In 2014, Nissan will revive its famous Datsun brand — starting with India, Indonesia, and Russia, where Datsun will be an inexpensive, no-frills entree to four-wheeled transportation. Given Datsun’s name recognition in the United States, where we fondly remember machines like the Z-Car, the 510, and the overachieving little pickups, it’s not inconceivable that a reborn Datsun might someday return to these shores. So we headed to Nissan headquarters near Nashville to raid the Nissan Heritage Collection and revisit the cars that made the Son of DAT a household name.
1960 Datsun 1200 sedan
ALThough Datsun dates back to the early 1900s, the brand came to the United States in the late 1950s — the name Nissan sounded too Japanese in the postwar era. This 1960 sedan is currently the oldest running vehicle in the Heritage Collection. Based on British Motor Corporation mechanicals and making only 48 hp (that’s SAE gross) the 1200 offers a decidedly vintage driving experience. With the four-speed column shifter in top gear, we manage to hit 60 mph heading downhill. It feels like we’re doing 160 mph.
1964 Datsun pickup
A badge on the side of the truck proudly boasts “60 HP.” This was also Datsun’s first truck with a floor-mounted four-speed manual, making the pickup a respectable performer. Once inside, it’s easy to forget the pickup’s tiny scale until you pull up next to a Nissan Titan Heavy Metal Chrome Edition. That’s when you become acutely aware that the Titan’s progenitor has no seat belts and is so small that the outside opposite door handle can be reached from the driver’s seat. In the Mad Men era, you hauled your mulch and took your chances.
1967 Nissan Patrol
Why was this truck labeled a Nissan instead of a Datsun? Good question, but the Patrol’s incongruent badge presaged the brand confusion that arrived in the early 1980s, when some cars were labeled “Datsun 210 by Nissan,” the Maxima was a Datsun, and some trucks wore both Nissan and Datsun badges. So let’s just say the Patrol should’ve been a Datsun. With four-wheel drive and 145 hp from a 4.0-liter in-line six, the Patrol is a charmingly peppy beast. Short gearing limits top speed, but given the terrifying effect of crosswinds, 50 mph feels fast enough. We want one.
1970 Datsun 1600 roadster
Rarely do you get an opportunity to drive a brand-new, forty-two-year-old car. We got that chance, logging miles 512 to 521 on this immaculate classic. The only foible is the ancient clutch, which is far past its expiration date. Still, this is a riotously fun car to toss into a corner, a featherweight, skinny-tired, rear-wheel-drive dervish that you wear as much as drive. Whatever happened to low beltlines? In lieu of an armrest, the 1600 implores you to hang your left arm over the door. And when you do, it just feels right.
1971 Datsun 1200 coupe
What a difference a decade (or so) makes. The 1960 1200 sedan feels like an antique, but the ’71 coupe would make a serviceable daily driver even now. Evidently, Datsun learned fast. This particular car was used for brochure photo shoots and has always belonged to Nissan (er, Datsun), so it drives like a charm, with very little slack in its manual recirculating-ball steering. In its day, the 1200 coupe was elemental transportation that also made a nod to driving involvement — compact and sturdy, it was rear-wheel-drive fun at an attainable price. That sounds like a formula that would work just as well today, no matter which badge goes on the trunk.