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.
By the mid ’60s, Nissan finally had the means to build the car Katayama wanted. In 1966, it acquired the automaker Prince, and on top of its Skyline and Gloria lines (which Nissan would assimilate with great success), it also gained the company’s expertise in overhead-cam engines and unibody construction techniques. With these new capabilities, Nissan was now able to mass-produce an affordable model with engineering that was previously reserved for far more expensive cars.
The 510 would have a MacPherson strut suspension up front (like BMWs and the Porsche 911), and independent rear suspension, front disc brakes, and a 1.6 liter, 96 horsepower overhead-cam inline four — a 25 horse increase over the 410. Transmission options were a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic. And the cute, soft edges of the outgoing car were replaced by a crisp, sharp-edged unibody design that stood out amid the Coke-bottle shapes of the late ’60s. Bucket seats were standard, as were amenities like full carpeting, thin whitewall tires, and undercoating — all big deals for an economy car in the 1960s.
Almost immediately, it was a hit. Available as a coupe, sedan, and wagon (though wagons had a solid rear axle and leaf springs), Datsun’s sales began to skyrocket. The 510 cost between $1,900 and $2,200, only about $200 more than a Volkswagen Beetle, but had 43 more horsepower, a roomier interior, and a bigger trunk, on top of all of its advanced engineering. As the BMW 2002 became a critical darling of the era, gearheads began referring to the 510 as “the poor man’s BMW.”
The reputation was well-earned, but 510s couldn’t quite live up to that praise directly from the factory. As Motor Trend pointed out in a retrospective of the car:
While the 510’s running gear looked a lot like the 1600’s on paper, the Datsun’s bias-ply Toyo tires severely limited lateral grip, and, wearing only a small front anti-roll bar, it cornered with borderline nautical body roll. Car and Driver performed a track-comparison of nine economy sedans eligible for competition in an SCCA showroom-stock class that permitted no performance modifications and ranked the 510 fourth, citing difficulty braking into or accelerating out of hard corners due to wheel lift.
But Katayama knew Datsun was competing in an era of unchecked performance, and set up a competition department to offer factory-backed performance parts for the 510. Suspension, engine, and exterior upgrades soon became available directly from your local Datsun dealer, and aftermarket parts companies soon got in on the action too. In 1970, Katayama’s next great project — the Datsun 240Z — appeared, boosting the company’s profile even more in America (by the time the 510 and 240Z left production, Datsun’s U.S. sales had quadrupled since 1968). And to the delight of 510 tuners, many of the new sports car’s powertrain and suspension parts bolted directly into the 510.
Together, the 510 and 240Z created a one-two punch for Datsun that helped it stand out even in the middle of the muscle car era. In 1970, Pete Brock — designer of the Shelby Daytona Coupe — took the 510 racing. The five BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises) Datsun 510s took the SCCA Trans-Am under 2500cc class by storm, winning its class in 1971 and ’72. Decades later, Brock recalled the performance focus Katayama put on his economy car:
Mr. Katayama loved cars and he loved racing. He saw the connection between “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It was the beginning of a great friendship and a great relationship. I had his support to win and within Datsun he directed a comprehensive marketing campaign that connected our race wins with the production product. It was a successful combination that put Datsun on the map in the USA.
Elsewhere in the world, the 510 proved to be adaptable for other motorsports. Lifted 510s became successful rally cars on the international circuit, and stock car versions made a splash in Australia.
By 1973, looming safety and emissions mandates in America spelled the end for the 510. It was then replaced by the 610, but with its softer styling and emphasis on comfort, it lacked many of the performance qualities that made its predecessor so special. But the specter of the 510 has lingered over Nissan ever since. In 1993, it released the Sentra SE-R, a two-door performance version of its entry level compact. With its low price, great powertrain, strong performance, and boxy styling, it garnered comparisons to the 510, and despite being front-wheel drive (the 510 was rear-wheel), largely lived up to its legacy.
In 2013, Nissan unveiled the IDx concept, a compact, boxy, rear-wheel drive car that was easily tunable and geared toward performance. Unfortunately, Nissan concluded that there wasn’t enough of a market to build the car, but judging from the disappointment that came from the automotive community after the company’s decision, we think it may have been mistaken.
There’s a first for everything, and in 1968, the 510 was the first Japanese compact that looked good, drove great, and earned the respect of gearheads in America. And its legacy is strong; it’s a bona-fide classic now, but even before most Japanese cars were considered to be worth saving, it always commanded respect. Now, we just hope Nissan can build a true modern-day successor to it. It should start with the IDx. That concept still looks good.
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