COAL Datsun F10: Colors and the Perils of Being Number 2

Photo by riveranotario at the Cohort

Colors, much like spices, are a personal choice, adding much needed variety to our lives. And just like spices, colors create a number of reactions not as unrelated as we might think. From bland delight (vanilla anyone?) to tasty joy, depending on our preferences. And regardless of spice, moderation is always needed, for when we least expect it we can choke.

Choke! Almost my dad’s reaction as he approached our house’s garage that late afternoon 1979. He definitely scoffed, that I am sure. Then a shaking of the head while swiftly moving past us, into the house. We remained outside in the garage’s entrance while washing our new car. He just walked passed us right into the house? Wasn’t this to be a moment of triumph? A brand new vehicle in the front porch, bought that same afternoon by mom without his knowing. Yes, a new car. A gleaming, and eye searing not-quite-radioactive-lemon-green 1978 Datsun F10.

And yes, I can understand his reaction. For I can still feel to this day my eyes watering by just thinking on that car’s pungent color seasoning.

Image from the web. Color and wheels digitally altered to match author’s memory.

The aesthetically malformed Datsun F10 2nd generation became part of our lives on an impulsive whim of my mother. A car that has made the pages of this site for all the wrong reasons (further links at bottom) was now ours for the next few years. And to think that just a few hours before it had been all excitement, me and my brother, led by our mother on a secret mission to purchase a new car. And to arrive at the dealer, and see those shiny 1979 Datsun B-210’s in line, all with styling echoes of Nissan’s greatest hit, the 510. Where did our venture go wrong?

Almost the image (off by a year) of what greeted us at the Datsun dealer late 1979. Rows of B210’s waiting for new buyers.

In our house, unusual as it may seem, father either not cared, or was too content riding public transit, never bothering to learn the pleasures of motoring. Instead, he spent his whole life as a plain pedestrian. So mother was the one that took to the wheel, and from an early age. That in a time of still flaky quality control; the early 60’s.

And mother took much pride on the independence this brought her, even though her sense of direction was non-existent and never dared to push any motor above 35mph (Really). Still, she was the one that took the family places, at snail’s pace, yes, but still… places!

And the cars before my birth were sort of a legend on her speak. The Chevy she learned to drive on which ended on a ditch. The Hillman whose pieces basically fell on the road as she drove. A second hand Opel that barely lasted a year on her possession. The Comet with an oil leak never to be fixed. Quality just had a different meaning at the time, and she was one of the many recently liberated women the Japanese discovered. For these many liberated women loathed getting soaked with oil, and loathed unreliable and flimsy parts that cracked and fell on the road. Getting stranded on the road wasn’t some curious anecdote in the making to be told among friends while gushing in copious amounts of lager. Nope, my mother had kids to take care for, places to go, house chores to do.

And this is where Nissan, aka Datsun, came in. And so did I.

The author falls in love with Datsun’s 1200 fastback.

The 510 and the 1200 were new arrivals in the Puerto Rican market place around the time of my birth, with decent styling and more importantly, reliability. The tropical island was populated by large Detroit vehicles that took in too much gas, and small Euro cars that overheated and fell apart. Nissan –aka Datsun- and Toyota arrived, being the right size for our roads, and more positively, they didn’t melt under the sun like  European vehicles. On my childish book of preferences, Datsuns had the edge. The fastback 1200 coupe looked rather neat, and the 510 had sporty ads on magazines. And we’re not even counting the 240z. A mythical beast at my tender age only found on printed ads.

In the hands of a five year old the image of nicely lit 240z on a Reader’s Digest leaves indelible marks. Who makes a car like that? Only Camaros and Mustangs are better, and I had seen those! The 240z was just that, an image. An image of the coolest company in the world (In my kiddie eyes of course, only rivaling GM, of course! But let’s not even get into that this time).

The stuff of childhood dreams. Nissan’s sporty image.

Yes, Nissan, Japan’s perennial number 2, whose vehicles still went by the name of Datsun. How was I, a 5 year old kid, to know that the image was nothing but a mirage? A temporary illusion that not even Nissan executives seemed to believe in.

There are plans, and there are reactions. And being number 2 generally creates more of the latter. While those that achieve bronze seem happy to barely made the podium, silver always knows they could have gone full gold, with a bit of more effort, or luck. Some elusive quality had robbed their chance.

Japan’s market and the consolidation of their industries in the late 19th and early 20th century is a world away from our understanding. A mix of centuries isolation mixed with a push to modernize must have made for interesting developments in a stratified society as Japan’s.

Datsun 14, 1935. Nissan’s early days.

The schemes to conform Japan’s industrial elite most have taken an intricate set of alliances and acquisitions, even putting to shame those of the Borgia’s and Medici’s. Families with feudal nobility and with enough riches to commence industrial endeavor allied with prefect governments, in a tangle so woven that casual sleuths need not apply. Nissan’s consolidation reads just like that, and without the aid of graphs, it’s impossible to make sense of the whole thing. If one is to trust Wikipedia, there were about 5-6 main companies that gobbled each other, evolving into a new entity: Nissan’s nascent days. If one is also to believe Wikipedia, one of the companies that Nissan can claim as its progenitor happens to be Japan’s first auto manufacturer.

Through these alliances Nissan became one of Japan’s major corporate entities. And along many other Japanese endeavors, with the nation in rumbles after the loss of WWII, they took to industry and export with the same zeal they had devoted to their military pursuits. Kamikaze anyone?

Yes Kamikaze, indeed. Those first Japanese imports were nothing but DOA’s. Toyota had the good thinking of pulling out before the brand was tainted. Meanwhile, the rest, quickly sensing defeat, sent some Samurai minded kamikaze employees with the mission to live in the West, the destiny markets, and provide feedback to their production lines. Well, that was the general idea. It is also said it was a good way to rid of those that didn’t quite fit the sedentary attitudes of the corporations they were working for. Apparently Nissan’s Mr. K was such a soul.

Mr. K, in search for a place to fit in.

Two events take place here, first Mr. K., aka Mr. Yutaka Katayama, an outcast executive on its native land, sent by Nissan to the US in the early 60’s, to find out what the Yanks enjoyed. And then, the acquisition of Prince Motors by mid-decade.

And so, Mr. K., on his American tour of duty, brought the notion to Yokohama of sportier motors and suspensions. Then, to change the Fairlady name on the new Datsun roadster (But we love Audrey? Don’t Americans do too?). Does the guy know what he’s doing? Oh well, there was nothing to lose!

And what’s that? Prince? A motor company for sale? Sure, why not??

The 60’s was a definitive decade for Nissan. In the US, their products turned sportier, starting with the roadster and then the 510, a 2002 for the masses (a comparison that would haunt the company for decades). Yearly sales steadily improving. Then the acquisition of Prince Motors of Japan, which moved Nissan upmarket and into some advanced engineering. Topping these, a good deal of success in motor racing in the US. This was heritage in the making.

The 510, Nissan’s image of the late 60’s, early 70’s.

One downside though, none of it (besides the increased sales) seemed to had been wished for.  What Nissan truly wanted was to be number 1.

Our Datsun F10 was the second generation of Nissan’s Cherry. A project originally developed by Prince Motors before being acquired whole in 1966. With the project falling into their laps, Nissan had to ponder what to do with a front wheel drive vehicle, still a novelty at the time. Some, like Fiat and Austin, had pushed the concept into the mainstream. Others, like Oldsmobile or Cadillac, used this new engineering to portray such vehicles as ‘different’, even ‘advanced’. Nissan opted for this latter approach.

Now, individualistic and extroverted behavior doesn’t come to mind when we think of the Japanese. And when Japan incurs in such efforts, it occurs in ways that seem rather peculiar to foreign eyes. The first generation Cherry was such a vehicle. Appearing in 1970, it peppered the new layout with outlandish detailing that in spite of its transgressions, was to turn worse as the years went by.

Datsun Cherry first gen. Beauty was slipping, but still a few years away from meeting the Beast. Sales figures were not impressive, but still enough to bring on the sequel.

In 1976 our family moved to my dad’s native country, El Salvador. The country was populated by tons of mini trucks and pickups. Almost all vehicles were of Japanese make, and my mom’s first purchase was a brand new, much recommended, Toyota 1000, or Publica in its home market.

While the Publica was –according to a few websites- not the firestorm seller Toyota had hoped for, you would have never known by looking at San Salvador’s streets. It was ubiquitous, in every single of its variants, throughout the whole country, and quite a few examples are still found to this day on El Salvador’s streets.

A Toyota 1000 (Publica), still in daily use in San Salvador.

By late 1979 mother had tired of the vehicle, though my dad hadn’t relented on her intent of replacing it. A political event forced the events that followed. On October of that year El Salvador’s political turmoil was hell-bent of breaking the nation apart.  The government was collapsing, political assassinations were constant, and a guerrilla movement was on the ascendance.

One of many measures authorities took to keep the nation’s coffers in order was to curtail the import of goods. Therefore, sales of new vehicles were to cease altogether starting on 1980, and it would remain so until political conditions improved. Alarm bells rang on my mom’s head, the idea of not owning a new vehicle in the near future was just plain unacceptable.

– Kids, get ready, we’re going to the car dealer.

– The car dealer??? Does dad know?

– Why would he need to know?

Excitement, joy followed. What car would we get? A better one, for sure! No doubt! And so, we went…

Nissan’s last batch of B210’s (Aka Datsun 120Y) to enter El Salvador greeted us at the dealer.

The salesman at Datsun’s dealer obviously came to a number of preconceived notions as he saw my mother, a woman in her 30’s, coming in the store with two kids… and no husband in sight. Whatever prejudiced notions he came to, they all turned to be right.

Abruptly snatched away as we approached the glistening row of 1979 Datsun B210s (sedans, coupes, station wagons and fastbacks!), we were steered towards a deserted solitary vehicle in a neglected corner of the compound. None other than a sole, leftover 1978 Datsun F10 in bright Mopar lemon green was there. What an odd looking vehicle… this was a Datsun?? (Nissan’s coupes rarely made it to El Salvador and thus, I was shielded from their most outré offerings).

The salesman got into full Blitzkrieg mode, a full onslaught with no mercy! A relentless pounding of cheap salesman lines, one after the other, nonstop. A bombardment desperate in intention, executed shoddily but in unrelenting manner. My brother and I sat helplessly in the back seat as mom drove around the block during test drive. Words like DISCOUNT, REAL DISCOUNT were repeated over and over, sputtered with machinegun precision over the victim, my mother. Also, some nonsense about the car being PULLED instead of PUSHED by its driving wheels, which was infinitely better (never getting too much into detail, I doubt the salesman got the concept wholly, not that it would matter with mother). Meanwhile, mother kept groaning, like a wounded soldier… ‘But… the color!’ It was a painful to watch. Capitulation, I felt, was coming…

Eventually the fortress fell, the walls came tumbling, as the word DISCOUNT came hitting the same weak spot in the foundation.  The deed was done. The Allies in this case surrendered. Papers were signed. While the grownups did their stuff, it was my chance to take in what we had gotten into. Yes, it was new car… I should be excited, shouldn’t I? But, the shape… and the detailing… Those googly headlight surrounds, the odd matching of chrome and black matte elements, was this luxury or sport? And those hubcaps? Some kind of nasty PVC plastic in black matte finish with flower-like shaping. Mopar styling had gone out for the night, went on a binge of sake drinking and by morning time, realized it had mated with cheap Japanese TV sci-fi props. The only upside, the car was a sedan, not the hideous coupe.

Where it all went wrong. Childhood expectations face the nightmare of reality. And those hubcaps… (image from the web).

In the following years the car’s color was a never-ending source of discussion, both in family circles and acquaintances. A few basically gasped at the sight of the vehicle, but most kept their composure (facial expressions were always telling however). Not my mother though, who lost hers after a couple of years, and went on a mission to get the car re-sprayed. Not an easy mission in a country in the midst of guerrilla warfare.

A bit of excitement and hope took over as we started the search for paint shops. She finally managed to get one that satisfied her stingy nature. The car was to be painted a deep metallic green. The color swatches looked good enough. Then again, you get what you pay for… Ineptitude was apparently the garage’s motto. Lack of skills their mantra. The eye searing menace was put to rest and instead, the car got sprayed with the thinnest and dullest layer of lacquer ever applied ‘professionally’ to a vehicle. Orange peel is too kind a term; the car was now in what I can only kindly refer to as ‘lottery-scratcher’ finish. One keychain scratch on the surface and you could have probably won a prize. Mother was furious, arms flailing into the air as she walked away, stewing in fury.

Success is, at times, a hard thing to measure. The car had gone from an embarrassing nuisance to… looking like pure junk. Had we added a few props on that matte finish our F10 could have been Mad Max ready (then again, maybe between my mother and Nissan, they were just foreseeing the current trend of matte and dull finishes). That said, the color never came again in conversation, at least with acquaintances. Success? It was around this time that I met my best friend for life, in 7th grade. His family owned none other than Nissan’s third generation Cherry (still Datsun 120A in our market), a car that made a good impression of a hunkered down VW Golf –one of my faves of all time. This was a 120A? When did it start to look decent?

My friend’s Datsun 120A (Nissan Cherry 3rd gen) in 1991. Provoking as unlikely as it may seem… envy.

For all the grievances I place upon our poor F10, the engineering was sound. Whatever work Prince and eventually Nissan did on the FWD configuration, it proved to be a reliable one. The proven A12 1200cc engine never giving any upsets. The independent suspension, never put to the test by my mother on those 35mph sprints, did its work well for a family of four. One failed thermostat being the only repair I remember.

While looking a bit into the Cherry’s history for this piece, a few general discoveries: It never sold too well on its native market (too outré even for the Japanese?). Reliability was commendable as with most Nissans. On the search for photos, there are appears to be more survivors in Eastern Europe and the UK, one can assume it sold better there (Was a working FWD enough novelty to spike curiosity on the brits?). In full CC mode, I had looked for R&T’s review of the car all over the web just to find it on this site. Not the most glowing consensus, merely considering the car ‘adept’. That said, R&T does mention it got better reviews in European press.

By 1986 El Salvador’s motor landscape looked like a time capsule of late 70’s Japanese motoring. The civil war was still ongoing. Yet, the government finally allowed a trickle of official imports. We finally parted with the F10 and got a Hyundai Pony pickup (fodder for another day). Not a tear was shed.

In late 1987 my mother, brother and I moved back to Puerto Rico. I was abruptly taken out of my late 70’s motor bubble and the 80’s overloaded my senses for weeks to come as I absorbed all sorts of new sheet metal. Among the many surprises, Datsun was no longer, now revealing its true self, Nissan. Also, their cars were uniformly dull, with styling that could easily be replicated by toddlers with rulers. The 240sx the only exception (in excitement, not the use of rulers), while the 240z, former darling of my dreams, had turned into a frumpy looking 300z. Also, the Cherry was now Pulsar, and still continued a tradition of funky styling for the make.

Sedate styling was never to be Nissan Cherry’s destiny.

Because for whatever successes Nissan enjoyed in the late 60’s and 70’s they could never escape the curse of being number 2. As Toyota reentered the American market, it must have been incredibly painful for Nissan to watch as Japan’s number 1 stole their thunder away. Falling again into second place, behind their nemesis, in the largest market of the world.

And number twos tend to act in known patterns: occasionally mixing bold innovation and daringly searching for niche markets… or more commonly, a blatant ‘follow the leader’ approach, bringing almost copycat products of whatever number 1 sells. More in the realm of ‘reactions’ than ‘actions’, let alone planning. The identity that was once being defined turning murkier progressively.

‘If Toyota can make dull and reliable, we can sure make reliable and… duller!’ Or so it seemed was the rallying cry at Yokohama’s headquarters.

By the late 80’s, a lineup generally conformed of average-yet-reliable machines was Nissan’s offering. Lacking distinguishing features, Toyota and even Honda took over. Looking on the rearview mirror wondering what had gone wrong the company would take swift turns between exploiting their own legacy (Mr. K’s days were brought into Nissan’s 90’s advertising), to bold actions (the infamous Infinity launch), to blatant capitulation (discarding all sports offerings, selling only family haulers and trucks by the late 90’s). With Nissan on the ropes, the French came to the rescue, and while not a match made in heaven, it’s proven fruitful enough.

I don’t have particular strong sentiments about Nissan’s current crop of cars, nor of the company. Memories, good and bad, are all cemented in the past. One such, as I moved to California in 1990, on the college campus parking lot, one Datsun F10, the coupe version. A hideous thing I didn’t know existed ’til then and that brought haunting visions in my psyche. And as hideous as it was, I had only one thought: at least it wasn’t puke-inducing-lemon-yellow green.

And to think that my mother only wished for reliable cars that would keep us away from colorful (no pun intended) anecdotes. May the vanilla gods look upon her with all their blessings.



More on the F10:

CC 1977 Datsun F-10: It Got An F In Beauty School  PN