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