The Datsun brand and its parent company Nissan are struggling. But even before the coronavirus pandemic crisis took its toll on Nissan and the rest of the global motor industry, the Japanese car maker was having a tough time.
The ten best Datsuns of all time
Nissan began 2020 at a low point, deeply emerged in the Carlos Ghosn (the Company’s former boss) scandal, and the current global containment has necessarily made things worse for the company.
As a result, Nissan plans to save around £2 billion on fixed costs for marketing, research and other key areas, as well as reducing its model range in the UK and Europe. Nissan will also close a factory in Barcelona, and remove Datsun from Russia, further decreasing the brand’s reach (it remains in India, for example, however).
Before Datsun came into being, an automobile named the DAT car was built in 1914 by the Kaishinsha Motorcar Works (KMW) in Tokyo, the genesis of today’s Nissan. The new 1914 DAT car’s name was an acronym of the surnames of the trio of KMW’s founding partners.
Datsun's initial vehicle production began in 1931, and from 1958 to 1986, vehicles exported by Nissan were identified as Datsuns. In 1931, the DAT Motorcar Company chose to name its new small car ‘Datson’, the name indicating the new model's smaller size when compared to the DAT's larger vehicle already in production. When Nissan took control of DAT in 1934, the Datson name was changed to ‘Datsun’ because ‘son’ also negatively means ‘loss’ in Japanese, plus the (rising) sun is depicted in Japan’s national flag, hence the more positive name Datsun being chosen.
By 1986 (1984 in the UK), Nissan had phased out the Datsun name in favour of its own brand. In Great Britain, Datsun imports first began in 1968, when the Worthing-based former British NSU importer, reclusive entrepreneur Octav Botner, switched allegiance over to the unknown Japanese car maker from the troubled German marque.
By 1974, Botner had helped to make Datsun the UK’s top-selling imported car brand with its cheap and popular Sunny and Cherry models, ousting previous import leaders Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen down the sales chart, and crippling domestic market leader British Leyland in the process. Datsun’s winning cocktail of attractive pricing, generous standard specification and strong reliability appealed to British car buyers who were increasingly tiring of the shoddy quality and dull products offered by the domestic BL, Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler brands.
By the early 1980s though, the Nissan badge was gradually appearing on Datsun-branded cars, with Datsun branding eventually was phased out, the final new UK model wearing a Datsun badge being the Micra of June 1983. By the end of 1984, Datsun branding had completely disappeared in Britain, although it lingered on elsewhere until 1986.
In June 2013, to address changing global needs, Nissan re-launched the Datsun name as an affordable low-cost brand, offering basic cars which were specifically made for developing markets, such as India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia and South Africa.
As Nissan now restructures to safeguard its future, it plans to focus on more profitable markets such as the United States and China, plus more expensive products, notably through its premium Infiniti subsidiary (already abandoned in Europe in 2019). For Europe itself, Nissan will use Alliance-partner Renault’s technology to launch more SUVs and electric models, with its goal to get its business back on track.
With Datsun in the media spotlight for the first time in a long while, here are ten significant models from the brand’s more jubilant days.
Datsun 11 Phaeton – 1932
The first Datsun passenger car was the Type 11 of 1932, of which around 150 were sold for just one year in several body styles. With a similar appearance, an identical engine displacement and external dimensions to the contemporary Austin Seven Ruby, Datsun’s inaugural model proved to be controversial, as it was a blatant copy of the tiny Austin, but (debatably) not built under licence or with any known approval by the then-giant Longbridge car maker.
In late 1929, Austin’s chief engineer presented a paper in Tokyo called ‘The British Light Car’, this document supposedly providing detailed explanations and illustrations about many of the Austin Seven’s mechanical components.
When this uncannily similar Datsun first appeared in 1931, Sir Herbert Austin was reportedly concerned enough about the possibility of this new Japanese car infringing on his patents that he imported an example into the UK to examine it, although he decided to not file an official complaint. This contentious Austin/Datsun connection later paid dividends for the British firm though, as Austin stepped in to help Nissan establish Datsun as a fledgling car maker post-war by licensing its stodgy A40 Somerset saloon (in 1953) and replacement A50 Cambridge (in 1959) to be produced by Datsun in Japan.
Datsun Fairlady Sports 1000 (SPL213) – 1960
Despite its plodding looks, this unremarkable four-seater fibreglass-bodied roadster is the genesis of a long dynasty of sporting Datsun/Nissan models, this being the first model to wear the (now legendary) Fairlady badge in Japan, as still used today for the 370Z.
Legend has it that during a trip to the USA, the former President of Nissan, Mr. Katsuji Kawamata, was so moved by the long-running musical ‘My Fair Lady’ that he decided to name the up-coming SPL213 Datsun Sports after it. It was his wish that the new car (like the musical), would prove to be popular over many years, and his wish was fulfilled through nine generations of sporting Fairlady models.
The first Fairlady Sports had the underpinnings of the tame Austin A50 Cambridge-based Datsun 1000 (PL210) saloon, to create Japan’s first ‘sports car’. Very few examples of the complex GRP-bodied Datsun Sports were built as it was quickly replaced by a steel-bodied version with more power and easier construction.
Tentative exports of the steel Datsun roadster to North America began in January 1960, but few found willing buyers. In late 1960, the first sporting Datsun Fairlady underwent some minor changes, with maximum power increased from 48PS to a heady 55PS, with total production volume only reaching around 500 units.
Datsun Patrol MK II (60) – 1960
In 1951 Nissan’s first true off-road 4x4 answer to the American Willys Jeep was introduced as the workmanlike Patrol. This go-anywhere Datsun was tiny but tough, powered by a 4.0-litre straight-six engine, producing a useful 125PS. The functional Patrol featured a robust ladder frame chassis and simple leaf rigid suspension, with two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive modes being selected by a lever.
This basic model was replaced by the second-generation ‘60’ Patrol in 1960, this improved 4x4 forging a path into valuable exports markets for Nissan, such as the United States and Australia. In the USA, the fledgling Datsun marque contracted contemporary silver screen star Roy Rogers, the ‘singing cowboy’, as a spokesperson for this unknown brand by giving him a Patrol 60, (plus a Datsun Pickup and early ‘Bluebird 210 Station Wagon), with the famous Western actor promoting the Patrol on low-budget TV commercials.
In Australia, Datsun’s early attempts to get noticed and build awareness were more ambitious. A Patrol 60 was (allegedly) the first vehicle to drive across the Simpson Desert in Australia. However, a conflicting account claimed that a rival Toyota Land Cruiser support vehicle arrived before the Patrol!
The second-generation Patrol 60 remained a long-selling product – from 1960 to 1980 – when the third-generation Datsun Patrol (Nissan Safari in Japan) was released, this more refined model being the first Patrol to be sold in the UK and most of Europe.
Datsun (Fairlady) 1500-2000 Roadster – 1962
Resembling an Oriental MGB, Datsun’s second-generation two-seater roadster was released in Japan in 1962 as the Fairlady 1500 SP310, with a 1.5-litre, 85PSengine on the platform of the Bluebird family saloon. The Roadster evolved into the 1600 (SP311) in 1965 and the 145PS 2000 (SR311) in 1967 to give a useful improvement in performance, with a 125mph (205km/h) top speed, making this Datsun the fastest car in Nissan’s history at the time.
With this Fairlady, Datsun legitimately began producing a ‘real’ sportscar, which did wonders for the brand’s image in many global markets, especially the USA. The new 1962 Fairlady would take a class win at the inaugural Japanese GP at Suzuka in 1963, and by the late 1960s, the 2000 Roadster was successfully capturing the imagination of sports car enthusiasts worldwide, establishing a credible route for its successful Fairlady Z successor in 1969.
Datsun Silvia 1600 Coupe – 1965
As pretty and Italianate as a contemporary Lancia Fulvia or Alfa Romeo Giulia GT, the stylish Silvia Coupe was actually styled by a German, Count Albrecht Goertz, the designer of the legendary 1950s BMW 503 roadster.
Sold as a Nissan in Japan, but a Datsun in its few export markets, the elegant Silvia 1600 Coupe (CSP311) had a limited three-year production run, with only 554 examples made.
Positioned above the Datsun Fairlady range, the Silvia was a high-performance ‘personal coupe’ that shared a number of the Fairlady 1600’s mechanical components. Largely handmade with a labourious method of construction, each Silvia was unique, as reflected in the model's high 1.2 million yen retail price; almost twice as much as the next model in the Nissan's Japanese market lineup at the time; exceeding that of the range-topping Cedric luxury saloon.
After production of arguably the best-looking Datsun ever made ended in 1968, the Silvia nameplate would not grace another Nissan-built model until 1974 with the extrovertly-styled Datsun 180SX-200SX ‘wedge’ coupe range.
Datsun (Bluebird) 510, 1300-1600 – 1968
Along with its smaller Sunny 1000 sibling, the Bluebird 1300-1600 saloon and estate car range were the models that launched the Datsun brand onto the British new car market in 1968 (along with most other European markets). These sharply styed models offered appealing value and generous equipment levels against core home-grown rivals of the day, such as the Ford Escort and Cortina, Vauxhall Viva and Hillman Hunter, but sales were marginal and Datsuns (along with Japanese cars in general) were still too unknown and unproven in the proud ‘buy British’ late 1960s.
In the USA, this Bluebird met with a more receptive audience, the Datsun 510 (as it was named across the Pond) quickly gaining itself an enviable reputation as a more affordable sporting alternative to a BMW 2002 or Alfa Romeo Giulia Berlina, with an advanced standard technical specification, including a 97PS 1.6-litre OHC engine and four-wheel independent suspension.
The Bluebird 510 covered itself in glory in international motorsport, with the Datsun taking overall victory in the 18th East-African Safari Rally in 1970, for example, helping to pave the way for greater worldwide sales, with more than 1.5 million examples sold globally over five years.
In the USA, the 510 became known for its competitiveness in the Trans Am Series under 2,500cc competition class. Datsun won its class in 1971 and 1972, and the 510 remains one of the most popular production cars in numerous SCCA classes of amateur racing today. As a homage to its 1967-73 Bluebird, in 2013 Nissan presented the IDx Freeflow and IDx NISMO concepts, clearly influenced by the Datsun 510.
Datsun (Fairlady) 240Z – 1969
Probably the most know, iconic and admired of all Datsun models, the game-changing (Fairlady) 240Z of 1969 spawned the Datsun/Nissan Z sports car legend that continues today in the latest 370Z.
The celebrated first generation Fairlady 240Z debuted in December 1969 and won instant acclaim as Datsun’s halo car, putting the Japanese brand firmly on the motoring map as a serious world player. The sporting two-seater Datsun quickly became great market success, not only in Japan, but especially North America and most other countries, with over 520,000 examples sold.
With its characteristic 2.4-litre straight-six engine note, its appealingly sleek shape, lively performance, excellent value-for-money and rally-winning success, the whole world loved the 240Z, with the coupe changing the publics’ perceptions of Datsun for good.
Initially developed with the co-operation of Yamaha, the two-seater 240Z evolved to include a less well-balanced 2+2 coupe, the 260Z and 280Z (the latter not available in Europe). When replaced in 1978, the new Datsun 280ZX had grown into a more corpulent, less driver-focused ‘boulevard cruiser’, catering firmly for North American tastes. The sharper 300ZX followed in 1984, the last Fairlady Z model to be sold in some markets under the Datsun banner, with all subsequent Z coupes (350Z, 370Z, etc.) sold as Nissans.
Datsun Cherry (E10) – 1971
Nissan’s first front-wheel-drive car, the Cherry, was the model that launched Datsun’s strong sales surge in British and Europe, which saw it sell just over 6,000 cars in the UK in 1971, but more than 30,000 the following year. Although its F10 successor was launched in 1974, such was the original Cherry's popularity on the UK market that it was not replaced until 1977.
In the formative 1960s, Nissan cunningly commissioning Pininfarina to design its mass-market Datsun saloons to tempt overseas buyers with its attractive ‘Euro’ family cars such as the second-generation Bluebird and Cedric. By the early ‘70s though, Datsun’s design was brought in-house, with some questionable styling personified by the unresolved Cherry (particularly in its bizarre 120A Coupe form).
These odd looks failed to deter early many Cherry buyers, however, who were seduced by the car’s low price, strong standard equipment and long warranty. At a time when such ‘luxury’ items as a radio and heated rear window were still chargeable options on an Austin 1100, Ford Escort of Vauxhall Viva, these were all included as part of the small Datsun’s comprehensive standard specification.
As the first Cherry’s even uglier F10 successor flagged in the British market, the somewhat smaller 1.0-litre E10 Cherry continued to be sold up until 1977, with vehicle tuners Janspeed even racing one with some success to boost the humble entry model’s image!
Datsun Skyline GT-R (C10) – 1971
In August 1966, the Nissan Motor Company acquired and merged with its former Japanese car making rival, the Prince Motor Company. Largely unknown and forgotten outside of its domestic market, Prince was considered the Japanese ‘sporting’ prestige brand, introducing its cult Skyline performance model line from 1957 onwards.
The Skyline switched from Prince to Datsun (and Nissan) badging in 1968, when the Prince marque as killed off and the third-generation C10 models were launched.
This Skyline C10 generation saw the introduction of the first GT-R high-performance derivative in 1969, initially available in four-door saloon form only, with the now celebrated GT-R Coupe following in early 1971. This 160PS 2.0-litre DOHC coupe introduced the flared wheel arches and quad circular tail lights that have gone on to become a signature design feature of all subsequent GT-R models, as still evident in today’s stand-alone Nissan GT-R.
With the exception of the few smaller export markets, the C10 GT-R remained reserved for the Japanese home market. It wasn’t until the fourth generation Datsun Skyline (C110) was announced in late 1972 that exports of the model began in the UK and mainland Europe, badged as the 240K GT. The ex-Datsun Skyline GT-R high-performance coupe has now become a cult car the world over, and the preferred choice of countless computer game players.
Datsun GO – 2013
After the Datsun marque was retired by Nissan in 1986, the name was revived in 2013 when Nissan reintroduced Datsun as an affordable ‘low cost’ brand for a selection of emerging markets, including India, Indonesia, South Africa and Russia.
The first ‘new-era’ 21st Century Datsun model to be introduced was the GO, a Fiesta-sized 1.2-litre hatch sharing many features in common with the costlier Nissan Micra, including its engine and much of its interior.
The GO was soon joined by the Datsun GO+, a small family estate derivative, with the Cross (a GO with faux tougher crossover styling) later added. Soon after its 2013 debut, the GO was crash tested in India. The new Datsun received a zero safety rating from Global NCAP, with the Organisation prompted to write to Nissan requesting that the GO was either substantially re-engineered, or withdrawn from sale. Nissan didn’t respond to either request, yet this didn’t seem to hinder Datsun sales in India.
In addition to the GO-based models, for Russia Datsun also offered the on-DO saloon and more practical mi-DO, both being badge-engineered models based on the Lada Granta, with VAZ Lada forming part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance.
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