Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
1/10/18 3:38 p.m.


The Datsun 510 showed the world that Japan could build a sports sedan. Fifty years later, it remains a solid cult classic.

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In stock configuration, the Datsun 510 is tough as nails. The driveline is nearly bulletproof, with most cars going well past 100,000 miles and many reaching 200,000 with no more than regular maintenance.

The car’s four-cylinder, L-series engine was a new design for Datsun, introduced in 1 968 in the 510. The engine was so durable it saw 13 years of use in North America with displacements ranging from 1.3 to 2.0 liters. This might as well be a millennium for Japanese engine architecture use.

The brakes and suspension are equally reliable. U.S. market cars came with disc brakes on a MacPherson strut suspension up front, with drum brakes in the rear. Sedans had semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension while wagons had a live rear axle. The suspension engineering was cutting edge for the day. Its design is simplistic and provided longterm durability.

One of this car’s biggest enemies is rust. The metal in these cars is thin and lacks any of today’s rust-inhibiting alloys or coatings. Most of the Rust Belt cars are no longer around because road salt ate them alive. To prevent the loss of any more 510s to rust, here is my prevention list:

Don’t drive your 510 on winter roads. Salt is an atomic bomb that will destroy your beloved car.

Water leaks can be nearly as bad as winter driving. Water gets inside the car and sits in the carpet and sound deadening, keeping the sheet metal wet. Make sure all door, window and trunk lid seals are intact. The windshield and rear window gaskets can be a problem area as well. Keep an eye on all your rubber seals and gaskets and make sure they are doing their job.

Clean up any areas of surface rust and coat them with a rust stabilizer like POR-15. Pull out the carpets, remove the tar sound deadening, and coat these areas. Stop all rust, as minor as it may be, before it gets worse.

Keeping a 510 mechanically sound is all about regular maintenance. The car has a much more regimented general maintenance schedule than today’s cars have. Get a factory service manual; read and follow it.

Learn how to adjust your valves and do it on schedule. The same goes for the ignition system, which uses points and a condenser. The spark plugs will need to be changed much more often. Do oil and filter changes at 3000-mile intervals using high-zinc oil.

Grease your front suspension. Repack the front wheel bearings and change your transmission and rear end fluids. I’ll bet neither the front wheel bearings nor driveline fluids have ever been touched. Remember, use only GL-4 gear lube for the 510. The car has brass synchro rings, and they don’t like GL-5 gear lube. This will keep your 510 running well for much longer.

Now, to start improving these cars, as a race car builder and driver, my modifications are always about performance. In fact I get a real kick out of seeing webcasts featuring full-on race cars being passed off as street cars. For me, comfort is low on the list.

My inner 16-year-old screams, "Add power!” as the stock output is just 96 horsepower. But the more responsible decision is to address the suspension first. The 510 has a fairly high ride height in stock form and originally rolled on 5.60–13 bias-ply tires. Any real power increase in a stock car has the potential to put you in trouble real fast.

So start with handling improvements. I like my 510s low and tight. Drop the ride height by 3 inches, maybe more. Install 300 lbs./in. springs matched with high quality shocks and struts–Koni or Bilstein. Run a big 1.125-inch sway bar up front and ultra-high-performance 200-treadwear tires on 15-inch wheels on all four corners.

Tires are a maintenance item, so it’s easy to justify that expense as no cost. Likely you will want to upsize your rim diameter, as suitable 13-inch tires are no longer available-one more justification for making the change. Good wheels and tires will not only improve handling, but, if chosen fashionably, will improve your 510’s appearance. This is why I say this change is my best 510 improvement, bang for the buck.

If you’re shopping for a Datsun 510, you first need to decide which model you would like to own. After all, they were available in a couple different shapes. Here’s a list of the most desirable models–from top to bottom-in my opinion.

Coupe: RHD-only, Japanese build over South African. Two-door sedan: RHD from Japan. Two-door sedan: LHD for North America. Wagon: RHD or LHD, all markets. Four-door: RHD or LHD, all markets. Once you’ve chosen your desired car, there are many important items that should be investigated. Always ask questions when viewing a car. Here are some points to guide you:

Look for a structurally solid car. The parts to service the mechanicals are still readily available. Aftermarket exterior body panels are now available, but the floor/under-car sheet metal parts are not–and can be expensive and/or time-consuming to fabricate. Be wary of repainted and repaired cars. The value of 510s has increased significantly over the past few years. Vehicle values often drive the quality of crash/rust repair work, so older work could be substandard. Always bring a magnet to check for excessively thick body filler. Modifications: Beware of these, especially any that are of the cut-and-weld type. Poor fabrication not only detracts from a car’s appearance, but can be unsafe-see item No. 1 above. If you don’t like a modification, look at what is needed to return it to stock. Given the trend toward stock body appearance, you may want to remove flares, so thoroughly inspect their installation; Many have structural modifications that will require repair before the car can be returned to stock configuration. Engine swaps: While these can be very cool, a poorly done install or an unusual engine can be problematic. Any newer EFI engine swap can be a nightmare if done poorly, especially if it is an offshore market engine. Carburetor-based engines generally are the simplest and create the least hassle. Look out for any cut-and-weld modifications done during a swap. “Keeping a 510 mechanically sound is all about regular maintenance.”

“My inner 16-year-old screams, “Add power!” as the stock output is just 96 horsepower. But the more responsible decision is to address the suspension first.”

“Given the trend toward stock body appearance, you may want to remove flares, so thoroughly inspect their installation.”

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