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
Great find! I see it still has its “JAF” badge on the grille – I assume it must the owner’s daily driver. Definitely a rare one.
I noticed this too. A friend had one on her second-hand first-gen Civic back in the eighties. I thought it was cool.
In the same way that even Cinderella surely must’ve found one of her step-sisters less aesthetically-challenging than the others, I guess it is the most attractive. I’m sure the quite svelte Fiat 110D would have sent the Datsun letters of sympathy for its fun-palace mirror Fiat 110D-look, had the Fiat not been a car, ofcourse. (Which, like the Datsun, it was, so could never have replied even if the theoretical correspondence had been sent, but I am quite wildly digressing, here into the vagaries of anthropomorphism, which even I can’t think might be somehow relevant).
I’m as fascinated as your Professorial self about the speed with which Japanese iron moved from not credible to desirable – and why Japan at all, a land without [car] history? – but I’m a bit intrigued by your mention of intellectual property having been liberally spread without authorization. Without wishing to start a political turdcyclone, I always had the impression that the Japanese makers did their copying under proper licences (or in one case, without, after the Brit maker did not take them seriously and thus require it). I raise this because it’s known – here, anyway – that the licenced copies of things like the Datsun B-engine quickly became superior to the originals, especially in durability and continence: so was it theft or just making it better that occurred?
It’s not just cars and their lack of history within the country. It’s any market the Japanese decided to get into.
In 1965, Japanese bicycles were cheap but well-built department store copies of the Raleigh Sports, the 3-speed ‘English Racer’, with a Shimano 3-speed hub in place of the venerable Sturmey-Archer AW. One size (21”), one color (black).
By 1970 Sun Tour had introduced derailleur designs that were at least a generation better than any of the European manufacturers.
By 1975 Japanese bicycles had frames that were as good as anything European with much better finishes at two-thirds the cost. And their components were miles ahead of the European competition.
By 1985 the was no European competition except in the most expensive professional racing (read: snob) classes. And the majority of Schwinn’s were made in Japan.
By 1995, Schwinn was bankrupt, bought out, and was just a brand name on Chinese made WalMart bicycles. As were most of their European competitors.
There are a few notable examples of Japanese companies taking IP freely, if you’ll pardon the (bad) pun. Toyota’s 6cyl. truck engine was a straight-up copy of Chevrolet, from what I’ve read. The Toyota AA was also pretty closely modelled on the Chrysler Airflow (though Volvo and Peugeot were equally guilty of same). The Hino Contessa 900 is oddly similar to the Renault Dauphine. Nissan just took the Austin engine and made it their own. And let’s not forget the considerable cottage industry of retro kits. Are Mitsuoka not profitting off Jaguar ‘s dilapidated corpse in the most literal sense? Same for Daihatsu and the Mini and many others. More of a gray area legally, but keeps the green flowing into Japanese coffers. And not a yen spills out.
This is not limited to things automotive. For instance, there are exact copies of Kinder eggs my 5-year old is keen on that are definitely not Kindered to the company that invented the concept. However, the Disney characters on the packaging are duly licensed. In China, they wouldn’t have even bothered with that. So it could be worse.
Appropriating a foreign idea and perfecting it is a game played in many countries, but Japan turned it into an art and a lucrative business. I don’t mean to say that no original ideas are ever born here, though – there are many. But the societal pressure to conform and obey your elders is less conducive to creativity here than in other parts.
Excellent answer (though ofcourse, Excellence Is Expected, in the Relentless Pursuit Of Perfection).
Austin did sign a proper agreement with Nissan in ’54, and Nissan actually made a fair bunch of your actual A40’s and A50’s in Japan with lots of Austin help. The Little Nissan Pushrod Engine – you’re right, I don’t know the actual designation – is not an exact copy of the BMC product, by which I mean I don’t think much is interchangeable, and so whether or not you could say they outright just took the engine may not be right. Contrarily, I do know that many folk later quite happily fitted Nissan LNPE’s to their dying Morrie Minors because it was the same but much better, so you might be.
One sweet little story I’ve heard is that the embarrassingly-nomenclatured Cedric was so yclept because of gratitude to the English engineer from Austin who helped so much in its design. I like the story because I do, but also because it seems entirely possible that, from the comic reaction to that most ordinary motorcar, the Japanese company learned the important rule of never following what the English car industry of the 1960’s might suggest they should do.
And, you know, they did alright after that, so I understand. Whereas it turned out that when it came to cars, there wouldn’t Always Be An England.
There was also a pickup model Ive seen a couple in OZ where the climate was nicer to them, there are a few left in NZ though a lot of them turned to iron oxide a long time ago.
Damn, you’re right, I’d forgotten! Can’t recall ever seeing a sedan, but definitely saw utes still into the ’80’s, for sure.
The pickups, which used the same front half of the body, were what sold in the US, not the sedan. It became the basis of Datsun’s early success here.
I’ve found two of these 320 pickups here, including on early “unibody” version (both kinds were built; with integral abed and separate bed), one of them quite recently. I’m way overdue to write them up.
And one of these was the daily driver of the guy who owned it!
Another oddity was the two-door wagon, which had a beam axle on leaf springs under the front end, where the four door wagon had IFS as you’d expect. I read about this in an issue of Modern Motor in the early sixties when these first came to Australia and had a look under one when relations visited one day. Couldn’t believe it! I guess it was intended as a commercial vehicle/’van’. IIRC it had those bars inside the back side windows too.
Late-60s Korea had these for taxis in the dirt-road areas. These usually had leafspring solid tubular front axles.
Count me as a fan. There is something comforting in that anonymous, slightly pudgy shape that we Americans associate with the early 1950s.
Although this car probably predates it, my mind has churned up the old slogan from my childhood – “Drive a Datsun, then decide.”
The exterior looks pretty weathered compared to the interior that looks almost perfect. Or perhaps it is just dirty.
See, people were right after all, Japanese cars don’t last, this one is missing the headlight trim rings and it has some dirt on it. 🙂
It is quite a handsome little thing, and the wagon version especially looks quite appealing. I love the interior of this one though, it looks quite “loungey”.
What a great find in the midst of Tokyo!
In the whole time I was in Japan I did not see a car as old as this. Not one. The Japanese Sha-ken safety inspection is extremely thorough first inspection is at three years and then every two year after that.. Most of my friends sold their cars at five years. The trades to to RHD countries, especially New Zealand and Australia..
I remember seeing these on the roads in Australia in the early sixties. They were never common, though at a family reunion in the early sixties there were two of them, a sedan and a two-door ‘commercial’ wagon. Yeah, I forget the people but remember the cars…..
Back in those days there were many Japanese companies trying to sell their wares on the Australian market, and you didn’t know who the big players were going to be. You couldn’t say “Well, Datsun’s a big name overseas, but Hino will never amount to anything much”, because IIRC Australia was the Japanese car industry as a whole’s first serious attempt at selling in foreign countries. Low prices and full equipment attracted people, and good ol’ word-of-mouth did the rest.
Datsun really seemed to take off with the next generation of Bluebird. Likewise Toyota with the next Corona – we got the one pictured above as the Tiara (anyone know why?). By the mid-sixties Japanese cars were a common sight on the street, though old codgers like my dad would sometimes stun me by asking “Who makes Datsun?”, as though he expected me to reply “Ford” or something!
I’ve never seen a Japanese car as old as this on the road, but it does have an exotic funky charm about it. It’s too bad that there isn’t more information about the detailed history of Japanese cars available.
Nicely told piece on something I knew little about, other than the Austin connection.
I find the styling quite intriguing – as you say there’s some Austin in there but to my eyes at least there’s some Rootes Audax Minx/Rapier in there too. The screen shape, the headlights and grille and the rear lights and boot profile all look Rootes-y to me, to the extent that when I saw the first photo I thought it was an Isuzu Minx. The red pickup Paul posted shows the Rootes effect even more
The B210 1000 reminds more of a German style somehow, almost Lloyd or Borgward some how.
And remember, heavy cars are better…..
“Road Hugging Weight” perhaps?