This is a 1968 Datsun 1500. But like that one friend from high school who left home early and inexplicably changed his name, the real 1500 is actually called a Bluebird. Or, if you bought one in the United States, it was called the 510. Which was actually its chassis code, because, I guess, we were lazy and couldn’t think up a good name. Anywho, whatever you call it, the 1500/Bluebird/510 looks the way it does because of two men: Teruo Uchino and Shiozo Sato. In a classic Miyagi-Daniel, Morpheus-Neo, Linus-Charlie Brown relationship, Sato mentored Uchino in the art of life and automobiles. Sato himself was responsible for some truly spectacular Japanese car designs, not the least of which was the Toyota S600, but it’s Teruo “Blockhead” Uchino who we’re going to focus on today. So what did he do exactly? And what’s a Datsun anyway? And how many outdated cultural references will crop up in this post? Find out below!
Let’s put a pin in the Uchino/Sato relationship for a moment, and answer that second question first. Namely: what’s up with Datsun? Well, it is, shockingly, a bit less Forgotten-Metal-obscure and a bit more commonplace than you may think. See, Datsun is the name of the company that eventually became Nissan, who today make mildly boring sedans and SUVs for people who like mochaccinos and texting while driving. Also the GT-R. But that wasn’t always the case. In 1934, Nissan Motors was formed in Japan following the union of DAT Automobile Company and Jitsuyo Automobile company. This reorganization spawned a nifty little two seater that someone had the bright idea to call the “son of DAT,” or Datson. But, as is the case with good stories, there was a problem. See, “Datson” was a little too close to the Japanese phase for “to lose money.” Kind of like the urban legend surrounding the Chevy Nova. So Nissan changed the name slightly, to Datsun. The benefits were twofold. First, it allowed the company to use the image of a rising sun- long a national symbol of Japanese identity- as the car’s logo. And second, it gave them a little bit of marketing armor. See, around the time all of this was happening, a hurricane famously destroyed one of Nissan’s major factories. The sun motif was seen as a good luck charm, as the sun keeps bad weather away.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and the brewing Sato/Uchino bromance. Sato had done a few favors for Nissan during his career, and used his connections at the company to get a position for the Robin to his Batman: Teruo Uchino. Nissan, acting with what appeared to be a “baptism by fire” approach, tasked the rookie Uchino with drawing up a replacement for the popular Datsun 410, which was designed in Italy and quite beautiful. This was no simple task. The company was looking for something between an Italian and a British design, but what he came up with was perhaps a little more German than anything else. Some even speculate that Uchino cribbed the 510’s design from the BMW’s “New Class” series, but I’m not so sure. Look at some of the cars that Sato, Uchino’s mentor, put out- namely the Datsun roadster. Or look at some of the Japanese cars of the time period, like the Nissan Laurel or the Toyota Crown. The 510 is a distinctly Japanese design, even if that says more about the state of Japanese car design in general than it does this specific car. I think it’s good looking- in fact, the more I look at it the better it seems to become. There’s a simplicity to it, but that’s okay. Anonymity doesn’t have to be unsexy.
The 510’s performance was mainly down to one man: Yutaka Katayama. Mr. K, as he was affectionately known, was the President of Nissan USA. Much like Agent K of Men In Black, Mr K was a bit of an outsider. He was a Japanese Catholic, he built his own prototype racecars, and even took a team of drivers to Australia to compete in a 10,000 mile rally called Red-Ex, which is said to be one of the most difficult races in the world. And guess what? They won, making the event Nissan’s first international racing victory! So in short, Mr K was a car guy- a mentality which transferred over to his ideas for the 510. Which meant that the engine in the early 510 was something pretty unique, especially if you consider Frankenstein’s monster pretty unique. The block was very similar to a 2.0 liter unit found in a Datsun sports car that was released a few months prior to the 510. The engine used single overhead camshafts that were heavily influenced by Mercedes Benz and a company that Datsun had recently partnered with called Prince Motorcars. All told, the engine developed 150 horsepower which, coupled with a fully independent suspension and the 510’s relatively light weight, made this quite the sprightly performer. Well, not this particular one. Mexican 510s got a different engine, a 1.6, that made about 97 horsepower coupled to a 4 speed manual. This one’s a four door sedan, but you could also get a two door sedan, a wagon (!) or a coupe.
But here’s the relevant cultural tie-in. The 510 was replaced in 1973, but Nissan kept making cars of this size well into, well, today. It’s not called a 510 anymore, it’s called a Sentra, and it’s gotten significantly more boring. In Mexico it’s called the Tsuru, which is used as the cab of Puebla. Which is kind of appropriate, because last week’s Beetle was the official cab of Mexico City. So that’s kind of fun. In 1984 Datsun finally changed its name to Nissan, which ended up being a $500 million dollar move, given their need to change the names on all the Datsun dealerships and the Datsun advertisements. They actually changed their marketing tagline from “Datsun, We Are Driven!” to “The Name Is Nissan,” which comes off as a bit passive aggressive to me. “The Name is Nissan,” they’d say, as if we were the type of people who consistently forgot new acquaintance’s names, moments after meeting them. Which is totally not an insight into my personal life.
- The Datsun name is back! But only in Russia, Indonesia and India, as a kind of low budget version of Nissan. Which is a little strange, as Nissans are pretty cheap as it is.
- 510s are now becoming quite valuable, especially in the tuning community, on account of their BMW-esque performance. Here (and here) are a couple of my favorites.