The Strange Odyssey of Yutaka Katayama: The Datsun 510 and the Rise of Japanese Cars in America

Today, there are quite a few American buyers who have never purchased a domestic-brand car, and who are as loyal to Toyota or Honda as a previous generation was to Ford or Chevrolet. It was not always so; Toyota began importing cars to America in 1957, Nissan in 1958, but in the early years, Japanese cars were rarer in most parts of the U.S. than Roll-Royces or Ferraris. When did the tide turn? Many point to the 1970s and the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, but a major turning point came with the 1968 debut of the Datsun 510. This is the story of the 1968-1972 Datsun 510 and of the man most responsible for its creation: Yutaka Katayama.
1971 Datsun 510 badge

YUTAKA KATAYAMA

In 1960, a young Nissan executive named Yutaka Katayama came to California to compile a marketing report on the company’s fledgling U.S. operations. Katayama was a rich kid from Japan’s Saitama province who had missed military service in the war because of bad eyesight. Unlike many auto executives on either side of the Pacific, he was also an automotive enthusiast. Katayama had founded the first sports car club in postwar Japan, and prior to joining Nissan in the 1950s, he had contemplated starting his own car company. He still dreamed of creating his own small sports car.

Katayama was not very happy at Nissan, where he had until recently been manager of advertising. Nissan was an extremely conservative company even by Japanese standards, driven in that era more by cronyism than any love of cars. Katayama had become frustrated with the company’s stodgy management, which considered him something of a rebel. He had managed to antagonize several members of the company’s management union, making himself a variety of powerful enemies; union loyalists tended to have favored positions whether they were qualified for them or not. Although Katayama was an enthusiastic and inventive promoter, it would be fair to say that his talents were not widely appreciated by the home office.

Two years earlier, Katayama’s greatest promotional achievement had nearly destroyed his career. In 1958, he persuaded Nissan management to let him enter two factory teams in the Australian Mobilgas Trial rally. Katayama had thought the grueling, 10,000-mile (16,000 km) rally would be a good showcase for Nissan’s small Datsun 210 sedan, which was underpowered, but rugged and dependable. Nissan management had been extremely hostile to the idea, fearing international humiliation if the Nissan teams lost. It was only through considerable browbeating that Katayama got his cars and his drivers — all of them union loyalists with no competition experience.

Despite those obstacles, and the daunting challenge of the rally itself, Katayama managed to forge his unenthusiastic drivers into a cohesive team and lead them to victory. One of the two Datsun cars won its class, while the other achieved a credible fourth place. The rally earned Nissan a good deal of favorable international publicity and briefly made Katayama a national hero in Japan.

Like a general who wins a popular but politically inconvenient victory, Katayama returned to a chilly welcome from Nissan management. Had he been better-connected politically, the company might have promoted him or rewarded him with some attractive new assignment, but instead he found himself in limbo. He had not been fired, but since he’d been gone for some time, his previous role had been reassigned.

The company finally decided to exile Katayama to the United States, where Nissan was then beginning a very tentative export operation. His initial task was to study the U.S. market, which at that time was new territory for Nissan in every sense of that term; the company had sold fewer than 100 cars in the U.S. in 1958, their first year in the States, and two years later they still had yet to sell their 2,000th car. It was not an assignment that most better-connected Nissan executives would have wanted, so it was an ideal way to dispense with Katayama, keeping him out of sight and out of mind on a low-priority task that seemed likely to fail anyway.

MR. K

The first Nissan car to be sold in the U.S. was the PL210, a left-hand-drive version of the 210. By American standards, it was mechanically sturdy and fuel-efficient, but also noisy, clumsy, and agonizingly slow. Its 988 cc (60 cu. in.) engine had only 37 horsepower (28 kW), dooming it to be forever challenged by steep hills. Its brakes weren’t much either, although American cars of the time certainly had nothing to brag about in that department. In all, the PL210 was ill-suited for American roads and driving habits, so even Nissan’s few U.S. dealers were disdainful of it.

The subsequent Datsun 310, launched in 1959 and known in Japan as Datsun Bluebird, was a little bit better, but still not a compelling proposition for American buyers. By the time it arrived, American buyers looking for a frugal and practical small car had many alternatives, including the new Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Plymouth Valiant. Those six-cylinder compacts weren’t as thrifty as the Datsun or its small, European peers, but they had the advantage of familiar nameplates and a far more extensive dealer network. (We don’t know why Nissan didn’t create a LHD version of its bigger Cedric sedan, which would still have been a compact by U.S. standards, but had a bigger, 1,488 cc (91 cu. in.) engine and better performance.)

Datsun 310 front 3q view © 2006 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The early-sixties Datsun Bluebird 310 is 153.9 inches (3,910 mm) long on an 89.8-inch (2,280mm) wheelbase. Its engine was up to 1,189 cc (73 cu. in.) and a whopping 48 gross horsepower (36 kW) — better than its 210 predecessor, but still rather underpowered for American roads. The evolutionary 311 benefited from a synchronized low gear, helpful with the weak-willed engine. (Photo: “Datsun Bluebird (310) 001” © 2006 天然ガス (Tennen-Gas); resized 2008 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Considering Nissan’s conservatism and fears of humiliation, it’s entirely possible that the company would have withdrawn in quiet disgrace from America by the mid-sixties had it not been for Katayama and his colleague Soichi Kawazoe, an engineer who had previously been sent to the U.S. to help east coast Datsun dealers establish their service departments. Both Kawazoe and Katayama saw great opportunity in the U.S. market and argued that Nissan should give it greater attention.

In September 1960, Nissan established its own U.S. distribution subsidiary, Nissan Motor Corporation USA (NMC-USA), with headquarters in California and New Jersey. Katayama was named vice president of the western region while Kawazoe led the east. Over the next few years, they built up Datsun’s U.S. dealer network and pushed for products better suited to American roads and tastes. Katayama, in particular, made a point of befriending the company’s development engineers, some of whom (particularly the younger engineers) shared his enthusiasm for sporty cars.

Unlike many of his contemporary Japanese peers, who found the U.S. alien and intimidating, Katayama liked America and Americans, with whom he quickly ingratiated himself. He soon became affectionately known as “Mr. K,” even to the traffic cops who issued him many speeding tickets. The home office didn’t necessarily appreciate this talent — for Japanese executives who considered gaijin uncouth, it was no doubt a somewhat distasteful virtue — but it was nonetheless valuable. In 1965, Katayama was made the president of NMC-USA, which had previously been led by an executive in Japan.

U.S. Datsun sales had improved at a healthy rate, but that was due in large part to the success of Datsun’s compact pickup trucks, which were unpretentious but economical and rugged little workhorses with few direct rivals. The passenger cars were a tougher sell, having been designed for the dictates of the Japanese market, which at the time had narrow roads, speed limits of 40 mph (65 km/h) or less, high fuel prices, and vehicle taxes that kept cars and engines small. Since the export business was so small, Nissan was very reluctant to invest development resources in export-specific engines or products or even to address well-known and obvious mechanical shortcomings like hard winter starting. Katayama and Kawazoe had established the foundations of a strong U.S. organization, but they still lacked a credible product to sell.

THE BMW 1602

In the early sixties, few Americans expected much from small, cheap, imported sedans beyond low price and good fuel economy; cars like the original Mini Cooper or Lotus Cortina hadn’t made much impression in the U.S. Thus, the arrival in 1966 of the compact BMW 1600-2 was something of a shock. The 1600-2 (or 1602) was a shorter, cheaper version of BMW’s mid-size “New Class” sedan of 1963 vintage. The smaller car featured a 1,573 cc (97 cu. in.) SOHC four-cylinder engine; an all-synchro four-speed transmission; front disc brakes; and fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back.

This was fairly advanced hardware for the time and it paid dividends in performance. Compared to contemporary muscle cars, the 1602’s performance (0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 11–12 seconds, a top speed of around 100 mph (161 km/h)) was unexceptional, but it rivaled many contemporary V8-powered American sedans while also returning up to 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km). Better still, with a base price starting at $2,477 POE New York, the 1602 wasn’t much more expensive than a six-cylinder Ford Mustang, which was slower, thirstier, and clumsier. The BMW was small but roomy, peppy but economical, and built with typically German thoroughness.

The 1602 immediately won rave reviews from car magazines like Car and Driver, which anointed it the world’s best-driving compact sedan. The 1602’s market penetration was ultimately limited by a smallish dealer network and a series of currency revaluations that pushed its price out of the bargain realm, but it raised the bar for what an affordable compact sedan could be.

BMW 1602 front
The BMW 1602. (Photo: “Bmw1602 f” © 2009 no-color; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2009 by Aaron Severson)

The BMW 1602 won many fans among enthusiasts, including Yutaka Katayama. Not only did Katayama like the BMW — which was definitely his kind of car — he saw it as an achievable goal. Before, Japanese automakers had generally modeled their efforts on the small British sedans of the previous decade. Now, Katayama lobbied to make the compact Bavarian their new target.

BLUEBIRD’S FIFTH SYMPHONY: THE DATSUN 510

In the early sixties, Katayama might just as well have asked the home office to build him his own aircraft carrier; the response would likely have been the same. However, the Japanese market was also evolving rapidly. When Katayama had gone to Australia, the Japanese auto industry was still focused primarily on compact trucks for commercial users, since few consumers had the money for a private car. By the mid-sixties, the domestic passenger car market was beginning to take off and was segmenting into distinct size/price classes.

In mid-1965, Nissan began work on the successor to the 410/411 Bluebird, which had replaced the earlier 310/311 in 1964. By that time, Nissan was preparing to launch a smaller car, the first Nissan Sunny, which freed the Bluebird to move upmarket as the company’s middle-class offering. (The larger Cedric would also grow, albeit bounded by the limits of the domestic small car tax class.) That move would allow the next-generation 510 Bluebird to be larger and more sophisticated, with bigger engines and more power.

The 510 was a departure from the 410 in a number of respects. The 510 was bigger — almost 5 inches (125 mm) longer and 2.8 inches (70 mm) wider on a 1.5-inch (40mm) longer wheelbase — and now had front disc brakes. Like the BMW, the 510 also had fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back. Unlike the 410, which had been designed by Pininfarina, the 510 was designed in-house by Teruo Uchino, who produced a crisp and tasteful shape that would not have looked out of place among the subcompact cars of a decade later.

The 510’s engine was the subject of a ferocious battle between Katayama and the home office. The next-generation Bluebird was to use the new OHC L-series four, but Japanese cars would be launched only with the 1,296 cc (79 cu. in.) L13 version, which was about the same size (albeit more powerful) than the 410/411’s outgoing J-series pushrod engine. Katayama recognized that a lack of adequate power had been the Achilles heel of U.S.-market Datsuns and insisted that export cars needed a standard engine of at least 1,600 cc (97 cu. in.).

Datsun 510 Bluebird SSS front 3q © 2006 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The general resemblance of the Datsun 510 to the BMW 1600 is pronounced — it’s a little shorter, but has similar proportions and packaging. This is a home-market Datsun 510 Bluebird SSS model, never sold in the U.S.; the main tip-off are the racing mirrors on the front fenders. SSS models shared the L16 engine of the standard 510 Bluebird, but had twin SU carbs and a hotter cam, giving 100 PS (74 kW) JIS. (Photo: “Datsun Bluebird Coupe (510) 001” © 2006 天然ガス (Tennen-Gas); resized 2010 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

At first, Katayama’s pleas went nowhere. There were plans for a slightly bigger L14 engine of 1,428 cc (87 cu. in.) displacement, but as far as the home office was concerned, that would be enough; in Japan, engines over 1.5 liters were taxed at a higher rate. However, Katayama found an ally in new executive Seiichi Matsumura, who had joined Nissan from Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In the spring of 1966, Matsumura agreed to present Katayama’s argument to the Nissan board under Matsumura’s own name (although it was not lost on anyone that the idea had come from Kayatama). The board finally, if reluctantly, agreed to authorize the bigger engine, initially offered only for export markets.

Datsun 510 Bluebird 1400 rear 3q © 2008 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Rear view of a Datsun 510 Bluebird. This is a Japanese-market 510 Bluebird 1400, with the 1,428 cc (87 cu. in.) engine. (Photo: “Datsun Bluebird 510 002” © 2008 天然ガス (Tennen-Gas); resized 2010 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Unported 3.0 license)

Like the L13 and L14, the bigger engine, known as the L16, was an inline-four with an iron block, aluminum head, and a single chain-driven overhead cam. It shared the same bore as the smaller engines, but had a longer stroke, bringing total displacement to 1,595 cc (97 cu. in.). The bigger displacement not only offered more power than the L13, but also significantly more torque. U.S. cars claimed 96 gross horsepower (72 kW) and 100 lb-ft (136 N-m), which gave the 510 performance not far off that of the BMW that had been its inspiration.

The 510 went on sale in Japan in August 1967 and arrived in export markets a few months later. Japanese cars were still called Bluebird, a name Katayama loathed, but export models were simply called “Datsun 1300” or “Datsun 1600.” Only the latter was offered in the U.S., although the smaller-engined model was also available in Europe and Australia. Ironically, the bigger engine was belatedly added as an option for the Japanese 510 in the fall of 1968; the rapidly growing buying power of Japanese consumers meant there was finally a market for it.

1971 Datsun 510 wagon front3q
The Datsun 510 was available as a two- or four-door sedan, a two-door coupe, or as this handy four-door wagon. This is a 1971 model. (author photo)

DATSUN ARRIVES

Katayama was ecstatic about the Datsun 510, which embodied nearly everything for which he’d been fighting the past seven years. It was nearly as economical as its predecessor and still very well-built, but it was also pleasantly styled, fun to drive, and surprisingly quick. Its performance — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13 seconds and a top speed of close to 100 mph (155–160 km/h) — was a match for most contemporary American six-cylinder compacts and more than adequate for U.S. roads. The 510 stopped and handled well, too, even if it lacked the Autobahn-oriented polish of its BMW forebear.

Even the most appealing product may fall on its face if the price is wrong, but the Datsun 510 benefited from the favorable exchange rate and lower Japanese labor costs, which held the U.S. list price to only $1,996 POE. That was more than a Volkswagen Beetle, but still cheaper than most U.S. compacts, which were neither as nimble nor as well-assembled.

Buyers soon took notice. U.S. Datsun sales climbed from 33,000 in 1967 — many of which had been trucks — to more 58,000 in 1968; nearly two-thirds of those were 510s. Sales for 1969 topped 90,000, making Nissan a significant player in the U.S. import market. The 510 also earned Datsun new respect from the U.S. press, which had previously regarded Japanese cars with varying degrees of bemused contempt.

1971 Datsun 510 wagon rear3q
The Datsun 510 wagon is 3 inches (72 mm) longer than the two-door sedan and uses a live axle rear suspension rather than the sedan’s semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension. The rationale for reverting to the solid axle layout was to avoid radical camber changes when the wagon was heavily loaded. (author photo)

Even the 510’s U.S. ad campaign was novel. Its centerpiece was a famous (and, within the company, somewhat controversial) television spot known as the “Baroque ad,” which had no voice-over or dialogue at all, just a striking mix of Vivaldi and images of the car being driven hard over twisting California roads, closing with the Datsun logo. The company’s U.S. print ads now stressed the Datsun’s sophisticated technology and fine road manners as well as its low price and high fuel economy. It was a sign of newfound confidence in a product about which the company no longer needed to feel unduly humble.

THE DATSUN 510 GOES RACING

Back in 1967, “Mr. K,” perhaps remembering his success in Australia, had opened Nissan’s first racing department. Although there weren’t official factory racing teams as such, Datsun issued a series of publications instructing owners on how to upgrade their cars with aftermarket parts, including a new array of Nissan Competition equipment. Brock Racing Enterprises and Bob Sharp Racing became suppliers to various Datsun racing teams, with heavy factory support.

Although the initial competition efforts focused on the company’s small Datsun Sports roadster (known as the Fairlady in Japan and sold in very modest numbers mostly for export), the Datsun 510 had a more sophisticated chassis and obvious potential, so it soon attracted interest from racing drivers like NASCAR star Bobby Allison, Trans-Am champion John Morton, Porsche driver Peter Gregg, Bob Sharp, and Jack Scoville. NMC-USA also scored a minor marketing coup when Bob Bondurant bought a number of 510s to use in his newly formed racing school. Actor Paul Newman, an enthusiastic racer in his own right, campaigned a 510 after driving one at the Bondurant school.

The 510 quickly amassed an impressive U.S. competition record. Brock Racing took a 510 to the SCCA’s Trans Am 2.5 Class title in both 1971 and 1972 and Datsun 510s took the SCCA B/Production sedan championship in 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1974.

By 1972, however, Datsun’s competition was beginning to catch up. A 1972 “Showroom Stock” track test conducted by Car and Driver pitted the 510 against rivals like the smaller Toyota Corolla and the newer Chevrolet Vega, the Datsun showed its age, suffering comparatively sloppy handling (with a penchant for abrupt transitions in extremis, so-so outright grip, and mediocre power. The 510 was still a good car, but it was past its prime.

1972 Datsun 510 racing © 2006 Nathan Bittinger (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
A 1972 Datsun 510 (left) dices with a 1967 Ford Cortina GT at the 2006 Watkins Glen SVRA. (Photo: “’72 Datsun 510 and ’67 Ford Cortina GT” © 2006 Nathan Bittinger; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Still, the 510 had served its purpose. By the time production ended in November 1972, Datsun had sold more than 1.5 million of them, about 400,000 of those in the U.S.

A VISION OF THE FUTURE

In 1975, Katayama became chairman of NMC-USA, ceding the presidency to Hiroshi Majima, who had previously headed Nissan export operations back in Japan. Katayama returned to Japan two years later. In an uncomfortable echo of his return from Australia almost 20 years previously, he received a cool reception and little reward. His success had if anything only eroded his already tenuous political position and he was shuffled off to a minor subsidiary company to serve out his career in obscurity.

Nissan, meanwhile, moved on to bigger but not necessarily better cars. The company’s late-seventies products were often extremely conservative and in styling and orientation suggested that home-market needs had once again taken first priority. Nissan retained its No. 2 position at home, but the company’s U.S. business gradually lost ground to Toyota and Honda.

The original 510, meanwhile, found its second wind in the mid-seventies. Like the “Tri-Five” Chevrolets before it or the Honda Civic 25 years later, it became a popular basis for hot-rodding. Datsun 510s were cheap, sturdy, and almost infinitely modifiable. Not only was there a lot of competition and semi-competition hardware already available, later, more powerful iterations of the L-series engine could be swapped in very easily. Of course, for some people that’s never enough, so over the years, there have been 510s with turbos, six-cylinder engines, V8s, and even Mazda rotary engines. Today, it’s rare to find a surviving 510 in original condition and even stock-looking examples are likely to have a lot more suds than when they left the factory.

The original Datsun 510 is not well-remembered today, perhaps because it was overshadowed by Katayama’s next and greatest triumph, the Datsun 240Z sports car. The 510 is routinely, if unjustly, omitted from surveys of the most important cars of the past century. Nonetheless, the importance of the 510, at least as regards the position of Japanese cars in the U.S., is difficult to overstate. It laid out the basic formula that would bring Japanese automakers to the forefront in later years: (relatively) compact cars that were well-built, reliable, economical, and appealing at competitive if not necessarily rock-bottom prices. The 510 was far from perfect, but it was a solid foundation on which to build, which the major Japanese automakers (not just Nissan) proceeded to do most assiduously.

As for Yutaka Katayama, Nissan finally ‘rehabilitated’ him during the early part of Carlos Ghosn’s regime, when a Katayama look-alike was featured in a number of Nissan TV spots. Katayama was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1998 and Nissan’s press and historical materials now describe him with some reverence. He was present at the launch of the new Nissan Z in 2003 and in January 2005 issued an open letter about the 35th anniversary of the original Z. He celebrated his 100th birthday on September 5, 2009. He died four and a half years later at the remarkable age of 105.

Over the years, automotive pundits have proclaimed many automobiles “the car of the future,” and they’ve often been wrong. The Datsun 510, however, was the real thing. None of its features was technically innovative, nor was it stylistically groundbreaking, but in its concept and execution, it really was the shape of things to come.

FIN

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our account of the career of Yutaka Katayama comes primarily from David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), with additional details from Daniel Banks, “Let’s Meet Mr. K!” Z Car Club Association, n.d., www.zcca. org/pages/ZCarsZhistoryMrK.htm, accessed 5 June 2009; Michael A. Cusumano, The Japanese Automobile Industry: Technology & Management at Toyota & Nissan (Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 1985); Guide to Motor Industry of Japan 1967 Edition (Tokyo: Japan Motor Industrial Federation, Inc., 1967); Yutaka Katayama and Yoshihiko Matsuo, Fairlady Z Story, Datsun SP/SR & Z (Tokyo: Miki Press, 1999); Nissan Motor Corporation, “Legend 02: Yutaka Katayama: Determined Visionary,” n.d., www.nissan-global. com/EN/HERITAGE/ LEGENDS/LEGEND_02/ index.html, accessed 17 November 2014; and “Nissan legend Yutaka Katayama, aka ‘Mr. K,’ dies at 105” [press release], NissanNews.com, 21 February 2015, accessed 8 August 2015; John B. Rae, Nissan/Datsun: A History of Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A. 1960–1980 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982); Brian Long, Datsun Fairlady Roadster to 280ZX: The Z-car story (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing, 2006); and Akira Yokoyama’s authorized manga (comic book) account, Project X – Datsun Fairlady Z (Project X 240Z Challengers) (Gardena, CA: Digital Manga Publishing, 2006). The history of the Bluebird and 510 came primarily from those sources and from Alan Bent, EarlyDatsun, n.d., www.earlydatsun. com, last accessed 14–25 November 2014; Carl Beck, “The Design and Development Of The In-line, OHC, Six Cylinder Engines That Powered Our Z Cars 1970 though 1983,” Internet Z Car Club, 14 November 2008, www.zhome. com/ History/ LSeries/ LSeriesR1.htm, last accessed 16 November 2014; Merlin Blackwell’s Datsun history pages (www.datsunhistory. com/home.html; accessed 25 December 2007); Nissan Motor Corporation, “A rather remarkable sporty family sedan… DATSUN 1600” [Norwegian brochure No. PB6061-901130], c. 1969; “Datsun 1400 – 1600,” [Norwegian 510 brochure In. 461 6-72 5000], June 1972; and “Nissan Heritage Collection: Bluebird,” n.d., www.nissan-global. com/EN/ HERITAGE/bluebird.html, accessed 14 November 2014; and Nissan Motor Company USA, “Datsun: The World’s Best $2000 Car!” [U.S. brochure], 1969. We also consulted Frank Marcus, “1968-1973 Datsun 510,” Motor Trend 1 June 2006, www.motortrend. com/ classic/roadtests/ C12_0606_1973_datsun_510/ index.html, accessed 25 December 2007; “Showroom Stock Sedans: The Nine Cars on the Track,” Car and Driver Vol. 17, No. 11 (May 1972), pp. 38-45, 82, 94; Ray Thursby, “Rising Star,” Special Interest Autos #195 (June 2003), pp. 48–53; and “BMW 1600,” Car and Driver, February 1967, reprinted in Car and Driver on BMW Cars 1957-1977, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986). Some details came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001).

Historical exchange rate equivalences were estimated based on data from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2009, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/; used by permission). Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and provided for illustration and general informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


28 Comments

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  1. I would guess that the styling of the 510 owes rather more to the British Ford Cortina Mk II (introduced as a 1966 model) than to the BMW. The rear view is almost identical (look at the vent on the c-pillar!), and event the front is closer to the Ford than the BMW.

  2. Sorry if I’m being pedantic, but I think the Ford Cortina in the picture is a “Lotus” model rather than a “GT”, The green stripe on off white paint is a signature Lotus paint scheme.
    However there are a lot of Lotus style clones about, I’ve seen quite a few four door lookalikes!.
    The lotus versions were by some margin the fastest factory options, perhaps the cars are running in a special class?.

    Roger,

    1. Roger,

      The photographer of that shot identifies the specific event and even the driver, so I assume the information was on the event docket and is probably correct. Curiously, the Ford is listed as 1,700 cc, which is odd since the Cortina GT engine was the 1.6-liter Kent. However, I know Ford sometimes quoted the displacement of the 1.6-liter crossflow at 1,601 cc for homologation purposes (representing the engine at the outer edge of its tolerances) and I suppose it’s possible it’s either a different engine or has been overbored for racing. I’m afraid I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s a Lotus — just painted like one.

      1. There are lots of 1700cc Kent engines around, it was a popular tweak in rallying tho some were actually only about 1650 cc. A fair few ‘1600’ engines on the scene in NZ in the 9170s and 1980s were…er…’enhanced’.
        The Datsun L series engines at least had L16 or L18 or L20 inscribed on them as part of the engine number, slightly harder to cheat!

  3. Hi Aaron: Found your Datsun website. Eventually I’ll add some technical data being I “wrenched” almost exclusively on Datsun from 1969–>73. Most were good cars.

    I had the opportunity to meet and talk with “Mr. K” at a Christmas party hosted by the dealer I worked for. Definitely a man with a vision.

    “Mr. K’s” personal 240-Z is or was on display at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. I believe it was bright yellow with an automatic transmission.

    More to follow…

    1. Thanks! This is not actually a separate website, but a separate article on this website, if that makes any sense.

  4. MORE 510 COMMENTS: Early (manufactured prior to January 1, 1968) 510s came without NHTSA devices–solid (non-collapsible) steering column, and single-circuit brake master cylinders. We had one of these on our used car lot, so I know this to be a fact. I don’t remember if it had exhaust emission controls (Air Injection Reactor). Cars manufactured after 1-1-1968 had all that equipment.

    Going back earlier, the 410/411 series (65–>7) we found the cooling system hoses could not withstand the ozone in the Los Angeles environment and had to replace several engines under warranty. Eventually Nissan improved the material.

    The 410 was powered by a 1300cc engine (based on the Austin design–Nissan built Austin engines under license). Going ahead of myself some 64-5 cars had three types of fasteners: SAE (US) Metric, and Whitworth (UK).

    Of that series, an automatic was available in the 411 series. I believe it was the BW Series 35. We had very few automatic issues, (which is more than can be said about Toyota’s Toyoglide) by the way–a very sturdy box. The automatics were only available with the SSS engine–dual carburetor 1600cc engine from the sports car series. Front disc brakes also came with the package. Very few ’67 SSS models came with stick shift.

    Emission regulations did not allow the dual carburetion SSS into the US (And certainly not into California). Part of that package included higher compression pistons and a warmer camshaft.

    1. California required the emissions controls earlier than federal cars, so they may well have had the air injection system, but not the dual-circuit brakes, etc.

      The early Nissan automatics were indeed Borg-Warner units — I don’t know offhand if the Bluebird 411 used the B-W 35 or one of the earlier versions, although that seems plausible. The ’70s units are JATCO. Interestingly, the Austin-inspired J engine in the 410/411, which I think still only had three mains, is not the same engine as the 510 1300, which was a short-stroke version of the L-series.

      One of these days, I should take a fresh look at this article from a less U.S.-centric perspective. I actually worked for a while on doing that with the 240Z article, but I got sidetracked with the transmission project.

  5. Just a few considerations. all of the L-series means L-1300cc, 1600, 1800,2000 4 cylinders and the six cylinders of L-2400cc,2600, 2800 plus there was a diesel L series as well with some lower end beefed areas and was used by some race teams. The architecture of these engines is constant and they use a familiar timing cover and oil pump. Inter swapping of con rods etc. Valve train parts are all familiar to one another.
    1972 was the last of the B/W at as we got a new Jatco trans, a partnership of Nissan/Ford called the L-3N71B which in essence is a C-4. Later, 1977 or so was added another version with a added planetary gear set and a lock up converter added just a little later. This trans was called L-4N71B. Both great units.
    MrK’s 240Z with the extended nose and covered headlamps was given to his long time secretary after his retirement.
    Mr K. was about the best indirect boss to ever work for and made our company like a family and Nissan took care of it’s family. The last time I spoke to him and his secretary was in the relocation to the new National headquarters to Franklin Tenn. in 2006. A sad day for all of us 30+year employees especially for his secretary who had been with him since 1960. Probably very sad for Mr. K because he built our nine story national headquarters building in the very early 70’s and was now to be sold with the move to Tenn.

    1. I never had the opportunity to meet Katayama-san, but he seems like he was a fine fellow. (One day I’d like to redo this article to make it less U.S.-centric; I actually started that with the 240Z article, but I keep getting sidetracked.)

    2. Don, I’m not challenging your information, just thought it important to note; although never exported to the US market, the early JDM 510 Bluebirds had an L14 engine.

      The South America and Mexican spec 510s had the old J15 engine with 3 main bearing crank, pushrod vales, and the had same straight axle leaf spring rear suspension as the 510 wagon. First time I saw one of those was at a car show in Northern California. I was tripping out on all the old bits and pieces, like a dash from a 69 521, side markers from a 68′ 510 and a unique single stamped stainless sheet metal grill I’ve never seen on anything else.

      Also the “b” in the L20b signifies it as the 4 cylinder version, while the L20a was a 6 cylinder version used in the 1970 2000 GT and GTX. And as rare as unicorn farts there was an L23 inline 6 based on the L20a. The L24 that replaced it was based on the L16 configuration.

      The timing cover and oil pump are identical for all US export L series engines, with one exception. The 280ZX Turbo oil pump is slightly higher volume.

  6. My dad drove a yellow Datsun 510 wagon from 1971 until the early 80s in Canada. I learned to drive in that car. One day on his way to work a cop pulled him over and told him the car was too dangerous to drive further. It had holes in every piece of metal panel including the floors, so it probably was unsafe by then. But the motor and driveline were fine, and if we’d known a good panel beater it might still be on the road. Winter road salt ate up most cars pretty quickly in that era. I remember it as great fun to drive with the 4 speed standard. It’s not surprising that they were widely used as rally cars, given their economy and all round driving qualities and robustness.

    It’s kind of interesting to see that Nissan promoted their Micra recently via a series of one design rally races. Got them a lot of good press, perhaps borrowing Mr K’s idea from the 60s.

    Thanks for the publishing this history of the 510, I agree it’s an underappreciated model.

  7. While the 510 could be described as a new completely different car against the 410/411, would it be accurate to say the new parts were still based on tried and tested components from its predecessor and other models whose roots via the 310 and Cedric 30/31 could be traced back to Nissan’s license agreement with Austin / BMC?

    If so could the Cedric 130 also be included as still being based on tried and tested components from its predecessor in spite of the increase in size? In a sense it brings to mind how Rootes took a similar approach with the Hunter / Arrow replacing the Audax Minx/Super Minx.

    With regards to the Austin B-Series descended J engine it makes on question if Nissan originally had plans to further develop, enlarge and convert it to OHC before the acquisition of Prince basically gave them the L engine.

    1. would it be accurate to say the new parts were still based on tried and tested components from its predecessor and other models whose roots via the 310 and Cedric 30/31 could be traced back to Nissan’s license agreement with Austin / BMC?

      No. There were evolutionary mechanical changes during the run of the 310/311/312 and the 410/411, but the 510/511 was not only the Bluebird line’s second all-new body, but also had substantially different running gear. What about the 510 or its running gear resembles an fifties Austin A40/A50? I’m honestly flummoxed by that.

      If so could the Cedric 130 also be included as still being based on tried and tested components from its predecessor in spite of the increase in size?

      I don’t think that’s a particularly reasonable assertion either. The Cedric 30/50 was based on technology from BMC, and Nissan’s official histories acknowledge as much, but by the 130, the car and its running gear had changed quite a bit.

      I’m not sure what the point is of trying to assert that Nissan’s homegrown all-new models of the latter sixties were still somehow owed to BMC, but I find it a stretch, and it smacks of chauvinism as well.

      1. It is more seeking clarification with the Bluebird 510/511 and Cedric 130, where the former at least in terms of looks was described as a smartly modernized 410 in a Curbside Classic article a while back.

        Not able to perceive any direct carryover with the previous models with the exception of the J13 / J15 in the former and the J20 in the latter, in addition to the styling by Pininfarina or in the 510’s Pininfarina influenced styling via the 410 (even though the 510 was said to have been an in-house effort).

        As both the Bluebird 510 and Cedric 130 were new designs and appeared within a few years of each other, is it known how much commonality they have or whether they were still related to each other as was said to have been the case between the Bluebird 310 (possibly also the 410) and the Cedric 30/31?

        1. Meant to say J13 not J15 with the Bluebird in terms of carryover and only meant the J20 in the sense it was a J13 with two extra cylinders in the case of the Cedric.

        2. I don’t think I’ve read the Curbside Classic article you’re referring to, but I still think it’s a reach. I think it would be reasonable to say the 510 marked a more dramatic departure from previous marks mechanically, particularly on sedans (wagons still had live axles), than the 410/411 had. It would also be fair to say that it reflected the Bluebird moving upmarket, since it followed in the introduction of the Sunny.

          I don’t think there was a lot of commonality between the 510 Bluebird and the 130 Cedric, which would not have done the 510 any favors, since the Cedric was a significantly bigger car of generally more conservative engineering. (The Cedric was 57 cm (22.4 inches) longer and 13 cm (5.1 inches) wider than the 510 Bluebird, weighed almost 800 lb more in six-cylinder form, and had traditional double wishbones and Hotchkiss drive to the 510’s struts and semi-trailing arms.) I imagine there’s some sharing of minor components, but saying the Cedric was an enlarged Bluebird doesn’t track.

          I think the greater commonality was likely between the 510 Bluebird and the C30 Laurel, which arrived less than a year after the 510 and combined its chassis with the Prince G18 engine.

          As I said, I’m wary of claims that try to attribute Japanese automakers’ later developments to their past relationship with British or European companies. The 510 was three generations removed from the Nissan-made Austin models and vastly more modern.

          1. It was the “1968 Datsun Bluebird 510 SSS Sweet Spot Saloon” piece.

            Thanks for clearing up the matter with the 510 Bluebird and 130 Cedric. The likely link between the 510 Bluebird and C30 Laurel (maybe also the Skyline C10?) does make a greater deal more sense.

            The Japanese did build upon what they learnt from British and other European companies, to the point where they made it their own. In some respects companies like Nissan and Isuzu provide a window to how British companies could have approached things under better circumstances and with the benefit of new production tooling and of course money. The Florian and 117 Coupe for example bring to mind a less constrained Rootes Arrow (Hillman Hunter / Sunbeam Rapier) with similar longevity and better-developed Minx-descended engines.

          2. I don’t know the exact extent of the commonality between the C10 Skyline and the C30 Laurel, but I believe it was pretty substantial, which makes sense given their similarities in size and purpose. There might be a broad comparison there to the Triumph 2000 and Rover P6, and what might have happened had British Leyland decided to keep both going with separate brand identities rather than running out the string on the distinct models and replacing both with the SD1. (Post-merger, the Skyline wasn’t exactly a distinct brand, but it was sold through a different dealer network, which I assume had a lot to do with why it retained its own identity, despite the commonality with the Laurel in the early post-merger generations.)

            It’s not that the Japanese automakers didn’t learn from or imitate British or European marques (or American ones, to a point), but there’s a tendency, particularly among British reviewers, to attribute any acknowledged virtue to Continental origins, which I find frustrating. There is a notable contrast insofar as the Japanese manufacturers began to proliferate in roughly the same period where the diversity of British automakers’ lineups became financially untenable, causing various interesting models and interesting ideas for models to be stillborn. Some of that contrast was unarguably due to different capital relationships as much as anything else, but the late sixties and early seventies also represented the point where the Japanese market began to develop its own distinct tastes that didn’t always directly align with those of other regions.

            By the way, did you try to post your comment a little while ago with a link?

          3. As an afterthought, I would add that it seems reasonable to speculate that the 510 Bluebird was allowed to become such a significant and ambitious departure from the 410/411, particularly in chassis design, in part so that it could have significant commonality with the forthcoming Laurel, whose development was presumably well advanced by the time the 510 debuted. Given Nissan’s market aspirations for the Laurel as an upmarket personal car, it would have made sense for it to be more closely related to the Bluebird than the Cedric in size and layout. (The C30 Laurel is 7.9 inches/20 cm longer in wheelbase than the 510 and not quite 2 inches wider; both cars are a fair bit smaller than the contemporary Cedric.)

          4. While one can cite many instances where the British could have made better decisions, the one that stands would be how they consolidated (Jaguar to BMC and Rover to Leyland instead of the other way round) before to the formation of British Leyland by which point the end of nigh.

            The 510 Bluebird and C30 Laurel / C10 Skyline to my mind, present a vision of how the Farina B (plus the Wolseley 1500/Riley 1.5) could have been directly replaced by no later than the mid-1960s instead of the 1800/2200 or Maxi. Something like a mid-1960s Marina without the savage cost-cutting (that denied it MacPherson Struts, etc) along the lines of the Hillman Hunter, or the British equivalent of the Fiat 1300/1500-based Fiat 125 (minus the Twin-Cam motor) would probably be the minimum that can be mustered by BMC given the circumstances as far as stop-gap conventional rear-wheel drive alternatives go.

            May have attempted to post a link a while back though cannot remember the article or if it would be duplicate post (where tried posting comment without link).

          5. I meant whether you had posted a reference to the Curbside Classic article with a link in the past two or three hours. (This would’ve been after I published the other comment.)

            I think to some extent the most direct British comparison to the 510 Bluebird and C30 Laurel might be the later Triumph Dolomite (which is quite similar in overall size), although the Dolomite didn’t have independent rear suspension.

          6. No, did not recently post a link.

            Another indirect British comparison to the Laurel C30 would have to be the ADO77 and TM1 prototypes in terms of dimensions that were intended to replace both the Marina and the Dolomite. Consider that both the Maxi and 1800/2200 were originally intended to be of roughly similar size as the Simca 1100 (particularly the 99 inch wheelbase) before both projects drifted away from their original briefs (also likely affecting the trajectory of the 3-litre as an unnecessarily large car).

            Had they stuck to their original briefs with regards to dimensions, it would have provided enough space for a Laurel C30 / Skyline C10 type model of some sort (think smaller RWD Austin Kimberley with a Pininfarina touch and wider engine range).

          7. The Japanese automakers had a tremendous advantage at that point insofar as the market was expanding in ways that provided inviting opportunities to create more upscale (and thus more profitable) products, including in segments that hadn’t previously existed in the home market. (Nissan’s official Heritage Collection notes proudly that the Laurel was the first larger Japanese sedan to be aimed at private buyers rather than relying on fleet sales like the Cedric or Crown typically did, which would not have been feasible even four or five years earlier.) The British manufacturers had plentiful ideas for interesting near-luxury and sporting models that flew in the face of political and economic pressures, especially post-Ryder Report, that desperately wanted mass-market economy cars that could sell like the Mini (and yet actually make a measurable profit) and tended to regard the sporty and luxury stuff as at best an unjustifiable diversion of resources.

            Honestly, the Nissan model of this era that most seems like a BMC product is the 1970-vintage E10 Cherry: sort of conceptually on the right page compared to the emerging breed of FWD supermini, but not quite clever enough or cheeky enough to make up for its ungainly looks and general lack of verve. Look at the four-door E10 and tell me you can’t picture it wearing Austin badges and being sold alongside the Allegro.

            One could argue that the Japanese industry is similarly depressed in more recent years, albeit with the very great mitigating advantage of having the kind of export empire (especially in America) that Austin, BMC, and British Leyland all wanted and never managed.

          8. The British did belatedly realise the need to increase commonality among cars and shared platforms though a many of projects though it was already too late. Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Nissan were able to spin off sportscars from saloon models for the 124 Sport Spider, Spider (via Giulia) and Silvia (via Sunny-based S Platform). Whereas the MGB/MGC had no direct RWD saloon car model to atomise costs, which is something BMC could have benefited from.

            Having heard the Cherry E10 was originally developed by Prince before the takeover by Nissan, one must assume Prince had a different engine in mind than the Nissan A yet Prince’s pre-existing engines (that were much larger than what was fitted to the Cherry E10 at 1.5-litres). One could also argue the Cherry E10 draws inspiration from the FWD Peugeot 204, which is kind of fitting since the first Prince engines used in the Prince Sedan were said to have been based on the Peugeot 202 a few generations removed from what was used in the 204. Maybe Prince’s pre-Nissan engine would have been influenced by the 204/304 (XK/XL/XR) unit?

            It is funny how Nissan’s ties with Austin later BMC were terminated roughly prior if not shortly after the introduction of the Mini, not that Nissan would have been receptive to it given their apparent reluctance to field let alone develop a potential entry into the sub-Mini Kei Car segment (the Honda N360/N600 being the closest to a Mini-esque Kei Car).

            The Japanese industry does seem to have lost its direction in recent years, more so in the case of Honda.

          9. It’s easier to plan financially viable spinoffs when you have a market that’s growing and growing in affluence, and when you have access to capital (which is easier to come by when the market is growing). For all that, Nissan was not necessarily adept at specialty spinoffs. The Fairlady Z was a standout, but the difficult course of its internal evolution has become legendary, and it was years before the Silvia was anything but a minor footnote (and the fact that Nissan apparently watched about half the run of the first-generation Celica go by before deciding to try their luck is probably telling). Something like the Laurel was likely easier for the conservative corporate management to get their head around.

            Specialty cars can be difficult, something the Italians and the British each demonstrated: Even if you originally have a bigger-volume line to share platforms with, it’s not difficult to become trapped in that realm where you have enough volume to justify continuing the line, but not enough to justify a comprehensive update, so the model soldiers on past the demise of its original platform-mates and, sadly, well past its prime. (The Tipo 105/115 Alfa Romeo Spider was a lovely car — I even confess a soft spot for the facelifted Series 4 cars — and the 124 Sport Spider was handsome as well, but it’s hard to argue that by the end, their best years were behind them.)

          10. For the British, it would appear the ideal template for either to have followed was ultimately Mazda as recall the first two generations of MX5 featuring an RX7 FC-derived platform whose roots in turn were said to stretch back to the SA22 platform that may or may not be linked to the 1970s Grand Familia/Familia platform. It might have been doable had the MG EX234 been twinned with a related saloon model, as was said to have been the case with ADO77 when it was far too late.

            Yet at the same time prior to the arrival of the MX5, one would have expected Nissan to be the most likely have re-entered the small sportscar segment with a Japanese Midget/Sprite-inspired successor to indirectly replace the larger Datsun Sports, notwithstanding the anti-sportscar climate of the period. After all if the RWD Nissan Sunny platform formed the basis of the Silvia as well as the Sunny Cab/Vanette (up to reputedly the 1991 Serena), then there was certainly room for a small Sunny based sportscar below the Silvia and Z.

            Alas like BMC with the (1100/1300-derived) Healey WAEC and MG ADO21, Nissan were seemingly drawn to the mid-engined layout with the otherwise pretty attractive Cherry F10 based 1975 Nissan AD-1 concept that was a project inspired by the success of the 240Z (and the likely the conceptually similar Fiat X1/9).

          11. I feel like you’re reading too much into this idea of platform roots and derivations beyond direct commonality. For instance, it’s not uncommon for different generations of a given platform to have notionally similar chassis layouts that sound about the same on a spec sheet, but that have no meaningful commonality. Even within the lifespan of a given model, there may be a huge number of running mechanical changes (sometimes poorly documented) that leave early and late examples surprisingly different from one another. This is to some extent a semantic point as much as a technical one, but there’s a risk of conflating things that aren’t really related. There is a stronger argument for the “roots date back to” framing when it comes to engines and transmissions, although even there, the similarities may be less than they seem. (For example, the early sixties Roto Hydra-Matic was conceptually a lineal descendant of the original single-coupling Hydra-Matic of 1940, but they shared little or nothing in a practical sense, and the relationship between them is not that obvious.)

            At any rate, doing multiple sports car or sporty car lines is a big commercial risk. Even if they are clearly different in meaningful ways, there’s still a significant risk of cannibalism, and in particular of the cheaper line ultimately helping to obsolete the more expensive and more profitable ones. This is to an extent what happened with the MX-5 and RX-7: The FC RX-7 was nearing the end of its life anyway, but the arrival of the Miata really emphasized that its day was done, and underscored the fact that the FD RX-7, which was several steps up in price and performance, was answering a question few buyers were really asking anymore. So, the FD struggled through its life with minuscule sales while its cheaper cousin found a comfortable niche. The MX-5 also probably helped to dispatch the MX-3, whose most interesting feature (the K8 V-6 on pricier models) was not necessarily a virtue, particularly outside the home market.

            So far as Nissan went in the pre-Miata era, it probably didn’t help that the old Datsun Sports/Fairlady had not been what one would call a runaway commercial success. It had a decent competition history, but it never sold in huge numbers and in export markets had to compete with a whole array of British and European rivals with more brand recognition and less awkward looks. After the Fairlady Z appeared and proved to be a hit, convincing company management that there should also be a new version of the less-successful, less-profitable old car would certainly have been a hard sell, possibly for good reason. It’s not that it couldn’t have been done, but that it might well have seemed like going backward.

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