Fifty years ago today, the third-generation Nissan Bluebird 510 went on sale. 1967 was a pivotal year for the Japanese auto industry, with seminal sports cars like the Toyota 2000GT and Mazda Cosmo Sport debuting within a couple of weeks of each other. While those blue chip thoroughbreds pull the most eyeballs and auction dollars, it is arguably the humble and once-ubiquitous Datsun 510 that altered Japan’s automotive industry the most.
A Rivalry in the Marketplace
The story of the 510 begins in 1955 with the plainly named Datsun 110, a spartan little runabout with a ladder frame construction, leaf springs, a 25-horsepower side-valve four-banger, and large spoke-less wheels like you’d find on a milk truck.
It was followed in 1957 by the Datsun 210, which looked nearly identical but was equipped with a modern (for its time) 37-horse overhead-valve inline-four. It would be the first post-war Datsun to sell in appreciable numbers and also the first one sold in the United States, but its agricultural roots proved too austere for Americans raised on grand land yachts.
Its successor, the Datsun 310, debuted in August 1959 and was the first Nissan to officially wear the Bluebird name. The moniker was chosen from a play — The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck — a move that would be repeated a few years later with the Fairlady.
With a completely redesigned semi-monocoque-on-frame architecture, 48-horsepower 1.2-liter motor, independent double-wishbone front suspension, and redesigned cabin, it was a departure from the utilitarian roots of its predecessors. Noted car critic Aritsune Tokudaiji called the Bluebird “the first owner-driver’s car,” meaning it had transcended its predecessors’ origins as taxis and commercial vehicles and was something a private citizen would be proud to buy.
Two months after the 310’s debut, Nissan’s biggest rival Toyota updated their Corona sedan with a 1.0-liter overhead-valve engine that beat the Bluebird’s output by a two horsepower. The all-new second-gen Corona emerged in April 1960, and the closely watched domestic sales race between Japan’s two automotive giants came to be known as the BC, or Bluebird-Corona, War.
Despite Toyota’s best efforts, the Bluebird easily trounced its rival for the next half decade. The Corona’s technologically advanced but delicate cantilever suspension was not suited for Japan’s rough roads. Nissan followed the 310 Bluebird with the 1963 Bluebird 410, a true monocoque design paired with engines maxing out at the range-topping 1.6-liter from a Datsun Fairlady sports car, creating the first Bluebird SSS (Super Sports Sedan).
In an effort to court global sales as both Nissan and Toyota aggressively expanded to international markets, the legendary Italian styling house Pininfarina was commissioned to shape the 410. Unfortunately, the design proved unappealing to Japanese eyes, especially the drooping butt. When the sleek new barikan Corona debuted in 1965, Toyota overtook Nissan in the BC War for the first time.
Enter the 510
To win back its sales crown, Nissan launched on August 15, 1967 the all-new 510 Bluebird. It was a stunning debut, not just for Japan but the automotive industry at large. Though ostensibly a common-sense compact car, the 510 was graced with performance characteristics that wouldn’t appear on the competition for decades to come.
Chief engineer Noboru Ota arranged a perfect storm of minimalist design, compact dimensions, and innovations like the new overhead-cam engine family, the L-series. The 510’s calling card, however, was its four-wheel independent suspension. Comprised of MacPherson struts in front and a semi-trailing arm design out back, it was a setup then found only on high-end European sports machines of the day. Forget the Corona — which would maintain a solid rear axle until the 1980s — not even Nissan’s own high-end Skyline had such an advanced suspension at the time.
Designer Teruo Uchino penned a no-frills shape that somehow managed to be simultaneously brightly charming and elegant in its purposefulness, but with a hint of ferocity lurking beneath. The sagging contour that turned off buyers in the previous generation was straightened out and dubbed the Supersonic Line. For an upscale feel, the 510’s door glass eschewed triangular vent windows, opting instead for one large curved piece that was very uncommon for Japanese cars at the time.
Americans were offered three of the four available body styles: a 4-door sedan, wagon (which used a rear solid axle), and a 2-door sedan sharing the same roofline as the sedan. The latter should not be confused with the Japanese market’s 2-door coupe introduced in November 1968, which had a more swept back roofline, sportier grille, and “flowing” sequential taillights.
Though engine sizes included 1.3- and 1.4-liter inline-fours, at the behest of Yutaka Katayama only the 96-horsepower 1.6-liter was offered in the US. Coupled with a curb weight of about 2,100 pounds, the 510 achieved a 100 mile per hour top speed on par with any contemporary rival. In September 1970, Japan added a 113-horsepower 1.8-liter SSS to the lineup but it was never offered stateside.
The combination of performance, styling and advanced suspension was unheard of in the 510’s price range, which, in the US sold for a bargain price of $1,996. Nissan moved nearly 40,000 in the US alone in 1968, but global sales would total approximately ten times that number from 1967 until the generation’s end in 1972. Needless to say, it catapulted the Bluebird back into the top spot in the BC War and held it there for the duration of the 510’s lifespan.
More Than a Best Seller
Successful as it may have been to Nissan’s bottom line, to measure the 510 in profits made would be missing the point. The 510’s true legacy was in the way it revolutionized the image of Japanese cars, taking them from third world tin can on wheels to righteous giant slayer on street and circuit.
Motorsport was the key, and Nissan wasted no time sending the 510 into David versus Goliath battles. While the 510 is known in the US as a road racer, in Japan Nissan had that covered with Skylines, Sunnys, and Fairlady Zs.
Instead, among the Japanese the 510’s most well-known victory was in rallying. Not just any rally but none other than the East African Safari Rally, one of the toughest motorized competitions in the world. The overall win in 1970 over four days and 3,300 miles of wilderness so captured the imagination of people at home that a movie, 5,000km to Glory, was made about the victory.
In the US, the 510’s greatest war stories come from the SCCA Trans-Am 2.5 Challenge. The first took place in 1971 when Peter Brock’s BRE team and John Morton upended the traditional order to score a nail-biting and highly controversial series victory. By 1972, the Datsun team was so dominant that it effectively killed off the series. This too inspired a film, a documentary called Against All Odds, that’s required viewing for any racing fan. Incidentally, BRE campaigned a 510 off-road too, in the 1969 Baja 1000, and finished fourth.
It’s difficult to state just how transformative these races were. Nissan, an unknown on the world stage, brought an unassuming little car and destroyed well-established players like Ford, Lancia, Peugeot, BMW, and Alfa Romeo. These acts of heroism changed not just what people thought about Nissan, but Japanese cars as a whole.
A flood of privateers followed, unleashing a swarm of 510s on race tracks across the US. Paul Newman was among them, driving for Bob Sharp Racing and at one point even owning his own personal 510 race car.
The cult of 510 quickly spread to the streets too, and soon every American city from LA to Boston had modified 510s prowling its avenues for giants to take down. The 510 created an entire culture of car modification out of Datsun performance parts catalogs and shade tree ingenuity. That is perhaps the greatest gift of the 510, laying the foundation for the first stateside Japanese hot rod and serving as inspiration for the first import tuners.
Chief engineer Ota once said in an interview that his team working on the 510 was unusually small, just 23 people. Today, such a project could involve hundreds. On top of it all, they were simultaneously tasked with developing the C30 Laurel as well. It’s astounding to think of the outsized influence that such a modest band of builders had on the world, but it makes sense when you think about it. It’s what the 510 has always about: taking unimaginable odds head on and changing the game.
Some images courtesy of Nissan.