Bluebirds Fly

By Staff Writer
Feb 27, 2018 | Datsun, Nissan | Posted in Features | From the Feb. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

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Story and Photos By Peter Brock

Datsun 510 owners are a pretty fanatical bunch. It’s no surprise, though. Just look at their object of obsession: a 40-year-old legend that was once the scourge of the 2.5 Trans-Am series yet can still hold its own against some modern sports cars.

A seductive combination of price, performance and availability—plus a solid dose of historical relevance—make these wonderful old Japanese classics popular with today’s tin-top crowd. Datsun 510s are even attracting fans and racers from a generation that wasn’t around when they were new.

As any hardcore 510 owner will tell you, these cars are just as much fun off track—even if you’re just arguing about them. The mere mention of the name “Datsun” among rabid BMW and Alfa Romeo aficionados will reignite the longterm debate regarding the SCCA’s final—and controversial—2.5 Trans-Am race at Laguna Seca in 1971.

Jim Froula, owner of a slick 1967 Datsun Bluebird Coupe, sums up the car’s advantage with a knowing grin: “Cheaper is faster!” At first, the more established and highly revered German and Italian offerings were considered sportier than their late-arriving econobox rivals from Japan. That all changed in the late ’60s when the 2.5 Trans-Am series became the SCCA’s favorite low-cost professional series.

On the East Coast, Bob Sharp Racing hammered the locals with three hot 510s for himself, Jim Fitzgerald and a fairly well-known actor who raced under the nom de guerre of P.L. Newman.

On the Left Coast, a team of BRE Datsun 510s was also dominant, eventually sweeping the SCCA’s 2.5-liter Trans-Am series in ’71 and ’72. The BRE 510 racers essentially killed the series because they were seldom beaten. The serious Alfa and BMW competition simply gave up, leaving the grids empty.

A Man and His Car

Jim Froula of Woodinville, Washington, has been an enthusiastic 510 racer since 1992, when he built his first Datsun. Remarkably, that fast four-door example is still racing in Northwest vintage events.

“I went through a series of different cars after that first 510,” Jim explains, “but I finally realized I’d had more fun in the Datsun than anything else, so eventually I began looking for another.”

Jim was searching for a clean, race-prepared two-door car, but during his quest he happened to learn about one of the ultra-rare Datsun Bluebird coupes. These machines were produced for home market consumption, so they could only come to the States through private import. There are probably less than a dozen of these right-hand-drive, fastback versions in the country.

“I went down to Los Angeles to check it out and decided right then I had to have it,” he recalls. “It was really beautiful but in pretty sad mechanical condition, so the price was right. The only negative was that I had to start from scratch to build a race car.”

That turned out to be an asset, as Jim’s race car building and prep skills had improved since 1992. In fact, his talent had created enough of a following in the Northwest that he was able to open a shop, Racecraft of Woodinville, Washington, with partner Terry Forland.

Jim knew exactly which components would work best in his new weapon. Most of the race parts were over-the-counter components available through local Datsun dealers. However, it’s not as easy to locate the rare bits, like the five-speed gearbox originally fitted to Datsun’s 2000 roadster.

These days, Jim and Terry service some 15 to 20 cars full time for the Northwestern vintage circuit. Jim is so busy that he feels he never has enough time to work on his own racer. Of course, he’s thankful the Datsun Coupe is so reliable that it doesn’t require the constant attention of some of his client’s cars.

“The one smart thing I did was have Dave Rebello build the engine,” Jim admits. “That alone has saved me hours of time, as this engine has been bulletproof. I have four seasons on this engine, run the rpm to the limit every race, and it’s still within half a second of when I first ran it!”

Dave, of Antioch, California, specializes in Nissan race engines but also services a surprising number of other marques as well. The rugged 1.6-liter mill found in Jim’s Datsun is typical of Dave’s expertise.

A Car and Its Legacy

Jim’s Bluebird Coupe is the most handsome example of Datsun’s famed line of 510s. The designers likely started with its hardtop styling, then worked backward into the less glamorous two- and four-door models meant to sell at a lower price.

“I don’t know why this model was never imported,” Jim adds. “I guess they figured they’d concentrate on the mass market and not try to compete with the more upscale European sedans.”

That plan was ultimately successful for Nissan, as the standard two-door sedan initially sold for less than $4000 and became wildly popular with America’s first generation of Japanese import tuners. Thanks to its tough, high-revving L-series OHC engine and modern four-wheel independent suspension, the 510 soon became one of the best performance values on the market.

The fact that the standard four-speed transmission could be easily swapped for a five-speed box was the first indication that 510s had tremendous track potential. The standard 4-inch wheels could be upgraded to a set of wider alloys. For a less expensive but just as effective option, Corvair rims could also be fitted. When mounted with a set of fat performance tires, the wheels completely changed the car’s image from econobox to sports sedan.

It wasn’t long before pioneer import tuners like BRE had every imaginable hop-up component available, from complete race engines to turnkey race cars for serious enthusiasts. With backing from Nissan USA’s forward-thinking president, Yutaka Katayama, BRE and Bob Sharp Racing soon morphed into the factory’s de facto race teams and controlled B Sedan and Trans-Am 2.5 in the SCCA’s amateur and pro ranks.

Sadly, Yutaka’s age forced him into retirement, and Nissan slipped from its position as king of the imports. With no proper performance guidance to lead the company’s newly installed regime in America, for a while Nissan’s influence on the race track all but disappeared.

That has changed in recent years thanks to backing from Nismo, Nissan’s ever-enthusiastic performance development center in Japan. The marque has again come to the forefront with its stunning GT-R.

Looking back, if it hadn’t been for Yutaka’s dream and the innovative 510 that he introduced, enthusiasts like Jim Froula wouldn’t be having so much fun today—and Nissan might never have become so well entrenched in the American scene.

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View comments on the GRM forums
2/28/18 6:30 p.m.

Great read, of course I am partial, as I own two full race SCCA 510,s two doors, and I have A street car, two door 510 which needs restoration. Iam in west coast of Florida, and I just do not see them on the street or craigslist.

I dropped a Nissan CA18ET, in one car, to race in the chump or champ car races, they laugh at tech and give me a 500 lap penalty. Or darn close to it, Sebring, Daytona, Miami Homestead, where a hoot. Enjoy GR. Mag.  good job  folks.






Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
2/28/18 6:35 p.m.

In reply to popeyensweetp :

Thanks for the kind words. Those sound like some awesome Datsuns. And we had a similar penalty lap situation with our turbocharged Miata. 

Donebrokeit SuperDork
2/28/18 9:41 p.m.

kind of disappointed.


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