1960 Datsun pickup truck
1960 Datsun pickup truck . Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Although the Japanese Datsun name, product of the Nissan Motor Company, dated back to 1932 (it had been Dat before that since 1914) it didn’t appear in North America until 1958 when the first Datsun 1000s were imported into California.

They were sturdy little cars, although plain and basic, and before they could be competitive in the American market they would need some modernizing and upgrading in such areas as power and contemporary styling. Executives in Japan were slow to accept this, feeling that functional transportation was more important then appearance. But at the strong urging of Nissan’s American managers and dealers, head office gradually relented and engineers and stylists began Americanizing their cars.

In 1959, shortly after Datsun cars came, Datsun small pickup trucks began arriving. They had been exhibited at the 1958 Los Angeles Show, and a good response encouraged importing. Nissan was no stranger to light trucks, having marketed them before and after the Second World War. In fact from 1926 to 1931 Nissan made only trucks. Light commercial vehicle production began in 1933.

Like Datsun cars, their pickup was a modest, sturdy, straightforward design with a high-mounted cargo box and exposed door hinges. But style and flash weren’t so important in trucks because pickup buyers were more interested in durability, price and economy.

Datsun’s half-ton pickups were soon selling briskly in America based on owner satisfaction and word-of-mouth recommendations. During some years in the 1960s, they outsold Datsun cars, and for much of the first decade the popularity of Datsun pickups on the West Coast was a major factor in establishing Nissan Motor Corporation, U.S.A., which was formed in 1960 as a viable presence in the United States. In daily service the compact Japanese pickup proved to be a little workhorse, and was aided by the fact that it had the market cornered; Detroit didn’t have a competitor.

Datsun pickup trucks soon benefited from being considerably upgraded from their earlier designs. The solid front axle and leaf springs were replaced by independent suspension with coil springs (they would later go to front torsion bars). Power came from a 998-cc, 37-horsepower, overhead valve, inline four that had been created by de-stroking the British Motor Corporation B-series engine. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed column shifted transmission.

Realizing that their pickup would benefit from more power, the engine displacement was soon upgraded to 1.2 litres. This made it even more popular, and in spite of Toyota and Mazda now also being in the small pickup market, Datsun pickups held sales superiority for about a decade.

The growth of the compact truck segment would receive a boost from the two oil crises of the 1970s. American manufacturers joined the mini pickup market in the early 1970s, but theirs were not built in the United States. Instead, Ford made a deal with Japan’s Toyo Kogyo to import the Mazda B2000 which it sold as the Ford Courier. General Motors reached out to Japan for the small Isuzu pickup which, with appropriate badging and trim, they sold as the Chevrolet LUV. A little later Chrysler would import a Mitsubishi pickup and market it as the Dodge Ram D-50.

It would take until the early 1980s before the American manufacturers produced their own home-grown mini pickups, the Chevrolet S10, GMC S15 and Ford Ranger. Dodge took a different tack with its Dodge Rampage, a slick, front-wheel drive, sedan-truck derived from the Dodge Omni sub-compact car. It was the same path followed by Volkswagen with their Rabbit-based sedan-pickup.

Over the years Nissan would expand its pickup offerings with roomier cabs, bigger, stronger boxes, longer wheelbases, more powerful engines, and four-wheel drive. Datsun pickups became popular enough to finally convince Nissan to manufacture this American perennial favourite in the U.S.A. Nissan was the first foreign company to make pickups in the U.S. A new plant was built in Smyrna, Tennessee, and Datsun pickups began rolling off the assembly line there in 1983. In 2003, Nissan (the company had changed its product names to Nissans with its 1983 models) produced its first full size pickup, the Titan, at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi.

The Datsun pickup started a mini-truck revolution when it landed here in the late 1950s, a trend that is still with us today – although the inevitable growth has made them bigger and more powerful.

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