In America, Katayama hit the ground running. He set up Nissan’s West Coast headquarters in Gardena, California, and began looking for anyone willing to sell an unknown import brand. His counterpart on the East Coast, Soichi Kawazoe, did the same with Newark, New Jersey, as his home base.They used the name Datsun because all the cars were small and would have been branded as such in Japan, and there was probably some fear of tarnishing the Nissan name if the export venture failed. Most early Datsun “dealerships” consisted of little more than a dirt lot behind a service garage or gas station, or an existing used-car shop.
Katayama sold a handful of the new 211s, upgraded with a new OHV 1.2-liter engine for the demands of America’s high-speed roads, but none in any appreciable amount. It was soon followed by a successor, and if the cars that circumnavigated Australia had been go-anywhere pack mules, the Datsun 310 was a graceful pony, bred with state-of-the-art factory tooling. Gone were the utilitarian expanses of sheet metal and exposed hinges, replaced with cohesive styling and underpinned by new technologies such as double-wishbone independent front suspension. In Japan, they even bestowed it with a new name, the Bluebird, suggesting that it was no longer just cold machinery identified by a hard collection of numbers.
In the United States, however, the Bluebird-based 320 pickup sold better than the car itself. A subsequent update added dual-throat carbs to a reworked 1,200-cc engine, boosting output to 60 horsepower. The new Datsun 1200 pickups wore this fact proudly in an emblem on their fenders. That was enough to hoof it down the highway at a sustained 65 mph, a feat that the Toyopet Crowns couldn’t match.
Bluebird exports were up, but Nissan wanted to make it even more appealing on the world stage so it commissioned Pininfarina to style the next generation, the 410. The Italian styling house had designed everything from Peugeots to Austins, but was mostly known for penning numerous Ferraris. Pininfarina gave the 410 elegant lines flowing toward a downward curve in the rear, but the overall shape had a distinctly Italian flavor, which was, unfortunately, not very appealing to the Japanese. They called it the “drooping butt” look and it allowed the Toyota Corona to run away with a huge sales lead back home.
If anything, though, the 410 should be remembered for the structure underneath that shape. It was the first monocoque-bodied Nissan, signaling the push to-ward a dedicated car lineup rather than the body-on-frame platforms its predecessors shared with trucks. The 312’s 1.2-liter engine carried over initially, but in 1964 Nissan introduced the 1200 SS, with Hitachi side-draft carbs that boosted horsepower to about 65 over the 1200’s 60. In 1966, a Bluebird 1300 SS (with a new 1.3-liter engine) became the first Japanese car to win its class in the East African Safari Rally. The winning vehicle, muddied and dented from battle, was immediately airlifted back to Japan and displayed in the upscale Ginza district of Tokyo. Apparently, they had learned a thing or two from Katayama’s campaign Down Under.
The SS was followed in 1965 by the Bluebird 1600 SSS in Japan, which shoved the 1.6-liter drivetrain from a Fairlady Sports roadster into a top-of-the-line, deluxe-trim 411. It was the first Nissan sports sedan, and an SSS badge set a precedent marking the raciest Bluebirds for many generations to come. In an interesting twist, Nissan sold the sports car drivetrain in a base-trim 411 in the United States, a “sleeper” SSS without the badges or extra chrome. American Datsun collectors take note: The United States was the only market to receive this combination.
In the grand scheme of things, however, only the most certifiable Datsun nuts care about what has been discussed thus far. For everyone else, the 1968 Datsun 510 is the car that put not just Nissan, but Japanese cars in general, on the map. Introduced for the 1967 model year at home, the 510 was a concerted effort to build the best compact car in the world. Although technically competing with Coronas and VWs in the marketplace, a perfect storm of events allowed Nissan to cram the new Bluebird with technology that didn’t appear on competitors until decades later.
Operating under the notion of a car being an extension of the driver, project manager Kazumi Yotsumoto gave the 510 MacPherson struts up front and a semi-trailing arm suspension in the rear, making it the first Nissan with a four-wheel independent suspension. The new L16 inline-four employed essentially the same design as the straight-six L20s that appeared in Skylines and L24s found in 240Zs.
Vowing to reclaim the top sales spot from Toyota, Nissan designer Teruo Uchino sculpted a minimalist Japanese straight-edged form with just a hint of malevolence lurking underneath. Uchino straightened out the character line that ran down the 410’s flanks and dubbed it the “supersonic line.”
Americans were offered three of the four available body styles: four-door sedan, wagon (which used a rear solid axle), and two-door sedan sharing the same roofline as the four-door sedan. The latter should not be confused with the Japanese market’s two-door coupe, which has a more swept-back roofline and wears a sportier grille and taillight treatment. Because the coupe was never exported to the United States, it’s quite desirable for collectors today, and several have been imported from Japan. Ironically, what we consider the “common” two-door sedan was only produced for the Bluebird’s inaugural model year in Japan, making it the rarest body style in Japan and highly sought by Japanese collectors.
510 Bluebirds in Japan and those exported to less-developed markets received 1.3- and 1.4-liter L-series engines as standard equipment, but Katayama insisted that the US market receive, at minimum, the 96-horsepower L16. Coupled with a curb weight of about 2,100 pounds, the 510 achieved a 100-mph top speed on par with any contemporary rival. Its advanced semi-trailing arm and independent rear suspension were unheard of in its price range and gave it nimble handling that out- performed most American compact sixes. On top of it all, its $1,996 sticker price was an absolute bargain. Datsun sold nearly 40,000 cars in the United States that first year, comprising almost two-thirds of its total sales, and the numbers only in-creased from there.
By 1970, Katayama was living his dream overseeing an all-out motorsports program. With the 510 and newly arrived 240Z, Nissan finally had competitive cars for racing. Nissan’s continued involvement with the Safari Rally saw a 510 Bluebird take the overall victory, a point of immense honor for both Nissan and Japan. The event was mostly unheard of in the United States, however, and most Americans took the dominance of British Triumphs, German BMWs, and especially Italian Alfa Romeos in road racing as a given. That all changed when two Nissan-sponsored teams on opposite sides of the country simultaneously won their respective Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) championships behind the wheels of the Datsun 510.
On the East Coast, Bob Sharp Racing took the national SCCA B/Sedan title for two consecutive seasons. On the West Coast, in the more closely watched Trans-Am 2.5 Challenge series, John Morton drove the Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) 510 to victory, defeating the previously dominant Alfa Romeo GTVs in a controversial and stirring rivalry that lasted throughout the 1971 season. The clash continued into 1972; BRE trounced the competition so badly that the series was canceled the next year.
510 production came to a close in 1973. As is the case with many cars, the next-generation 610 had more power, more room, and more amenities, but also more bulk. Soon the world fell deep into the throes of the oil crisis, and ever-stricter emissions standards hobbled engine performance while safety concerns visually saddled cars with 5-mph bumpers. Bob Sharp Racing campaigned a 610 briefly, but the glory still resided with the 510. Most customers felt that the driving dynamics that made the 510 so magical were diminished on the 610. As interest in classic Japanese cars grows, however, the 610 is getting a second lease on life from the enthusiast community.
With the 610 all grown up, Nissan introduced some confusion into its model lineup with the 1974 710. Though it seemed to follow Bluebird naming conventions, the 710 was actually called the Violet in Japan and sold as a separate model. It was a smaller car meant to take over the niche left by the now-upmarket Bluebird. Though it didn’t have the success in the United States that Nissan hoped it would, in other parts of the world the 710 was actually a successful rally car, returning Nissan to Australia to win the Southern Cross Rally.
Trying desperately to recapture the 510’s “lightning in a bottle,” Nissan USA tried badging the Violet’s successor, the A10 Stanza, as the 510 in the US market. Sadly it was unsuccessful in its attempt to rekindle a fire in the hearts of Datsun enthusiasts. However, the A10 Stanza was hugely successful as a rally racer, wresting dominance of the Southern Cross Rally from Mitsubishi and winning the race three times from 1978 to the event’s final run in 1980.
Meanwhile, the 810 Bluebird grew into a full-bodied luxury cruiser. With the bigger body came a need for more power, and Nissan gave it a standard inline six-cylinder shared with the sporty Z-car. Further confusion came when Nissan USA sold the following 910 generation Bluebird as the 810 Deluxe at its introduction in 1981. Probably most well known for the tiny phonograph music box that gave recorded “door is open” warnings to the driver, it grew into a sedan on par with the Toyota Cressida rather than a sprightlier alternative to the Corona. None of this hurt Nissan’s growing sales, though, and by 1982 the home office decided to brand itself as Nissan in all export markets, including the United States. In 1982, the 810’s numeric designation was dropped for a name that anyone will recognize: Maxima. Though it was an important name in the Nissan canon in and of itself, the Maxima was a completely different animal from the 510.
As the wave of front-wheel-drive hysteria swept across the auto industry in the 1980s, the Bluebird was converted to an FF layout and given a new chassis code, U11. It continued to be sold as the Maxima in the United States, but after that the Maxima and Bluebird lines deviated significantly with little relation to each other. The Japanese-market Bluebird made a brief but successful reappearance as the bubbly first-generation Nissan Altima in the United States.
It’s not surprising then that the 510 is considered the most collectible of the Bluebirds, and one of the top Japanese classics fueling the current boom. That’s not to say 610s, 710s, and 810s aren’t collectible—in fact, their curvy lines and easily swappable power plants have made them a desirable option for those who want a stylish, nostalgic ride. They just happen to be overshadowed by the 510. The iconic white-on-red livery of the BRE 510 inspired an entire generation of Datsun fans, and many have built replicas of that famous racer. After retiring the 510, BRE launched a healthy aftermarket business cranking out performance parts for early Datsuns. The iconic white-on-red livery of the BRE 510 inspired an entire generation of Datsun fans.
Another part of the 510’s appeal was its parts interchangeability with other Nissans, allowing easy swaps with higher-displacement L18 engines from the Japanese SSS and 5-speed transmissions from Z-cars. Long before souped-up Acura Integras prowled SoCal highways, the earliest import racers made 510s their weapon of choice, making it the first real “tuner” car. Even today, the 510 remains competitive in SCCA racing and it’s not uncommon to see street-driven 510s motivated by newer engines from the Nissan family, such as CA18s, KA24s, or SR20s from the Silvia sports coupe.