the staff of Motorsport Marketing
the staff of Motorsport Marketing Writer
6/2/14 10:48 a.m.

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.

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