Curbside Classic: 1959 Datsun 1000 (211) Pick-up – The First Step In The Long March

(first posted 10/28/2017)          I know that “Long March” reference is more pre-war Maoist Chinese than post-war Shōwa Japanese, but it still applies. The late ‘50s is when Nissan started to export their cars and trucks to the world at large; under a decade later, Datsuns could be found across the globe in ever-increasing numbers. And it all began with this first-generation Datsun 1000.

The story begins in January 1955 with the launch of the Datsun 110. Its relatively modern looks belied pretty basic underpinnings, ushering a formula that was to be the mainstay of several Japanese automakers for several decades. The 110 used the previous Datsun’s 860cc side-valve 4-cyl., which produced a measly 25 hp. That was mated to a four-on-the-floor crash box, driving a brand new rear live axle / independent front suspension set up with longitudinal leaf springs all around. Excited yet? No? Well, it was 1955 after all.

At least the 110 came in several flavours. There was a W110 wagon and a rare K110 convertible variant to be had, as well as the 120 pick-up truck – our CC’s direct ancestor. The Datsun 110 soon evolved though, as its maker introduced various nips and tucks here and there, year after year. The model’s numeric name crept up, becoming the 112 and 113 for saloons and 122 / 123 for the pick-ups.

The big change came with the Datsun 210, introduced in October 1957. Externally, there wasn’t much of a difference with the still-produced 110 (now called 114), bar a bit of additional chrome trim, bizarre wing-mounted turn signal pods and the revised grille. But behind said grille sat a new OHV mill, which would have a long career. Nissan’s new “C-series” 988cc engine was a pretty much a clone of Austin’s B-series – no big surprise, as Nissan were building Austin A40s and A50s under license at the time. It produced a whopping 37 hp, used 12V electrics and was mated to a partially-synchronized four-speed whose shifter had climbed “on the tree”.

The Nissan 210’s commercial name – for the first time – was Datsun 1000, also used for the derived 220 pick-up. But now Nissan felt ready to ship Datsuns to various new markets. Australia got its first contingent in 1957, as did several other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Thailand or Indonesia. Nissan sent a couple to the United States to see if they could cash in on the import craze that was taking hold of the market there. One thing was made clear by American authorities: the bullet-shaped turn signals were not going to fly.

So the Datsun 1000 was revamped by early 1958 with new turn signals front and rear and, lo and behold, 83 units (or 52, depending on the source) were sold in the Pacific coast of the US for the 1958 model year, at around US$1600 a pop. Not exactly Beetle or Dauphine territory, but this was the first step. Nissan just kept on marching – and proving the quality of their cars. In September 1958, a Datsun 1000 won the marque’s first-ever trophy, coming in 1st and 4th at the Australia Mobilgas Trial, a grueling run around the country that half the entrants were unable to complete. It was also around this time that Nissan started prototype testing a new open-top sports car based on the 210 – eventually launching it as the S211 Fairlady in late 1958.

Further small modifications justified a change in nomenclature, so in October 1958 the Datsun 1000 became the 211 series. Our pick-up version is an early-model 221, bearing the simpler grille design of the first months of 1959. This cute little ute stayed in Japan, but an increasing amount of its kin went abroad. The JDM version is identical to the export one, but Japanese customers could still order the 115 saloon or the 125 pick-up, which came with the old anemic 860cc side-valve but saved its buyer a fistful of yen.

One could also opt for the new 1.2 litre version of the OHV engine and get 11 extra horses and a swanky “Datsun 1200” badge. In the 221 truck family, a double cab pick-up and a delivery van also available. The same engine choices could be ordered on the saloon, of course. Optional extras included a heater, a dash clock and a radio. By the looks of it, none were fitted to our CC.

This generation of Datsuns went out of production in 1961. By then, the Bluebird had been launched and Nissan were in full growth mode. It would take a while for the US and European markets to succumb to the later iterations of the 210 (a.k.a the Sunny) and the 310 Bluebird, but it all started with this innocuous-looking 1000.

The Japanese have special reverence for their ancestors. If this extends to corporations and their groundbreaking products, I imagine Nissan keep a stick of incense lit in a shrine for this first generation Datsun 110/210. This is where the Nissan story really took off 60 years ago. A long march indeed.