Monday, November 12, 2012

Datsun 510: The Do-Everything Dime

Coupe, sedan and wagon. Trans-Am champion. Reliable enough for the Baja 1000. Timeless looks. Street cred with all age groups. Rear-wheel drive. Cheap!

What is this mythical creature, this answer to all your automotive needs and desires? You’ve seen it before at vintage races, at Japanese car shows, in old race photos, at autocrosses and drift events—or maybe rusting to pieces, neglected, in someone’s back yard. It’s the Datsun 510.

Reliability was its strong suit, but its looks also never went out of style. This is the car that introduced the broader American market to the durable Japanese car. It was the first Datsun that sold in big numbers, though the sales were largely on the east and west coasts. Not many 510s made it inland.

Introduced to America in 1968 and sold through ‘73, this car was aimed squarely at mass-market appeal; the forthcoming 240Z was planned to enter the sports car realm. It was something of a surprise when the 510 turned out to be an incredibly capable competition machine, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been: Yutaka Katayama, the so-called father of the Z-car, was also responsible for the 510.

Sedans and coupes are suspended at all corners by struts, which is something of a marvel in itself: Independent rear suspension was still somewhat exotic at the time. Wagons got a live axle at the back. Teruo Uchino, the man credited with the car’s bodywork, was influenced by European cars of the era. With its 1.6-liter SOHC engine, the car aimed squarely at the BMW 1600.

It wasn’t long before the 510 was called the “poor man’s BMW,” or “the little shoebox that could.” Fans nicknamed it the nickel-dime (often shortened to just “dime”) for its numeric designation; in its home market, it was the Bluebird.

Once enthusiasts and racers got their hands on the 510, its chassis bore fruit. In 1969, it finished fourth and seventh in a class of 34 entrants in the Baja 1000. Only 10 of those 34 even made it to the finish line that year. The 510 also wore red, white and blue livery—a clever PR move to endear Americans to the car—while winning the 1971 and ’72 Trans-Am championships at the hands of John Morton. The cars in both of these efforts were built by the now-legendary Pete Brock and Brock Racing Enterprises.

If you want to build a tribute, BRE is making it easier. You can buy the exact fiberglass air dam that ran on his Trans-Am cars. They’re even made by the same company. Complete decal packs—in the original fonts and colors—and reproduction wheels are also available.

That’s not to say it’ll be a fast car to drive. With just 96 horsepower to haul around those 2130 lbs., you’ll be driving that slow car hard—or looking for upgrades. Engine swaps are the hot ticket here.

Look to other Nissan products for the easy upgrades. L20B engines fit easily and bolt in place with few modifications. It’s a 30 horsepower increase, but also brings lots more torque with little weight gain.

Want more than that? The Nissan world is your buffet. Everything from Nissan’s SR20-series four-bangers to VG30-series V6s have been made to fit—even Mazda’s turbo rotaries have been swapped by ambitious owners.

The ‘68-‘73 dimes are going up in price, so grab a good one while you can still afford it. It’s a timeless shoebox in any shape you want. Building one will be a bit of a scavenger hunt, but the final product will be endlessly rewarding whether you hang with vintage racers, autocrossers, drifters, or the show-car crowd.

Les Cannaday, the owner of Classic Datsun Motorsports, has built many 510s and other Datsuns over the years—including most of Adam Carolla’s collection. Classic Datsun Motorsports has been running for 20 years. Les shared some of these tips with us.

A do-it-yourself attitude is required in 510 ownership. An old car with a young following is a strange place to be, and the aftermarket isn’t as robust as with, say, the Z car. Look to the community to answer your questions, and expect to find a lot of old websites with good information but dead links.

You can benefit the 510 community by supporting shops that build quality parts. Many owners got into old Datsuns because they were cheap, and then put cheap parts and modifications into them. This aided the spread of inferior parts; for example, it’s difficult to find a rear window seal that actually works.

The Dime Quarterly, a 510-centric publication, went web-only earlier this year. They’re a collection of 510 enthusiasts who have been writing about the 510 since the mid-‘90s. Their blog has back-issues and is full of technical information, old articles from mainstream magazines, and event listings.

If you’re keeping with an L-series engine, you can build it for street duty to make a reliable 150 to 160 horsepower. Stronger pistons, connecting rods, and high-performance camshafts are all available. You can get individual throttle body kits and fit it with fuel injection, too.

A cheaper route to rebuilding an L-series engine is the modern swap. Many four-cylinder Nissan engines will work using some combination of OEM Nissan engine mounts. The KA24-series engine is an easy and cheap way to get horsepower and torque, and modern engines have a higher performance ceiling than the L-series. Modified crossmembers and engine mounts are available to make the swap easy.

L-series race engines running 110 octane gas make around 190 horses. Expect to spend about $40,000 to build a competitive vintage race car. Ongoing costs are low: The driveline is robust, and the car is easy on consumables.

Expect difficulty with trim pieces on first and last-year models. The 1968 and 1973 cars had a lot of unique parts like emblems and grilles. The former also had a horizontal speedometer; the latter was the only year that 510s had illuminated switches inside, and the only year that offered no sedans.

Two-door cars are getting rarer and more expensive. Save a few bucks by going to the sedan or wagon. Each shape has its own group of aficionados, so there’s kinship regardless which you choose. Look for decent two-door dimes between $4000 and $8000, with pristine cars selling in the teens and higher.

1968 Datsun 510
layout:      front engine, rear-wheel drive
engine:     1.6-liter SOHC L16-spec inline four
horsepower:        96 @ 5600 rpm
torque:     100 lb.-ft. @ 3600 rpm
transmission:       four-speed manual
suspension:          strut front, strut with semi-trailing arm rear
steering:   recirculating ball
brakes:     9.1-in. disc front, 9-in. drum rear
wheels:     13x4-in.
tires:         165S-13
weight:     2130 lbs.

Brock Racing Enterprises: reproduction race car wheels and livery,, (702) 558-3374.
Classic Datsun Motorsports: race parts and service,, (760) 940-6365.
Troy Ermish, Inc.: performance and engine swap parts,, (510) 252-1001.
McKinney Motorsports: engine swap parts,, (951) 304-9300.
New-Datsun-Parts: replacement parts,
Nissan Motorsports: competition parts,, (888) 833-3225. engine swap parts,

The 510 Realm: online forum,
Bluebird510: online forum, maintenance and repair guides,
The Dime Quarterly: enthusiast publication,
Ratsun: online forum,
Nissan Infiniti Owners Club: online forum,


  1. this site went quiet - how come? especially since im new to the "nickel and dime" group

    1. My blog has gone quiet because I've started writing for other sites (that actually pay me a little money). This is my most recent piece, about the privateer husband & wife team that raced at LeMans.


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