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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.