly they are as rare as hens teeth now.
It’s kind of amazing to me that Rob Walker was writing for Road & Track – he just seems to be be such a creature of a different era, a different world.
He was full of stories including a lot from being in Africa in World War II. He ran his own COAL series in R&T for years. I recall when he was still well under 16 he had a car that had 3 or 4 speeds that it could run in both forwards and reverse. He would drive his mile long twisty driveway in reverse at speed.
Famously he was driving a Mercedes on public roads ahead of race car drive Mike Hawthorne when Hawthorne wrecked is Jaguar and was killed.
When I met him he was a total gentleman. As well, he mentioned the Other Michael and I in the R&T write-up for the race.
I used to love reading his F1 reports and other articles. A gentleman from another era.
Datsun really had something with these but the sporty image they were trying to cultivate never really stuck. Outside of their actual sports models, Datsun/Nissan’s cars for the next few decades would rarely be overtly sportier than rival Toyotas or Hondas. Perhaps an exception would be the ’91 Sentra and ’02 Altima.
Maybe. We had the C110 240K in coupe as well as sedan – but IIRC never the GTR – but it and the subsequent C210 were ‘sporty-ish’. Having said that, it was the R32 GTR ‘Godzilla’ that killed at Bathurst in 92 forcing a big rethink around the assumed supremacy of the V8.
Another great piece Michael, My fave so far and have to agree with William. What’s with the wavy carriage house?
NZ had a few local market sports sedan models mostly locally modified engines factory installed into the 1200 and 210 cars badged SSS the 180B was I think from memory the last 4 banger factory hot model Datsun bothered with, these cars were for production car racing and rally work and quite successful in their classes but of course unheard of internationally.
Also, that carriage house is extremely creepy.
I don’t think it’s quite as wavy as it looks. I snipped that off of Google Street View.
I take it from the Trollhättan reference that your next car was a Saab. For 15 of my first 19 years of car ownership, my cars were Saab 95 or 96 V4’s–never did have a 99 or 900. I’m looking forward to your next post!
My buddy in high school got regular access to a new 510 in 1970-1971. He was a very fast (but good) driver, and the two of us had some memorable drives through the endless winding hills north of Towson, to the Pennsylvania line. It was an exceptional car in its time, even if its rear end was a bit loosey-goosey. Yes, Datsun really dropped the ball, and never recouped what it had started with the 510.
My parents had a ’72 510 wagon in the same orange. This car could take a beating. I can remenber several trips to the New haven Coliseum going 80mph the whole time down I95. It was certainly more powerful, even with an automatic, than the 310 I had in college. I can see peoples nostalgia for these.
These having been before my time I didn’t realize they were considered the “poor man’s BMW” even at the time. They would repeat some of the accolades in the early 90’s with the Sentra SE-R and the 3rd-gen “4DSC” Maxima but such success has been few and far between for Nissan.
Another good story! It really shows the differences in reliability between then and now though in the amount of work required to keep a car between 8 and 12 years old running…
My dad owned a 1971 4 dr 510 sedan he drove for 35+ years and 390,000 miles . It was durable, reliable, and fun to drive. Its 4 spd manual a joy to drive. He chose the 510 over the Corona I recall – all this after owning a Rolls and high end Mercedes. He loved the 510’s simplicity and low maintenance costs. And yes, the carpets were frayed and a dashboard button was missing in his last few years of ownership. Nifty car.