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Datsun 510: The Do-Everything Dime


Story by Alan Cesar

Coupe, sedan and wagon. Trans-Am champion. Reliable enough for the Baja 1000. Timeless looks. Street cred with all age groups. Rear-wheel drive. Cheap!

What is this mythical creature, this answer to all your automotive needs and desires? You’ve seen it before at vintage races, at Japanese car shows, in old race photos, at autocrosses and drift events—or maybe rusting to pieces, neglected, in someone’s back yard. It’s the Datsun 510.

Reliability is its strong suit, but its looks also never went out of style. This is the car that introduced the broader American market to the durable Japanese car. It was the first Datsun that sold here in big numbers, though the sales were largely on the East and West Coasts. Not many 510s made it inland.

Introduced to America in 1968 and sold through ’73, this car was designed squarely for mass-market appeal; the forthcoming 240Z was planned to enter the sports car realm. It was something of a surprise when the 510 turned out to be an incredibly capable competition machine, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been: Yutaka Katayama, the so-called father of the Z-car, was also responsible for the 510.

Sedans and coupes are suspended at all corners by struts, which is something of a marvel in itself: Independent rear suspension was still somewhat exotic at the time. Wagons got a live axle at the back. Teruo Uchino, the man credited with the car’s bodywork, was influenced by European cars of the era. With its 1.6-liter SOHC engine, the car aimed squarely at the BMW 1600.

It wasn’t long before the 510 was called “the poor man’s BMW” and “the little shoebox that could.” Fans nicknamed it the Nickel-Dime (often shortened to just Dime) for its numeric designation; in its home market, it was the Bluebird.

Once enthusiasts and racers got their hands on the 510, its chassis bore fruit. In 1969, it finished fourth and seventh in a class of 34 entrants in the Baja 1000. Only 10 of those 34 even made it to the finish line that year. The 510 also wore red, white and blue livery—a clever PR move to endear Americans to the car—while winning the 1971 and ’72 Trans-Am championships at the hands of John Morton. The cars in both of these efforts were built by the now-legendary Peter Brock and his crew at Brock Racing Enterprises.

If you want to build a tribute, BRE is making it easier. You can buy the exact fiberglass air dam that ran on his Trans-Am cars. They’re even still made by the same company: BRE. Complete decal packs—in the original fonts and colors—and reproduction wheels are also available.

That’s not to say it’ll be a fast car to drive. With just 96 horsepower to haul around those 2130 pounds, you’ll be driving that slow car hard—or looking for upgrades. Engine swaps are the hot ticket here.

Look to other Nissan products for the easy upgrades. The 2.0-liter L20B engines fit easily and bolt in place with few modifications. It’s a 30-horsepower increase, but it also brings lots more torque with little weight gain. Want more than that? The Nissan world is your buffet. Everything from Nissan’s SR20-series four-bangers to VG30-series V6s have been made to fit—even Mazda’s turbo rotaries have been swapped by ambitious owners.

The 1968-’73 Dimes are going up in price, so grab a good one while you can still afford it. Building one will require a bit of a scavenger hunt, but the final product will be endlessly rewarding whether you hang with vintage racers, autocrossers, drifters or the show-car crowd.

Shopping and Ownership

Les Cannaday, the owner of Classic Datsun Motorsports, has built many 510s and other Datsuns over the years—including most of Adam Carolla’s collection. Classic Datsun Motorsports has been running for 20 years. Les shared some of these tips with us.

Owning a 510 requires a do-it-yourself attitude. An old car with a young following is a tricky thing to maintain, and the aftermarket isn’t as robust as it is for, say, the Z-car. Look to the community to answer your questions, and expect to find a lot of old websites with good information but dead links.

You can benefit the 510 community by supporting shops that build quality parts. Many owners got into old Datsuns because they were inexpensive, and then put cheap parts and modifications into them. This aided the spread of inferior parts; for example, it’s difficult to find a rear window seal that actually works.

The Dime Quarterly, a 510-centric publication, went Web-only earlier this year. They’re a collection of 510 enthusiasts who have been writing about the 510 since the mid-’90s. Their blog has back issues and is full of technical information, old articles from mainstream magazines, and event listings.

If you’re keeping the L-series engine, you can build it for street duty to make a reliable 150 to 160 horsepower. Stronger pistons, connecting rods, and high-performance camshafts are all available. You can get individual throttle body kits and fit it with fuel injection, too.

A cheaper route to rebuilding an L-series engine is the modern swap. Many four-cylinder Nissan engines will work using some combination of OEM Nissan engine mounts. The KA24-series engine is an easy and cheap way to get horsepower and torque, and modern engines have a higher performance ceiling than the L-series. Modified crossmembers and engine mounts are available to make the swap easy.

The 510 makes a wonderful vintage racer, and L-series race engines running 110 octane gas make around 190 horses. Expect to spend about $40,000 to build a competitive vintage race car. Ongoing costs are low: The driveline is robust, and the car is easy on consumables.

Expect difficulty with trim pieces on first- and last-year models. The 1968 and 1973 cars had a lot of unique parts, including the emblems and grilles. The first-year car also had a horizontal speedometer; the last year of production was the only one in which 510s had illuminated switches inside and were not offered in sedan form.

Two-door cars are getting rarer and more expensive. Save a few bucks by opting for the sedan or wagon. Each shape has its own group of aficionados, so there’s kinship regardless of which you choose. Look for decent two-door Dimes between $4000 and $8000, with pristine cars selling in the teens and higher.

-- Alan Cesar

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