In 1968, Datsun launched a good-looking compact car in the U.S. that was both affordable and fun to drive. Believe it or not, this was a radical notion back then: This was an era when Japanese cars still had a certain kind of stigma to them, the way Korean cars did in the ’80s and ’90s, and why Chinese automakers haven’t made any headway in the states. But the Datsun 510 seemed immune to it. It was that rare car that managed to innovate without being inaccessible. It was cheap and cheerful, but could be turned into a world-class driver’s car with very little effort. In its day, it developed a strong cult following, and helped to make Datsun one of the first Japanese brands to break through in America. Today, it’s a legend.
The year the 510 was introduced, Datsun was America’s fastest growing import brand, but it had yet to sell more than 50,000 cars a year — a drop in the bucket compared to Volkswagen’s 400,000-plus 1967 sales. It had arrived in America in 1958, and largely spent its first five years struggling to find a foothold. According to legend, Nissan’s leadership initially made the decision to sell cars as Datsuns in the U.S. in case it failed. That way, it could try again further down the line and not have the Nissan name be tarnished.
But Nissan/Datsun had Yutaka Katayama, the president of Nissan USA, and the dyed-in-the-wool gearhead had his fingers on the pulse of what American buyers wanted. Datsun’s first exported cars were warmed-over versions of British Austins that were so small and underpowered that they couldn’t keep up with America’s V8-powered traffic on its growing highway system. The pretty Pininfarina-designed 410 had made a small impact, but it was still small and underpowered by U.S. standards. Katayama believed the 410 replacement should be simple, engaging, and sporty, arguing that BMW was able to do this successfully in Germany with its Neue Klasse cars. Nissan took to his suggestions, and using a BMW 1600 as a template, went to work on its next car.