Unlike in Europe, car owners in Japan and the US have always had a history of tinkering with their cars. The sociological reasons for this widely differ for both countries but the result is the same. Both nations have developed an entire subculture around this passion and this has led to some truly unbelievable machines: A 1,500+ hp GT-Rs are now a common feature.
In this view, the Datsun 510 here is especially significant. This car can be credited with establishing the tradition of hot-rodding Japanese domestic market (JDM) cars in America. Produced between 1967 – 73, on paper the 510 looked little more than a humdrum family car. The styling was simplistic and elegant and a range of frugal engine options were available. In the Japanese market, a wide permutation of body styles were offered alongside a couple of 1.3 and 1.5-litre engine options that were on sale. A 1.4-litre engine came in as an upgrade in 1970. In textbook sports saloon fashion, the car featured a front engine, rear drive set-up. Power was put down through a three-speed manual.
However, the version which truly established the 510 as a JDM icon was the American spec model. This car came with a 1.6-litre Hitachi engine putting out 96hp and 99.8 lb/ft (135.5Nm) of torque. In a car which weighed in at less than 2000pounds (907kg), this meant a sprightly (for the time) 0 to 60 mph time of 13s and a top speed of 100mph. All cars featured independent suspension and front disc brakes. The specs suggest the 510 to be a competent sports sedan at best. But what really made this car so endearing to the American public was its accessibility. The Datsun 510 cost $1996 when new. In comparison, the similarly specced BMW 1600 was $2497. The car’s straightforward construction, cheap price and neutral dynamics made for a good starting point for both private owners and racing teams looking for a competent car to let their imaginations run wild. Photos via Wikimedia
The 510 was also reasonably successful in competition. A tuned 510 from Peter Brock and Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) won the Under 2.5-liter Trans-Am championship in both 1971 and 1972. Elsewhere, a rally -spec 510 won Australia’s 6,340-mile Ampol Trial, and the East African Safari Rally, two of the most challenging events of the 1970 calendar. The Datsun 510 can also be credited with being the car in which the legendary actor turned racecar driver Paul Newman made his competition debut at Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut. Where the Toyota 2000GT and the later Z-series cars from Nissan established Japan as a force to be reckoned with in the world of performance cars, the Datsun 510 was one of the earliest examples of logical, characterful Japanese cars with immense tuning potential. Pick any car from the PlayStation generation, namely the Nissan Silvia, the Toyota Supra or the Honda Prelude, and it is evident that the appeal of the 510 has filtered through unchanged.