It was 1982; disco was dead and I was getting the itch for another automotive project. My 1973 Chevrolet Vega GT Estate Wagon Beater (GM’s secret internal production code) was providing reliable and oil burning transportation, but I had that project itch. I could have worked on the Vega, but how could I improve on such automotive perfection? So what was the answer?
Have you ever played the automotive version of the game of “Jeopardy!”?
“OK Ed, it’s your turn on the board; pick your category”
“I’ll take obscure mass produced sports cars imported into the US for $800, Alex”
And the answer is “This car dominated SCCA D class racing for almost a decade, even after it ceased production”
“What is a Datsun Roadster Alex?”
Now, before your co-contestants grumble that a Datsun Roadster is just a Japanese copy of the MGB, let’s set the record straight. The Datsun Sports, or Roadster, or Fairlady, or whatever they were calling it throughout its production run, was released six months before the MGB. Datsun had a penchant for giving manly names to its cars in Japan, so its sedans included such virile labels as “Bluebird”, “Cherry”, Silvia”, and “Sunny”. Its sports car line was named “Fairlady”, but fortunately, “Mr. K” (Yutaka Katayama – President of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A.) had those name tags left off before the Roadsters were imported to US shores. The Fairlady name was obviously too violent and extreme for our genteel American sensibilities, so that fire breathing imagery was removed before arriving on our shores.
The Datsun Sports was launched in 1958 as the S211, a fiberglass sports car with a whopping 36 horsepower. 1960 brought the SPL212, which had a steel body and was imported in minuscule numbers to the US. The SPL310 debuted the classic Datsun Roadster shape in 1963. 1965 brought the improved SPL311 Datsun Roadster in 1600 cc form and 1967 added the SRL311 in two versions of an overhead cam two liter pocket rocket.
These continued in production until mid-year 1970 when they were replaced by the Datsun 240Z (Fairlady Z in Japan) Oh, so you have heard about the 240Z?
The 1600 cc version of the Roadster was the most produced, and its 96 horsepower fit in nicely with the likes of the MGB (95 HP), Triumph Spitfire (75 HP) or the Fiat 124 Spider (89 HP). It was well appointed, handled decently and offered a lot of value for the money.
The overhead cam 2000 cc Roadster was a whole different animal though, and was offered in two versions. The “regular” version offered 135 horsepower using two SU carburetors to feed the newly designed OHC engine. The “competition” version had a hotter cam, seven quart aluminum oil pan and even larger twin Solex carburetors pumping out 150 HP with a lofty 7,000 rpm redline. This version was really designed to be happier racing than in normal street operation, as the 138 ft lbs. of torque arrived at a peaky 4,800 RPM. Both engines were backed by a smooth shifting five speed transmission, the first on a Japanese car.
In looking at the competition, we see…well…actually there wasn’t much competition. The MGC six cylinder wasn’t popular, as it was slower, heavier and cost more. The Triumph TR250 was also a six cylinder, but only put out 111 horsepower in US form. The Porsche 911 offered its two liter six cylinder with outputs of 110, 130 or even 160 in its “S” model. The 911S also cost twice as much as the Datsun and had four wheel independent suspension, something that Datsun’s live axle rear end lacked.
As you may have deduced from my previous COAL’s, I have a preference for cars that are a bit unique in some way, that aren’t the common mass market safe choices. In this case, an MGB or Fiat 124 Spider would have been a safe choice, as they were relatively popular in Southern California in the early 80’s. Datsun, on the other hand, only imported about 12,880 of the 2000’s over its four year production run, so its relative rarity was intriguing. They also didn’t seem to stray far from their port of entry, so if you weren’t on the west coast or maybe on the east then your chances of seeing one in the metal were greatly reduced.
In those pre-internet days, I searched the newspapers until I found a couple of ads: “1969 Datsun 2000 Roadster, driveable condition, needs some care”. The second ad said “1970 Datsun 2000 Roadster, runs, needs work” I knew that if I rearranged the letters on either of those ads, they would spell “project” and my hunger might be satisfied. Strangely though, both ads had the same phone number. Was that a misprint?
I called the number and found that the seller did indeed have two Roadsters that he wanted to part with. Whether he ran out of time, money, or just found the brains to dump them off on some other poor sap I’ll never know. But I do know that I went, I saw, I drove and I bought.
The grey one was a 1970 with the standard 135 hp engine. It ran but was in rougher shape and would take more work. I decided that this was my new parts car.
The other one was a creamy yellow (as opposed to the chicken yellow of the Camaro) with the competition package. The seller let on that he’d had that one up to 140 mph, to which I smiled and tried not to obviously roll my eyes. I took both cars for test drives, but honestly, they were priced such that if they even just ran they were a steal, so I didn’t push it.
I drove the grey one home to our apartment first, and you could feel that there was something there but that the carbs weren’t tuned properly. I then went back for the yellow one and it just didn’t drive the same. I knew about the cam and knew that I’d have to keep the rpm’s up, but 2,500 just seemed to be a flat spot. It was a little better at 2,800 and started feeling a little less sleepy and more awake at 3,200. Stopping at the next light, I decided to let it wind out a little more as I went through the gears to see if I could diagnose what was going on.
I gave it more gas leaving the light. 2,800 rpm, OK, 3,200 better, 3,700 wait, whaaaat? At 4,200 rpm it felt like someone had lit a fuse and the car took off like a rocket. Now, let me digress for a minute and explain something. My friend’s 1970 Mustang Mach 1 was pretty quick, with mid-range torque that pushed you back in your seat very nicely when you punched it. But I had never felt anything like the kick that I had just experienced with the Roadster to that point. Yes, driving a small, low to the ground open roadster tends to accentuate things, but this was seriously impressive. We now return to our regularly scheduled COAL..
The exhaust had what I can only describe as a deep throaty scream. The tach was moving so fast that it hit 6,700 rpm before I could grab second. I came off of the throttle in second as I was not on a highway, had exceeded the speed limit – and I hadn’t even hit 5,000 rpm. I drove home keeping it above 3,000 rpm to see what I had here. Hmm…this could be fun…
In starting to dig into the engine compartment, it became obvious that someone had removed the Mikuni Solex carbs and installed a pair of Weber 45DCOE’s – great for 6,000 rpm racing but not great for low speed drivability. Datsun installed a cast iron header on the two liter engines, and its shape was a thing of beauty as it sat below the Webers. I cleaned up the engine compartment, fixing this and tuning that, and noting what was missing that I could procure from my new parts car.
I took it to the freeway to learn more about this full throttle behavior. 1st gear, 6,500 rpm., 2nd gear, 6,500 rpm, 3rd gear – oops! I later learned that 3rd gear was good for over 90 mph, but there was no way that I was going to push it. That was 3rd gear, and there were two more where those came from. Now this could be fun!
The Roadster was also a tight fitting car, one that you wore rather than spreading out in. The seats were comfortable and grippy, keeping you safely in place around the corners. The steering wheel was a little large, but it worked well and kept the car pointed exactly where you wanted it.
It had full instrumentation, including a 160 mph speedometer and 8000 rpm tachometer, and the ignition switch remained on the left side of the steering column on its journey from Japan. The radio was oriented vertically in the console near the choke and throttle pull knobs. How cool was that? The 5 speed trans was the smoothest that I’d ever felt, and made the Vega seem like a bad joke.
I spent a year fixing and tinkering, replacing and polishing until I had a pretty nice running little convertible. My wife and I had purchased a home in Huntington Beach by that time, and the roadsters came with us, the yellow one in the driveway and the grey one out of sight at the side of the house.
The clutch had never been great on the yellow one, as it occasionally slipped on full throttle above 4,000 rpm. Once we had settled into the house, I decided that a good Saturday project would be to replace said clutch. By this time I had worked as a mechanic; sometimes full time and occasionally as a side gig, so a clutch was no big deal.
I got my parts, looked at everything that needed to be done, then consulted the factory service manual. The manual stated that you should pull the engine and transmission as a unit, then separate them on the ground to replace the clutch. Huh? I looked over and under the car again, and it looked like I could just drop the transmission. Sure, it would be tight, but I’d seen worse so in I went. I got everything disconnected – linkage, mounts and connections, and slowly brought the transmission down and out. Well, actually, I tried to get it out, but the bellhousing kept hitting the body. I loosened the motor mounts more, but there was still 1/2 inch too little clearance for the transmission to clear. Rats.
“Only fools ignore factory service manuals” – Anonymous, Huntington Beach, 1983
I bolted the engine and transmission back together, opened up the service manual and followed it step by step, removing the hood (it opened towards the rear), and disconnecting everything. I already had my own cherry picker and engine stand, so it wasn’t hard. But I learned another valuable lesson that day. Not only should you RTFM (Read The Freakin’ Manual) but you should also BTFM (Believe The Freakin’ Manual) as well. And that’s another lesson that has served me well to this day.
I was working as a trainer at the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA), and my job included visits to a number of offices from San Diego to Santa Barbara, Bakersfield to Palm Springs. If the weather was nice I’d take the little Datsun to work to experience the joy that a fun car could bring. It was honest, it was direct, and it never led me astray.
With 150 horsepower motivating only 2,000 pounds, acceleration was, how shall we say…brisk. Where the 850 Spider danced like a ballerina, the Roadster was more brute force, and handling of the understeer, neutral or oversteer variety was just a touch of the throttle away. It was not geared to be a drag racer, but between 25 and 125 mph it was a terror. The top speed in each gear tells the story, as they were 1st – 40 mph, 2nd – 65 mph, 3rd – 91 mph, 4th – 120 mph, 5th – 140 mph. Although I doubted that the previous owner had ever seen 140, another owner reported 134 on the straight at Watkins Glen. With the less accurate speedometers of that era, who knows? But I can say that the car still pulled strongly at triple digit speeds. And the SPH (Smiles Per Hour) was off the charts!
I kept those Roadsters for eight years, but began driving them less and less as I had a new hobby of getting a pilot’s license, buying an airplane and getting an instrument rating. By the early 90’s, we had decided to move to the Denver area to start a new business, and I knew that the Roadsters belonged where they’d never see snow. It was bittersweet, but I let them go to a new owner who couldn’t wait to dig into the grey one and see what he could do.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Fast forward to 2001, and I felt that itch again. My career was going well, but my 21 year marriage was not. I thought that maybe if I got a hobby, a project, maybe things could get better on the home front. With the miracle of the internet, I soon found a suitable candidate in Houston for sale. I grabbed a truck & trailer and pointed myself south for the 17 hour drive. The medium blue car wasn’t as good as advertised, but I could make it work, so we negotiated a price, signed some papers, and I headed back home.
I played and tinkered with the car over the next couple of years, but my heart wasn’t really into it. I later realized that the car was just a crutch for a failing marriage, and it deserved someone excited to dive in and make things better. Two years later, I really wasn’t sorry to see it go, as it was just a painful reminder of a painful time. There would be many happy times later, but this was the start of a long overdue house cleaning.
But hey, no doom and gloom to end this story! Climb with Doc and me into the DeLorean, hit 88 MPH and let’s go Back To The Future to 1984, as it’s time to graduate from the Vega GT Estate Wagon Family Truckster to something a bit more respectable – the subject of our next COAL.