1972 Datsun 510
1972 Datsun 510. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Japanese automotive industry, which had made mostly trucks before the Second World War, was anxious to get into building automobiles when peace came in 1945. To do so it had to repair its damaged plants, and begin building its automotive expertise.

Japan got into car building by assembling under licence such models as English Austin A40s and Hillman Minxes, and French Renaults. By the late 1950s it was gaining the expertise to begin engineering its own cars.

Japan was anxious to export cars, but the Toyota Toyopets and Datsun 1000s that they sent to the U.S. in the late 1950s were poorly suited to North American driving. So the Japanese engineers took ample notes and went home to set about improving them. Within a decade they had developed cars capable of challenging the all-conquering Volkswagen. One of the best of these was the Datsun 510.

The Datsun 510 arrived in 1968 and it was immediately evident that it was a car to be reckoned with. It was better in every way than the 410 model it replaced, and it signalled that Japan was getting ready to take on the world. Its advanced technology was often compared with the BMW 1600, although the 510 was a $2000 car, while the BMW was close to $3000. Competitive pricing and value for money would become a hallmark of Japanese cars.

The 510’s styling was angular, straightforward, and well proportioned, and not at all gimmicky. The interior was comfortable, although not lavish. The 510 came as a four-door, five-passenger sedan and a station wagon. The sedan had a four-wheel independent suspension, an advanced feature for a front-engined car in this class. It used MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms and coil springs at the rear, a la BMW, Mercedes and others. The wagon’s rear suspension was a solid axle on longitudinal leaf springs. Brakes were discs front and drum rear.

Unit construction gave the 510 good interior space while weighing a reasonable 966 kg (2,130 lb). A welcome feature was flow-through ventilation in which fresh air entered the cowl vent ahead of the windshield and exited through small grilles in the rear pillars.

The 510 was quite compact, with a 2,421 mm (95.1 in.) wheelbase, and measuring just 4,120 mm (162.2 in.) long overall. These dimensions were close to the sales-leading Volkswagen Beetle, although the 510 was some 104 kg (230 lb) heavier.

Under the hood was the 510’s ace, an all-new, 1,595 cc, inline four cylinder engine with a chain-driven single overhead camshaft and a sturdy five main bearing crankshaft. This 1.6-litre four developed 96 horsepower, which according to Road & Track magazine (3/68), sprinted the 510 from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 13.5 seconds, and propelled it to a top speed of 158 km/h (98 mph). This was excellent small car performance in an era when the top selling small car, the Volkswagen Beetle, took over 22 seconds to reach 96 (60), and could only struggle up to 126 km/h (70 mph).

The 510’s front engine drove the rear wheels through an all- synchromesh four-speed manual transmission, or an optional three- speed automatic.

It soon became apparent that the 510’s combination of performance, handling and toughness – that overhead cam engine, all independent suspension, fully synchronized four-speed, and front disc brakes – made it an ideal foundation for a very competitive race/rally car.

The 510 responded well to modification, and was soon mopping up at rallies and sedan races all over the continent. No less a celebrity than actor Paul Newman raced one. To aid the cause a high performance 510 SSS model was developed for competition.

The 510’s overhead cam four proved so durable that Datsun added two cylinders, turning it into the legendary Datsun 240Z’s six. The 240Z engine had the same bore and stroke as the 510, and also used the same connecting rods, pistons, valves and other parts.

Nissan built the original 510 for five years, producing over 350,000 of them. The name was resurrected in 1978 by a new 510, but it didn’t seem to have the magic of the original.

The first Datsun 510, along with cars like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, were the signal to the world that the Japanese were on the march. Detroit didn’t heed the warning at first, but the two oil crises of the 1970s that thrust small cars to the fore, soon proved the seriousness of the threat.

That first Datsun 510 is remembered fondly by former owners, whether racers, rallyists, or just commuters, as an economical and durable car. It will be remembered by Nissan as the car that really launched them onto the world’s automotive stage.

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