I realize that aesthetics is a touchy and highly subjective matter, but if we’re ever going to collectively agree on one thing about car styling, let it be that Nissan designed and produced some of the most atrocious cars of the ‘70s, that most questionable of decades. Everyone in favour, show of hands?
Motion carried, I presume. Let the record show that CC has ruled unanimously that Datsun’s mid-‘70s creations were pig-ugly. Sure, there were certain contemporaries with some highly questionable output too – AMC, Renault or British Leyland, for instance – but even they were a mixed bag. Observing Datsun’s entire ‘70s lineup, however, is a bit like seeing a large number of tarantulas, scorpions and snakes crawling everywhere, and wondering which one is the least poisonous.
Here’s a little sampler of this Delirium Datsun, in case you forgot. I’m not going to put every single variant of every platform Datsun were making back then, but you get the idea. And no, I’m not cherry-picking. Other than I did pick the Cherry F10, because, well, just look at that thing. Ugh! At least, Datsun were equal opportunity offenders: their high-end cars looked just as misshapen as their econoboxes.
So let’s examine our 120Y specimen. These were also known as “Sunny” in Europe and “210” in America, for some reason. That was another trait of period Datsuns: the nameplates changed according to where they were sold. None of that Mercedes or Peugeot nonsense of using the same three-number code everywhere. Datsun preferred a combination of obscure alphanumerics (100A, 120Y, 240K…) and inappropriate names (Cherry, Cedric, Silvia…), depending on which market was targeted.
It’s quite true that Datsun were far from the only company to do this kind of thing: British Leyland and General Motors (to name but two) were past masters at these little games. Only BL and GM had multitudes of marques to play with, so the nameplate variants were often coupled with badge-engineering, which made a little more sense than what Datsun/Nissan were playing at.
Never mind the names then, what about the car? The Datsun 120Y was born on a dark night in May 1973. A range of variants were soon proposed: 2- and 4-door saloons, coupé, 3- and 5-door wagons and delivery vans – pretty much everything but convertibles, which were becoming rare in Japan and the US in those years. The secret to the 120Y’s success – and it was quite a successful model) – had more to do with value for money and solidity than anything else. The 1.3 litre Nissan A-Series 4-cyl. engine that these cars had were widely produced and bulletproof. The car’s traditional RWD/live axle layout, though already dated by 1973, was still broadly acceptable and provided adequate comfort on good roads, while making bad roads passable. And the whole car’s build quality and finish were usually top of its category.
In the Japanese tradition, there were also a lot of standard features for a very reasonable amount of money. Compared to many of their European competitors, the Datsuns were chock full of goodies and controls all over their strangely designed dash. At least, the inside of this car is in complete unison with the exterior. Love the billiard ball shifter knob on this heavily modified version, though.
Datsun sold these for five years and folks who had more sense than sensibility went ahead and bought them. Solid cars, nicely appointed – what’s not to like? Well, this angle, for instance. There’s lots I find unlovable here. What were they channeling, some sort of Mustang on diet pills, or a Dodge Dart with a bad case of conjunctivitis?
Not that things get that much better out back. At this angle, the 120Y is not a million miles from the Toyota “Kujira” Crown, but the Crown had more identity and quite a bit more width, which ends up making a world of difference. Then again, it’s unfair (and ungentlemanly) to judge anything by its rear end.
The biggest problem is the Datsun’s profile, full of creases, slopes, broken lines and changes of direction, and signifying nothing. This hodgepodge of a design makes the fender line climb way up into the C-pillar, then loses it abruptly to come back down to the taillamps. It makes the whole car look like it’s a sad sagging structure, hinged or hanging from on the C-pillar. The overall effect is that everything back of the B-pillar looks completely out of kilter. With that bulging mass of metal over the rear wheel and a stubby, pointy rear end, it’s as if the 120Y had been rear-ended by a steam locomotive. You can almost see the cow-catcher pushing under the car, giving it that high rump. It looks bad, plus it’s derivative.
Everyone is influenced by everyone else, of course. But the 120Y’s mini-Detroit look really hinges on that bulging behind and fat C-pillar. One can see some 1971-75 Kujira in there, but it’s quite lithe by comparison; the Crown’s more linear and imposing looks also help. And it’s not just Detroitesque Japanese cars. There were others, such as the Renault 12 (1969-80), with some of that fat C-pillar / droopy-boot style as well – so it was definitely in the atmosphere. But the larger Toyota and the airier R12 make the design work far more successfully than the Datsun.
Perhaps the most jarring line on the whole car is that crease on the lower half of the body. That thing makes no earthly sense. Starting at a seemingly random point of the front wheel opening, it lazily goes down to the rear wheel at a shallow angle, then reappears after the rear wheels, but jutting upwards. This draws the eye even more towards the C-pillar area and increases the sagginess of the whole look.
The two little vent-like dents at the rear seem to be an homage to the (real) vents on the 1969-74 Iso Lele, just to give the 120Y a touch of faux-Italian to go with the faux-Detroit. In fact, it looks like the Iso’s rear end was pretty much what the Datsun designers were aiming for. Picking a good car to emulate is also crucial, though. With all due respect to the Iso Lele, it’s hardly the best-looking Italian car of the era…
And no, the rant is still not over: were have to go back to that front end. This is a series 1 car; the series 2 came out in early 1976 with a revised grille that was marginally less atrocious. This is another case of how little touches like vents and grilles can imprint character on a car. In this case, I’m not sure what these vents, which are sitting on the grille, are in aid of.
I think what happened here is that the Datsun designers saw the 1965-69 Mustang – probably alongside a Fuselage Mopar or two – and tried mixing both, while trying to make it all fit the narrower 120Y. The Ford looks great in part because it doesn’t over-highlight its styling touches. Those faux louvres between the grille and the headlamps are small and discreet, painted in body colour. Datsun’s version is way too complicated, gimmicky and plasticky to be anything but an eyesore.
Using Detroit’s design language at a time when American cars were hitting peak land yacht was not the wisest move. The ‘60s Japanese designs, which were more Italian-tinged, obviously worked a lot better for smaller cars. After that, perhaps because of the budding American import boom, most Japanese cars turned to a more trans-Pacific style and the world was all the uglier for it. Let’s count our blessings, though: the feature car is the Asian version of the 120Y, which doesn’t have the North American rubber bumpers. At least, there are no distracting protrusions to hinder our appreciation of this Datsun’s peculiar looks.
Deficient aesthetics should not overshadow this car’s importance in Nissan’s long history. Ugly though they were, these cars were impossible to kill and were quite popular. The 120Y helped Datsun conquer even more market share across the world. As a machine for transporting passengers and cargo, it was nothing short of brilliant. Pity blind folks don’t drive.