GRAND TOURING: Driving Monterey in a couple of old Datsuns

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 510 06

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 411 02

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 411 28

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.

Nissan Maxima & Datsun 510 & Datsun 411 01

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 510 03

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 when 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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 510 & Datsun 411 60a

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 510 18

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 510 & Datsun 411 47

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 411 03

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 411 26

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 411 23

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.

Nissan Heritage Collection Datsun 510 29

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.”

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27 Responses to GRAND TOURING: Driving Monterey in a couple of old Datsuns

  1. Jim Daniels said:

    Sadly, unable to attend this year and would loved to have been there. J-tin is here to stay. Last year having my Z there was amazing to me. The Z car gathered more attention than the amazing cars around me. When parked next to exotic Europien beauties people would gather around the Z Oooh and Awh talk and tell stories about the Z they had while I was trying to look at the Ferrari.

  2. James said:

    Lovely cars! How fun to get to drive these little time capsules.

  3. Censport said:

    Glad to see the cars getting out for some proper exercise. Even happier to see that you got to drive them both. Great photos and write-up!

  4. Enjoyed looking these over at Laguna Seca but had no idea they’d been your ride up there. Looks like the perfect way to do Car Week.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      I wouldn’t have asked for any other car. That third to last shot of the 411 interior was taken at the track right before the setup for Saturday (hence the priceless race cars in the background!).

  5. Adam said:

    This post is not helping me ignore my Datsun dreams any easier. Not at all.

  6. VincenzoL said:

    J-tin is definitely here to stay. Love it or not, vintage Japanese cars fit in perfectly with car week IMO because they add to the overall design aesthetic of all that rolling sheet metal. Btw, thanks for the laugh, “the clutch was about as concerned with precision as Pablo Picasso” I haven’t had a good LOL like that in a while.

  7. Mike Anderson said:

    Driving my 1600 roadster through the paddock at Laguna Seca was a wild experience. Such a great week, and such a great way to do it!!

  8. Dave Yuan said:

    The 411 is so gorgeous. I love it!

  9. MikeRL411 said:

    To parody George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All 411s are gorgeous, but some are more gorgeous than others.” By the way, it looks like the right rear trunk emblem has been replaced by a front fender “DATSUN” emblem. The rectangular, not free lettered, factory emblem reads “DATSUN 1600”.. See mine at the Queen Mary JCCS on September 19th. If “they” are there, they might want to take some notes.

  10. John M said:

    Looks like it was a great dime! Having a dime, it would have been easy to just phone it in. However, not only did we get the 411, but much thought and effort in the words and pics. Nice job! For some reason, I can’t get a voiced Cyndi Lauper out of my head,

  11. Oracles said:

    What an awesome road trip…. Ben and company you guys are just having little too much fun and I love it

  12. Kuroneko said:

    Great cars, great story, and nicely shot too! Great stuff…

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