Curbside Classic: ’65-’67 Datsun 411 (Bluebird) – “El Añejo” (The Aged One)

“Añejo” the Spanish word for ‘the old one‘ or ‘the aged one,’ most generally used to denote fine aged liquors. Is this nicely preserved Datsun 411 such a case? Has it aged like good wine? Let’s delve some and see what our tasting buds think, as it conveniently sits by a hard liquor shop in the hot and rural town of San Vicente.

Known abroad as the Datsun Bluebird 410 (’64-’65), and 411 (’66-’67), the model follows Nissan’s penchant for curiously inspired names, with Maurice Maeterlinck’s homonymous children’s play serving as inspiration. Because that’s what one thinks of when cars are mentioned: early 20th century Belgian playwrights. Actually, Nissan did bother to explain their ‘Bluebird’ is meant to be synonymous with ‘joy,’ just as it did on the play. A claim I won’t contest, as this aged Bluebird’s sight indeed brings me joy.

So, by the early ’60s Nissan was top dog in the Japanese market. Its 310 Bluebird had been number one in its segment (covered previously by Tatra87) for a number of years, and with its BMC-derived bits refined for sturdy reliability, Nissan had started to expand into foreign markets. In Japan the model sold over 200,000 units, marking a new record. Abroad the numbers are equally promising with 32,000 units sold. The 310 Bluebird had left Toyota in the dust, which had gone bust twice with the competing T10 and T20 Coronas. But the challenging up comer was hungry, and it showed. Better not rest in your laurels little Bluebird, for your joy may be short lived.

A new Bluebird is not an everyday event, and what better way to launch the renewed ‘Bird than along Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics? A rising unstoppable Nissan and a resurging Japan; both taking center stage for the world to see. And the Bluebird was truly an international effort, with Nissan taking a page from its British legacy and taking their example of…

… handing the styling to the Italians. Not Michelotti though. The 410’s lines were actually penned by Pininfarina, and it had more than a passing resemblance to other Italians of the period, most notably the Lancia Fulvia. The three box styling was very sixties European, looking rather au currant, and with a reasonably spacious cabin in spite of the model’s small dimensions. The decision to take the 410 to the Italians probably rubbed Nissan’s stylists the wrong way, but their efforts up ’til then had a rather tinker-toy quality, especially to foreign eyes. With the 410 Bluebird, Nissan had a model that looked truly international.

And the new Bluebird played those international cards well. Here it appears briefly on Walk Don’t Run, a Cary Grant vehicle with the ’64 Tokyo Olympics as backdrop. The Bluebird -in white- zips by against a bunch of Toyotas in taxi livery. Incidentally, taxis and corporate fleets comprised most of Japan’s automotive market at the time, as brief ‘local traffic’ shots on the film make rather clear.

Improving economic conditions were quickly changing that landscape though, and Nissan aimed the 410 to please Japan’s rising middle class; providing nicely appointed options that made buyers feel uppity and posh. Meanwhile, the model was to attend corporate and taxi fleet needs as well; with robust suspensions that could withstand Japan’s less than ideal rural roads. These latter qualities would prove essential as the brand expanded into developing nations.

Cute looks aren’t enough though, as more than one Italian car owner can tell you. And by the time the 410 appeared, Nissan had improved their trusty little cars with better performance and assembly. Cabin dimensions had increased, while headroom remained ample in spite of the car’s lower height, this thanks to newly adopted unibody construction. Thanks to revised tuning the Bluebird’s inline 4 had better responsiveness in the low and mid ranges, and came in either 1,000cc or 1,200cc capacities. General assembly was commended on in contemporary reviews.

Granted, the new Bluebird wasn’t going to steal away large swaths of Catalina owners in spite of the updates; but Nissan’s offering did put a dent on lesser European exports, quickly becoming ‘the fastest rising import’ in the much coveted US market.

Talking about the US, much of Nissan’s early American successes were attributed to none other than Yutaka Katayama, alias Mr. K.

From Nissan to Sony, Japanese salesmen were sent abroad to face the ire of US and European customers beta testing the not-quite-refined products. It was Katayama’s duty to provide headquarters with the harsh feedback Nissan’s products got during their early US foray. Probably not the best way to ingratiate yourself to your superiors, much less to those engineers tasked with meeting foreign expectations.

Regardless of whatever emotions said feedback elicited, Japanese makes knew their products were lacking and placed great effort on improving. Thanks to said feedback, Nissan put together the most compelling lineup from Japan, even offering a ‘lusty’ roadster. Skeptics started to take notice.

Japanese brands quickly displaced small Europeans in the US and developing markets, with Nissan being the most successful early on.

Burt Reynold’s 1973 ‘White Lighting’ shows Nissans and Toyotas casually interspersed around Arkansas’ traffic in quite a few shots (a 410 appears in red in the background). California may get the fame -or blame- for ‘setting’ the nationwide trend towards imports, but the Arkansas shots prove Japanese brands had spread all over by the early ’70s. A trickle and then a tide; probably riding on the coattails of TD and Hillman owners in the lookout for something less trouble prone.

A bunch of variants started under the 310 were carried over on the 410; a pickup and sport ute proved popular in Asia, while sedans and station wagons made it to foreign markets as well. In Japan, the Fancy Deluxe was offered, a 310 carryover unabashedly catered to the ladies.

The Bluebird’s run-of-the-mill suspension, with double wishbones and coil springs up front, and semi-elliptical leaf springs at the rear, excelled in non-developed nations just as it had in Japan’s rural roads. With proven and easy to maintain nuts and bolts, the model established a faithful clientele in Mexico and Central America.

Our little Bluebird is a ’66-’67, with the slim tail lights serving as guide. One of few minor exterior updates during the model’s life. Up close inspection shows this ‘Bird isn’t exactly Peeble Beach pristine, but rather, well-loved and kept in daily use.

The 410-411’s assembly may have been commended on by reviewers, but closer shots show Nissan kept cards close to the chest on that department. Italian styling aside, both trunk and engine bay possess rather basic lids, no fancy clam shell hood, nor any other risky creative impulses that might test Nissan’s assembly capabilities.

The gas lid also occupies a rather peculiar area, which seems to say more about assembly requirements than any ‘styling’ pretenses. Also on this shot, the rugged condition of the rear glass seal confirms there are bits of this ‘aged one’ more fermented than others.

As I took pictures away, the liquor shop’s owner came out. He seemed a bit unsettled by my interest on the car. Slim and lanky, he followed me with his gaze through his thick glasses. “Are you the owner?” I said, trying to break the ice. He nodded, just when a couple of patrons arrived and entered, quite ready to get plastered. A rather normal occurrence in these rural towns, even though it was barely noon. Now busy, I wasn’t able to question him any further on the vehicle.

The lying by the roadside drunkard in utter stupor is sort of a Latin cliché, but each Salvadorian town has at least half a dozen; and this Bluebird’s owner has made quite a living out of them. Or so the condition of the vehicle suggests. Said condition also suggests he himself is not a consumer of heavy spirits, for the car is just too ‘clean and straight.’ An uncle of mine -by mother’s side,- was indeed a heavy drinker and his very nice Chevy II convertible barely lasted weeks in ‘clean and straight’ condition.

The town of San Vicente is hot and humid, laying at the shade of a large dormant volcano which blocks the sea breeze and turns the area into a sweltering cauldron. Such weather makes this Bluebird’s blackened windows almost a necessity. The car’s boxy greenhouse provides reasonable protection from sunlight, though ventilation probably wasn’t great on the 411. Nor have I seen anywhere that A/C was an option.

On that note, heat and humidity in the tropics were the Achilles’ heel of more than one European make, and San Vicente is the kind of place where the Bluebird shows it was ready to withstand the heat, literally. Leaving Peugeot, Fiat and VW aside, most British and French cars had a very fleeting presence in this region; meanwhile Japanese makes managed to succeed and perform smoothly from early on. How did they do it? They didn’t even have colonies… Just how long are those hot Tokyo summers?

Lacking a way to properly shoot this ‘Bird’s interior, here are some brochure images. Even if the 410-411 showed improvements in styling, the interior still showed a curious mélange of influences.

Seats could be buckets or bench, and shifting was available by lever either on the steering column or floor. The speedo has an odd mix of American and European thinking, while the dash has a peculiar ‘cabinet furniture’ feel. The boxy cabin must have had rather good visibility though. In all, it feels like an upscale and better appointed Beetle or Fiat 500, which is where models like the Bluebird and Corolla would start gnawing sales away.

By the end of 1964, the Bluebird was Japan’s fastest rising export and comprised 80% of that nation’s automotive sales abroad (Noncommercial). With sales upticking, a confident Nissan started assembly in Australia and Mexico in 1966.

Meanwhile in the US, Katayama’s team paid special attention to Nissan’s emerging dealer network, setting headquarters in Gardena, California, in 1960. An early computer network was created with assistance from IBM, speeding part deliveries and keeping close track of inventories across dealers, all in the relentless pursuit of maintaining high customer satisfaction.

Wait, did I say relentless pursuit?

Real life not being a children’s play, the Bluebird’s happiness was about to fade, as Toyota finally hit the nail in the head with the launched in ’65 T40 Corona. After the market failures of the T10 and T20 Coronas, Toyota took to heart the drubbing it got and developed a ‘dealer feedback’ network to assess what Japanese customers were in the lookout for. Whatever they researched, they did well; for the American influenced styling of the T40, with its optional 1,600cc engine, rose quickly and took the lead in the Japanese marketplace.

Nissan responded to the shifting realities begrudgingly. Wounded corporate pride claimed the Bluebird’s lower displacement engines ‘performed’ better than Toyota’s, but with Corona sales accruing, the ‘Bird eventually got optional 1,300cc and 1,600cc engines. The latter being part of the ‘hot’ SSS package.

With Toyota displacing Nissan in the charts, the bruised company took on the relentless pursuit of knuckleheaded corporate thinking, engaging in practices that have followers of the brand scratching their heads ever since.

Not long after the Corona’s sales ascendance, Nissan merged with the smaller but more prestigious Prince Motors in ’66, probably in hopes of leapfrogging Toyota once and for all. On the plus side, Nissan was about to take advantage of Prince’s highly skilled engineers, considered amongst the best in all of Japan. On top of that, additional assembly facilities were being acquired.

On the questionable side, Nissan also inherited a bunch of Prince model lines that occupied brackets for which the brand already had offerings for. Amazingly, they were to be kept around. Maybe it was the relentless pursuit to stick to the business of corporate-taxi fleet sales. Meanwhile Toyota made moves to complement its lineup further down market, investing in the mini-size Publica and launching the compact Corolla. It also acquired options in kei-player Daihatsu, getting a foothold on that market. Although some of these investments proved slow at first, they were to be rather profitable down the line.

The Bluebird didn’t keep still in the meantime, though. While work was being done on the upcoming 510, the old 411 body got a cleaner revised front end and was launched in ’68 as the 521 pickup/delivery van. The model kept much of the 411 drivetrain and chassis, although offering an optional 1,600cc engine derived from Prince Motors, and which itself seems to have some Mercedes Benz ancestry.

The end was coming for our Olympic ‘Bird. In Latin America the 411 got a deserving and rather fitting sendoff, with a sample from Nissan’s Cuernavaca assembly line being signed on by each member of Japan’s Olympic team, celebrating both the Bluebird’s final days and Mexico’s ’68 Olympics.

Nissan’s 410-411 was witness to a rather tumultuous time for its maker and Japan’s fortunes. In spite of losing the lead to Toyota in its home market, it announced to the world that Nissan’s international aspirations were not to be taken lightly. This 411 is testament to those.

So, has this particular model aged as well as good wine? That’s a matter of preference I suppose… but I wouldn’t mind taking a sip or two to find out.

More on the Bluebird:

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