Reviews

Classic Drive: 1961 Datsun Fairlady 1200

Vintage-roadster motoring, Japanese style

LONG BEACH, California — Ahead of the 2016 Japanese Classic Car Show, Nissan offered us a real treat: time behind the wheel of a rare 1961 Datsun Fairlady 1200 2+2 convertible. Sold in the U.S. under the more anodyne moniker “Datsun Sports,” the Fairlady helped put Japan on the map as a purveyor of sports cars. It was manufactured in multiple forms from 1959 through 1970, when it evolved into the famous Fairlady Z (240Z).

The Fairlady line began with a 20-unit run of a fiberglass-bodied model codenamed S211, powered by a 1.0-liter I-4. In 1960, Datsun followed up with the SPL212 Fairlady 1200, which featured a 1.2-liter I-4 and enjoyed a 288-unit production run before it was replaced by the slightly more powerful SPL213, the version we sampled. All three shared a platform with the Datsun 220 Truck.

Wheels are the only visual distinction between the SPL212 and SPL213; they are body-color on the SPL212 and stainless on the SPL213. Most of the changes are under the hood, where the 1.2-liter I-4 received a new cylinder head, intake manifold, dual-throat carburetor, and a paper-element air filter. In all, Nissan coaxed an extra 13 horsepower out of the small four-banger.

1961 Datsun Fairlady 1200 cabin 03

The engine sounds a bit like a piece of agricultural equipment but takes off easily. With just 60 horsepower and 67 lb-ft of torque on tap from its 1.2-liter I-4, the Fairlady’s acceleration performance is best described as deliberate. The numbers back it up: an SPL213 Fairlady 1200 tested by Motor Trend for its December 1961 issue needed all of 24.3 seconds to reach 60 mph. Though the convertible weighs slightly less than 2,000 pounds, 32.7 lb/hp is not a favorable power-to-weight ratio. Imagine a 4,000-pound Dodge Challenger powered by a 120-horsepower I-4 and you start to get the idea.

This lack of pace isn’t entirely a bad thing, as the four-wheel drum brakes are a far cry from modern carbon-ceramic discs. In the same Motor Trend test, the Fairlady 1200 needed 156 feet to come to a complete stop from 60 mph. During our beachside drive, even practically standing on the brake pedal produced a gradual deceleration sensation rather than a rapid arrest.

The steering is not terribly precise, but it works well enough for the low-speed cruising that best suits this car. Shift throws are short but notchy and, because footwell space is tight, the shifter is liable to rub against your legs, especially if you’ve got a long inseam.

Though the Fairlady did not come into its own as a driver until 1963 when it moved off the Datsun Truck platform with the launch of the SPL310 Fairlady 1500, the SPL213 provides an enjoyable top-down experience, provided you stay far away from fast-moving traffic and stick to sight-filled roads like Long Beach’s Ocean Boulevard. During our cruise, the diminutive Fairlady pulled plenty of appreciative eyeballs from passers-by, in part because they likely had never seen one before. It’s certain to draw plenty of attention at the local Cars & Coffee meet as well.

Although aimed at British and Italian roadsters, the early four-seat Fairlady was more of an indirect competitor than a direct rival. It’s also far more exclusive, with a production run of just 217 cars for the SPL213; several thousand contemporary MGAs were built, not to mention tens of thousands of the Austin-Healey Sprite, for example.

Despite its rarity, valuations are in line with those of its contemporaries from the U.K. and Italy. According to Hagerty, expect to pay between $5,600 and $39,900, depending on the car’s condition. If you’re looking for vintage-roadster feel but want an alternative to the usual fare, the 1961 Datsun Fairlady is worth a look—provided you can find one.

1961 Datsun Fairlady 1200 SPL213 Specifications

Expect to Pay: $5,600 – $39,900 (est)
Engine: 1.2L OHV 8-valve I-4/60 hp @ 5,000 rpm/67 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, RWD convertible
L x W x H: 158.5 x 58.0 x 54.3 inches
Wheelbase: 87.4 inches
Weight: 1,962 lb
0-60 mph: 24.3 sec (MT test)
Top Speed: 82 mph

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