Datsun Roadster - An Unrecognized Classic
The Datsun Roadster has become a bit of an "invisible classic" in the world sports car scene. It appeared at a time when the Japanese auto industry was not well respected, and few observers took much notice. It was seen as a derivative of other designs of the era. It broke no new ground. Over its 9-year production life it gained a reputation as a fast and affordable but unsophisticated and somewhat unreliable sports car (even though most of the reliability problems can be traced to improper maintenance). Even today a Datsun Roadster does not command an impressive price on the market.

In spite of the fact that a relatively small number were built (around 50,000), many people seem to have owned one or knew someone who did. They appear to have been a first sports car for quite a few people and are fondly remembered by most.

But the true significance of the Datsun Roadster (called a "Fairlady" in Japan) goes far beyond that. It represents the beginnings of a turning point in the auto industry and the end of a lineage of sports cars. To understand it, a little history lesson is required. And just to clear up one little point, the company's name is Nissan; the make of car is Datsun. Kind of like General Motors and Chevrolet.

(For a more thorough understanding of the Japanese auto industry, I highly recommend "The Reckoning" by David Halberstam)

From the Ashes of War After WWII the Japanese homeland was in ruins. Their manufacturing capacity had been largely destroyed and most roads resembled ploughed fields more than thoroughfares. The Allies, particularly Great Britain, assisted the Japanese in rebuilding their economy as a bulwark against Communism. This included the retooling of the auto industry. Many early Japanese cars still had "Austin" casting marks on their engines. The close cooperation between the British and the Japanese resulted in Japanese designs that closely resembled their English counterparts.
Due to conditions in Japan, ruggedness was more highly prized than speed, at least until the roads improved. There was little opportunity to test the performance potential of their vehicles (today's off-roaders would probably have enjoyed it, however). Even so, in 1958 a Nissan executive named Yutaka Katayama convinced the company to enter a team of two sedans in an Australian rally, a grueling event that covered 10,000 miles in 19 days. To everyone's surprise, one of the Datsuns finished first. This was rightly attributed primarily to its durability rather than outright speed. Katayama went on to become President of Nissan of North America.

Nissan built a series of convertible vehicles in the 1950's but none were exported, and they are virtually unknown today. The earliest, called the DC-3, resembled a cross between an MG-TA and a Bantam. The later ones were four-seaters, not technically sports cars in the purest sense.

A Tentative Step and a Birth In 1962 Nissan unveiled a true sports car in the British style. Technically a three-seater (it had a sideways seat behind the driver and passenger), it was proportioned like many British sports cars of the era. It had a full frame with leaf-spring live rear axle, drum brakes, and a four cylinder 1500 cc engine developing 85 hp that delivered 0-60 times of 15 seconds and a top speed of 92 mph. Needless to say, it didn't exactly stand the world on its ear with its performance.

However the potential was there. In a supporting race for the Japanese Grand Prix in 1963, the Fairlady, in its first race outing, defeated a field of cars having displacements of up to 2500 cc, including Triumph TR-2's, -3's and -4's, two MGA's and an MGB. It began to gather a following of enthusiastic racers in Japan.

A word of explanation is in order about Datsun naming conventions. The model name follows the position in the model line and stays with that position regardless of how the basic structure changes. The Roadster was called the "Fairlady." When the sport model changed to what we know as the 240-Z, the name stayed. The Z was called the "Fairlady" in Japan and the 300-ZX is still called the "Fairlady" today. Nissan soon found that the name didn't sell here, and reverted to a numerical designation ("1500") indicating the engine size. Hence the Fairlady became the Datsun 1500, 1600 and 2000, which we generically refer to as "the Roadster".

Compare this with Ford, whose Thunderbird began in 1955 as a two-seater and evolved into today's luxo-cruiser. The Thunderbird's sporty place in the line was taken over by the Mustang in 1964.

In 1966 the Roadster received a new 1600 cc engine and 14" wheels that allowed the fitting of front disk brakes. From a performance standpoint, the 1600 was roughly the equivalent of the MGB, which had also been introduced in 1962 (So much for the claims of the Datsun being a copy of the MG). Structurally, the Datsun has more in common with Triumphs and Sunbeams than it does with the MG, the Datsun having a full frame as compared to the MGB's unibody. Fortunately it didn't share their Lucas electrical systems, so it was considerably more reliable.

By this time the Roadster was starting to make an impression in the U.S. Bob Sharp had been racing a 1500 in SCCA G Production since 1965 and was now running a 1600 in F Production and doing quite well. The auto press was surprised to find such things as full carpets, roll-up windows, radio, heater and defroster as standard equipment. It was a well-appointed car at a very reasonable price.
Roadster on Steroids! Then in late 1967 it happened. Nissan fitted a 2000 cc overhead cam engine to the little Fairlady. I believe this was Nissan's first ohc design, and it was basically over-engineered (happily for the performance crowd). The engine developed 135 hp with the standard Hitachi-SU carburetors and 150 hp with the optional Mikuni-Solexes. These were factory ratings. Rumor has it the real numbers were about 130 hp and 160 hp respectively.
Backed by a 5-speed full-synchromesh transmission (standard equipment in the 2000) and weighing only 2000 lb, the Roadster was a rocket. With skinny street tires the car was difficult to launch, and 9.5 sec 0-60 times were unrepresentative of the car's true performance. A top speed of 124 mph was. In 1968, a 2000 finished 9th overall in the gruelling Monte Carlo Rally.
The Sports Car Club of America classified the SU version in D Production and forced the Solex version into C Production, where it had to race against Porsche 911's! Nevertheless, Bob Sharp switched to a 2000 and started beating people on the East Coast, while on the left coast a guy named Pete Brock became Nissan's semi-official competition development department. With John Morton as lead driver, the BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises) team dominated D Production virtually everywhere they ran. The only cars that could give them a run for their money were the Triumph TR-6's with two more cylinders, another 500 cc of displacement and independent rear suspension. The 2000 remained the dominant force in D Production for many years, winning six national championships. The 1600 picked up an additional four titles. (For more on Pete Brock and Bob Sharp, see Rob Beddington's excellent Classic Fairlady Roadster Register)
When Bob Bondurant opened his now-famous driving school in California, he stocked it with Datsun Roadsters and 510's.
A New Era Then in late 1970 Nissan changed the sports car world forever by introducing the 240-Z. Whereas the previous "affordable sports car" was a boxy little two-seater with (usually) a four-cylinder engine and live rear axle, the 240-Z, for only a few hundred dollars more, offered good aerodynamics, a great six-cylinder 2400 cc engine, fully-independent suspension and relatively great creature comforts. Prior to this time, one had to step up to a Jaguar XK-E to get all this, at a considerably greater price. The Z took the market by storm and the little Roadster died.

The Z was followed in 1971 by the Porsche 914 and later by the Fiat X-1/9 and others. The whole concept of what an affordable sports car was had changed. Japan would not export another true roadster until the Mazda Miata.

The Place of the Roadster The Datsun Roadster thus represents the intersection of two historical lines. On the one hand, the 2000 was arguably the highest-performance roadster of the "old school" and was thus the end of that line of development. Yes, the Sunbeam Tiger was faster, but with its Sunbeam chassis and Ford engine, it was more of a kit car than a true production car. And, yes, the MGB continued on for many years (over 1,000,000 were built) but it degenerated, choked down to 49 hp by emission controls and hampered by U.S. bumper regulations. The torch had been passed to a new generation of sports cars.

The other historical line represented by the Datsun Roadster is the beginnings of the presence of the Japanese auto industry in the world performance car scene. Even though its production volume was small, the Roadster made the sports car community sit up and take notice, and when the 240-Z arrived, it was obvious that a new force was loose in the auto world.

Still Can't Get No Respect Even so, the Datsun Roadster is not yet recognized as a true classic. Maybe we are still too close to the events for most of us to see them in perspective. There has been a resugence of interest in these cars in Japan in recent years, causing prices to rise as high as $50,000 for the rare 1967 2000 (less than 1,000 built), but it remains to be seen if this awareness will elevate the Roadster to its deserved place in sports car history. In the meantime, I'll continue to drive and enjoy mine.