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Classic Car

The dawn of the Nissan sports car Add to ...

Nissan today builds two of the world's great sports cars - the everyman's 370 Z and the everyman with twice as much in the bank and a hankering to go really fast's GT-R - but the company's sports car chronology had its beginnings in a kernel of enthusiasm that sprouted from the scorched earth of the Second World War and a little roadster with a reputation for handling like a truck.

Datsun's (as Nissan was then known) first effort, the Sport of 1952, wasn't a success, but it rekindled the company's sporting fire and led to the S211 later in the decade and then, in the early 1960s, to the Fairlady roadsters whose successors would be the Z-cars that wowed the automotive world in 1969.

Back in 1951. Datsun was still struggling to keep the wheels rolling, building about 15,000 vehicles, mainly trucks, that year. But somebody was obviously looking ahead to better times and pushed through a program to build a sports car.

The low-yen project was handed to design chief Yuichi Ohta who was told he could use anything he could find in the company's parts bins. And as that was mostly truck bits, that's what he based the DC-3 or Datsun Sport of 1952 on.

He employed the truck's chassis and 860-cc flathead four, which made all of 25 hp and its three-speed gearbox. The truck grille and hood were retained, flanked by swoopy fenders and open four-seater bodywork added.

This first sporting effort could struggle up to about 70 km/h (about one fifth of the current GT-R's top whack) but not out of Datsun showrooms. Only 50 were built and just 30 sold, the rest being divested of their sporty duds and put back into working clothes as trucks.

Datsun kept Ohta busy designing trucks and cars for the next few years before embarking on its next sports car project, which resulted in the S211 of 1959.

This one didn't drive like a truck, but more like the humble little 211 sedan it was based on. The 211 chassis and 37-hp, 998-cc four-cylinder engine with four-speed floor-shifted transmission was clad in a fibreglass body that looked a little more than vaguely like that of the Austin-Healey 3000. Some were sold in the U.S., a market Datsun had just entered.

But Japan, never mind the world, still wasn't ready for a Datsun sports car yet and only 20 were built. It was replaced in 1960 by the almost identically styled but steel-bodied and 48-hp, 1.2-litre-engined SPL212 ,which was also the first Datsun to wear the Fairlady badge, and which evolved into the 60-hp SPL 212.

In its first decade as a sports car builder, Datsun had built just over 500 of them, but that was soon to change with the arrival of the Fairlady 310, which was mobbed on its Tokyo Motor Show stand in 1961.

1952 remembered

King George V1 dies and Queen Elizabeth II is crowned his successor. She will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. aired Canada's first television programming in Montreal and Toronto. Something like 85,000 TV sets were sold in Canada that year, most in Ontario where U.S. stations could be received.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports racing coupes, with their distinctive gull-wing doors, made their competition debut, winning at Le Mans and in the rugged Mexican Carrera Panamericana open road race.

The keel was laid for the Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine, marking the beginning of a new era. And the liner SS United States made her first voyage across the Atlantic, marking the beginning of the end of another era.

The look was now contemporary, conceptually similar to the MGB (introduced a year later) but somebody in the styling department obviously had a taste for pasta rather than fish and chips. An odd feature was its sideways-facing single rear seat. Its level of equipment was high with wind-up windows, radio and heater.

Mechanically, it was more or less on a par with its mid-priced Brit competition. It was based on the new and sophisticated Bluebird 310 sedan, but fitted with a larger 1.5-litre engine that produced 77 hp. Underneath was a conventional frame with independent front and live axle rear suspension and rear drum brakes all round. It was good for about 150 km/h.

It was followed in 1963 by the updated Datsun 1500 version with twin-carb 85-hp engine and marked a milestone for Japanese motoring that year when G. Tahara piloted one to a class victory, over a field of Triumph TR4s, MGBs and Fiats, in the Japan Grand Prix at Suzuka.

The car remained largely unchanged in styling terms but in 1964 lost its third seat and in 1965 gained a 1.6-litre engine making 96 hp, plus an all-synchro four-speed gearbox and front disc brakes. In 1967, the 1.6 engine was joined by a 2.0-litre unit making 150 hp, which also came with a new five-speed gearbox. Safety changes to meet U.S. requirements - 80 per cent of Nissan sports cars came to North America in the 1960s - were made in 1968.

The last of these classic-style roadsters were built in 1970, overlapping production with the new 240Z coupe.

And how on earth did Datsun sports cars acquire the Fairlady name, that's still employed in Japan to this day? It seems the company president at the time, Katsuji Kawamata, took in a performance of the My Fair Lady while on a visit to the U.S. and decided it would make a good name for a car he hoped would have as successful and long a run as the musical - which, while whimsical, has proven prophetic.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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