Curbside Classic: 1974 Datsun 610 – Datsun Takes A Bold New Direction: Down

(first posted 6/13/2011)    The endless overuse of any given manufacturer’s styling “DNA” has finally subsided, but the reality is what it is: every maker tries to coddle and nurture an unmistakable design language for their brand, and for good reason. Few have succeeded as superbly as Audi, whose current styling theme is still deeply rooted in the 5000/100 of 1982. Certainly, when a brand is down on its heels, like Cadillac was before it reinvented itself with its Arts and Science look, it may be the right and best strategy to take a bold new direction.

How about the other extreme, of a maker suddenly tossing out all the glowing brand equity a highly successful model has just cultivated? It would be hard to find a better/worse example as Nissan in 1974. On the heels of its highly successful boxy and edgy 510, it launched a successor that couldn’t be more different. And Datsun was never quite the same again.

It appears that Japan was not immune to the effects of the Great Brougham Epoch, which sent it s ripples of influence across the globe from America. Europe was relatively more resistant, although not wholly so, especially in places like England. But in Japan, the GBE was practically a tsunami, as we saw in the 1978 Corona with its vinyl top and other affectations.

But at least with Toyota, the styling changes were a bit more incremental, although Toyota had some wild stylistic flings too in the seventies. But Datsun? It seems as if one day all the whole design department was fired, and a bunch of kids hanging out Ginza were rounded up and sent to take their place. That’s a bit fanciful, but actually quite close to the truth.

datsun bluebird-410-07

The fact was that Japan was finally coming into its own in terms of an indigenous design school. Let’s not forget that most Japanese cars of the sixties were designed by, or with input from the top European design houses or designers.  Pininfarina was very involved with the new Corona of 1964 as well as designing the Datsun 510 predecessor, the 410 (above); and Bertone was responsible for the lovely Mazda Luce. But by the 1970 or so, Japan was ready to express itself, and like a kid given the drafting table and crayons. And the results were a bit uneven, but highly memorable.

And Datsun was the most drastic of the bunch. The 610 had zilch in common with the 510 (CC here), except of course under the skin. It was an enlarged platform, but with all of the key components that made the 510 so brilliant and successful: the L-Series OHC four, and the semi-trailing arm IRS. But it was a substantially larger and heavier car, which was of course inevitable.

But the target for the 610 had changed too; it was now being billed as The Luxury Datsun, one dangerously small step away from a Brougham indeed. It was part of a strategy to expand Datsun upmarket, which of course just about everyone does/did. Consider the 610 the first Infiniti.

And the 510’s true replacement came a year or so later, in the form of the 710 (above). Unfortunately, the 710 was missing the 510’s goodies, and came off highly pedestrian. The typical Datsun workhorse, but not a budget BMW 2002. And the 610 didn’t come off the slightest bit BMW-esque either, although it was a reasonably competent handling car.

But it was set up for an altogether different mission: to capture the sweet spot of the American markets, where the profits ran as thick as a juicy Porterhouse steak: American mid-sized buyers who suddenly were spooked by the energy crisis.In that regard, the 610’s arrival in 1974 was as perfect as its styling was imperfect.

Typically, I speak from an example of one, but I don’t think it’s unrepresentative. In 1974, my “boss”, an urbane director of the new Performing Arts Center at the University of Iowa traded in his silver 1971 or 1972 “fat-boy” Cougar for a yellow 610 coupe. The Cougar’s interior may have been a bit tacky, but it was decidedly plusher than the Luxury Datsun.

‘Nuff said; it was another one of so many million notches in the decline of Detroit. A few years then made all the difference: one day it was still cool to drive an American car, the next day it wasn’t. The whole thing was like a slow-motion tsunami that swept the country from California, although not exactly in a perfectly linear fashion.

Of course, the 610’s timing also had its downsides. By 1974, the emission regs were like an ever-tightening noose, and the 510’s sparkling engine was now a downright dullard, along with just about everything else. Can’t really blame it. I believe the early versions came with the 1800 cc engine, but that was soon enlarged to 2000 ccs to try to keep some semblance of perkiness. It didn’t work. The 510’s 1600 cc engine could whistle; the de-smogged 2000 had a touch od palpable torque , but like the rest of the industry, revs above 5000 rpm were now as illicit as LSD.

As quirky and different as the 610 looked, it has its fans. Actually, I have a real soft spot for seventies Japanese design, and the 610 coupe, with a bit of cleaning up, is really quite a nice example of the breed. And it evokes so many wild Nissans to come, like the Skyline. The four door sedan: not so much so. But even it looks sober compared to the psychedelic F-10.

Of course, we all know that Datsun got cold feet along with the cold shoulder it was feeling, and within a few years it was desperately aping the old 510’s boxy looks with the neo-510 (CC here). Datsun’s decades’ long identity crisis started with this 610, and ended…well, eventually; but not before it almost went belly up.