Hooniversity: Datsun 510 Edition

Still beautiful, after all these years.
Still beautiful, after all these years.

There’s a reason Italian food is so popular; be it pizza joints, pasta houses, ready-made dishes or jars of sauces, it’s an easy dish to make in some form or other, and pretty much no matter what you do to it, it’s gonna taste pretty good. However it came about, it’s the sort of food that follows such a simple formula that it’s easily adapted, easily changed, and easily perfected according to your particular taste.

And why is that? Well, it just makes sense. The basic formula that makes up every dish — tomatoes, cheese and spices — has a strong flavour that defines everything else. From there, you can add any meat you want, any other vegetables, any noodles, even wines or seasonings, and they’ll only serve a complimentary role. They don’t define the dish, they only add to it.

Damn, I’m making myself hungry.

So why is any of this relevant to today’s Hooniversity lesson? Simple. The Datsun 510 is the automotive equivalent of Italian food.

Looked pretty unassuming, didn't it?
Looked pretty unassuming, didn't it?

I expect most of you are looking at this, wondering if I’ve been sampling a little bit of grappa. Well, it wasn’t grappa, but let me back up and give you some history, and maybe it will all make sense.

In 1966, Nissan, maker of the Datsun brand, acquired a smaller car manufacturer called Prince, who are perhaps most famous for building a particular performance coupe that has lived on in various guises ever since, the Skyline. While the Skyline was the most significant piece of the Prince acquisition, at least in terms of motoring history, it’s not, surprisingly, the piece that had the most impact. That piece was from Mercedes-Benz.

Wait, what? Mercedes-Benz? This is getting confusing. Bear with me, class, it will all make sense shortly.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, Prince had licensed Mercedes-Benz’ excellent 4- and 6-cylinder engine designs for their own use. As they used them, they gradually made their own tweaks to the design, upgrading a bit here, simplifying another bit there. Eventually, by the time Prince was acquired by Nissan in 1966, the engine design was largely their own, and Mercedes no longer required them to license the engines. And the engines were excellent. But more on that later.

It's one of those cars that actually looks better as it gets older.
It's one of those cars that actually looks better as it gets older.

Prince’s design team was largely folded into the Nissan house en masse, including the senior management. Their work had been very good, and was a big portion of the reason Nissan had been so interested in the first place. So to that end, they were given something of a free reign when it came time, in 1968, to design a compact car that would be appropriate for the domestic market, but also suitable to break into the extremely lucrative American market.

This new team was comprised of car enthusiasts, by most accounts. They were people who loved cars, who understood cars, and who refused to allow their tastes to be coloured by the latest trend. So when it came time for them to design a car that must meet the very different requirements of two very different markets, they looked at car-makers around the world for an inspiration. The manufacturer they settled on was BMW.

datsun 510 4
Mmm, miniature-wagony-goodness.

At the time, BMW was barely more than a boutique manufacturer. They made exceptionally good cars, but they were not widely known, and not hugely popular. Still, their engineering was excellent, and their prices reflected it. When the designers were looking for inspiration, they seized upon the then-new BMW 1600 — a car which would become the legendary BMW 2002. The Nissan designers were thoroughly impressed with this car, but astonished at the high price-tag. They wondered if they could create something similar.

Now, automotive history is replete with stories like this. A lower-end automaker makes a cheaper copy of an expensive car, and it looks similar, costs 1/3 the price, and is really 1/3 as good. This is not the case with Nissan. Their designers analyzed the car to death. They learned everything they could about it. They broke it down into its component parts, not only in a mechanical sense, but in the sense of its performance and driving experience as well. They learned, like true car-guys would, what made the car awesome. And then they headed home, and set to work.

Simple or elaborate, it just always looks right.
Simple or elaborate, it just always looks right.

Now, as I’ve said before, Nissan, in their purchase of Prince, had acquired an excellent series of engines, referred to as the L-series. These were the Mercedes-based engines I referred to earlier. They were light, reasonably powerful, reasonably efficient, and cheap to manufacture. But more important, they were adaptable. Everything about them was designed to be interchangeable, with nothing bespoke about any particular version. So with nothing more complicated than the swapping of a few parts, the engines could be varied from one designed for low-end torque, to one for high-end horsepower, all the way to a diesel version. This philosophy, combined with everything learned from the BMW, formed the backbone of the new car.

The designers at Datsun adored the little BMW, but it simply didn’t give them everything they needed. They weren’t building just a performance coupe, they were building an entire line of cars. So they took each of the elements of the BMW that made it so good, and refined it to a point where it became a component of the new car. Once that was done, they were able to scale it up or down, move it, change it, adapt it however they saw fit until it was incorporated in each different body style.

The 510 was praised as looking like a minature muscle car. Even in wagon form. That's high praise, I'd say.
The 510 was praised as looking like a minature muscle car. Even in wagon form. That's high praise, I'd say.

The net result was a car that ended up looking very much like a 1600 or 2002; this was not, as many claimed at the time, due to a simple carbon-paper copying. It was due to a design philosophy that demanded similar specs, and produced similar results. The difference, however, was that the Datsun 510 — or “Bluebird” in Japan — was available in any form you’d like it. Coupe, hatchback, two-door sedan, four-door sedan and wagon, all were available, and all offered a car with few, if any, compromises. They had 5-speed transmissions and disc brakes available. And all, save the wagon, had four-wheel independent suspension — almost unheard of in its price category in the late 1960s.

So the Datsun 510 was a poor man’s BMW. This has been said many times, but it misses the larger point. In many ways — and it pains me to admit this, as the first car I learned to turn wrenches on was a ’72 2002 — the Datsun was actually a superior car. Why? Simple. It’s less expensive, and more adaptable.

Not only are they related, their parts are interchangeable. How friggin' cool is THAT!?
Not only are they related, their parts are interchangeable. How friggin' cool is THAT!?

As I said previously, Datsun designed the car to be easily flexible. Diesel or gasoline, sporty or torquey, whatever the need, it had to be able to be built, and built affordably. This philosophy proved so successful that it was continued for virtually their entire line throughout the 60’s and 70’s. As a result, the L-series of engines is one of the most customizable ever produced, and the 510 was just a logical extension of that engine. To that end, to the enthusiast today, there is a veritable smorgasbord of options available to anyone choosing to turn a 510 into a project. With virtually no modifications, a 510 can accept the engine, transmission, rear differential or suspension from any car, even including the legendary Datsun 280Z. Still not impressed? Datsun even looked at their competition, and standardized their design based on the things they were doing. So engine components from period vehicles from Honda and Toyota can also be swapped in, allowing even more customization.

The world is your oyster, my friend. Shuck away, shuck away.
The world is your oyster, my friend. Shuck away, shuck away.

In short, Datsun succeeded in designing a car that is a car-guy’s wet dream. It is light, at less than 2000 lbs. It is exceptionally nimble, with a rigid body and fantastic balance. It is affordable, customizable, and reliable. And the performance potential extends only as far as your imagination. With its fantastic poise, there is virtually nothing you can ask of the car that it cannot, somehow, deliver.

So, then, this little car from Japan is, to the car-guy, the automotive equivalent of Italian food. It’s easy to make, easy to enjoy, and virtually impossible to get wrong. No matter what you do, it’s going to be good. I can’t think of many higher compliments to pay than that.

Special thanks to the Datsun 510 Club of British Columbia for a ton of great information and photos, and to jeremy! for jumping in and offering up his photo albums for me to leaf through. You are world class, man. World class.

47 Comments

  1. One of the best engine swaps that I have heard of for these is a Buick 215 V-8.
    Now all I need is a 510 and a wrecked Discovery.

  2. Here is one of the first cars that PL Newman raced. I think this was at a SCCA race in Pocono in '76. I built the distributor for this car (and several of his subsequent Datsuns) when I was working in the racing dept. at Mallory in the mid 70's. I wasn't aware of who it was for when I built it (it was sold to Smith Racing Engines), but saw the coverage in Autoweek (in the newspaper days) and made the connection. We bonused him quite a few freebies in the early days, before he connected with Brock, in exchange for a prominently displayed sticker.

  3. As I said on a previous post, I learn something new here everyday. This would look good parked next to the Grand National!

  4. I’d only recently noticed these cars’ existence, and this article makes me want one – well done!

  5. The 510 is a great project platform with immense hoon potential. I’ll take mine with an SR20-det swap please. Comedian Adam Carolla, a big vintage Datsun fan, has done a very nice BRE Racing 510 clone like the original seen in the second picture above.
    For future consideration would love to see an entry on the BRE Racing. Vintage Datsuns are great!!

  6. These are about as common as rocking horse poop here in the upper Midwest thanks to our winter practice of carpet bombing the roads with CaCl…
    I have the blue 510 Matchbox car on my desk. Always thought the design of these epitomized the Japanese approach – simple, clean edges and squared off corners, emphasis on function over form, etc.
    Great article!

  7. Thank you, you have brought joy and sunshine to my day.
    “Why do birds suddenly appear
    Every time you are near?
    Just like me, they long to be
    Close to you.”

  8. I was just wandering through Vintage Racer’s photos last night and pointed out to my the 250 TR prototipo pictured on track in front of… a 510.
    Knowing that the 510 isn’t a particularly large car makes one realize just how tiny the 250 TR is.

  9. I have a black on black Datsun 510 sitting on some BBS wheels. Sadly, it’s a toy I got in a Japanese hobby store.

  10. This is one of few cars that when looking for one, I’d gravitate toward a pre-molested example. That way I’d have no qualms about doing whatever modifications to it that I wished, and they do take well to modifications.
    Your article has bumped the little 510 higher on my list of wants.

  11. Wonderful write up. Last 510 I saw on the track unfortunately had a issue going into the Kink at Road America. The whole paddock area stopped what they where doing as that fine little car came in on a stretcher. It was weird to see everyone so concerned if the car was savable. That was when I knew there was something special about them and decided to learn a little about them.
    Before that, I had always looked at them as a nice looking foreign car, nothing more.

    1. They really were excellent cars, built by car guys. I’ve driven both the 510 and the 2002 extensively… and I hate to admit it, but I kinda prefer the 510.

  12. 510’s made (and still make) wicked track and rally cars.
    Hans Hermann and his 1970 Safari Rally winning Datsun Bluebird SSS (same car/different name)
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3218/3152038720_b48b8c8c97_o.jpg
    John Morton sets his 510’s sights on a certain Mr Kwech and his Alfa Romeo
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3570/3386395088_4889073e0e_o.jpg
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3418/3831056431_6c9c7acc63_o.jpg
    Bobby Allison, and his BRE prepped 510
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3294/3831056433_ea18a84d74_o.jpg

  13. Yellow… wagon… must have… yellow… wagon.
    Seriously though, great info, Dearthair. Even though it’s well know to most car guys that this is a poor man’s 2002, I had no idea that it was patterned after the legendary Bimmer. One of the cars on my list of wants is a ’60-something Fairlady Roadster, I love those early Datsuns.

  14. Waaay back when I was in high school, a friend and auto shop classmate and I had a friendly rivalry. My ride at the time was a ’67 Alfa Guilia Super and his was a nicely tuned 510. We always gave each other no end of sh*t. Him (justifiably) tweeking me about the seemingly endless hours I spent just keeping the Alfa on the road and me (unjustifiably) giving him a hard time about driving such an unsophisticated, poseur of a performance ride. We raced each other several times through local twisties, swapping victories along the way. The two cars (and their drivers) were quite evenly matched. While he had unveiled contempt for my “pretentious” Italian whip, I secretly loved his car (although I never admitted it to him).
    A great car deserves an equally great write up and you most certainly delivered, Dearthair. Thanks for that!

    1. Similarly, I had a group of friends like that. One friend had a day-glow yellow BMW 2002, another had a Datsun 510. I had a SuperBeetle and a Rambler Classic. Another had an Impala, still another was creating a Hurst Olds clone out of a Cutlass. I took a lot of shit and abuse for my vehicle choices, but I think all of us secretly envied each of the others for their respective cars.
      I’d bet money your friend had just as much envy for your Alfa as you had for his Datsun.

  15. I might actually have a degree if I had been taught by a prof like Dearthair…
    wait, no… too many keggers and cars to fix.

    1. I’ll have you know I very seldom hosted keggers. Well… a few, but it was usually more likely to be hard liquors and cigars.

  16. Anyone know if it’s possible to fit a 3 rotor Mazda engine in the engine bay (without too much hassle)?

    1. You could almost fit a 3 rotor Mazda engine in a shoebox, couldn’t you?

  17. I never knew much about the 510 until I was introduced to the fine hoons we have here. After doing some research on the 510 I can unequivocally say I would love to have one. In fact, behind British steel and Lucas smoke, the 510 is on my mental list of desirous project cars.
    Good job on the article, Dearthair. Very well written, informative, and pictorially pr0n-like.

  18. HPI makes a 510 body for their relatively new Cup Car chassis (radio control). I wanted one badly, but I crash a lot and that’s way too nice to bang up.

  19. When I was a little kid, my mom’s third husband got sick and tired of Porsches and VWs. He had bought the ’71 VW Bug for a driver while the Porsche 912 got fixed in the shop (he was an ‘engineer’ who was too wuss to turn his own wrenches). He got rid of the 912, I think he traded it at Bob Brock’s Datsun dealership in Connecticut for a 510 wagon. I remember sitting on said stepdad’s lap steering that racing green wagon. First car I ever “drove.” Mom, being a hoon, schooled me in driving a four speed while I observed her going through the gears. Yeah, I remember that car being put through its paces. Later, I read a book by the name of “The Stainless Steel Carrot,” published in the Seventies, about a racer sponsored by Brock Racing working his way up through 510’s to F1. Great reading, and I couldn’t believe that shitbox of a car we had was racing material. I think our next wagon was a ’71 Pontiac Safari. I remember that ’71 510, and how we kids broke the door handles and window cranks. We should have had more respect.

  20. Will the 510 ever age? No, seriously? I can spend an entire day doing nothing but just looking at that thing.
    An excellent article BTW. Wish most of my school classes were this interesting..

  21. i have a 78 510 3dr. still with the L20b 2liter engine and dog leg 5sp. manual it has little amounts of high end power but the low end torque is ridiculous i rarely have to downshift on steep hills. its a good project car id suggest one for anybody who wants a fun driving car with a bulletproof engine to last generations.

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