(first posted 7/9/2015) Datsun 120Y. Sunny. B210. Whatever you called it, whatever market it was sold in, this quirkily-styled subcompact was regarded as being reliable and dependable, if unexciting. In the UK, the 120Y helped put Japanese automakers on many buyer’s shopping lists during a decade where domestic automakers’ build quality was at an all-time low. In North America, the B210 helped cement Datsun as part of a powerful triad of Japanese automakers. Finally, in Australia, the 120Y was a strong seller but with time it has become an object of ridicule. All in all, over 2 million of these little Datsuns were sold in dozens of markets over five years.
The little Datsun was significant in helping familiarize Westerners with well-built and reliable Japanese cars. It may not have been a pioneer or the best car to come out of Japan, but it was a solid citizen that helped bring Datsun (and Japan’s automotive industry) into the mainstream.
The little Datsun was an utterly conservative compact in the vein of the Corolla. It was rear-wheel-drive, with MacPherson struts up front and a live rear axle with leaf springs at the rear. Brakes were discs up front and drums out back, and lacked power assist.
After a period of sometimes blatant adoration of European design, Datsun took bold steps in defining its own design language. While the sedan is dainty and somewhat cute, the hatchback coupe was harder to love with its severely raked roofline and odd detailing. The wagon, in comparison, was quite conservative.
The 120Y looked like nothing else and Datsun happily embraced the 1970s trend towards avocado green and burnt orange paint colors. Datsun also didn’t introduce the first 200SX or F10 to Australia, so the 120Y became a design whipping boy. Of course, journalists may have scoffed years later, but the 120Y’s quirky styling certainly didn’t hinder Aussie sales. Nor did the plasticky interior, as it was very well screwed together.
The 120Y’s predecessor, the 1200, was an enthusiast favorite and a critical darling. 1200 utes, for example, remain one of Australia’s most cherished classic cars and are a common sight. The 1200, thus, was always going to be a tough act to follow.
The 120Y was safer and more comfortable than its predecessor, being 5 inches longer and 2 inches wider, but it was slow. American automotive journalists were critical of the US-market B210’s 1288cc and 1397cc four-cylinder engines’ performance, but Americans were lucky. The Australian market received only an 1171cc engine with 70 hp and 70 ft-lbs of torque, although the 120Y’s bumpers were of course much lighter than the American-spec units.
Perhaps the lack of power wasn’t so bad considering the little Datsun’s ride and handling were hardly exceptional. Under its challenging sheetmetal, it was little changed from its predecessor but it was almost 200lbs heavier. An unsettled ride and feel-free steering meant it wasn’t extremely fun-to-drive, but it started every morning and bits and pieces didn’t fall off with regularity. We take that for granted these days, but in an era of cars like the Morris Marina and Chevrolet Vega, those were some pretty strong attributes in an economy car.
The B210’s performance and challenging styling wasn’t enough to dampen enthusiasm in the North American market. Arriving around the same time as the fuel crisis, the B210 proved to be a hot commodity in a market thirsty for small, efficient vehicles that weren’t thirsty. Datsun pushed the B210 heavily, running its “Datsun Saves” advertising campaign that highlighted the car’s excellent fuel economy.
Because of Australia’s generally quite dry climate and absence of snow, older Japanese cars are still to be found with some frequency and with little rust. A high school friend drove a bright yellow 200B (aka 810) wagon, which certainly stood out in a parking lot full of Corollas and 323s. The 120Y remains pretty well-remembered, despite the nameplate being retired after one generation (its successor was renamed Sunny). Amusingly, one of my brother’s high school text books featured multiple 120Y-related math problems like, generally involving car loans with compound interest and a woman named Sally who bought a 120Y. This was in the 1990s, mind you.
The 120Y/B210/Sunny was an important car for Datsun, in that it offered a well-built and reliable option for economy car shoppers in dozens of markets around the world.
But most people just remember it because it was ugly.