The Car That Started the JDM Tuning Scene Turns 50!
Love it or hate it, the Datsun 510 kicked off the tuner culture behind every modified Japanese car you see on the road today!
Fifty years ago, production began on the Toyota 2000GT, arguably the best-looking car to come out of Japan, and inarguably the country's first supercar. It was a watershed moment for Japan's automakers, a chance to prove they could make a car that stood shoulder to shoulder with the world's finest machines. It was quick, curvaceous, expensive, and exotic. Never mind that: The 2000GT wasn't half as important as a homely little shoebox that showed up in the same year.
This August marks the 50th anniversary of the Nissan Bluebird, first shown at the Tokyo Motor Show before hitting the North American market wearing the Datsun 510 badge. To the modern eye, it perhaps doesn't look like much, merely a box with another box on top of it. What a not-very-talented child might produce, if asked to draw a generic car.
Featuring a 1.3L single overhead cam engine and a three speed gearbox, the tiny Datsun seemed typical of the disposable, economical machinery coming out of Japan at the time. It wasn't. It wasn't just the Bluebird, it was the 510. And it was a born racecar.
High on a mountain on the other side of the Pacific, three 510s roar up, each one showing the depth and breadth of the love people feel for this little car. One's jacked up on 27-inch tires and a raised factory rally suspension. Another is a never-sees-rain streetable racing machine, with three decades of autocross and circuit racing under its wheels. The third hides a wicked turbocharger setup and dialed-in suspension beneath its patina'd exterior. With all apologies to Everlast, these are the real baddest Dimes.
A couple of things helped the 510 reach a status that still has enthusiasts fighting battles against rust and welding in roll cages. First, don't dismiss the simplicity of the design. The 410 it replaced was styled by Pininfarina, but the 510 was purely Japanese. Teruo Uchino penned the 510's lines to be purposely inoffensive, but he also managed to work in a little personality.
Just as the styling was balanced, so too was the performance. Nissan's head of design was Kazumi Yotsumoto, and his vision wasn't frugality, but driver engagement. The result was a lightweight unibody with a fully independent suspension at all four corners. The 510 got MacPherson struts up front, semi-trailing arms in back. It wasn't revolutionary technology, but at the time it was unheard of at an economy car level.
The 510's other lucky stroke was being midwifed into existence with the help of Yutaka Katayama. Later remembered as the father of the 240Z, Mr. K's earlier work was even more important. Exiled to the US for being a little too into racing—very unseemly for a Japanese executive—he adapted to California car culture as if coming home. He knew that for the 510 to succeed, it would need to be more than simply another cheap runabout.
Repeated calls from Katayama to the head office involved outlandish suggestions, such as using the BMW 1600 as a benchmark. Left to their own devices, Nissan's brass would have presented a watered-down version. However, Mr. K hatched a plot with Keiichi Matsumura, an executive well-placed in Nissan's upper hierarchy. Katayama wrote a long memo detailing his plans for a European style sport sedan, and Matsumura signed his name to it. The execs yelled and shouted, but Mr. K got his engine, and his car.
When it arrived in the US the following year, the 510 had a 1.6-liter engine making around 96 hp, a four-speed manual gearbox, disc brakes up front and drums in back. When Road & Track tested an early model, we liked the independent rear suspension, the roominess, and the $2046 price tag. “Suffice to say that the car handles easily and predictably; those who want to make it sportier will want to increase wheel and tire size,” we wrote.
In 1971, Datsun was flying high, coming off a C-Production class win in SCCA racing. Peter Brock's BRE had taken the 240Z and turned it into a champion, doubling down on their successes with the Datsun 2000 roadster. BRE would next turn their attention to the new Trans-Am 2.5 series, and the plucky little 510.
It was a match made in heaven. Brock had already beaten Shelby's 2000GT team with his outdated Datsun Roadsters, despite Toyota's deep pockets. Given a car with the potential of the 510, he created a dominating racing machine. Piloted by John Morton, the #46 BRE 510 took pole position 16 times out of 19 races, and won 12 races overall. The team took both the 1971 and 1972 championship, beating out Alfa Romeos and BMWs.
The wins were a tremendous upset. Even though the 510 was popular among those in the know, it was still a cheap Japanese commuter that cost half as much as a BMW. Yet here it was handing the Germans and Italians a convincing defeat.
“In a way, we started the whole Japanese tuning scene,” says Pete Brock, speaking from BRE headquarters in Nevada. “It went from marketing for economy, to appealing to the youth market.”
“You could buy a car for a couple of grand, add some performance parts, and go beat BMWs. It became a sort of cult.”
Cars like Keith Law's red 1973 coupe are a direct result of the 510's ascendancy in club racing. Essentially a honed version of his original 1978 build, this little cherry bomb packs a half-cage, streetable racing suspension, and a 2.0L, 300 hp turbocharged setup.
The car is essentially flawless, waxed and polished. Yet there's no posing going on here: Law ran his car in hillclimbs, high-speed Solo events, and in club racing. The trunk is plastered with yearly club racing stickers, and this 510 has made friends with a tire wall at 80 mph before. It's shiny, but it's earned it.
Robyn Stanley's jacked up dirt machine is anything but shiny. Riding on factory Datsun rally springs with bodywork massaged to fit the chunky offroad tires, it's a burly escape pod built for British Columbia's forest service roads. It took chopping up three cars to get enough rust-free sheetmetal to make it, and even then the lower rear quarter panels had to be hand-formed.
The 510's solidity and simplicity made it a worthy rallying machine in the days before all-wheel-drive was a requirement. Along with various successes in the Australian outback, a factory-supported 510 took overall victory in the 1970 East African safari rally.
Stanley's introduction into Datsun ownership comes with a great story. Having posted bond for a friend, he was paid back in old Datsun parts. His rally beast is one of a half-dozen 510s in his fleet, and has the 2.4L four-cylinder out of a 720 pickup. For expeditions, the car tows a trailer made out of a 510 wagon.
James McMillan's machine combines both flavours. Heavily distressed cosmetically in places, including some exposed rust, it is nonetheless mechanically stout. McMillan points out that he can jack up the car at any quarter, and the rigidity is such that it'll lift three wheels off the ground. Despite the cage, this is a street car built for blasting in the canyons.
Like Law's perfect ex-racer, McMillan's gnarly green machine is turbocharged, and putting around 230 hp to the ground. I climb in to give it a go.
Like all old cars, the 510's outward vision is excellent. The swapped-in racing seats provide considerable bracing, and a set of aftermarket pedals turn heel-toe shifting into a simple side-step.
The car pulls, hard. Part of the charm of the 510 is that it's from an age where the mechanics of driving were still totally exposed. No faux plastic aggression, no thought of infotainment. Just the clank of oily metal meshing and thrashing, and the faint whiff of gasoline.
It's the kind of authenticity any marketer would kill for. Fifty years on, with the Z badly neglected and the Nismo Sentra more sow's ear than silk purse, the folks at Nissan seem happy to let a past legacy of performance fade into the shadows.
They shouldn't. The 510 marked the point where Japanese cars transcended a reputation for cheapness to become something truly special. It's still a footsoldier of the rising sun.
The Toyota 2000GT, beautiful as it may be, is a one-chapter story of what might have been. But the 510 laid the foundations of Japanese performance, making sure we'd experience the brutality of the R32 Skyline GT-R, the gravelly battles between the Mitsubishi EVO and the Subaru STI, the scream of the Lexus LFA.
From the outside, it was just a box, one designed to be inexpensive to buy and thrifty to run. It became a lasting hero, a machine that carried more weight than any esoteric supercar. Street, gravel, or circuit, the 510 arrived ready to rip it up at a moment's notice. It wasn't a halo car—the Dime was the real deal. It still is.
Writer - BRENDAN MCALEER