Curbside Classic: 1977 Datsun 200SX (Nissan Silvia S10) – The Many Faces Of Silvia

(first posted 5/21/2012)    Silvia; now there’s a lyrical and storied name in automotive design history. Sadly, Nissan didn’t badge US-bound versions with its home-market name. The SX/Silvia series of RWD coupes is an opportunity to explore Nissan’s design evolution, including the challenging 1970s, an era when Nissan made some of the strangest cars ever. The Silvia/SX coupes started out a bit bizarre, but eventually became handsome, and even these early ones have a strong cult following. The path of finding oneself is not always a pretty picture, as snapshots from our own youth will often attest. But we all grew up to be beautiful, including the Silvia.

Undoubtedly, the Silvia line had to have a powerful beginning for that the name to be imbued with almost mythical qualities. The Nissan Silvia CSP311 premiered in 1964, based mechanically on the Datsun Fairlady sports car (CC here). The Silvia’s styling was altogether different from the Fairlady, and looked like it came straight from Italy. Close.

The Datsun 410/Bluebird, which had arrived a year earlier, was designed wholly or largely by Pininfarina, and represents a turning point in Nissan design (one of way too many).

But that turning point in Japanese design actually had come several years earlier, when Prince Motors (before merging with Nissan) commissioned the Italian design house Michelotti to create a sports coupe on their staid Skyline sedan platform. The result, the strikingly handsome 1962 Prince Skyline Sport, was truly the first really attractive Japanese car, and of course spawned a legendary run of cars bearing that name.

After Michelotti also crafted the Hino Contessa Coupe, one of so many global Corvair-inspired designs, Nissan decided it needed a sporty coupe too.

Nissan’s own designer, Kazuo Kimura, started on the project, but it was obvious he needed help. So that journeyman designer Count Albrecht Goertz was called in, a German with considerable talent and resume…

…who had designed the sublime BMW 507 and assisted with the Porsche 911. Under his trained eye, Nissan learned the craft of designing with the aid of scale clay models, and developed a proper design studio.

Goertz would come back to assist with the superb 1971 Datsun 240Z, which was clearly a high point in Nissan design before the dark ages began shortly after.

Before we leave Nissan’s golden era, let’s quickly pay homage to its most popular design, the Datsun 510/Bluebird, which really established Nissan’s cred with both its advanced engineering (OHC engines, independent rear suspension), as well as its crisp, clear lines.

Nissan’s next turning point was the 1973 B210/Sunny, here being rained upon. I assume Kimura was still running the show at Nissan design, but it’s clear that Goertz didn’t design this one; having been abandoned in Nissan’s quest to find its own authentic Japanese design language. That turned into a long dark night of the soul, and Nissan emerged from it in worse shape than when it entered. That’s not to say there wasn’t European design influence in the B210/Sunny, but we’ll leave that for its own CC, coming soon. But clearly, a new direction was charted.

The first generation Datsun 200SX/Silvia was strictly a limited production car, of which some 500 were created by beating their steel panels over bucks. But in the early seventies, in response to the Toyota Celica, Nissan decided to bring back the name in a popular-priced mass production sporty coupe, based on the humble B210/Sunny platform, but with more power under the hood.

Wikipedia suggests that the S10 Silvia’s design was inspired by the Citroen SM. Well, that’s certainly a good place to find inspiration for the further outliers of design.

But before I even read that, I was rather seeing Alfa Romeo’s 1967 Montreal concept. Or is my imagination getting away with me, again?

Obviously, that’s more in the upswept rear window line, and the flat rear deck then the nose itself. Datsun’s grilles were beginning to really come into their own, although this one is downright tame compared to the F10.

The 200SX arrived around 1975 or so in the US, as previously mentioned in response to the Toyota Celica, which had quite a successful early start, and defined the whole Japanese sporty coupe genre. Toyota had been less whip-sawed in its design evolution, and was already feeling more comfortable in its Japanese skin when the Celica arrived in 1970.

SX Appeal indeed; the Silvia’s new incarnation was clearly a bit to exotic for American tastes, but it sold anyway. Anything Japanese was hot, even more so after the first energy crisis. The fact that the SX sat on B210 underpinnings undoubtedly made it a less than stellar handling sporty coupe, a bitter pill for all those Americans weaned on the brilliant 510. It was a new Datsun, one being driven by cost cutting and presumed SX Appeal. As well as the the L20B SOHC engine, whose lusty nature in the original 510 had been thoroughly de-sexed thanks to smog controls.

The SX/Silvia’s interior reflected the new spacy design theme, although it really isn’t all that bizarre. Lovers of vintage Japanese design will revel at this one.

Since the driver’s side window as conveniently open, here’s another look at what folks were drooling over at their Datsun dealer in 1976 or so. I actually don’t know the exact year of this one; maybe there’s a distinguishing feature somewhere to tell. The first gen Silvia/SX was built through 1978.

I was pretty excited to find this the other day, having almost given up hope on this generation Silvia. But there it was one sunny afternoon, just a few blocks from my house.

I’m particularly taken by this nice molding that is a functional interior ventilation extractor.

The Silvia/SX story is a long one, that only ended in 2002 when the final versions of the S15 Silvia were sold in Australia and New Zealand. We’ll come back and take a look at the many faces of the Silvia in between sometime, but there’s no doubt Nissan found a successful and enduring concept, even if it did get off to a shaky start.