Wandering around Tokyo can lead to pleasant surprises. A hyper-modern city populated by folks who value conformity makes for some colorful contrasts. The conservative culture is stifling for certain individuals, who rebel by going OCD for certain fads or fashion statements — anything to stick out of the crowd. People driving go-karts on public streets dressed as Mario. Girls in sexy maid outfits. Improbable food combinations that sound positively stomach-churning (e.g. grilled cheese salmon sushi, washed down with a matcha soy latte tapioca drink). And the odd classic car – but nothing older than about 1970, usually.
Encountering a ‘50s Datsun in Tokyo is therefore a once-in-a-Bluebird event. Outside Japan, I’ve caught a number of cars older than this one over the years. But as far as Japanese marques are concerned, beating this one (as a genuine CC, not a museum or classic car show exhibit) is going to take some doing. I did catch the pickup version of this car a while back, but that was out in the boonies, not in the metropolis.
The history of these Datsuns has been featured on CC already, so I’ll be brief. After 1945, Nissan established an alliance with Austin, which enabled a fair amount of technology transfer, as well as the licensing of the A40 Somerset and A50 Cambridge for the JDM. Smaller Datsuns had existed since the early ‘30s, but remained quite basic until the launch of the 110 series in January 1955. The 110 featured an all-new pressed steel body, designed in-house by Shozo Sato.
The 210, an evolution of the 110, arrived in October 1957. It featured an engine that looked remarkably similar to the Austin B-series, with a number of improvements. It was a 988cc OHV 4-cyl. providing 36 hp that drove the rear wheels via a 4-speed manual – with a shifter now mounted on the steering column. Other than that and a few other details, such as switching to 12V electrics, the 210 was quite similar to the 110. This included the rather primitive suspension: our feature car still has rigid axles and leaf springs at both ends. The Bluebird name was only officially applied to this car’s successor, the similar-looking 211, which debuted in 1959.
The evolution of Nissan, closely paralleled by Toyota (who launched the Crown on the same month and year as the Datsun 110), was really a case of very quick baby steps. In under a decade, they went from a wonky-looking wood-framed body powered by a side-valve 4-cyl. sitting on a beam axle to a conventionally-styled all-steel body powered by an OHV engine and independent front suspension. The learning curve was steep.
The first Datsuns ever to reach the US market were pretty much identical our feature car. The Datsun 1000 sedan and pickup were present at the Imported Car Show held in Los Angeles in January 1958, as seen above. This was Datsun’s American debut. Unfortunately, the US-spec version seems to have lost the quirky turn signal “pods” seen on the JDM cars. These novel fender ornaments disappeared sometime in 1958 on the domestic market as well, in favour of more logical (and banal) blinkers on either side of the grille. Fortunately, our feature car was probably made in the early part of that year, so it has the pods.
The Datsun 1000 also conquered Australia, where its race-proven rugged suspension and bullet-proof engine worked wonders, especially compared to the European competition. It did not take long for Nissan to become one of the key players on the Aussie market. I’m not sure what other countries were targeted by Nissan back in 1958. Asian markets with long-standing links to Japan such as South Korea, Taiwan or Thailand must have seen a few of these as well, but the Europeans were still blissfully unaware of the rise of Japanese carmakers in those days. Datsuns only reached Europe in 1962, starting with Finland and working their way down from there.
In 1957, only 739 Datsuns were sold outside Japan. But in 1958, Nissan managed to sell over 3200 units abroad, including over 1300 in the United States, according to my recent research (which contradicts my earlier post on these early Datsuns, but there it is). Aside from the 210 sedan, there was a wagon and a pickup (the 220), as well as a lower-spec JDM-only 114 sedan that used the old 860cc side-valve.
It was just impossible to photograph this car in its entirety from the back, but that did not prevent me from trying. The front end of these early Datsuns is rather attractive, if a tad derivative. It could be mistaken for a contemporary Fiat or Hillman. Viewed from the side, the exposed door hinges and the massive B-pillar stand out as pretty amateurish, but the design holds up — until we reach the C-pillar. The sloping rear end is absolutely distinctive – and really quite ugly, in my opinion. I only wish I could have captured it better than I did here.
With its stubby and sloping trunk, the Datsun 1000 is but a vinyl roof and gaudy emblem away from looking like a mini Cadillac Seville (or of that dreadful Lincoln we saw a short while ago), especially when combined with the small rear window. It’s all a bit less awful on the Datsun, but only just. Still, compared to the Datsun DB and DS that preceded it, the 110/210 design is a triumph of maturity, taste and sophistication. The fact that it could be reasonably compared to a Fiat (from certain angles) is a sign that Japanese cars were going mainstream, though fully-fledged equivalence with European and American designs was still a couple generations into the future.
The first “210” is an important model in Nissan’s history. Whoever owns this one knows that and restored this example to near perfection, going so far as to finding 15” whitewall tyres, which is a bit over the line, but we’ll allow it. It gives this little Datsun even more of a sense of occasion. Technically, things were not all there yet, but a least this – one of the first Japanese cars to be exported in substantial numbers – looked quite promising, as indeed it turned out to be. I doubt I’ll be able to run into an older JDM car in the street, but I’ll keep an eye out for one of those 1955 Crowns. You never know.
Curbside Classic: 1959 Datsun 1000 (211) Pick-up – The First Step In The Long March, by T87
I often wonder if one or two of those ‘58’s managed to survive in America.
From what I’ve read online, it seems a few have. A lot of them were in California, where I gather the climate is kind and weird imports are a thing.
If you want to be critical towards the styling of this car I would say the front half looks VERY similar to a mid-late 50s Fiat. Even that badge on the dashboard looks like it came from a Fiat at the angle it is shown. But the back half? That looks like any American car from the mid 30s, right down to the almost generic tail light.
My guess is that Datsun/Nissan put its earliest efforts into those markets that had RHD. Wasn’t Sweden still RHD at this point? It seems as though I remember 1 or 2 Scandinavian countries were RHD until the 60s or 70s.
When I visited Japan in the 80s, it was quite rare to run across a car from the early 70s, much less the 60s. But like this car, when you did find them they were tucked away.
Here you go, T87. I looked back at shots I took when we visited the Lane Museum a few years ago, and here in the Nissan company collection was this gem.
They also had a big Nissan 1900 from around that same time, so I will hold out hope that you will find one of those in its native land as well.
Bravo on the find!
Jay Leno drove a ’60 one from Nissan NA’s collection about a year ago on his YouTube show. The back is shown there too.
Thank you, JPC. Very nice picture.
When you say Nissan “1900”, I take it you mean Cedric? I’d love to find one of those early ones. But I got a couple large-ish old JDM sedans coming up soon. Not as old as this Datsun, but pretty close.
I looked it up – yes, a Cedric. The Nissan NA collection has one, but it is a little rough as of yet. I recall that they had plans to restore it.
What a find. And what a sheen – seems a turd CAN be polished after all. (I mean the narrow humpy styling, almost a rounded-off Triumph Mayflower shape).
I’ve mentioned before that two of these little upright stoves were entered by Nissan factory drivers in the ’58 round Australia Reliability trial, and they finished, which says a lot: these “trials” much more closely resembled auto torture, and very few of the opening field ever survived. Ugly or no, they were a better-made mousetrap than their snooty English ancestors at Austin. In fairness to BMC, little could a central player in the world’s second-largest car industry have forseen.
However, the former MD of Holden, Sir Laurence Hartnett, saw the quality in them, and began selling Datsuns here in (I think) ’61. Unsure if these models made it, but by ’66, they began assembly of Datsuns here and already had a respectable market share.
The doors linings have plastic on them: is this a thing or a nod to re-creating newness? And do you know what the strange device is in the middle of the lower dash, as it sort looks like a taxi meter, though I can’t imagine anyone small enough or in so little hurry as to want to hail such a thing?
No idea what that is either, I’m sorry to say. Aftermarket A/C (battery powered)? Fax machine? Turntable? Oriental torture device? Maybe all of the above.
I was in a real hurry when I caught this one, because I had stumbled on a nest of CCs: the white Mitsuoka Galue, the ’79 Bluebird, this Datsun and another car I haven’t written up yet were all in the same tiny car park in Tokyo. I had to be quick, as I had a train to catch. Sometimes, it really pours.
You’re right Justy, that was 1961 when they started selling them here. I have an issue of Modern Motor from 1961 (October?) where the cover proclaims in large print “Japanese Cars Here – Are They Any Good?” We all know the answer to that.
After expanding the picture: the thing I think you are referring to is the in car ventilation system. It looks like there is a large “tongue”(the silver tab near the bottom of the housing) that might control the opening or closing while the black…”pan” could be the housing for a fan.
Just a guess, but it seems logical.
Beautiful catch. The device on the dash reminds me of the slide mount for a removable radio set up that was popular here in the states in the 70’s and 80’s. to help avoid theft. The piece on the bottom looks like a speaker
Wow, what a gorgeous restoration (presumably), the color is great. And to just find it on the street, amazing. The cabin looks very similar sized to the pickup next to it at least in height and length, width is likely narrower.
You magnificent son of a witch, Tatra!
Seen one of these before, don’t know what model it was in particular but it was in a car park in Topeka. Chances are it was a 1000, but not sure.
Bright red but it wasn’t in very good condition, had a patina and a flat tire. Super angry I couldn’t catch an image.
DATSUN started selling cars in IRAN in 1959 my dad who was born in 1946 remember seeing the first DATSUN dealer in Central Tehran when He was visiting the city with his parents.
I dont know if any ever landed here, Ive never seen one, anti Japanese sentiments lasted well into the 70s and their cars were not common really untill the great used import boom of the 80s which I missed.
This would document “about 1500” exported to U.S. in 1958:
Saw this in Merida, Mexico a couple years ago. The owner waited for me to take picture, waved at me, then she hopped in and drove away.
No, no – it doesn’t look like an ’80 Seville.
It looks like a tiny 1938 Series 60 Special. Very, very influential car.
Please contact me
I own one of the first 16 that were shipped to USA in 1958. A 58 Datsun 1000 PL210. I bought it from 2nd owner in California n restored the body n painted it two tone.
As I understand it 10 were sent to Hawaii (Where I live) n 6) to mainland USA in the initial shipment.
Can you provide me w source n data re number of 58 Datsun 1000 PL210 sedans imported into USA. Was led to believe not as many as your article suggests.