Curbside Classic: ’61-’63 Datsun Pickup (320) – “Victory Won’t Be Taken Away…”

I had just gotten out of my car to capture a few snaps, while not far away, both mechanics stopped working. One of them, the pick-up’s owner, approached me with a stiff-legged walk and a half-closed right eye. He looked not too different from a cast away pirate.

  • You like it? Tell me a price and I’ll let you know if it’s for sale! – As he talked, his gait and posture showed a demeanor mirroring my ‘pirate’ assessment. What shore had I arrived to?

Did I want to buy it? The vehicle did call my attention, not for purchase, but for posting. Better not get into details, or ‘pirate-dealer’ would likely inquiry into details in hopes of hidden gold.

I won’t deny it, I did double-take at the sight of this old Datsun pick-up. Cars from the early ’60s are just antediluvian in these lands, as the vehicle populace was in the low thousands at the time. Survivors of such age are rare.

The little truck barely existed, held in place by Bondo and Lord knows what else. Prayers probably, as ‘pirate-dealer’ was a devout Christian. Or so the signs around the shop suggested; a large GOD (Dios – in Spanish) being the easiest to spot.

  • Does it run? – I asked.
  • Yes it does! Too bad you didn’t see it before. Just a few months ago a drunkard side-swept it and ruined it. We’re getting it back together now!

The little truck ran on miracles, it seemed. On its front bumper I noticed one more caption: “The Enemy Will Not Take Victory Away From Us” (In Spanish: “No Podrá El Enemigo Robarnos La Victoria”). Not an exact Bible quote, but keeping in spirit.

Said caption probably applied to Nissan back in the early ’60s, as it was rather busy holding off eternal-rival Toyota. No idea if Nissan ever prayed, but the company’s early successes did seem to come with tiny miracles attached, positioning itself in international markets against long odds. Victory would prove fleeting in the end, but not from lack of effort.

The 320 (1200 in the US) Datsun pick-up was one of Nissan’s early international successes. These early chapters have already been covered at CC, starting with an early 211 pick-up found in Thailand. By the time the 211 was launched Nissan was still assembling Austins (the A40-50 Sommerset) under license. The UK connection allowing the company to gobble up much needed know-how in car making techniques.

As the Austin license agreement was coming to a close, Nissan launched the 300 series Bluebird and its variants (station wagon and pick-up) starting in 1959. The 300 series sent the company to number 1 in its native Japan, setting a series of passenger-car sales records.

How much Austin remained in the Bluebird is a matter of debate to this day. What’s not in doubt is the Bluebird -and its derived 320 truck- certainly carries UK genes in mechanicals and looks. A toy-like interpretation of those genes, mind you, looking somewhat clunky and basic against contemporary offerings.

In all fairness, this post’s find is probably not the best to assess the 320’s styling, as much has been retouched and all trim is absent. What has remained as ‘was’ and what has ‘been intervened’ is rather hard to tell apart.

From what’s left in place our sample seems to be the integrated-cab “Sports Pick-Up.” The rarest pick-up variant, with only about a thousand built. At least, according to Wikipedia. Could that be right? Doing a quick Google search, 320 “Sports Pick-Ups” seem to have highly unusual survival rates. Something seems askew.

Still, is Wiki right? Should I go back to my ‘pirate-dealer’ and offer him a deal he can’t refuse? Have I been the one that found true treasure?

Simple and basic were qualities still in accordance with trucks and pick-ups back in the early ’60s, and Nissan found unexpected success with its small truck abroad. Not sales-scorching numbers, but finding a significant-enough niche in the US. It allowed the brand to find its footing in American soil, further investing and researching, providing much needed feedback to Japan. By 1972 the company would have enough of a presence to set up Nissan USA in swanky newly-built installations in Gardena, California.

In those early international foray days there was general agreement among Japan’s makes that their products lacked refinement. There was also agreement that in lack of new-tech and performance, reliability and cost were going to be their calling cards. Some of those goals seemed elusive by the early ’60s. Toyota had to partially retreat from the US scene, while Nissan stuck it out, improving steadily their products.

Now, such issues were of main importance in Japan’s quest to garner Western sales. Elsewhere their products more than sufficed, with lack of brand recognition being their biggest sales obstacle.

With Japan still having plenty of rugged rural roads and an urban infrastructure still in postwar recovery, the Asian nation’s products performed well in similar conditions to be found in the rest of Asia and Latin America. As such, the 320 pick-up seemed tailor made for non-developed nations. Sturdiness, low cost, and ease of maintenance being the attributes conquering early sales and developing a loyal clientele. Low-tech was the right trait for many markets.

Talking about tech, this open bay shot of our “Sports Pick-Up” shows its unusual non-battery-tech engine bay. Some early solar-power adopter? Or did ‘pirate-dealer’ lie to me? Was the little truck really just a pusher?

And talking about engines, on Datsun forums there are claims Austin seals and gaskets work on some of these components. No way to check if such claims are true, but Austin presumably entertained the idea of taking Nissan to court over patents infringement back in the day.

Wait, there’s the missing battery! Is it recharging? How? Talking about power sources, is the gas tank still in place? The fill-up hose seems wholly absent. What secret advanced Japanese-Salvadorian technology is at play here?

Talking about mods, much work has been put into the back-cage, a common local addition. Lots of iron added on this little one, probably not a good thing for its limited performance capabilities. Then again, low-tech and slow-moving are traits that complement each other well.

I believe some embellishment has been done to the headlight surrounds. A bit of creative enhancement in lieu of the impossible-to-find headlight rings, adding some Chevy-esque essence to the little truck. After all, how much damage can a few more styling genes do?

It didn’t take long for ‘pirate-dealer’ to notice there was no gold to be found in my hide. After a short moment, he walked away, hunched over, to resume work next to his younger assistant. Around me, more discarded old Japanese iron; an E40 Corolla wagon, and some additional Toyota carcasses. And about which, we all know Toyota did take victory away from Nissan in the end.

Before leaving I looked carefully at the workshop again, the sign “Your angel will protect me, Lord Jesus” now calling my attention. I’m not much of a religious person, but I agreed. Yes, little angels; come, protect and watch over this rare survivor.

More on the 300 Series Bluebird and early Nissan:

Curbside Classic: 1959 Datsun 1000 (211) Pick-up – The First Step In The Long March

Curbside Classic: 1962 Datsun Bluebird (312) 1200 Deluxe – Still Looking Chirpy

Curbside Classic: 1962 Datsun Bluebird (WP312) 1200 Wagon