Curbside Classic: 1963 Datsun Fairlady 1500 (SP310) – The High Of The Beholder

You gotta trust me, CComrades, Ccolleauges and CCompanions of the Curbside, when I advocate that there is no more desirable ‘60s drop-top than the second generation Datsun Fairlady. Well, it still is CConvertible Week, so we might as well try, try and try again to fire up some enthusiasm for this lovely roadster. Others have tried before, as did I not too long ago – all virtually to no avail. Perhaps this gloriously attractive baby blue early-model will succeed in opening some eyes, preferably both of them.

What’s not to like about the Datsun Fairlady? I mean aside from the name – but then, it’s a Nissan, so the weirdo moniker comes with the territory (et tu Cedric, Violet and Rasheen)? No, but seriously, isn’t it the perfect CC? Just look at it! It’s so lovely, it’s almost giving me a buzz. I’m hooked!

Never mind the suspiciously Austin-esque engine and basic chassis design – it owes nothing to BMC. In fact, it came out before the MGB that everyone thinks it looks like. Some in the British press even claim that Nissan cribbed MG in developing this car. In reality, it should be the other way around: the MG looks like the Fairlady — the Datsun came out first, after all. Time travel is the purview of the De Lorean, not the Fairlady.

It’s exotic, yet original. It’s not emanating from some Italian carrozzeria or high-price consultant, so it’s a fully-fledged Japanese car. And yet, it doesn’t look like a rejected Soviet design, unlike a number of its JDM contemporaries and most of its predecessors. It’s pretty conservative, yet perfectly in tune with its era and still quite usable half a century later. In this early model guise, it has the Cedric’s 1.5 litre OHV 4-cyl., mated to a 4-speed manual. Earth-shattering it is not, but entirely capable and just as competent any contemporary wearing a Fiat, Triumph or Sunbeam badge.

The SP310 was Nissan’s first truly modern sports car, but it also came from a pretty long tradition of Datsun drop-tops, dating back to the early ‘30s. Nissan’s transition from building Austins under license to having a full-fledged home-grown range was remarkably swift: their small 1-litre saloon turned into the Bluebird in 1959 and their first full-size (for Japan) car, the Cedric, arrived in 1960. The S211 drop-top, based on the 1000 saloon / pickup, was shown as early as 1957, but it took two years for a handful of actual sales to follow – all for export to the US.

In 1960, the SP212 was announced, using the Bluebird’s 48hp 1.2 litre engine and a bit more chrome. It also came with the “Fair Lady” nameplate, once again due to a fortuitous brainwave of Nissan CEO Katsuji Kawamata, who had seen the hit musical on Broadway the previous year and enjoyed it immensely. No word on what Nissan’s marketing department or foreign subsidiaries thought of that bright idea, but the name would stick to sporty Datsuns for many, many years. Less than 1000 of these early Fairladies were made in three model years, so these cars were still somewhat artisanal.

The all-new Fairlady SP310 was one of the stars of the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show, but production only got going in late 1962. The engine, as we’ve seen already, was upped to the Cedric 30’s 1500cc unit, but mated to a shortened and lowered Bluebird 310 chassis, with a double-wishbone and coil front end and a leaf-sprung live rear.

Sales started in earnest in 1963 for the JDM, soon followed by export models. The very first Japanese market cars were single-carb and only offered 71hp, but in June 1963, all cars received the twin SUs and 80hp of the export models. Given the car’s 910kg weight, performance, even with this modest cavalry, was deemed quite acceptable.

Until mid-1964, the Fairlady 1500 was sold as a three-seater, with the third seat being situated just behind the driver, but at a right angle (facing left). Our feature car hides this novel attribute under a tonneau cover, but I have found pictures of the same car online, and it does have that third seat.

In May 1965, the Fairlady got a makeover, including a new 90hp 1.6 litre engine and front disc brakes, making it the SP311. The final evolution of the species came in 1967, when the SR311 arrived. This was an altogether more seriously sporty Datsun: 2-litre OHC twin carb engine giving 145hp, all-synchronized 5-speed manual, maximum speed: over 200kph. Production lasted to early 1970.

One interesting thing about the this Fairlady is that, esthetically, this 1963 version and the late-model red SR311 that I wrote up a little while back look remarkably similar. Even in the fast-paced and style-obsessed ‘60s, this car was not so dated that Datsun felt it needed drastic or repeated facelifts, unlike some Alfa Spiders I could mention, or outlasted its welcome like those sad rubberized MGBs. Datsun instead focused their development Yens on turning the Fairlady from a gentleman’s cabriolet into a genuine sports two-seater.

The trick was both to limit the model’s lifespan to a reasonable amount of time (i.e. under a decade), but also to get the looks of the car right from the get go. Certainly, one could never accuse this Fairlady’s bulbous predecessor of that – those look like they were squeeze out of a tube, rather than styled. This is all the more remarkable in that the SP310 was designed entirely in-house, under the responsibility of Hidehiro Iizuka. This was his first effort at a complete exterior design. Beginner’s luck or sheer genius? You be the judge…

A quick and utterly unscientific Google image search shows that quite a few Fairlady 1500s were sold in this colour – possibly the third-largest contingent after red and white. My phone’s camera was in a bad way when I took these pictures (which are now a few months old), so I’ve had to Photoshop these quite a bit to get something usable. This can play havoc with the colour balance – I’ve tried to correct this as best I could. The photos above and below, as well as the top picture, are good representations of what the true colour was like. Nowadays, it’s only ever seen on the odd Fiat 500 or a few kei cars, making this Datsun stand out even more.

In summation, I hope that those of you who never looked at these twice will do so now (and do so again). Because it’s one of those shapes that really grows on you. Perhaps this particular one’s whitewalls or grille design is all you needed to be won over, or some other detail. A quirky rear seat for your mother-in-law, a reasonably peppy engine and an eye-popping gender-reveal blue that you probably haven’t seen in decades: what a combination! So come on, CC. Show this Japanese MG some love – it really deserves it.


Related posts:

Curbside Classic: 1967 Datsun Sports 1600 (SPL311) – My Fairlady’s MGB, by PN

COAL #6: 1969 and 1970 Datsun 2000 Roadsters – Pint Sized Pocket Rockets, by Ed Hardey

CC Outtake: Datsun Fairlady(Sports) 2000 – Winter Is Coming., by Geraldo Solis

CC Capsule: 1965 Datsun Fairlady – A Real Lady Tells No Stories On Herself, by Jim Grey

CC Capsule: 1969 Datsun Fairlady 2000 (SR311) – Putting The “Lion” In Pygmalion, by T87