Curbside Classic: 1970-72 Datsun 1300 Wagon (521) – Sticking Around A Little While Longer

Here’s an oldie I knew of and had been in the hunt for. This old Datsun wagon had actually passed me a couple of times in San Salvador’s traffic, always pulling ahead and getting lost beyond my reach. I slightly sighed after each encounter; “Gosh, will I someday find you? Standing still for some nice pics?” And then it showed up, sitting pretty in an old residential area.

While its exterior looks raggedy and misaligned, its mechanicals do a decent gallop around town. Not sure if that’s saying much in this city, where high speeds – even if desired- are impossible to attain in its ever-clogged streets. The point is, even if it looks worn out and ready to croak, it doesn’t.

These old Datsuns just run forever, or so it seems in Central America. I admit our lax law implementation may have a lot to do with that; but heck, how else to see these old rides still hanging around?

That said, they also have an awfully loyal following. Mostly from families that wish for cheap daily drivers that are uncomplicated and easy to fix. Just about every mechanical part to keep these running is easy to find in local stores and junkyards. However, as for the cosmetic bits, those are difficult to find. But our people are creative, and they’ll screw in anything that approximates original size. As you’ll notice, some of the trim in our find isn’t exactly Datsun spec.

The bones of this Datsun 1300 wagon date to the 1963 Nissan Bluebird, a sharp little number styled by Pininfarina for Nissan. Tiny and stylish, the Bluebird arrived elsewhere as the Datsun 410/411, still carrying a good deal of Austin-derived hardware.

Besides the sedan, the Bluebird family included a 5-door station wagon, and a commercial 3-door one, or LightVan in Nissan-speak. While differing mechanically, the 520 pickup light truck also carried much of the Bluebird’s styling. Both the LightVan and the 520 truck got a mild restyle in 1967, with an updated grille and other minor tweaks. Meanwhile, a whole new Bluebird would appear that same year (the 510), with the LightVan and the 520 truck keeping the ’67 restyle for a bit longer. Not a rare tradition with utilitarian models.

The LightVan became the 521 in 1970 and would remain in production mostly for export purposes and commercial fleets. It carried the ’67 restyle for the remaining of its production, which lasted until 1972. Engine choices were the Datsun 1.3 L and 1.5 L J-series, with an additional Prince-derived 1.6 L appearing as an option. Otherwise, much under the skin dated to the 410/411 days.

Production of Datsuns started in Mexico in 1966, and the brand quickly gained a strong foothold in the region. With Nissan’s spotlight now focused on the new 510 Bluebird and other models, the 521 is a bit of a footnote in the company’s history. Outside of Japan, these were sold as the Datsun 1300 or 1500, depending on engine size. While in their native market these were aimed at light commerce, in non-developed nations they became convenient family haulers.

The model may be a bit obscure in Nissan’s history, but it certainly left an impression in this region. Local owners cherish their tiny wagons and do all they can to keep them on the road. Even with struggling finances. A few are still seen, in conditions more or less similar to this one.

This particular wagon is driven by a bohemian-looking young gal who seems to work at a local nonprofit. Salaries being low over here, I have a feeling the car must be a family heirloom; the beater that gets passed down to the new driver in the clan. I’ve seen a few such cases around here, though I little to support that theory.

Enough exterior shots, let’s take a look at that sumptuous Bluebird-derived interior.

Whoah! That orange plastic basket is NOT supposed to be there! Talk about an odd mod. I can just imagine the interaction if this gal was stopped by the traffic police:

  • Do you know what speed you were doing, young miss?
  • Well, I think I was cruising at a speed… somewhere between the Coke and the bread bun…

On the other hand, at least the snacks have a really nice cubbyhole.

I had another possible title for this post; “The Calm Before The Storm.” I really enjoy the sedate restyling that Nissan applied to Pininfarina’s work, as it provides the small wagon with a simple, yet elegant presence. Such moderation was going to come to an end soon at Nissan, and the results were anything but sedate on future products such as the Cherry, or the Silvia. A storm was coming, indeed.

Looking at this close-up, the mods to keep this old wagon on the road are evident. The turn signals are clearly new and not original, while the grille has some dubious origin. I think it’s time to check out another 521 LightVan to get a better idea of what these were like in the metal.

There, that’s an original grille! Although I’ve no idea for the reasoning behind that bit of aluminum trim on the hood’s edge. Stock condition is just about impossible to obtain with the locals.

That’s right, if you expect pristine, you won’t find it in this post. But maybe between these two finds we can sort of assemble -in our imaginations- ONE 521 wagon, more or less in stock condition. This one, in particular, resides closer to my home. I see it weekly on my way to the market, though I have never seen its owner.

Looks like there is some odd suspension work on this 521; worn-out front shocks and a raised rear, with larger rear tires, etc. Whatever has happened to this one, must have been the result of necessity rather than planning.

What is easier to see in this 521 is the double-door tailgate, which I find kinda neat. No interior shot on this one, however. Just as I was about to look into it, some neighbor started honking and protesting about me taking pictures. He seemed invested in protecting this ‘precious’ piece of metal, so I just scooted away.

However, I’m not gonna leave you without a view of that Bluebird-derived interior. Lacking proper shots, I’ll use a few from the local Marketplace. I found this one recently, being sold somewhere out in the boonies. It obviously belongs to a ‘Fast and the Furious’ type. I’ve no idea where a Datsun 521 ranks with that crowd, but I doubt such things trouble this owner’s mind.

So, let’s check out that sumptuous interior, finally.

Holy non-stock Japanese-devotion interior! This may lack taste, but that’s a lot of handwork and dedication! I hate to say it, but this guy has actually earned my admiration (though not my respect).

The dashboard looks pretty intact, however. So let’s get closer.

There’s a lot of noise in this image, but if you can attune your eyes, the original dashboard is still in there.

The original Bluebird interior still had some American influences in its design and it shows in the 521. The spread-out speedo in the instrument panel was one such item, as well as the column-mounted shift lever that allowed bench seats as an option. The weird handmade wooden ‘console’ with large subwoofers is obviously nonoriginal, but we just can’t live without loud stereos over here (And I’ll include myself in that crowd).

As mentioned, there are a few of these still around. I’ve seen an additional one carrying an eye-catching two-tone color treatment; with a bright gold top, accented by black flanks. All done in a thick shiny lacquer. But from the many, I still prefer this sedate-looking one with its faded olive green color. A nice leftover, that carried those 410/411 Bluebird bones for a little bit longer.


Further reading:

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

Curbside Classic: 1969 Datsun 1500 (521) Pickup – Hard Labour With A Dash Of Style