COAL: 1972 Datsun 510 – An Investment?

“Autos For Sale” was the section of the classifieds I was perusing in the newspaper.  It was 1990 and I was a college kid who just needed some transportation.  Flush with a little cash from the sale of my Honda Nighthawk, I was looking for something with four wheels instead of two.  I wanted something that would keep me dry when it rained.  An added benefit would be the ability to take a girl on a date, which was something I definitely wanted to do more of.

My budget was $750 so my options were limited.  In those days before the prevalence of cell phones you didn’t always get an answer when you dialed a number, and not everyone had an answering machine.  After a couple of these calls, and then another on an already sold Ford Courier, I saw the ad.  It read: “1972 Datsun, runs and drives $900 obo.”

When the ad says “runs and drives” it usually means basic transportation.  Dents, rust, and other damage is to be expected, don’t even respond if high miles or dirt bothers you.   My curiosity was piqued, the price was right (with a little haggling).  I needed more info.  So I called, maybe it was a pristine 240Z?

The guy that answered spoke in broken English.  From what I could gather, it was still for sale, less than ten minutes away, and the model was a 510.  Being a “car guy” through and through, I was disappointed in myself for not being instantly able to conjure up a mental picture of a Datsun 510.

A college buddy with a car offered to drive me over.  When we pulled up, I saw the small, box-shaped little car on the side of the house.  The tan paint was faded on the hood, roof, and trunklid.  The car had not had a bath in a while, but there seemed to be no rust.  If I remember correctly it had two or three hubcaps. The interior was black vinyl.  The car came with a four speed, and miscellaneous items like old children’s toys and fast food wrappers.  The owner handed me the keys and the little four banger fired right up with no smoke.  The owner would take $750.

The car had a completely worn-out shifter bushing and an exhaust leak, but otherwise was a great runner. The days and weeks that followed were pure bliss.  I could be “that guy” who offered the other college kids a ride somewhere.  When it rained I stayed dry and the wipers even worked!  The car was solid and the doors clicked shut.  Although going on 18 years old, this car seemed manufactured like a fine Swiss watch.

One weekend I decided to take the three hour trip home to see family and friends (and do laundry).  The trip back to school that Sunday night in the Datsun was uneventful until a blowout of the passenger front tire made me pull over in a very desolate, empty spot out in the country.  I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I slid the key into the trunk’s latch.  Contingencies, like spares, jacks, and tire irons are simply not important to invincible, free-spirited young college students.

I had not opened the trunk before.  In it were some dusty boxes full of children’s clothes, but underneath was a tire!  The tire was very bald, but was full of air!  God was smiling on me.  There was no jack to be found, but I did find a tire iron down in one of the side cavities behind the wheel wells. This tire tool even fit the lug nuts on the car!  I was back on the road after stuffing a log under the A arm and digging a hole in the dirt with the other end of the lug wrench so the spare could be bolted on.

The Datsun served me well for the rest of the school year, but I had to abandon it when a chronic cooling system leak eventually led to a blown head gasket.  The last time I saw it was when my parents and I were pulling out of the dorm parking lot that summer.

I will always remember my Datsun 510.  Years later I learned that enthusiasts love these cars because of their simplicity, and great handling due to their independent rear suspension.  Even after 40 years, there are still many around today.  Mine would easily be worth ten or even twenty times what I had paid for it then.  If I kept it, could it be considered a financial investment?