Curbside Classic: 1979 Datsun 510 – Revived In Name If Not In Spirit

This 1979 gen2 510 reflects the general decline of Datsun at the end of the Seventies. Datsun had once been king of the Japanese import hill at the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies. Toyota’s cars were selling well but tended to the dull; Honda was still selling motorcycles and the oddball kei-car 600; and Mazda was never going to be main stream with its rotary engine emphasis. Datsun flourished with its popular mini trucks, the little 1200, the 1600/2000 Roadster, and the Z. But its reputation was really made and burnished by the fabulous sporty original 510.

But by the mid seventies, Datsun pretty much lost their mojo with the flaccid 610 and 710. In a rather desperate attempt to cash in on the 510’s heritage, the 710 was transformed with a boxy body wearing the 510 nameplate. It didn’t fool those that knew better.

Datsun’s original success in North America was no accident. A lot of this was due to Datsun USA boss Yutaka Katayama, who was a bit of a rebel at conservative Nissan. He relentlessly pushed for bigger engines and sporty handling in the American market, and championed Nissan’s racing department. Soon the 510 (above) was being raced by some big names. By 1975 Katayama was shuffled back to Japan and Datsun was losing the plot. The 610 and 710, followed but styling wasn’t nearly as attractive as the earlier cars. Sportiness seemed off the agenda with the Z-car evolving from the sports car 240Z/ 260Z to the GT like 280Z and then almost sedan like 280ZX.

I grew up in the back of Datsun 510. Sadly it wasn’t the cool early Seventies one but a 1978 station wagon complete with fake wood paneling. It started out as a red colour but soon faded to an odd orange colour. I do remember the automatic choke going out early on and it developing an exhaust leak near the end but seems to me it provided our family with solid service over the ten years we had it. I was quite sad when my father traded it in on a two door Ford Tempo L at the end of 1988.

But what I remember most about the 510 was the deep set individual gauges and the leather (or perhaps more likely it was some sort of vinyl) cover around the shifter for the manual gearbox. Perhaps I can trace my fondness for Seventies interiors back to this car. Even as a child I was very aware of the automotive landscape and our generation of 510 was never seemed very common and those that were purchased didn’t seem to live long lives. I did see our old car a few times with its new owner but few others. Sadly I don’t have any photos of it as my father considered taking photos of cars a waste of time but I did find this black and white press photo.

This generation is considered by most Datsun fans as not a real 510 and there is some merit to that argument. Outside North American this car was known as the Nissan Violet, Nissan Stanza, Nissan Auster, Datsun Stanza or Datsun 160J depending on the market. The first generation 510 was of course a sensation in North America particularly as a poor man’s BMW 2002 with its willing L-series SOHC engine and independent, semi-trailing arm rear suspension (except for the wagon which had a solid axle and leaf springs).

The second generation 510 sold from 1978 to 1981 and had 2.0L engine (first L-series then Z-series) but had gone to solid rear axles for all variants. Press reaction condemned it as being a rather dull but competent car trying to cash in on the good image of the 510 name. The fun, sporty character of the previous car seemed to be gone. 1980 brought square headlamps which didn’t improve the styling but added fuel injection. My beloved separate gauges were even lost as well.

After 1981 the 510 name was gone and the equally forgotten front wheel drive T11 Nissan Stanza replaced it. Also in 1981 Nissan really lost their mind and decided to throw away all the brand equity of the Datsun name and swap over to Nissan. Over three or four years they spent five hundred million dollars slowing rebranding themselves leaving customers in confusion. Or sending them into the arms of Toyota and Honda.

This 1979 Datsun 510 coupe was very nice and unexpected find. The body was starting show a little rust but is still in overall decent shape. Those individual gauges were mostly accounted for. This one lacked the tachometer our family wagon had and instead had a set of dummy lights likely due to the automatic gearbox. The steering wheel is a reasonably sporty three spoke design. It had received after market fender flares either in attempt to increase its sporty looks … or perhaps cover rust. The wheels are still Seventies skinny however.  I also came across this red one which could be a retired race car or at least gets the race inspired touches more right.

This face lifted station wagon has even more character sucked out of it. If you looked up generic Japanese car in the dictionary I wouldn’t be surprised to find a photo of this still red example. Only an excess of chrome at the rear give it any rear identity.

Needless to say, the 510 revival did little to revive Datsun’s fortunes. Datsun/Nissan had a rough couple of decades ahead of it. But that’s a story for other Curbside Classics.