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Drive Culture Celebrating the Datsun 510, a ‘poor man’s BMW’

The Datsun 510, once considered a ‘poor man’s BMW.’

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The car is an utter sweetheart. Clean, squared-off lines, a curb weight under a thousand kilograms and a fizzy little four-pot 1.6-litre engine underhood. Less than 10,000 miles on the odometer and a flawless original interior.

Fifty years ago, the 510 arrived in Canada, resulting in a three-fold increase in sales and making Datsun the import brand to beat.

This particular time capsule is a 1972 510 coupe, fitted with widened fenders to match the contemporary Trans-Am racing machines. In 1971 and 1972, American John Morton drove the iconic red-and-white-liveried Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) 510s to back-to-back victories, ensuring Datsun’s lasting racing legacy. Yet the genius of the 510 isn’t restricted to its on-track performance.

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“It's a little loose when you first turn in,” said owner Lorne Freeman, “But then it takes a set in the corner, and you can see why they're so special.”

Freeman and his longtime friend Geoff Peterson run a popular local enthusiast meetup they've dubbed Carbs and Coffee. Today, Peterson's brought out his Porsche 912 to play, its air-cooled four-cylinder engine well-matched to the 510's modest-but-eager power.

A 1972 Datsun 510, on display at the Carbs and Coffee event in Vancouver.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The 510′s single-carbureted four-cylinder makes just 96 hp, but snorts with lusty induction noise and doesn’t have much metal to push around. The car behaves just as Freeman describes, roll-shouldered into the corner but surprisingly sticky. Then, unwind the steering and surf out on the throttle, grinning at the rasp and roar of a forty-six year old econobox with a heart of gold.

Datsun officially landed in Canada in January of 1965, headquartered in Vancouver. Originally called Nissan Automobile Canada Ltd., the company was entirely separate from its U.S. counterpart, dealing directly with Nissan head offices in Yokohama.

Nissan was the corporate name, Datsun was the export brand. The brand originated in the early 1930s, when the DAT corporation produced a smaller car line called Datson, for son-of-DAT. Datson was changed to Datsun almost immediately, to associate it with the rising sun, and became a popular passenger-car manufacturer, with Nissan taking over in 1934. In the post-WWII period, executives concerned that export markets would associate the Nissan name with wartime-material production chose to ship out their first efforts carrying the Datsun badge.

The 510 first appeared in Canada in 1968, selling at a price of $2,195.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

A handful of independent Canadian dealers had been selling Datsuns in the early 1960s, but Nissan’s full entry into the market brought immediate expansion. Some eighty-four dealers were opened in the first year, and regional offices were quickly established in eastern Canada. The 510 showed up in 1968, selling for a very reasonable $2,195. By 1971, Datsun was the top-selling import brand in Canada.

“When I was working for Toyota, we were always talking about how we were going to catch up to Datsun,” joked Ian Forsyth, retired director of corporate and product planning for Nissan Canada.

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The 510 is sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s BMW,” and indeed, its father Yutaka Katayama benchmarked the BMW 2002 as he shepherded its design. Mr. K. was also largely responsible for the stunning 240Z, a sports car that’s just beginning to come into its own as a recognized collectible to rival the likes of contemporary air-cooled Porsche 911s.

The Datsun photographed next to a vintage Porsche in Vancouver.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Datsun’s success wasn’t all down to the flashy stuff. Also in the lineup were vehicles like the plucky little Sunny, known first in Canada simply by its engine displacement (e.g. The Datsun 1200), and later as the B210. Fuel-economy tests performed by the EPA in the United States and Transport Canada showed the 1200 to be the most efficient vehicle on the market. When the energy crises of the 1970s hit, Datsun sales soared.

The 510, or “Dime” as its fans call it, was nearly as efficient to run as its more modestly-powered siblings, and also easily modified for greater power and speed. In the U.S., successful factory-backed racing efforts changed the way people thought about disposable Japanese small cars. In Canada, 510 owners were active in club-racing and rallying, and even today, the Dime remains popular across generations.

But the golden age couldn't last. As the 1970s progressed, the 240Z became the 260Z became the 280Z, gaining power but also weight with every generation. The 610 and 710 that succeeded the 510 were likewise larger and clumsier than their ancestors.

In the early 1980s, Nissan’s Canadian operations moved from B.C. to Ontario. In the U.S., the company went about changing vehicle branding from Datsun to Nissan for the latter’s 50th anniversary. Canada performed the transition even more quickly.

More than 40 years later, the 510 remains a fun little car to drive.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

“There was a sense of wanting to make it clear what we stood for and get things over with,” said Forsyth, who joined Nissan in 1983 as the national marketing manager.

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For Nissan, the 1980s were a time to be weathered. There was a recession, import sales were curtailed, and the competition caught up. Increasing small-truck sales helped keep the company afloat, with a scruffy Sgt. Mike Belkin (actor Bruce Weitz) from Hill Street Blues hawking the scrappy Nissan King Cab pickup for just $7,994.

Despite becoming ever more closely allied with Nissan’s U.S. operations, Canada remained a unique market. Our version of the high-roofed Stanza wagon was called the Multi, as befitted its multipurpose nature. In 1984, we got the thrifty little Micra, a fuel-sipping descendant of the 1200. In 2005, while the U.S. market contented itself with the rugged body-on-frame Xterra, Forsyth worked hard to bring the compact-but-practical X-Trail to Canada. Its success perhaps foreshadowed the current crossover frenzy.

Today, it’s hard to pick a car from the Nissan range that best fits the spirit of the original Datsuns. Perhaps it’s the current Micra, which is among the least expensive cars in Canada yet has its own one-make racing series. Perhaps it’s the funky little Kicks, which is a lot more fun to drive than its lowly 125 hp rating might indicate.

Whatever direction the modern company might take, Datsun fans all across Canada carefully preserve their beloved cars. On a sunny day, you’ll see them out there. 510s, Fairlady roadsters, 240Zs and 260Zs, and yes, perhaps even a 1200. All deceptively simple. All lovely to drive, in their way. And every one of them still a sweetheart, still well-loved.

Datsun fans all across Canada carefully preserve their beloved cars.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

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