Curbside Classic: The Humble But Well-Travelled Datsun 210

(first posted 7/31/2012)     Fast, sexy, and exotic. None of these words have ever been used to describe the Datsun 210. Homely, reliable, and adequate have likely been used more often than not. For reasons I can’t articulate, even to myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for the 210. Perhaps it was the yellow Datsun Sunny (one of the other names the 210 had in other markets) my aunt had in the UK. I don’t recall the details of it very well, unlike the Renault 5 another aunt had, but I do remember thinking there is some sort of rightness about it. Perhaps my love of slightly different but humble cars can be traced by to those trips over to the UK. Humble; yes that’s probably the best word to describe the 210.

For North America, the 210 replaced the B210. Why the B was dropped from its name, I don’t know; but in other parts of the world it was known as Sunny, B310, or 120Y, 130Y, 140Y and 150Y depending on engine displacement and market. There was even a version built for Taiwan into the 1990s known as the YLN 302 and 303. Under the skin it was similar to the B210 but the rear suspension was upgraded from a leaf sprung rear axle to a four link set up still with a live axle.

Engine-wise, all 210s used the venerable A-series in various displacements. For North America there were 1.2, 1.4 and 1.5L versions; in other markets the 1.2L was the most common. The Datsun A-series is distantly related to, though certainly not identical to the British Austin A-series featured in Minis, Sprites, Minors, etc. The Datsun A-series was the longest lived child from a Datsun-Austin fling.

It is a bit clouded as to when their hookup began. Some say the first Datsun car, the Type 11, was a knock off of the Austin Seven. The exterior dimensions are the same as well as the engine design. Certainly wouldn’t have been unusual as numerous companies were building Seven-derived cars, licensed or otherwise. Herb Austin actually brought in a 1935 Datsun to examine it, but didn’t pursue any legal action.

With World War II interfering in Datsun’s development, the next real step in our story comes in 1954 when Nissan reached an agreement with Austin to legally build their products under license. Nissan/Datsun built the Austin A40 and A50 with the B-series engine, all the while gradually increasing the local content of the cars. Amazingly they went from CDK (complete knock down kits) to 100% Japanese builds in only a handful of years. They also gained access to Austin’s technology and started to add their own improvements to tolerances and build quality.

The next step in our story was the Sunny, which was released in 1967 sporting a 988cc A-series engine based roughly off the Austin A-series engine. The Datsun version featured a different head than the Austin engine, with a wedge-shaped combustion chamber and aluminum construction. Non-siamesed intake ports and more bottom end bearings were further upgrades to the Austin design. The A-series was enlarged to become a 1.2L, then redesigned in 1974. This allowed 1.2L, 1.3L, 1.4L and eventually in 1979 1.5L displacements. Amazingly the 1.5L version was produced all the way to 2009 for the Vanette C22.

I had a 1981 210 two sedan for a short time with the 1.2L engine; it ran very smoothly and sweetly, just like the stereotypical sewing machine. It was a tiny little thing and looked a bit lost in the engine compartment. The “stroker” 1.5L ones don’t run quite as smooth but is still a charming little motor.

This one is a long, long way from home. Going by the Texas plate it, it likely traveled at least 2600kms or 1615 miles, if we estimate from the center of the state. That’s a long drive in something like this. I did that trip last year, but in a modern minivan and can’t imagine what it would be like in an elderly Datsun with no A/C. Hopefully the owner had the sought-after five speed transmission to give it some highway legs.

This 210 is obviously well loved, as it had been treated to some Minilite-style rims, but suffered some nasty body damage on the passenger side. The windshield was duct taped in as well, so perhaps it happened along the way. It didn’t look like it was a practical proposition to fix so I’d wager its days of being on the road are numbered. Those wheels and tires are probably worth more than the car at this point.

I actually left a note on the windshield to see if the owner would be willing to sell as the compact mechanical bits, which would have been ideal for a project of mine, but I never did hear anything back. Funnily enough, an older lady noticed me placing the note, and said that if I’d hit it, the owner would likely not notice nor care. When I explained I was hoping to buy it she seemed a quite mystified, and I overheard her explaining to her equally mystified husband that I actually wanted to acquire the car!