Every so often a special car appears in the American market, a car that not only sells well in its chosen market niche, but over a period of time, is discovered by enthusiast groups outside the automotive mainstream. This interest extends the lives of these special cars to the point that they become cult favorites with an infinite lifespan – think pre-World War II Fords and mid-fifties Chevrolets. Amazingly, the Datsun 510, after selling well in its economy car niche, was adopted by racers and tuners to become a racing champion, as well as a cult car classic.
The 510 – Datsun’s first sales success in the U.S.
The Datsun 510 was introduced in the U.S. market in 1967 as a 1968 model. Initially offered as only a four-door sedan, the lineup was soon expanded to include a five-door station wagon and a two-door sedan. Offering pleasant styling, a roomy interior, and features usually found only on cars costing more than twice as much, the 510 made an immediate impression on buyers and the ever-increasing sales kept Datsun dealers happy. The 1.6 liter, four-cylinder, single overhead cam engine produced 96 horsepower, enough to give the 2,100 pound 510 a zero to sixty time of 14.5 seconds, a top speed of 100 mph, and a quarter-mile time of 19 seconds with a terminal velocity of 70 mph. Not earth-shaking performance, but not bad for a small economy car.
Adding to the driving enjoyment were front disc brakes and a suspension that promoted spirited driving. Unlike other inexpensive economy cars, the 510 featured a MacPherson strut front suspension and an independent semi-trailing arm suspension at the rear. Now, if a 1.6 liter SOHC engine, four-speed transmission, independent rear suspension, and front disc brakes sounds suspiciously like a contemporary BMW1600-2, it’s no accident. The BMW 1600-2 was Datsun’s target car when developing the 510, but at a price of less than half that of the BMW. The Datsuns also came standard with 2-speed windshield wipers, whitewall tires, full wheel covers, backup lights, an engine compartment light and a locking gas cap. It wasn’t long before the 510 became known as the “poor man’s BMW” – a title that suited Datsun just fine. It also suited American buyers, as 40,000 510s were sold in the first year.
Mr. K’s campaign to make the 510 a special car
Mr. Yutaka Katayama, or Mr. K as he became affectionately known, was the first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A., and it was his vigorous campaign within Nissan that made the 510 something special, not just another boring, cheap economy car. In the early sixties, Mr. K personally toured the U.S. from coast to coast and every place in between to establish a Datsun dealer network, acquiring a deep understanding of American driving habits along the way. He knew that unless the new 510 was fun to drive in addition to being economical to operate, it wouldn’t stand a chance of succeeding in the American market. He was determined that it wouldn’t meet the same fate as Datsun’s previous entries, the 310 and the 410 “Bluebirds,” both of which failed in the U.S. market.
Mr. K had a reputation within Nissan as a fighter who was not afraid to voice his opinions, even when they differed from those above him in the corporate hierarchy. This reputation was reinforced by his many letters and telephone calls to Nissan from his California office during the design of the 510, pushing for a car that had engineering features that made it fun to drive. The engine to be used in the 510 was a particularly hard-fought battle between Mr. K and Nissan headquarters. Nissan wanted to use a 1300 cc engine, which Mr. K recognized as lacking adequate power for U.S. drivers. Mr. K wanted the 1600 cc SOHC powerplant, but his requests kept falling on deaf ears. Mr. K eventually found an ally in Seiichi Matsumura, a new upper echelon Nissan executive, who listened to Mr. K’s arguments for the 1600 cc engine. Matsumura requested that Mr. K write an official memo for Mr. Matsumura’s signature, and he would personally present it to Nissan’s board. The board agreed to authorize the larger engine, but initially only for the U.S. market. Mr. K’s perseverance had carried the day!
The Datsun 510 becomes a road racing champion
Mr. K was aware of the role of successful racing competition in establishing a presence in the automotive world and helping to sell more cars. He established the Datsun Competition Department in 1969 to help private racing teams obtain and prepare Datsun cars for racing. The support of the competition department was instrumental in the racing successes of Peter Brock’s Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) team on the west coast and Bob Sharp’s racing team on the east coast with the Datsun 1600 and the Datsun 2000 roadsters, and the new Datsun 240Z. However, while the 510 was a fun-to-drive road car, it was not a winning race car as it came from the factory. Car and Driver magazine conducted a track comparison of nine economy sedans eligible for the Sports Car Club of America’s showroom stock racing class and ranked the 510 in fourth place. Clearly, the 510 was not going to be a winner in a class that did not permit any racing modifications.
But when the highly successful Trans Am racing series added a new racing class for cars with engines under 2.5 liters for 1971, Datsun gave BRE the task of modifying two 510 sedans to meet the new Trans Am regulations. Andrew Golseth recently interviewed former BRE driver John Morton for Petrolicious and asked him, “What made the 510 such a good racing platform?” John replied, “The chassis layout is similar to the BMW 2002 and the engine was more capable in terms of horsepower/cu. in. It was a simple engine that was well-designed and made lots of power, and the chassis, with some slight modifications, could be made to handle excellently. Plus it was relatively light.”
In its first time out in serious competition against cars with bona fide racing pedigrees, car number 46 with John Morton at the wheel qualified on the pole position and brought home the first place trophy. It was an auspicious beginning to a racing career that saw John Morton and number 46 become the Under 2.5 Trans Am Champions for 1971 and 1972. All told, in two years of racing, John raced number 46 nineteen times, took sixteen pole positions and won twelve races. Looking back, John Morton said in his interview, “I honestly didn’t think it would be very competitive because it was basically the derivative of a cheap economy car up against much more pedigreed cars. We got pole position every race in 1971, but it was after that first race we realized we really had something.”
The 510 becomes a tuner cult classic
The last year for the 510 was 1973, but neither its replacement, the 610, nor another Datsun model called the 510 built in 1980 and 1981, captured the fascination of the American car market like the original 510. Even after production ceased, the original 510 was not forgotten by diehard car fans and is generally considered to have been the impetus for the “tuner revolution” with import sedans. Like classic hot rods, the 510 was a simple car that was easily modified with many parts readily available from other Nissan models, such as engines and transmissions that would fit right in the 510. The engine bay of the 510 was big enough to accommodate a variety of engines from Nissan and other manufacturers, giving free reign to a creative owner’s imagination.
Today, the Datsun 510 is still the passionate focus of groups and car clubs around the world with online forums, regional get-togethers, and group tours to keep everyone tuned in. Such enthusiasts refer to themselves as “Dimers” and hold May 10th (5/10) as the special day to celebrate the 510, the little economy car that Mr. K successfully fought so hard and so long to give a heart and soul.
Ate Up With Motor – https://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/datsun-510-yutaka-katayama/
The Dime Quarterly – http://dimequarterly.blogspot.com/
The Truth About Cars – http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/12/curbside-classic-1970-datsun-510-bluebird1600/
Datsun History – http://www.datsunhistory.com/510history1.html
Motor Trend – http://www.motortrend.com/news/c12-0606-1973-datsun-510/
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datsun_510