You don’t come across many Japanese cars from the early ‘60s around Tokyo. Foreign ones from that period are much more sought after, it seems – and always immaculately (or even obsessively) restored. So it was all the more fortunate to find this original and apparently still running Bluebird 312 a few weeks ago.
Older Japanese cars are endlessly fascinating to me. Japanese carmakers managed to develop into genuine automotive titans producing automobiles full of character, competitiveness and longevity. Yet until well into the ‘60s, they were by and large a curious blend of clunky styling, crude technology, nonsensical names and misappropriated intellectual propriety – not unlike Chinese cars today, to an extent. Our Bluebird here is a pretty good showcase of this primordial soup era of Japanese automotive history.
It’s not the earliest Datsun I’ve ever found, but close. I wrote up a 1958 sedan last year – the Bluebird’s immediate predecessor. It’s interesting to see how the P310/311/312 Bluebird compares with those: the 110/210 pre-Bluebird Datsun sedan was really primitive, but when the 310 arrived in August 1959, ushering the Bluebird nameplate, it was like Datsun had finally joined the post-war era.
The body was a “half-monocoque” design (i.e. the car kept its trusty frame), the front suspension declared its independence and kooky old things like exposed door hinges were eliminated – though the ones on the trunk remained. The Bluebird was about as up-to-date as any middle-of-the-road car of its time: double wishbone and coils in front, leaf-sprung live axle in the back, three forward speeds on the column, water-cooled OHV engine – nothing adventurous, just well-executed.
Overall, the 310 looked much more like a mid-‘50s Fiat or BMC saloon, whereas its 210 predecessor was just too amateurish to be mistaken for anything European. The Bluebird’s styling was the work of Nissan’s in-house designer Shozo Sato – no doubt with a little inspiration from the Austin A50 Cambridge (below), which Nissan built under license from 1955 to 1960.
The engine was also Austin-based. Back in the mid-‘50s, Nissan had hired Donald Stone, a former Willys-Overland engineer, to teach their staff about engine production. The company then thought that they needed to invent a whole new motor from scratch, but Stone told them to just use the Austin 1.5 litre four they were already making – all it needed was a shorter stroke. The resulting 37hp 1-litre B-series 4-cyl. was first used on the 210 and powered subsequent generations of Bluebird for years, saving Nissan a fair few fistfuls of yen. Deluxe and export models were assigned a larger 1.2 litre variant, initially producing 55hp.
By 1961, the Bluebird was a certified hit in Japan. This came chiefly at the expense of its main domestic rival, the Toyopet Corona T20 (up top), which was a bit of a dud. Aside from the rear-engined Hino Contessa 900 (bottom pic), which debuted in mid-1961, there weren’t many other comparable cars to choose from on the JDM in those days. The competition was in the wings: the Daihatsu Compagno, Mazda Familia and Mitsubishi Colt arrived in 1963, soon followed by Subaru and later Honda. But in the first years of the ‘60s, Nissan reigned supreme in the JDM family car segment.
The Bluebird became model 311 in late 1960. This brought a few changes, most notably an all-synchromesh gearbox and a boost in horsepower: the 1189cc version now boasted 60 hp. A curious addition to the range, hitherto limited to the “Standard” and “Deluxe” versions, was also present: the Fancy Deluxe.
This was aimed squarely at members of the fairer sex, with a host of “things that girls like,” or so their male counterparts felt. This materialized in random and bizarre ways: a two-tone yellow paint job, a Saxomat clutch and a music-box turn signal were supplied as standard.
Oh, but there was more – the Nissan boys pulled out all the stops for the ladies. Bluebird Fancy Deluxe owners were also treated to a full-width clothing rack, special upholstery, an umbrella stand and as many curtains as was humanly possible to fit on a production saloon (not on the windshield though – probably). It seems Japanese women were receptive to this condescending gesture: the Fancy Deluxe was enough of a success to be carried over to the Bluebird 410.
Our feature car is not “Fancy” though – it’s just plain Deluxe, as can be seen by its chrome windscreen surround, fog lamps and thick side trim. And it’s a 312, which arrived in August 1961 and ushered in a number of noticeable changes. The grille grew wider, the tail was straighter and the taillamps were beefed up significantly.
The dashboard was also completely revised for the 312. The front bench gave way to a split seat in December 1962, which our car does not have – it must therefore pre-date that particular evolution. But it does have the late-model grille seen in cars made from September 1962 onwards, so I guess that makes it an autumn automobile.
Toyota, as I was writing earlier, famously laid an egg with their 1960-64 Corona. They did manage to salvage the situation on the JDM somewhat, but their dreams of market conquests in faraway lands were shattered – particularly in the US. The Datsun Bluebird 310/311/312 did not exactly set the American market ablaze either, though that was not through lack of trying. Trying a bit too hard, even.
In the US, the Datsun Bluebird was advertised far and wide for the low low price of $1616 and with its “American” features, such as road-hugging weight and a good old frame, prominently trumpeted as great assets compared to tinny unit-bodied European rivals. And some contemporary observers did agree that Nissan’s products were very well made indeed – at a time when “Made in Japan” was a byword for lousy quality, Datsun cars were supposed to be the exception.
Datsun also fielded a quirky GRP-bodied drop-top called the Fairlady S211, a sturdy 1200 pickup truck and a wagon to entice more customers to take a look at Japan’s best small car. It was still a hard sell. In 1962, Datsun’s total US sales tallied up to 2629 vehicles – sedans, wagons, pickups and convertibles. In 1963, Datsun sold about 4000 units, but the increase in sales was mainly achieved thanks to the relative success of the Pickup.
This is pure speculation, but I bet American import buyers were still under the impression that Datsuns were just another throwaway Japanese car with dowdy looks and a gutless engine. And they were not wrong. These qualities, though fatal in a regular car, are quite secondary in a pickup, where sturdiness and practicality are the name of the game.
But there are other markets aside from the US. The first generation Bluebird was also one of the first Japanese cars to set tyre on European roads: Finland imported a contingent of 700 cars in 1962-63, and the marque soon became renowned.
Likewise, Datsun unleashed the Bluebird on the Australian, Kiwi and South African markets, the latter being locally assembled from CKD kits. First-generation Bluebirds were also built in South Korea by a couple of companies, as well as in Taiwan by long-time Nissan acolyte Yue-Loong.
By 1966, Datsun were selling 30,000 units in the US. Of course, by that point, the Bluebird was a different animal (at least externally, thanks to PininFarina’s involvement) and the Fairlady looked more like an MG B than anything else. The 310/311/312 series can be seen in hindsight as a slightly awkward transitional model. Still, domestic sales were healthy enough and over 200,000 were made in four years – a very respectable number for a Japanese model in those days.
Anything this ancient still on Japanese roads commands maximum respect. But I’ll go further than that – compared to both its predecessor and its main Toyota rival, this first-generation Bluebird is easily the most attractive of the bunch. Maybe someday I’ll see a first generation Prince Gloria or some other (and larger) Japanese ‘50s design that will impress me more, but so far, this is pretty much as good as it gets. Which is not to say it’s a great design – on a global scale, it’s mediocre at best. Just a few places above the Hudson Jet or the Standard Vanguard in the “stodgy ‘50s four-door” class.
Within the JDM context though, the early Bluebird did get the worm. Not sure if that’s an image that makes any sense or that I want to sign off on, but sometimes, we who live where the sun rises do like to mix our metaphors to brighten the rest of the world’s day.
CC Capsule: Datsun 312 Bluebird, by Junkharvester