The Japanese automakers were rapidly growing in the late 1960s, and one of the key secrets to their success was continuous improvement. In 1968, Datsun presented an excellent example of this approach with the new PL510, which offered significant enhancements compared with its (still good) predecessor, the RL411. Car and Driver pointed out all the upgrades and benefits in a full road test in the April 1968 issue.
“Seldom do we find such graphic proof that a car was made better than it had to be.” That was an incredibly powerful statement coming from Car and Driver, and certainly helped burnish Datsun’s reputation in the U.S. market. But in the case of the PL510, the praise was warranted, as the car really did break new ground for the Economy Car class. With a fully independent suspension, 1.6 liter sohc engine with an aluminum head and front disc/rear drum brakes all standard for just $2,095.95 ($15,339 adjusted), it was no wonder that the PL510 became a great choice for car enthusiasts on a tight budget. American buyers responded enthusiastically to the newest economy sedan from Japan, with Datsun’s overall 1968 U.S. sales rising to 58,467, a 29% increase compared to 1967. And sales would just keep climbing from there—funny how good products that beat market expectations have the ability to deliver great business results. As Car and Driver noted in closing: “The handwriting is on the wall—Japan is the world’s number two auto producer and there is only one more place to go.” And off they went!
I had the pleasure of owning a 1969 510 in the eighties. i loved it. it was reliable, fun, quick and handled much better than the malibu coupe i traded it for. would love to get my hands on one today.as for Car and Driver…………the articles prior to the 1980’s are great and good…………………anything after is pure garbage. it was worth the money solely for the pictures.
Thanks for another reprint, and a side trip down memory lane. I’m sure many of us either owned or knew someone that owned one of these cars. My g/f in college had a Baby Blue 4 Dr. As mentioned already- reliable, quick, fun to drive or ride in.
You know it was a good car when all C&D could really complain about was a blinker lever and spongy brake feel.
Ah, far better than Mr Davis and his misplaced jumbled breathlessness. C & D COULD do a bit of cheeky in a lot of factual information, with a dash of style to boot. Even a bit of amusement, such as the ashtray and ciggie lighter comments. (Also a bit of unintentional amusement in claiming that flow-through ventilation will go the way of the wrap-around front window, but anyway).
The only ones I drove, albeit in the late ’80’s, were on radials and didn’t understeer much at all. They just handled and rode really well. Mind, they didn’t steer much at all either, which vagueness is not mentioned here. It was another decade or more before Datsun found The Rack and It’s Pinion.
The review brings back two clear memories, the first of which is that gearchange. It was wonderfully quick and slick, but indeed, it was weirdly numb. The second is that of those brakes. Datsun persisted with wheezy squeezy stoppers for years after the 510 too. They were effective, but always alarming.
As for quality, I suppose no one could have predicted just how tough these jiggers proved to be, especially in rust-free climes, but in objective terms, I don’t reckon the BMW 1602 was substantially better than these, for a third more money. Japan had in this case overtaken Germany for sure.
My first car in 1981 at 16 was a 1971 510 4dr 4 spd, bought from my parent’s in very good condition. Rust was already a problem – it was so even in 1977 when they bought it used for $900. They took care of the rust for the most part but the car was very prone to it.
My friends and I gravitated not to muscle cars (which many in our school owned or coveted) but to smaller, more nimble cars that we could afford to run. Fuel was cheap but so were p/t wages. The 510’s were popular, and below them were Datsun 1200’s and Toyota Corolla’s. VW Beetles were everywhere but not necessarily desired by kids. Several of us had 510’s and hopped them up in a rally friendly way as opposed to road racing, to the best of our limited financial abilities. They were simple, nimble and dependable. Engine’s were great, transmission was anachronistic, as already described here. Vega’s, Pinto’s and the like were a laughing stock to us, in comparison. Strangely, we all harbored an affinity for huge American luxury boats of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s at the time, in direct opposition to the qualities found in the 510.
My car was written off 6 months after I got it when, as I drove to the dealer to buy ignition parts, an oncoming 1974 Buick Lesabre convertible turned left in front of me, causing me to broadside it. I got an insurance settlement and bought a truly beaten 1972 Toyota Celica, Fancier than the 510 but not nearly the car. It was a learning experience. A guy bought my wrecked 510 for salvage and returned it to great condition – they were already attracting a devoted following.
These and concurrent Toyota Coronas are the first Japanese cars I can remember seeing, certainly in any numbers. As I grew older it took me awhile to shake that Northern Indiana/Lower Michigan short “a” in the name. Dot-Sun sounded so odd compared to Daat-Sun as I had learned to pronounce it. Then by the time I finally got there they changed the name to Nissan.
And it is good to know that the lack of front vent windows is just a passing fad.
Never mind. In Oz and the UK, no-one has ever heard of a Knee-san. But they do know if their Nissen is missin’.
Same here, J P.
The Datsun 510 and the Toyota Corona were my introduction to tightly built, high quality Japanese cars that destroyed the old joke about Oriental products being trash.
Another early automotive religious experience was in one of these, as my high school friend’s family bough one in 1969 or maybe 1970. He was the best driver my age I knew, and we used to spend quite a bit of time hooning through the windy country roads of N. Balto. county. That little 510 really really hustled. The memories were etched deeply.
The 510’s reputation may have grown somewhat beyond its actual capabilities, but it was a perfect platform for improvements that could turn it into whatever was desired. It became the tri-five Chevy of the import car world.
I agree on the somewhat pedestrian capabilities of these when stock – better than most of their competitors but still limited. I remember getting mine up to 95 mph with the engine screaming at or above redline, and my buddies’ ’66 Pontiac Laurentian with a 283 3 on the tree could only incrementally exceed that velocity as we raced along.
Modest as the performance seems today, they were easy to improve with weber carbs, headers, cams and ignition upgrades being favored upgrades. In my case I recall saving my money and replacing the oil soaked clutch with a Sach 311 hi performance unit, for instance. They were simple to work on and became great budget level enthusiast cars.
My boss had one of these that I got a ride in in the early 80s. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I would have felt different if I had been given a chance to drive it.
BTW, as I understand it, the U. S. got these with IRS (other markets didn’t necessarily get it) because otherwise the cars would have been ridiculously cheap. And it has always left me wondering: would all the car magazines have gushed about the original 510 (there was also a later one) if it had been sent here with a live rear axle?
This article came out right as I was discovering Car and Driver on the local news racks, so I don’t remember reading it but do remember a half page article in the back of the magazine.
These were truly good cars, probably the first example to many Americans where “melted beer can” syndrome diddn’t apply for a Japanese car. The IRS was a game changer in the rally world when it came to these; Shekhar Mehta (WRC/Safari Rally winner) was adamant that it was the first car he ever drove where he could go flat out on rough roads without worry of loosing control. That said, it is a shame we never received the actual coupe version of the Bluebird/510. I chose a rear shot because the tail lamps work sequentially in the way Thunderbird/Cougar tail lamps did in the day:
I never knew they made this bodystyle. Thanks for showing us.
Our family car in the late 60s – early 70s
I had quite a bit of time in these (but never owned one). But I did own its competition, a ’70 Toyota Corona Mark II, 2 door hardtop. While the 510 was somewhat superior, engineering wise (but not game changing) they always felt cheap and tinny compared to the Mark II. The Toyota “felt” much more American; I nicknamed it my Japanese Chevelle in fact. It was clear that Toyota, by 1970, had already had a good grasp on the taste of American car buyers. The rest is history. And I too, wish we got the 510 coupe. Good looking machine.
Three of us went all over far north Queensland in one of these Datsun 1600s it was a rustfree Canberra registered car and reasonably tidy a 71 model and this was in 85, it rode well for what it was but had an alarming B pillar shake on roads like the one to Cape Tribulation they were definitely not designed for Australias corrugated dirt roads, a 71 Toyota Corona four I owned a year later was better put together and went just as well. The handling going up and down from Mareeba to Cairns wasnt anything to write home about it was adequate but far from brilliant on that twisty road, and that was a weekly trip, but it got us to our destinatios ok just not quickly.
The audience here won’t be aware that in about ’85, the roads you’re talking about were roads NO-ONE except crazy Aussies would (and did) drive on without a sturdy, proper 4WD. They’d kill any car, and the fact that the Datto got you there and back at all isn’t shabby! And without meaning to be rude, there’s no such thing as “B pillar shake”, or the bloody doors would’ve fallen off 10 miles in. Dashboard wobble, maybe, though on those roads, a Sherman tank would wobble and creak. I mean, there’s not a car built that won’t have the doors rattling in those conditions. And anyway, the 1600/510 won heaps of rallies in period with no more body reinforcement than a roll cage provides, which being for the occupants, isn’t much.
They’re the one Japanese car from the time that COULD survive a modicum of outback road use.
Also, given that they could hit 100mph even when well-used and a six-cylinder Holden had run out of revs by little more than 85, I don’t even agree that they were slow. And if it was a ’68 Holden or a ’68 Datsun that I was in when a corner came up, I know which one I’d far rather be in.
I’ll grant you only this: the Holden would definitely last longer in the rough.
I just did a quick search on Afew towns Craigslist in USA&they are still asking over 10_15K for a clean one 50 years later.