Although Nissan had built a few two-seater convertibles before the war, the 1952 Datsun DC-3 is widely regarded as the company’s first sports car. It wasn’t an unattractive car for its time, but like its predecessors, the DC-3 consisted mostly of a pretty dress draped over a rugged truck chassis. The project was the brainchild of Yutaka Katayama, whose passion for sports cars had led him to establish the Sports Car Club of Japan. As an advertising manager for Nissan, he knew a sports car could radically boost the company’s image, even when few Japanese could afford a car.
Katayama commissioned his friend and race car driver Yuichi Ohta to design the car, while Ohta’s father (who was the former head of the now-defunct Ohta car company) manufactured it for Nissan to sell. It wasn’t exactly a resounding success, but not because of its 20-horsepower engine strapped to a leaf-spring suspension, or the fact that it reached just 43 mph, though those were factors. The main reason Nissan sold a mere 50 DC-3s was because in 1952, Japan had few paved roads on which to enjoy such a car at all.
Nissan didn’t attempt another sports car until the 1958 S211. Again, it was a sports car body sharing the same 37-horsepower engine as the Bluebird-predecessor 211 sedan, albeit with a 4-speed transmission. Ohta penned a two-tone convertible body that looked more cartoonish than sleek for the short-wheelbase chassis. Nissan manufactured it, curiously, in fiberglass. Renamed the Datsun Sports 1000 for America, Nissan exhibited it at the 1959 Los Angeles Imported Car Show to moderate interest.
Nissan reverted to steel construction for the 1960 SPL212, though the body was kept nearly identical in shape. Despite its chassis code, it was built atop the slightly more modern chassis of the Bluebird 310 and shared its 1.2-liter, 48-horsepower engine. In Nissan-speak, an “L” before the chassis code stands for left-hand-drive, and interestingly, an SP212 doesn’t exist. It seems that the new model was destined for export markets only, chiefly North America. Nissan president Katsuji Kawamata christened the new sports car with the name Fairlady, which came to him after he attended the hit play My Fair Lady in London.
Gerardo Magana’s 1967½ Fairlady Sports 2000 is one of the coveted low-windshield 2,000-cc cars. It has been painstakingly rebuilt with the addition of a roll bar for added safety.
Meanwhile, the West Coast head of Nissan USA, Yutaka “Mr. K” Katayama, was intent on establishing a Nissan racing effort in North America. The only problem was that his company’s only sports car wasn’t all that sporty. While engineers in Japan were developing the 310 Bluebird chassis for use in underpinning a true sports car, Nissan was still determined to maintain a sports car presence in export markets. It carried on by upgrading the Fairlady with a 60-horsepower engine from the 320 truck to create the SPL213, but left the rest unchanged. Sales of Nissan sports cars up to this point totaled only a few hundred, but that was all about to change.
Nissan unveiled the Fairlady 1500 at the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show. It was the first Nissan to be widely considered truly beautiful. Because it was the first Nissan sports car not based on a truck, designer Hidehiro Iizuka was free to sculpt a sleek, low-profile vehicle with gorgeous details. Recessed headlights in polished coves flanked an eggcrate grille beneath a functional hood scoop, while triple-stacked lights capped off a slight hint of tailfin.
In the West it’s often compared to the MGB. Some accuse it of being an out- right copy, and therein lies one of the many myths surrounding Japanese cars. In actuality, the iconic British sports car went on sale in May 1962, seven months after the Fairlady 1500’s debut at the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show. Given the lead time required to design a car, it would have been impossible for either one to copy the other.
For power, Nissan enlisted the OHV 1.5-liter inline-four from a Cedric sedan. It put down 77 horsepower through a 4-speed transmission synchronized in the three high gears. An independent wishbone architecture underpinned the front suspension, while the rear sat on leaf springs and a solid axle. Structural reinforcements and modifications to the 310 chassis strengthened the Fairlady for open-top motoring, but the overall construction was still body-on-frame. Interestingly, these early Fairlady 1500s had a sideways-facing third seat behind the driver and passenger. Its size and positioning probably made it more suitable for a child, and the battery sat beneath it.
In 1963, Honda completed the world-famous Suzuka Circuit, Japan’s first fully paved racetrack. A significant motorsports fan base had emerged, so when Suzuka hosted the first Japan Grand Prix that year, 200,000 spectators showed up, ready to take part in Japan’s first major racing event. Different classes raced separately, but the Sports Car B-II class that included cars in the 1,300- to 2,500-cc range was one of the most closely watched. More-established foreign marques were believed to have the advantage, but a Datsun Fairlady 1500 privately entered by Genichiro Tahara took the lead right at the start and held off the likes of Triumph, MG, Fiat, and the domestic Prince Skyline Sport. Tahara’s victory marked not only a momentous occasion for Nissan, but the Japanese auto industry as a whole.
Across the Pacific this event was completely ignored, but American SPL310s, called Datsun Sports 1500s, began to see their own action on the track. Bob Sharp was one of the first Americans to campaign the roadster, and quickly began racking up victories in SCCA racing. He soon caught the attention of Nissan USA’s new motorsports program and struck up a partnership that led to the trademark red- and-blue-on-white Nissan livery on his 510 subsequent Datsuns and for decades to come.
Meanwhile, the Fairlady continued to evolve at a rapid pace. By mid 1963, the addition of dual carbs boosted power to 85 horsepower. Likely due to safety concerns, Nissan removed the quirky third seat in late 1964 for the 1965 model year, replacing it with a parcel shelf and situating the battery in a more traditional under-hood location. A beautiful new dashboard with chrome-ringed gauges accompanied the freshened interior, making this era’s roadster particularly sought-after by collectors.
In mid 1965, Nissan upgraded the Fairlady to coincide with the release of the CSP311 Silvia. The Fairlady 1600 (Sports 1600 in the United States) name reflected a bump to 1.6 liters, good for 96 horsepower. With more power and synchromeshing in all four gears, the newly minted CSP311 needed stronger brakes, so the addition of front discs meant wheels had to grow from 13 to 14 inches. That in turn required a larger front wheel well, making it easy to distinguish an SP310 from an SP311. On the former, a long piece of side trim extends from headlight to taillight; on the latter, it begins just after the front wheel.
The Holy Grail of Datsun roadsters arrived in March 1967 in the form of the Fairlady 2000 (Sports 2000 in the United States). As the name implies, it harbored a newly designed 2.0-liter engine that catapulted it far beyond any competitor. The new OHC U20, unlike previous engines, was not shared with any other Datsun product, and was capable of 150 horsepower (135 in US spec) put to the ground via a fully synchromeshed 5-speed. In contrast, the MGB was still using the same rocker-arm technology on its engines since the mid 1930s and had one fewer speed in the gearbox.
Nissan sold the 2000 alongside the 1600 and differentiated it with the SR311 chassis code. Of all the roadsters, the 1967½ Sports 2000 is the most desirable, thanks to a brief window of time when the 2.0-liter “big” engine was available in a “low windshield” body. For 1968, Nissan raised the front windscreen 1 inch, citing new US safety regulations that required a minimum swept area created by the wind- shield wipers. The resulting “high windshield” roadsters, while more accommodating for tall drivers, appeared slightly less svelte. The new screens also became an integral part of the car’s structure, sapping some of the cool factor found in the low windshields, which were detachable.
By the end of the 1960s, Bob Sharp and Peter Brock (as well as many privateers) were routinely gathering SCCA victories across the United States in Datsun roadsters. Sharp and BRE helped develop an entire catalog’s worth of Nissan competition parts, any one of which can fetch many times their original price today. Bob Bondurant’s famous driving school even got its start with a pair of Datsun roadsters and a 510. That in turn kickstarted Paul Newman’s storied Nissan racing career when the actor fell in love with Datsuns during training for his role in Winning.
Nissan produced the Fairlady until April 1970, overlapping production of its closed-roof successor, the Fairlady Z. The 1960s vintage styling has a charm that’s stood up well to the test of time. As with many Nissans, the Fairlady roadster has become a popular platform for KA24 and SR20 swaps, but driving a bone-stock example—or better yet, one with period-correct performance parts—in modern condition can be just as enjoyable.
The Fairlady is also one of the few Japanese classic cars to regularly see full frame-off restorations. For many years, mainstream collectors seemed to prefer it to British roadsters, but in recent years they’ve been throwing some long overdue recognition toward the roadsters and increasing their prices. A frame-off, numbers-matching restoration can fetch bids as high as the upper $30,000 range.