A $2000 Datsun 510 With Cannonball Run History

By Noelle Omer
Jan 4, 2018 | Datsun | Posted in Features | From the Oct. 2006 issue | Never miss an article

photos by mark langello

The Cannonball Run is the stuff of legend. Born in the early 1970s as the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, the Cannonball was an unbridled sprint from New York to California held on the public highways and byways of America.

It was a race in the purest sense: no rules, no car classifications, not even a defined course—just leave the start and get to the finish line before your opponents. That, and try not to get arrested.

Automotive journalist Brock Yates was the mad scientist behind the Cannonball, and its legend grew dramatically with the 1981 release of the star-packed comedy “The Cannonball Run,” a movie written by Yates himself. While he was obviously the major driving force behind the scenes, Yates wasn’t afraid to step into the spotlight at his own event.

Yates participated in everything from a Ferrari Daytona to the very same Dodge ambulance that’s featured in the movie, but at the first event in 1972—and then again in 1975—he ran a Dodge Challenger that had been built by NASCAR pro Cotton Owens. That Challenger’s massaged 360-cubic-inch V8 propelled the car into automotive and movie history, and like so many first-round success stories this V8 has made its way into a sequel.

Cast of Characters

“The Cannonball Run” may have featured major league talent like Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett and even Sammy Davis Jr., but this 510 became a reality thanks to a different crew: Jeff Benson, Sam Turner, Barry Brown and Roger Caimano.

The friends have been racing together for years and decided to join forces to build a Datsun 510 for the Kumho Tires Grassroots Motorsports $2005 Challenge. They ultimately created a car that looks like an A-list star and moves like a kung-fu stuntman.

“Barry and I teamed up in 1989,” Sam says. “I met Barry at lunch one day, 10 minutes later we shook hands and started Small Bucks Racing. We ran a bunch of Datsun Z-cars and roadsters in the SCCA and SVRA.” “Jeff and I raced [Datsun] roadsters,” Barry says of their early relationship. “We got to know each other at the Glen and have been friends ever since.”

This friendship, fueled by an addiction to building cheap race cars and mutual respect for big V8 horsepower, led them to pool their talents to restore this boxy Datsun and give it something special under the hood.

The Plot Thickens

Much like urban legends and horror movie villains wielding sharp objects, some things just won’t—or can’t—go away. Such is the case with the V8 from Yates’s Challenger.

“It’s his Cannonball engine,” Jeff says enthusiastically of the Dodge powerplant that ended up stuffed inside this 1972 Datsun 510. But it wasn’t the obvious choice for the project at first.

Once the team had finally decided on a 510, they had to figure out what to put under the hood. “We thought, ‘What can we build, what do we have around?’ We wanted the smallest car with the biggest horsepower,” Jeff explains.

Fortunately for the team, the Datsun was already in the family. “My brother had it and was going to build a race car out of it, but it was too far rotted,” Barry offers. After a bit of negotiating, the guys bought the car for $500. A Datsun 280Z parts car was also included in the deal.

Once home in the snow belt—Rochester, N.Y., to be precise—the reconstruction work could begin. Now that they had their lightweight chassis, they still needed to decide upon a powerplant. Roger had a Ford 302 ready to go—several Ford engines, in fact. Meanwhile, Barry had the Cannonball engine at his shop, as he had restored the Challenger for Brock and replaced the 360 with the car’s original heart.

“I was walking through the shop and saw the engine and said, ‘Let me give Brock a call,’” Barry says. “We had tried selling the motor, but no one was interested so we made a deal with him and got it.”

The Mopar was in pretty decent condition, produced a supposed 388 horsepower and had a bona fide outlaw history.

Now all they had to do was make it fit.

The Box Office

The Datsun had been wasting away in Ohio for about eight years, so the team wasn’t expecting a rust-free car. However, once they started hammering away, they unearthed a lot more rust and a lot less metal than they had hoped.

“It was crap,” Sam says. “The more we tore it down, the more we found.”

“Terrible,” Roger adds. The floorboards, transmission tunnel and part of the frame were cut away. “There was not one good fender,” Jeff says. While the team removed a good bit of the car, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“The new parts swapped right in with the firewall and tunnel out,” Barry says of the transplant. “We dropped in the engine and tranny, set them back a bit for equal weight distribution and then built everything around them.”

While the engine did fit, Roger says it took some effort, especially when working on the weight distribution. “It sat a little more forward than we would have liked,” he explains.

Once they were happy with the engine placement, the group began tackling the frame and body. Scrap metal square tubing was welded up to form a strong base for all the extra power, replacing everything that had been cut away.

With the car back in one piece and resembling a whole vehicle once again, the fun began. From their years racing Z-cars and roadsters, Barry and Jeff knew that many Datsun parts could swap over to the 510. The 280Z parts car included in the deal proved useful, as a good deal of its suspension bits were pilfered for the project.

The front suspension is all 280Z, including the rack-and-pinion steering setup. The third member from the Z was also used, although the factory 510 axles were retained. To help move more weight to the rear wheels—in a bid to help the car’s drag strip performance—Barry lengthened the front strut tubes by 41/2 inches. Threaded collars were added so the ride height can easily be returned to stock for autocross and track work. The rear rides on custom coil-overs made out of more used tubing.

The suspension took about three weeks to complete, but was well worth it, the team members say. The car, they report, handles like a dream with no ill manners. Thanks to the 280Z brakes, the car even stops. “With all that horsepower, I needed to be able to stop it,” Barry adds.

In addition to being fast, the car needed to be safe, too. Since the team had to do things on the cheap, a fancy roll cage actually designed for a Datsun 510 was out of the question. Smart shopping on Sam’s part yielded the perfect solution. “I found a cage for a Chevy Monza,” he says. “I found it and told Barry about it and he said, ‘We’ll make it work.’”

A Star Is Born

While having a stout suspension and a powerful, storied engine is great, the 510 needed some show with its go. Barry really likes the ’60s gasser-style hot rod look and decided to give it a go on the Datsun.

The once orange-yellow car was taken down to bare metal and resprayed white. The team was so thorough with their refinishing job that there isn’t one giveaway to the car’s original palette.

Vinyl graphics of the Cannonball logo, Dodge’s bumblebee design and an AARP joke all contribute to the vintage hot rod aesthetic. Between the rust repair, suspension design and paint, the team has about 1500 hours in the project, and it shows.

That’s a Wrap

Now that it’s all said and done, the car performs just as they wanted. It handles on par with the sportier Datsun Z-car and can tick off 13-second quarter-mile drag times, putting it on par with many of today’s top performance machines.

When on track, it has also overtaken a few Z-cars and a Mustang, much to the surprise of the other drivers. They just weren’t expecting to have a 510 filling their rearview mirrors.

While the engine hasn’t been apart in decades, it has performed flawlessly in the Datsun. It doesn’t smoke, can handle a 125-horsepower shot of nitrous and turns a bunch of heads thanks to a huge grumble burbling from the exhaust. The fact that the car bears Brock Yates’s signature is just icing on the cake.

“Brock loves it,” Sam says of the final product. “We asked if he wanted to drive it, but he said ‘No.’ I took him for a ride and he was smiling the whole time.”

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View comments on the GRM forums
Schump New Reader
1/6/18 9:31 p.m.

Very nice job building this 510.  That is a seriously cool car, made better by the fact that it has Brock Yates Cannonball Mopar motor in it. (Mostly Old Parts And Rust this motor is not.). Just like 9 out of ten Japanese cars, the 510 is a copycat.  Datsun, see a BMW 2002.  Like a 2002.  Copy a 2002.  Rename it a 510.  I've always liked both myself.


Speaking of Japanese copycat cars, Datsun see a Jaguar E Type.  Make a 240Z.  It even has the same type inline 6 engine.  Or my 1st car, my dad's 1976 Toyota Celica GT hatchback.  180,000 miles, original clutch.  I swear.  Apparently Toyota knows how to make clutches and Schumpert's know how to drive them.  I spoke with a lifetime Toyota mechanic and he told me the highest mileage clutch he ever saw was in a first generation pickup truck.  275,000!  He also said that original clutches always seemed to last longer than replacement.  (Toyota dealers enjoy it when customers come back for re-replacements sooner and leave a minimum $1500 poorer.). But what was I talking about?  My Celica is a carbon copy of a 1967 Mustang Fastback.  Every single styling cue was stolen.  The overhanging hood, the front fender line, the hump in the rear fender line, the vents behind the rear windows, the turned up rear hatch.  They just replaced a 289 with the efficient 20R.

te72 New Reader
1/7/18 12:31 a.m.

In reply to Schump :

Those first gen Celicas make for fantastic drag cars with a little bit of oomph and some grip out back. Turns out hauling around all that extra weight from the full size Mustang only serves to slow one down... personally I think the 3/4 scale size of the Celica really suits the design nicely!


Would have one in a heartbeat, if I happen to find the right one that isn't rotted through, when I have the cash. Turns out those two requirements never seem to line up at the same time, for better or worse.

SVreX MegaDork
1/7/18 7:11 a.m.

I loved that car. But it routinely gets overlooked. 

I haven't heard a word of it since the $2005 Challenge. 

Is Noelle still around, or is this a recycled 12 year old article?

(No problem if it's recycled- still liked the read)

SVreX MegaDork
1/7/18 7:12 a.m.

BTW, one of my favorite details about that car- the Challenger's badging ended up on the back of the 510- perfect for the $2005 Challenge!

John Welsh
John Welsh Mod Squad
1/7/18 10:32 a.m.

I too noticed, "when was the last time you saw a by-line from Noelle?" 

Crackers Dork
1/7/18 11:36 a.m.

I hate how this title was worded. 

I literally thought to myself, "ooh, that would probably be worth getting an extension on my taxes."

Stupid thing isn't for GD sale! 


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