The late ‘60s were a blessed time. Judging by the music, the movies and the arts in general, not to mention progress in medicine, science and technology, it looks like a fascinating period. The cars are part of it – earlier periods are very interesting too, but by the late ‘60s, things like monocoque construction, OHC engines and all-independent suspension were becoming truly democratized. The trick, of course, was to find a car that had all three. Case in point, the 1967-72 Datsun Bluebird 510.
In many ways, the 510 Bluebird is like a compilation of the ‘60s greatest automotive hits. And just like a compilation of ‘60s chart-toppers, it is a beloved and familiar classic that folks who were there at the time, but also seen as a 20th Century highlight by those of us who were born later and look at the historical context.
We can compare the 510 with the Bluebirds that came before it, which of course were somewhat inferior and more primitive. But look at the ones that came after: overwrought, overweight and awkward in the ‘70s, the nameplate then operated a complete U-turn to front-driven squaredom in 1983 and gradually lost itself. Like many of the old legacy nameplates, the Bluebird died when Nissan was taken over by those nasty Renault people.
The Bluebird name appeared in 1959 on the 310 Sedan, which had just replaced the Datsun 1000 Sedan (a.k.a the 210), the first Nissan to have an OHV engine and independent front suspension. (Yes, Japanese carmakers got IFS a bit later than the rest of the world. Toyota taxis still had front beam axles in 1960.) The Bluebird 410, which arrived in 1963, ushered the use of a monocoque body – and of competent styling, too.
The next generation 510, which hit Nissan’s Japanese showrooms in August 1967, was a smartly modernized 410, in terms of looks. It kept the quad headlamp theme that was extremely popular in Japan (and the US) at the time, but looked more like it had Italian genes, rather than American ones. Nissan called in the “Supersonic Line” in some of their adverts. Not sure why, really.
Under the hood, Nissan introduced the smaller L-Series engines with this model. The OHC L-Series, which came in 4-cyl. and 6-cyl. versions (and had 1.3 to 2.8 litres of displacement) powered all manner of Datsuns from 1965 to the late ‘80s. Nissan apparently looked to Mercedes and BMW for their inspiration, as well as Prince – though the design was finalized before Nissan took over that company.
The straight-6s, which came first, were seen in the Fairlady Z coupé, the Laurel, the Skyline, the Patrol and the Cedric / Gloria. The 4-cyl. (1300-2000cc) was used in all Bluebirds right up to the FWD era, as well as the Violet, the Sunny and the Silvia. Legends all, to be sure, but few were as classy-looking as the 510 Bluebird. This is ‘70s Nissan we’re talking about here.
On the 510, the L-Series variants were the 1296cc (77hp), the 1428cc (85 / 95hp), the twin-carb 1595cc (92 to 109hp, depending on the market and carb used) and, only in 1970-71, the 1770cc (105hp). Our feature car probably rolled off the production line with the 1.6 and two Hitachi carbs, like most SSS cars.
This well-born engine was served by a competent enough 4-speed manual transmission, with a fashionable (but not exactly excellent, according to period tests) floor change, sending the cavalry to the rear wheels. Suspension was completely new also: independent all around with MacPherson struts up front and a multilink / coil semi-trailing arm IRS using Prince Motors’ ball spline technology. This would have been very sophisticated for a German car – for a Japanese one, it was quite extraordinary.
Initially, only the four- and two-door saloons were available, soon joined by a wagon. By 1968, the Japanese market also saw the arrival of a sexy coupé with sequential turn signals, because nobody can resist a gimmick. As per usual, the van / wagon, as well as the Asian market taxi / base saloon, made do with a sturdier leaf-sprung live axle taken from the 520/521 Pickup (which is not related to the 510, but to the 410. Datsun’s numbering system is notoriously confusing…)
Saloons were available in a variety of trim levels, ranging from the mundane taxi to the sizzling SSS. The early version seen in the advert above, which is almost exactly identical to the car I found on the street, should have about 100hp to play with, as well as front disc brakes to keep up with the extra oomph. Some called these “the poor man’s BMW,” but maybe they were “the thinking man man’s Alfa Romeo,” too.
Our feature car’s interior has had a fair few mods. Judging by those Recaros, it looks like the owner of this car really likes to do some genuine rallying with it, which is quite a statement.
And it’s no figment of this car’s owner’s imagination. Datsun started using the international rally circuit as a proving ground since the late ‘50s – with success, too. The 510 Bluebird was no different. In fact, its punchier engine and more competent suspension helped the Datsun 1600 SSS win the 1970 East African Safari Rally, one of the most grueling races of the WRC. The Peugeot 404 won it several times in the mid-‘60s – didn’t hurt that car’s reputation at the time, either.
The other achievement that the 510 could rightfully claim: it was Nissan’s first bona fide international hit. The previous Bluebirds were peddled in North America, but the 510 was the first one to really make an impression. When Japanese production stopped in December 1972 (South Africa continued making their 510s locally until 1974), over 1.5 million units had been made in a little over five years.
Five years is not a very long production life, yet the 510 did manage to squeeze a few changes within that timeframe. At the end of 1968, the windshield wipers went parallel; the traditional mid-life mild facelift was also enacted in 1970, focusing on a more plasticky grille and uglified taillamps, as well as the 1.8 litre engine’s debut.
Said engine was soon gone, however, as the next generation “User-friendly” Bluebird 610 (yes, that’s how those were nicknamed by Nissan, at least in Japan) was launched in August 1971 and claimed the 1800cc 4-cyl. as its bread-and-butter. But the 610 was one of the cars that heralded the start of Nissan’s weird styling era. User-friendly though it were, it was also an eyesore.
It’s telling that the 510 continued being made for over a year after its successor was launched. According to Japanese sources, the smaller and smarter-looking 510 still had the favours of the buying public, both at home and abroad. The Bluebird carried on for many generations, but it did grow to be around the 2-litre mark, a size above the 510. That’s probably why this generation is so fondly remembered: the car hit the Goldilocks spot, neither too large nor too small, along with elegant styling, sweet engines and a sophisticated suspension. Nissan didn’t hit that sweet spot too often – few carmakers do, to be fair – but in this case, they did.
COAL: 1972 Datsun 510 – An Investment?, by James Pastor
CC Outtake: 1972 Datsun 510 Wagon, Green Edition, by Kevin Martin