Curbside Classic: 1958 Datsun 1000 (210) – Sublime Sexagenarian

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.


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Curbside Classic: 1959 Datsun 1000 (211) Pick-up – The First Step In The Long March, by T87