Datsun desert racer
In the 70's converting pick-ups into 4x4s to race was the HEIGHT of innovation. And this famous one now has a new lease of life!
We all have our dream cars from when we were kids. For me it was the Group B Peugeot 205 T16 and so obsessed was I that I can still remember the number plate of Timo Salonen’s 1985 WRC winning car. 704 EXC 75. But Dana Dague’s eyes widened in awe at a vehicle that perhaps many of us would think is a little mundane… a yellow Datsun Pickup.
“It was driven by a hero of mine, Spencer Low,” says Dana in the shade of the Off-Road hall of Fame gazebo as Trophy Trucks for the Mint 400 were being pushed down the street for scrutineering. “He made conversion kits to make the pickups into 4-wheel drives, which back then in the mid 70s was the height of innovation. That seems laughable now when you look at the million dollar Trophy Trucks they use these days, but modifications like that were the beginnings of today’s trucks!”
My dad took me to stand in freezing Welsh forests to see the cars I had on my bedroom wall posters go by but as soon as he was legally able Dana wasn’t just a spectator. “I saw my first race when I was a kid in the mid 70s and knew then what I wanted to do. The first race I did was in ’81 when I was 16 in a Class 9 VW. There were 70 cars in my class and there were people finishing their first 100 mile lap before I had even started. It was absolute madness… and I was hooked from that moment.
But I always followed Low. He became a works Nissan driver and won multiple championships both in desert racing and on short courses… but it was always that bright yellow Datsun that I associated him with. In this car he won 8 WRA titles and was SNORE champion in the mid 70s. He also raced the Datsun in sand drag races.
Well, years passed, decades even, and my bank account followed the same slight year by year expansion as my waste line until I decided that I was in the privileged position of being able to look for the famous Datsun with the idea of maybe buying it… Its retirement place was a rather ignominious spot among old fridges and air-conditioners behind Spencer’s Fox’s Resort on the Colorado river in Parker, Arizona. I asked if he would sell it but he said no, even though I offered to rebuild it. I supposed that that was that… until a few months later when he called me and asked if I was still interested in the project. I went back the next weekend and to my surprise he signed over the pink slip to me and gave me a trailer full of spares and miscellaneous parts. I guess he knew the truck would be in good hands and with someone that would take care of it.
The years hadn’t been kind though and if anyone else had seen it I think they would have just scrapped it… But not me. I pulled the sorry thing out with a fork lift truck and took it back to my workshop… with a big smile on my face.
But it was really far gone. I spent the first couple of weeks just stripping the useless parts off it and ended up with a pallet full of rubbish! As an example of how beat up it was the reason the window wouldn’t wind down on one door is was that it was so packed up with filler to cover the years worth of dents that it was blocking the mechanism! I managed to save one door and fortunately the chassis was in good condition. A lot of things were unrecoverable though, so there was a lot of time bidding for things on Ebay! The grill, the chrome 1600 signs for the front wings, the window lining rubber, the lights, details that were missing from the dashboard. I remember quite a few times I was lying with my head in some small space and my wife coming in and shouting, “You’ve won it!”
For the gorgeous flared rear arches Dana had to make his own mould to press two new ones. Fortunately they are symmetrical so he only needed one mould. It might seem a lot of work and huge undertaking but building cars is in the family history. In the 1930s his grandfather raced in the stock series that would become NASCAR but could never afford to buy a car, so always had to build his own.
It would have been easier to do the body with normal coats of spray paint but the idea for this classic was to preserve it for as long as possible so with the help of Robert and Nathan at Precision Powdercoating it was powder coated. There’s a few imperfections because there was some lead lining between the panels and the coating process melted it. These little blotches are the only things wrong with the whole truck though”
And then one of the most laborious tasks was started… painting the details. Jimmie Richardson did the lettering and hand painted the decals to match the original design and it took him four days straight, around the clock to get it perfect.
The build was never intended to be a purely cosmetic exercise though, the plan was to race the car again in earnest at the NORRA Mexican 1000 and so Dana took a couple of liberties with the stock items of history. “The old front shocks had 4 inches of travel, but automotive technology has come quite a way since then so the new Fox shocks have 11 inches. Also, the rear leaf springs are 12 inches longer than the originals and are custom made by Jeff at Deaver Springs to my design. By changing the leaf springs and mounts we more than doubled the wheel travel.”
The axles and transfer case were sent to Warren at Precision 4WD and had locking hubs added, and another non standard item… “It’s quite a small cab, and I am not exactly the tiniest of gentlemen,” Dana smiles. “So I had Mastercraft make me a specially shaped seat so I could get behind the wheel. And with the help of Jeff Howe at Howe Power Steering we also added upgraded the steering.
My brother Brian is an electrician so he did all the wiring while I did all of the brake pipe and fuel line work myself. When I think about it now 6 months seems like a really fast time for a full rebuild, but that really was every evening, every weekend, all my spare time in the workshop, but I was pushing it because I wanted to be ready for the Show and Shine event at the Mint 400 last year. We made it but the first time I drove it was off the trailer and down Fremont Street in Vegas for the Mint 400 Contingency Show & Shine. I remember that day because it was an amazing experience. It caused a traffic jam with the number of people looking at it and taking pictures. It’s amazing how many people recognize and remember the truck.
And racing? “The plan was to get Spencer Lowe back in it again and do the NORRA Mexican 1000, which is a four day desert race but he had some problems with his new house so we had to put it off. But then I got thinking that it is maybe too big a race for the old Datsun. It needs to be looked after now and loved and appreciated for its history, not bashed around the mountains of Mexico.”
And that desire for appreciation is why Dana has donated it to the Off-Roading Hall of Fame for the next five years to stand proud next to some of the other icons of the off-roading world of yesteryear.
And then he points out one more detail. On the roof over the door where the name of his hero is written is now also painted ‘prepped by PalapaBoy’ Racing Team. Now, that is cool!