It’s interesting to go back and read about how cars that became legendary were first reviewed when they were new. There are subjective influences well beyond just objective ones that make a car legendary, such as the Tri-Five Chevys. Excellent as they were, nobody in 1955 would ever have guessed that they would become such icons.
As good as the new Datsun 510 (Bluebird) was, nobody at the time could have guessed either that it would be the Japanes Tri-Five of its time, and single-handedly spark the wave in tuning Japanese cars that came to be a veritable tsunami.
The 510 replaced the 410/411, which had begun to make some inroads in the US, mainly on the West Coast. I am remiss in never having written up the 410 I shot here some years back, but it certainly deserves its day in the CC sun. It was a pretty basic little RWD four door seda, with a 1300cc pushrod four rated at 67 gross hp. But Datsun’s sporting ambitions began to be on display even in this model, as the last-year 1967 versions offered an SSS version, with the twin-carb 1600cc engine as used in the 1600 Sports roadster. Rated at 96 gross hp, it made the SSS a veritable pocket rocket, given its very compact size and light weight (1951 lbs).
The 510 was all-new, with a body that was larger in every dimension, except for height. That was a good thing, as the 410/411 had been designed for the Japanese market and was quite narrow and cozy, to put it lightly. The 510 clearly had global ambitions, and was instantly compared to the similar sized BMW 1600 (2-door, later 2002), which had also just started on its path to becoming a legend.
What made both of these cars the basis of such idolatry: a fairly light, compact body, four-wheel independent suspension, with semi-trailing arms on the rear, and modern SOHC 1.6 L fours that were both rated at 96 (gross) hp. Quite simply, the combination of the excellent chassis and lively rev-happy but fairly smooth engines made them gobs of fun to drive, without any penalties in the practical use as a daily driver and kiddie hauler, if need be.
There were differences, of course, starting with their prices. The 510 started at $1996 in 1968 for the four door sedan; in 1969, the two-door sedan was also available, at an even lower $1890. The BMW 1600 was only available as a two door sedan, and started at $2497, or some 30% more. It was of course still a bargain, considering its greater refinements, both in the chassis, drive train and interior.
But a 510 two-door was only $90 more than a VW Beetle; comparing the two almost seems absurd, given how much roomier, faster, and better handling the 510 was, with twice the hp, among other things. That was precisely what catapulted the 510 to fame: a car with many of the BMW’s features and driving experience, at a VW Beetle price. No wonder the Beetle’s sales in the US started tanking within a year or two. Of course it wasn’t just the 510, but it was one of its more potent coffin nails.
I’m editorializing here, from a historical perspective. R&T goes through the 510’s technical features, including its semi-trailing arm rear suspension. They point out quite rightly that this system, also used by BMW and the new Mercedes 114/115 series, is actually a compromise from the ideal IRS, as it still has quite significant camber changes, and was only an incremental improvement over swing axles in that regard. Which is of course why BMWs and 510s were both known for sudden oversteer if the throttle was closed quickly enough in a fast curve,, never mind the brakes being applied. Not enough to be tricky in most situations, but it could certainly be provoked.
R&T did not observe that phenomena, but then they apparently didn’t spend a lot of time with the car, and only noted that its handling had fairly modest ultimate grip due to small wheels and bias-ply tires. That was of course one of the quickest and easiest fixes on these.
The all new SOHC four had a longer stroke and smaller bore than the out-going pushrod unit, due to the intrinsic advantages of de-smogging longer stroke engines. Peak power was the same 96 hp as the out-going SS engine, but at a lower 5600 rpm (vs. 6000). The twin-carb SSS engine was a classic “sporty” engine; the basic 510 engine was designed for better all-round use, and of course it was easy enough to tune with aftermarket parts, which soon became available.
The 510’s gearing was more freeway friendly than drag strip friendly, undoubtedly with an eye to its likely early adoption by California freeway commuters. At 60 mph, revs were 400 rpm lower than in a BMW 1600. Thus acceleration figures were not exactly eye-popping; 13.5 seconds for the 0-60.
By the way, R&T did use more conservative acceleration timing techniques that other magazines at the time, which invariably had better number. R&T changed that in about 1980 or so, and with a corresponding reduction in times. IIRC, they would always shift at no more than the stated maximum engine revolution speed (red line); others would shift at whatever speed resulted in the best acceleration times.
Obviously, the front seats were not up to BMW level and had no recliners. There weren’t even armrests on the doors, but otherwise it was fairly well equipped, for the time, in typical Japanese fashion, including standard white wall tires (the two-door had less standard equipment, hence the lower price).
R&T found the 510’s ride very substantially improved over the 410’s, and the handling was also significantly better, with less understeer and more responsiveness.
R&T also points out another key factor: the 510’s clean styling was refreshing, a stand out at a time when that was increasingly becoming not to be taken for granted. Undoubtedly that was one of the main elements, along with the ability to easily swap in larger versions of the L-Series four that made it so attractive to so many, for so long. The 510 still has a strong following, who keep its legendary status intact.
Curbside Classic: Datsun 510 (Bluebird/1600) – How To Fly
I can just remember test driving one of these 510s, a 2 door, stick. It must have been when we had our ’71 VW Super Bug, because I do remember how UNimpressive I found the interior, in particular the seats. At 6’4″ I was not very comfortable even during our rather brief test drive, compared to our lethargic VW. OTOH, the VWs’ seats were far more supportive!
Therefore we passed on the 510, due mostly to the mediocre seats. Dynamically it was noticeably superior to the VW, but I wasn’t looking for a “race” car in L.A.; after all I had my 327 equipped ’56 Chevy!! 🙂 DFO
These were an interesting contrast to the competing Toyota Corona. Both fulfilled their intended missions very well but got there from different directions. The Corona was utterly conventional and could be viewed as a shrunken Chevy II or Chevelle – OHV valve engine, solid rear axle, safe dependable understeer in driving dynamics. The 510 seemed so modern with its OHC engine, IRS, strut front suspension and tuneability. It really was considered a “poor man’s” BMW and appreciated by those who liked driving.
One correction from the article – the “L” series OHC engine is not related to the “U” series in the Datsun Sports. The “U” series took basically an engine used in forklifts (among others) and grafted an OHC head to the block. The “L” series was a more modern and conventional OHC design.
I lived in Aloha, Or for a summer and a buddy had a 510 sedan. I drove it ever chance I got and loved it.
Why couldn’t Nissan have built the IDx concept? Instead we got the Kicks, a FWD-only, CVT-only crossover.
At least they gave us a reworked Z, so there is hope.
With the 510, a legend was born. Sadly, with the 610 and 710 that legend was squandered.
Ah, the days when Los Angeles stood out because a full 21.4% of their cars were imported. Those weird Californians!
It may seem odd that someone would choose a Beetle over a 510 at almost the same price, but it’s important to remember that the Beetle had a solid reputation whereas “made in Japan” in the 1960s was still thought by many to mean cheap junk, as some regard “made in China” today. That was starting to change though, thanks to desirable and high-quality merchandise from the likes of Sony, Nikon, and Seiko, but it seems it wasn’t until the mid-’70s when the masses discovered that Toyotas and Datsuns were way more reliable than Pintos, Vegas, or European imports not from Germany.
The only Japanese cars I liked as a kid were the Datsun 510 and Toyota Celica (I never saw a Z-car until my family moved back the the US in 1977).
Though I did not appreciate this until my teens in the late 70s/early 80s, in the early 70s EVERY Datsun was a winner in my book. They either looked decent, were fun or both, from the small, cheap but stylish Datsun 1200 to the 510 (poor man’s 2002) featured here, to the terrific 240Z to even the Datsun pick-up.
How, in the span of 5 years, this company went from all WINNERs to peddling ugly, coarse B210s, and even uglier F10s and 200SX is one of the more interesting auto stories of the 20th century.
The Celica was the only other Japanese car other than the 510 that I remember being hopped up in the ’70s. I think it deserves to share credit for sparking the Japanese import tuning craze in the U.S., but it was less noticed because the Celica already looked like and was marketed as a sporty car, whereas the 510 was just a mundane 2 or 4 door sedan (or even wagon, though those had a more primitive rear suspension). The 510 also benefitted from easy swappability of larger engines and upgraded transmissions from later Datsuns.
Never drove an original 510, but I owned a ’74 710, and while working for Hertz probabably in 1978 (also worked there in 1977) I drove at least one of the newer 510 models.
Yes, it would have been nice to keep the “sporty” 510 around, but I think the 710 and later 510 were products of their generation. Maybe Datsun would have done better playing up the sporty at a low cost of the 510, but changing emissions standards, bumper laws, and of course inflation conspired against that. Don’t know how the 710 compared to a ’74 Beetle for instance, mine was somewhere around $3400 back then, and of course a BMW 2002 (or 320) was headed well north of that. I think Datsun just went back to their economy at volume formula and kept doing that instead.
My 710 wasn’t very sporty nor quick, but it was an ideal car for me at the time…undergraduate in college, couldn’t get into much trouble, and simple to fix. It only failed to start for me one week during the blizzard of ’78 despite being parked outside all the time…the thing that would have made it better up in Vermont where I owned it probably would have been FWD, but most FWD cars were pretty pricey back then…my Dad ended up with a Subaru DL (his only Subaru, bought new, before all Subarus were AWD). I learned how to fix it by necessity, and my Dad helped me out by buying me a toolkit and a battery (XMAS gift). I still have the tool kit, but the battery is of course long gone.
I really liked the ’78 510 for the brief time (a trip or two) that I got to drive it. I ended up going the VW route for my other cars (which I’ve continued to today, never having owned another make in 41 years since giving up the 710). My sisters continued this, having owned qty-4 200/240 SX models between them (my surviving middle sister still owns her ’97 she bought new). But again, these later cars seemed to be.
Oh, my Dad bought a Renault R10 new in 1968. That was the year the neighbor’s kids down the street plowed into his ’59 Beetle parked in front of our house…the Beetle was already pretty rusty, doubtful that he’d have been able to keep it very long even if it wasn’t totalled. Don’t recall which cars he looked at when he chose the R10, but he’d been driving Beetles since he was in the Army in Germany in the early 50’s where they’d be assigned instead of a Jeep.
At least three friends had “tuned” 510’s, though we didn’t use that term then, unless we had just set the point gap and timing, and replaced plugs and adjusted the carb. One replaced a Fiat 124, one a Pinto, and one a Mini Cooper (the Issigonis kind). And our neighbors had a definitely untuned stock 510 wagon, in that cyan-ish blue that was so popular. That 510 replaced a Honda 600Z when they had their first kid.
The 510 was a nice package for the price, but it also was the ultimate automotive “blank slate”, from which one could build a nice little Japanese hot rod. Nissan/Datsun was very aggressive in offering an entire catalog of performance parts for the DIY people, and the success of the flashy Trans-Am BRE 510s made for a great aspirational starting point. All of the performance parts availability and competition image-building was openly cribbed from the British (BL—Triumph, MG, Jaguar).
Datsun/Nissan frittered away their image and advantage, in part, by building cars that were more difficult to hot rod, and which also had more complex styling that was tougher to personalize. Mazda, in turn, cribbed the performance parts catalogue and the competition image from Datsun, and that work reached full fruition roughly coincident with the rollout of the first RX-7, which was about 8 to 10 years after Datsun had successfully done the same thing with the 510/1200/240-Z.
My first new car, A ’72 2 door, in dark blue. I think with three options, a tach, stereo FM radio and sill stripe, $2288. Replaced the bias ply’s with Sears “Roadhandlers” (Michelin) and Koni shocks. That little car taught me everything I ever learned about handling, heal and toe down shifting, overall car balance. I haven’t owned all that many cars* in my 70 years, but that one was the most fun.
*but 4 of them have been featured on Wheeler Dealers…….for whatever that’s worth.
I bought my 1969 510 from my aunt in 1996 for $500. She bought it brand new from a Vancouver BC dealer and drove it to church on Sundays. 4-doors and a stick shift. Reliable and comfortable. I sold it for $500 a few years later and believe it’s still out there somewhere.
Back in the ’80s my dad bought a former factory rally car version, a 1972 SSS coupe. Had the dual carbs and a 4 speed standard and nothing else but the holes where the roll cage used to be. No interior besides dash and 1seat, no undercoating, no sound deadener, door panels. It was totally stripped for racing and in rough shape. We found an interior and fenders and had rear 1/4s made. We stuffed a newer 2 liter and a 5 speed in when the 1.6 died and it became one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven. It handled like a go cart and the extra power was perfect. I sold it back to my dad later, wish I never did, as he sold it a few years later. If only we had the internet back then. We never really knew what we had until it was gone.
The car was so good that we ended up becoming a Datsun/Nissan family and have owned that coupe, a sedan and a wagon now and countless cars, trucks and suvs. My brother has never owned anything but a Datsun or Nissan for 35 years. I’ve been driving them and Infiniti’s for decades as well.
These cars will always hold a pretty special place in our family. Inspired us to buy and modify a ’76 280 Z and later an ’03 G35 into tire smoking monsters and jack up our 4X4s and go muddin to show people what little Nissans can do on and off the road.
Loved that test. Wonderful Datsun-historic. The US Nissan prez specically commissioned designing the 510 as a less expensive BMW 1600, so no coincidence the you find some of the features of the 1600 on the 510.
“Mr. K” was likely also the reason Datsun moved away from manual column shifts in the prior generation (410) which Toyota held on to until the Corona’s midcycle facelift. Between the fact that “four on the floor” was considered sporty and a bit upscale in America, and it was simply the norm in this type of car from (and in) Europe, there just wasn’t any point in engineering a left-hand drive column shift.
I suspect that part of the argument for the 510’s advanced specs was also that there could be commonality with the new Laurel, which arrived eight months later.
We had a 1968 Datsun 1600 (Canadian name until they switched to 510 a year or two later). Pale blue and similar to the test model except for dog-dish hubcaps, blackwall tires, and orange rear turn signals (again, Canadian). We had it for five years and it served us reasonably well although it started rusting early and had odd problems with clogged fuel filters.
More details at https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/cc-kids-2-1968-datsun-1600-510/
I’d take a Fiat 125S over one of these. Sure, I’d miss out on the IRS, but I’m willing to sacrifice that for the 100 DIN Hp twin cam, five speed and four discs.
And armrests, Pirellis, quartz halogens, tacho, alloys and cloth seats.
I recall their entrance into Southern California back then. Cool cars they were. Only rode in one once that was owned by a friend’s family to race at SCCA events. That was for a trip around Laguna Seca in 1974 but beyond that never drove one. I do see a very nice blue 2 door every time I visit Monument Auto where a old time counter person owns it. Everyone is right though when you wonder what happened with the 610 and 710? Maybe Datsun blew their budget on the 240Z and then tried to live off the fame of that car only.
Long a fan of the original, PL510, I was at however underwhelmed when a friend lent me one for a couple of days. Late model, 2 or 3 years old at the time, without a stopwatch, it felt slow (and I was driving aircooled VWs at the time) and I didn’t get a good feel for the handling, although being a loaner I didn’t push it. Only thing that did make a positive impression on me was what I perceived to be an exceptionally smooth ride, the last thing I was looking for!
My limited experiences aside, this is an absolutely seminal car to come out of Japan at that era. Datsun hit a home run with this the the original Z car, which used the same engine with another 2 cylinders, and while they’ve had some good cars, in the more recent 50+ years they’ve never had another car generate this level of enthusiasm either on the street or in reviews. Seems like they decided to chase Toyota rather than do anything original. They caught the genie in the bottle, then just as quickly lost it.
My mixed feelings aside, they’ve also had spectacular success in racing, more than any other Japanese car I can remember. And to me that does say something about them, in a good way.
This immaculately repainted wagon in my neighbourhood is an eye-catcher. Not convinced about the wheels…
Drove one back in ’72. Quality was low compared to VW. Over-steered almost as much as the early beetles. Not impressed. Never owned a Japanese car since.
I recall the 510 started getting attention when they started beating BMWs and Alfas in SCCA racing, with their factory-supported team winning the Trans Am Series in ’70 and ’71.