In the first of a series, JNC is teaming up with our friends at Petrolicious to launch simultaneously a video and an article about historically significant Japanese cars. Be sure to check out the excellent Petrolicious and their beautifully shot short films about vintage cars.
Nowadays there are few cars from Japan’s Miracle Years that escape the collector’s eye, but long before every grandma’s Toyota Corona or obscure Isuzu was sought for by street tuner and speculator alike, the Datsun 510 stood alone at the forefront of the classic J-tin vanguard.
Cars like the Toyota 2000GT or Datsun 240Z were always going to become blue chip collectables. Hugely expensive low-production grand tourers and widely beloved best-selling sports cars were destined for classic-dom, but a budget compact marketed on its affordable price ($1,990) and its fuel efficiency (30-plus miles per gallon)? For decades while Japanese cars of similar provenance were being sent to the crusher by the thousands, the Datsun 510 was being hoarded, tuned, raced, and most importantly, loved.
Like any plebeian transport turned cult classic, the Datsun 510 came in a variety of body styles for the masses. Upon its August 1967 introduction in Japan, where it was named the Bluebird, Nissan offered a trio of shapes: the standard-issue 4-door sedan, a family-oriented station wagon, and the sportsman’s alternative, a 2-door sedan. Likewise, when the car came stateside as the Datsun 510 — apparently Nissan didn’t think us Americans secure enough in our manhood to drive a “bird” that wasn’t emitting fire or thunder — those same three styles were made available.
But why a 2-door sedan and not a coupe? Well in November of 1968, Nissan added a fourth body style to the lineup, a true coupe featuring a completely redesigned greenhouse portion and a much “faster” back window and C-pillar. The Bluebird Coupe would be the halo car of the 510 series, well-appointed and sleek for a time when the inconvenience of two doors and less rear headroom, not towering over others in traffic in a mobile lounge, was the epitome of automotive cool.
As a result, outside of its home country many still erroneously call the 2-door sedan the coupe. On the other hand, because the Bluebird Coupe was sold only in Japan (though knock-down kits were exported to South Africa), it has become something of a holy grail for the legions of 510 enthusiasts outside the motherland.
The Bluebird Coupes had everything that made the standard 510 an instant hit — a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive layout, tunable overhead-cam four, and four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts in the front and sporty semi-trailing arm design in the rear. In the US, all Datsun 510s were 1.6L, but in Japan base-level Bluebird sedans and wagons came with smaller 1.3L (later 1.4L) motors. The Bluebird Coupes, however, came with the 92PS 1.6L standard.
This natural road racing setup, at a time when many far more expensive cars still relied on live axles, is what turned guys like Peter Brock and Bob Sharp to the 510 to build their motorsports empires. Their victories against the dominant cars of the day (Alfas, BMWs, Triumphs) proved that Datsuns, and Japanese cars in general, were a force to be reckoned with. Even as late as 1989, guys like NorCal race car builder Troy Ermish was still racing successfully in 510s against contemporary competition. Today, they are just as formidable in the vintage racing circuit.
In Japan, topping the range was an even hotter 1600SSS, the same 1.6 but with a high-compression (9.5:1) head that produced and even 100PS. In 1971, Nissan added an 1800SSS model sporting an 1.8L mill capable of 115PS. Of course, by 1972 the 510 Bluebird was succeeded by the 610 Bluebird. While non-Coupe 510s soldiered on for one more model year, overlapping the 610, the Coupe was replaced with its 610-chassis successor, the Bluebird U. As a result, the 1800SSS 510 Coupe existed for one year only, and has become the holy grail of 510 holy grails.
Beyond the immediately identifiable sloping roofline, a host of other differences separated the the KP510 (K being the internal Nissan chassis code for coupes) from its Bluebird brethren. The front DLO is about a centimeter shorter, meaning the windshields are not interchangeable. Whereas the 2-door sedans featured body-colored B-pillars, those of the Coupe’s are tucked behind the door and rear side window frames for a hardtop look. The doors themselves are shorter by almost two centimeters, their frames trimmed in stainless steel.
In typical Japanese fashion, Nissan changed a whole host of minor details in order to distinguish the flagship of the line (remember, the Sunny, sold in the US as the 1200, was the prototypical Japanese family car; the Bluebird was a deluxe offering). Many of the Coupe’s minutiae are invisible to all but the most die-hard 510 enthusiast, but it was a time when Japan’s automakers spawned off endless variations and trim packages simply because they could.
Exterior-wise, Bluebird Coupe came with unique grilles and their concomitant headlight bezels, unique vents adorn the C-pillars, and Coupe-specific badges are sprinkled generously throughout (most notably having been added to the quarter panels). Other than the roofline, though, the Coupe’s most distinctive characteristic is its rear graphic, dominated by what are probably one of the coolest and most sought-after taillight assemblies in the Datsun world. Unlike the sedan’s standard twin rectangles, the Coupe featured a sweeping, slatted, body-width expanse with optional sequential turn signal flashers (which became standard on 1971 models).
Naturally, these many of these parts have been collected and affixed to non-Coupe 510s over the years simply because of their JDM cool factor. The taillights are direct bolt-ons, as the steel forming the trunk and taillight panel are the same as the sedans’, making for some very odd rear ends from a purist’s point of view.
Inside, Bluebird Coupes present a lot of standard equipment that would have been optional on lesser 510s — AM radio, map light and locking glovebox, to name a few. An optional faux-wood steering wheel was available, and the interior surfaces were generally more plush, with no exposed steel. The pièce de résistance, however, was that with the headrests removed the front seats could notch down completely flat, combining with folded rear seats to make a large, human-sized horizontal surface for… well, use your imagination.
There’s no way to know for certain how many 510 Bluebird Coupes are in the US. Our resident 510 guru John Roper guesses there are at least 50-60. Troy’s estimate of 30 may apply only to the SSS models. In the 1970s, you could count the number of stateside on one hand. Another fistful came in the 80s. 10-15 arrived in the 90s, and the vast majority have been making landfall in the past 10 years as the Japanese nostalgic car movement gained momentum.
Nowadays, with the rising tide of Japanese classics lifting the prices on all J-Tin, even 510s of what used to be the least desirable body style, the four-door sedans, are being snapped up within moments of being posted on Cragislist. A Bluebird Coupe is still going to be more expensive, but the difference in price isn’t what it used to be.
We haven’t even scratched the surface of the seemingly infinite variations of the 510 chassis. Nissan made year-to-year changes as well for each of the three the 510 Bluebird Coupe was sold. There could be mountains of text written about pot metal versus plastic vent trim, silver versus black highlights on the taillights, or badge variations. For an excellent guide, check out the 510realm‘s Bluebird Coupe buyer’s guide.
With such a vast universe of variations, what is considered collectible is a matter of perspective. While the Bluebird Coupes reign supreme amongst 510 aficionados here, it became the default enthusiast’s choice back home. As such, the irony is that in Japan, the 2-door sedan is today the rarest and thus most sought-after body style. The grass is always greener and all that. Head-spinning as it may be, discovering these differences is all part of the fun and intrigue of classic Japanese cars.
For more on Troy Ermish’s 1969 Bluebird Coupe, check out Petrolicious.
Catalog images courtesy of Nissan; Troy Ermish’s 510 Coupe photos courtesy of Jeremy Heslup for Petrolicious.