You might have heard that Monterey Historic Car Week is great, and it’s true. You can’t swing a monocle without hitting a million-dollar supercar or legendary racer. Then there was us, tooling around behind the wheel of a Datsun that cost less than $2,000 when new.
You see, all those swank car shows, auctions and parties are spread across the Monterey Peninsula. You can’t just duck out from a heat at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to catch a particular GT-R crossing the block without driving 25 minutes in between. As such, the roads themselves become kind of a moving car show.
Ever seen a line of Ferrari F40s and F50s driving in formation? A Skittle-orange Miura that wasn’t sitting in some private gallery? Enzos, Astons, R35s and NSXes, all moving together? Each commute through Monterey turns into a neck-twisting exercise of supercar spotting. It’s hard, then, to feel like you’re part of the festivities when you’re driving your commuter Prius.
That’s why when Nissan USA handed us the keys to a couple of gems from their Heritage Collection, we jumped at the chance. Impressively, both cars were shipped from Nashville to Los Angeles ahead of the event and driven north over 300 miles up Highway 101. The outing was intended as a rolling showcase of fun-to-drive Nissan sport sedans leading up to the 2016 Maxima.
All three cars would be displayed at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Saturday. It was a homecoming of sorts, to the very track where John Morton wheeled his BRE 510 in a heroic and contested battle against Horst Kwech’s Alfa Romeo GTV over four decades ago. It was that race that decided Nissan’s 1971 Trans-Am championship win, putting the 510 in the history books as a true giant-killing sports sedan.
I’ve been in many modified 510s, but a bone-stock sedan was a first. Pull the door open and the smell of Showa Era Japan hits you square in the face. This particular example still wears its original 529 Bamboo paint (or as the Nissan PR folks like to call it, Old Man Tan). It was a California car that had somehow wound up in Pennsylvania before Nissan bought it back.
It’s seen some miles. Somewhere along the way, the bucket seats had been reupholstered. The door slams with a tinny reverberation, the 4-speed shifter flops like a gasping fish, and the clutch is about as concerned with precision as Pablo Picasso. Not that that hampered the experience one bit.
Riding with me as the 510 snaked along the Carmel coastline were Maxima product planner Jonathan Buhler and JNC‘s fearless web admin Matt. The added weight of two adult men didn’t exactly help our speed. A 5,000-pound Bentley Continental could’ve easily smoked us if the driver so much as wiggled his right toe on the accelerator.
Still, you could detect just the slightest hint of greatness stirring from deep within the 510’s four-wheel independent bones. Pencil-slim pillars and doors no thicker than a hardcover Kerouac brought us closer to the open road, and with the smell of the Pacific wafting through all four rolled-down hand-crank windows as the golden sun warmed our skin, it was an instant flashback to the days of 1960s California surf culture.
When we paused for a photo shoot, questions from bystanders flowed. We were even spotted by passing JNC reader amarjandu who gave us the 2015 equivalent of a shaka sign — an Instagram comment.
Then it came time to switch cars. The Datsun 411 was Nissan’s first true sports sedan, created from the age-old formula of stuffing a sports car motor — in this case, a 96hp 1.6 from the Fairlady roadster — into an otherwise sensible family hauler.
This particular example is a recent addition to the US Heritage Collection. Inexplicably, it too was from Pennsylvania. With just 34,000 miles and change on the odometer, it’s an amazing time capsule. It’s so mint, in fact, that the doors still shut like a vault, indicating strong seals and hinges (stronger construction, too, as Nissan had yet to become obsessive about shedding weight like it did with the 510). None of its various hand-operated knobs or levers have loosened with age, and hell, even its deep red vinyl is still puffy.
Believe it or not, it drives even better than the 510, due purely to its superior preservation. The bushings feel tighter overall, and the body produces nary a rattle. Its only tragedy came nearly 50 years ago, when the original owner ticked option box for a 3-speed automatic.
Its Pininfarina styling was a miss in Japan but we, on the other hand, were smack dab in the middle of the highest concentration of Italian car fans in North America. “Hey, beautiful car!” shouted one as he cold stopped in the middle of a crosswalk to ogle the Datsun.
With acres of actual Italian sheetmetal nearby, we were pleased as punch that onlookers even glanced our way. We lacked pearlescent paint, curvaceous bods and growling motors, but I guess you can only see so many pastel polo shirts in droptop 360 Modenas before they start looking the same. If there’s one lesson learned from pushing J-tin through a sea of exotics at Monterey Historic Car Week it’s this: just like the old ads said, “Do it in a Datsun.”