Ask most enthusiasts what the first Japanese sports car of significance sold in the U.S. was, and the likely response would be Datsun 240Z. But you can make a compelling case for a series of two-seat Datsuns before the 240Z and its successors. Called Datsun Sports convertibles, they are better known as Datsun Roadsters though they were never officially sold as such. These were the first Japanese sports cars that could truly compete with the popular MGs, Triumphs, and Fiats of the day in terms of price and performance.
We’ll ignore the first Datsun Sports model sold in America, the 1960-61 Sports 1200, an obscure, truck-based car. Jump instead to 1963, when Datsun — months ahead of the release of Britain’s popular MGB — released the Fairlady 1500 in Japan, renamed the Datsun 1500 in the States. Designated internally as SPL-310, it is estimated that fewer than 2,000 Datsun 1500s were sold in America, making them significantly more rare than the cars that followed. The 1500 featured a unique single rear seat that faced sideways, drum brakes, a low-profile removable windshield, a simple, flat dashboard with toggle switches, and a 1.5-liter overhead-valve inline-four paired with a four-speed manual gearbox. Early single-carburetor versions produced 77 hp, but most 1500s were equipped with dual carbs, boosting the engine to 85 hp.
In 1965, Datsun’s sports car started to come into its own, with freshened styling and the name Datsun 1600 to reflect its bigger 1.6-liter OHV inline-four. Designated the SPL-311 series, the 1600 came with twin-SU carbs and output rose to 96 horsepower. Front disc brakes with larger 14-inch wheels replaced the 1500’s drums, and the transmission gained synchronizers for easier shifting. A package tray replaced the sideways rear seat due to safety and comfort concerns.
With a base cost of $2,546, the 1600 was less expensive than an MGB and delivered almost the same performance abilities. Like many upstart Japanese brands at the time, Datsun sweetened the deal with a variety of standard amenities that cost extra on the European competitors, such as a radio, heater, seat belts, tonneau cover, clock, locking gas cap, and more. American buyers began to recognize the 1600’s value and reliability, and sales grew steadily as a result, with more than 14,000 left-hand-drive 1600s produced before the 240Z coupe appeared for the 1970 model year.
The hot version finally came halfway through 1967. Datsun engineers stroked the 1600’s engine to 2.0 liters and added a better-breathing, more efficient single-overhead-cam cylinder head. Designated SRL-311, the Datsun 2000 leapt ahead of most European rivals with a high-revving 135 horsepower engine, a modern five-speed transmission — a first for a Japanese sports car — and a price that undercut the 104-horsepower, four-speed Triumph TR4. For 1967 only, a 150-horsepower factory competition kit with higher-compression pistons, dual Mikuni carbs, a hotter cam, and 7-quart oil pan was available for those who wanted to take their cars to the track. Many did (see sidebar), and American pro racer Bob Bondurant also bought several to use as student cars at his recently formed competition driving school.
Today, the 2000 Roadsters get most of the attention from collectors, with the 1967 model being the most sought after. Datsun built only 1,000 of them as left-hand-drive models before 1968 emissions and safety regulations necessitated a minor redesign — with a less-elegant dash, recessed switches, taller windshield, and a small power reduction.
While sifting through vintage vehicle listings hoping to score a 240Z, John Baker instead spotted a 1970 2000 Roadster that needed help. It had baked for years in the Southern California desert sun, its paint was pink, the plastics and rubber decomposing. “My wife thought the 240Z was too common and that a convertible would be more fun,” explains Baker. “Since UPS would be delivering parts to our doorstep for the next couple of years, her enthusiasm and support were important.”
Thanks to its storage in a dry climate, the body was relatively rust free, but the interior was almost entirely missing. Amazingly, 80 percent of the paint is original — a testament to the hours of color sanding and buffing necessary to bring back the car’s deep red hue. Baker upgraded the engine to ’67 competition-kit specs, and all of the hard work put into the car has earned it multiple best-of-show awards and recognition from Datsun racing legend Peter Brock.
Slide behind the wheel and there’s plenty of room inside for average-size drivers. On the road, the engine and transmission are the star attractions, pulling strongly through the precise-shifting gearbox with light but positive clutch action. The unassisted brakes are effective but pedal feel is a little soft. The 2000’s recirculating ball steering is the only competitive weakness and can’t compare to the precise rack and pinion setup of its contemporary British rivals.
Datsun’s Roadster helped pave the way for the entire Japanese auto industry to get taken seriously in the sports-car world. In the play “My Fair Lady,” a humble flower girl learns to speak like a sophisticated lady in order to fit into high society. Like that character, a humble manufacturer’s sports car gained success and respect. While the Fairlady name didn’t cross the Pacific, perhaps it wasn’t completely off the mark.
|Engine||2.0L SOHC I-4, 150 hp|
|Front Suspension||Unequal-length A-arms, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension||Live axle, leaf springs|
|Number Sold||14,450 (est)|
*Hagerty insurance average value (www.hagerty.com)
Not only is Datsun’s Roadster the first sports car from Japan to be taken seriously, its extensive racing success guarantees it a place in motorsports history. Robustly built yet simple to work on, the car is rare compared with period MGs or Triumphs, with potentially better appreciation over time. Both the 2000 and 1600 enjoy a loyal following with active owners’ clubs and regular events. Aftermarket support is strong for the Datsun, with several U.S.-based specialists carrying most mechanical, electrical, brake, and suspension parts at reasonable prices.One of the most successful production-based race cars, the 2000 Roadster won 10 SCCA national championships between 1967 and 1987, a long time for a car to remain competitive. Much of this racing success occurred with renowned racer John Morton at the wheel, driving for Peter Brock’s BRE team. Morton and BRE remained loyal to Datsun, later winning championships with the 240Z and 510 sedan. Spanning five decades of amateur and professional competition, Morton competed in SCCA, IMSA GT-P, Can-Am, F5000, CART, Le Mans, and Sebring. He is now a regular driver in historic racing events.
An Overdue Test Drive
One of the most successful production-based race cars, the 2000 Roadster won 10 SCCA national championships between 1967 and 1987, a long time for a car to remain competitive. Much of this racing success occurred with renowned racer John Morton at the wheel, driving for Peter Brock’s BRE team. Morton and BRE remained loyal to Datsun, later winning championships with the 240Z and 510 sedan. Spanning five decades of amateur and professional competition, Morton competed in SCCA, IMSA GT-P, Can-Am, F5000, CART, Le Mans, and Sebring. He is now a regular driver in historic racing events.
“I first saw a Datsun Roadster when I was fabricating oil pans for the factory team,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘What an ugly car,’ since I was partial to MGBs and Triumphs. Of course, once I started winning it became very beautiful, and I love them now.”
What made the Roadster such a successful race car? “The strongest element was the engine. Good power and reliable,” Morton continues. “We could do a lot with the chassis, lowering it, stiffening with a roll cage, adjusting bump steer. And a lot was due to the team’s engine builder and meticulous preparation. It was so good in its class with British roadsters that our biggest competitors were other Datsun Roadster teams. Preparing to switch to the new 240Z, we even entered a Roadster modified to qualify for that higher class to get some points, and we beat a Porsche 914/6 driven by Peter Gregg.”
Although the BRE team kept a stock 2000 around the shop for purposes of verifying rules compliance, ironically Morton never drove a production version. These were the days before sponsors provided drivers with free “courtesy” vehicles for their personal use. Morton enthusiastically agreed to drive our subject car for this photo shoot even though it was at street-legal speeds with the owner in the passenger seat. Today, Morton’s winning white-and-red No. 46 car is being restored by comedian Adam Carolla and will join its sibling white-and-blue No. 45 on the vintage racing circuit.