There are occasions, as any enthusiast will tell you, when whatever you are doing, no matter how important, must be immediately and emphatically dropped in order to turn around and look at a car. That’s the situation our fearless leader Ben and I found ourselves in one afternoon during Monterey Historic Car Week. We were on our way to something — neither of us can honestly remember what — when we passed Robert Johnson’s BRE tribute 510 just cold parallel parked on the street like it was your aunt’s Altima. We looked at each other, scarcely believing what we’d seen, and knew what we must do — flip a U and go back to gawk.
It was, truly, one of the finest BRE 510 tribute cars we’d ever seen. Eventually the owner returned to his car. That’s when we met Robert and got the background of his stunning machine.
Robert is the second caretaker of the car, having purchased it in 1986 from the original owner, who bought it new in 1972 at Gardena Datsun, just a stone’s throw away from Nissan USA’s then-headquarters in southern California.
The original owner was an enthusiast and drove it for five years, slowly adding mods as he went. In 1977, he got the idea that he was going to build it into a BRE replica and “took the car totally apart,” says Robert. “That was the last time the car ever drove on the streets until 2011.”
When Robert received ownership of the car, it was a rust-free shell with only 62,000 miles on the clock, but it would be another 15 years before he got serious about his build, and another 10 before it hit the streets. “It was going to be a box flared orange 510 first, then a BRE flared orange 510,” he recalls. “Then i decided on the blue BRE paint scheme.” Why? “Seemed like everybody always did the red car,” Robert offers.
The goal was set. Robert would “continue the previous owner’s dream.” What followed was an unparalleled 510 build, created with the devotion of resources typically reserved for far more exotic steel.
“I kept everything I could to [the] era, like what you could have built in the mid-Seventies,” Robert tells us. There was a lot of work to do to the shell before paint and body could be started, however.
The firewall and radiator core support needed attention, but Robert remembers the biggest challenge coming from the rear wheel wells, which had been cut and widened with molded BRE flares by the previous owner. “There were places where the bondo was over an inch thick,” Robert recalls. That needed to be rectified.
“I redid the flares properly and inner panelling. Lots of time was spent as to not damage the quarter panels while cutting the fiberglass and bondo-ed flares off and drilling out the rivets,” Robert explains. “Paul from Moore Speed made some inner panels for me, which were all welded in place.”
Robert then enlisted the help of Mike Malone and Manuel Telles of Malone’s Collision in Salinas, California. The former is an expert welder and fabricator, the latter a virtuoso painter. They stripped the body down to the bare metal — not an easy task, as the previous owner had painted it in extremely durable Imron blue — and discovered that aside from the flares, the body had no damage or rust to speak of.
“Over 150 hours were spent on the quarter panels alone to bring them back to show quality,” says Robert. He sourced rear flares from Troy Ermish and pop-riveted them on just like the number 35/85 BRE car. The car’s front fenders, hood and trunk are all fiberglass, with a BRE-style spook with full air ducts made by Quikskins.
When the body work was complete, the car was painted with a Sikkens paint and clear coat in the iconic livery of Brock Racing Enterprises’s Trans-Am winning 510s. According to Robert, the whole process took six months at the body shop before the car was back at his house for a lengthy reassembly.
“I’d been collecting parts for 25 years for this build,” Robert explains. “Practically everything is NOS genuine Nissan/Datsun parts. Every nut, bolt and fastener is brand new and factory correct.” Robert painstakingly restored every subassembly, from the pedal box to the dash framing, to new. “It would be like a brand new 510.”
Here is a partial list of parts that Robert diligently collected, all NOS: Front and rear bumpers, brackets, grille, lamps, moldings, weatherstrips, quarter panel grilles, door handles, lock set, interior door panels, rear inner panels, seat covers, armrests, tachometer, trip odometer, speedometer, package tray (rare!), map lamp, all switches, the wiring harness, and windshield (last Nissan NOS). Most of these items are impossible to find nowadays, unless you happen to befriend a compulsive Datsun parts hoarder.
For power, Robert built an L18 bored .080 over with european 280ZX flat-top pistons. Attached to it is a laundry list of rare, period correct aftermarket goodies, like a Datsun Competition 7-quart road race oil pan, a NISMO header, an original BRE intake manifold and twin Mikuni 44 Carbs.
Inside a fully ported Nissan Competition V912 cylinder head lay a 530/306 cam with external oiling, stainless valves, competition springs and retainers, a NISMO adjustable cam gear, a bronze drive gear for the distributor (an SSS unit converted to electronic), all new housings and hardware, and a custom breather setup.
A Datsun competition aluminum radiator made by Nichira with braided hoses cools the air coming in, while a custom 2.5-inch mandrel-bent exhaust spits it out through a Borla race muffler.
Though the car has never been dynoe’ed, Robert estimates that the setup is good for about 150 horses. That power is channeled through a 4-puck solid-hub clutch disc actuated by a Datsun roadster pressure plate into a fully rebuilt wide-ratio 5-speed from a z with bearings, synchros, and seals that are — you guessed it — all-new. It then exits through a driveshaft shortened to accommodate the Z’s 5-speed, through an R180 4.11 final drive with a NISMO LSD into Troy Ermish CV joint half-shafts to motivate original 13×7 American Racing Libres with 215/50-13 Sumitomos.
To keep it as planted as John Morton shaking Horst Kwech off his ass, Robert runs a solid-mounted modified ’69 front crossmember with pillow ball bearings in the control arms with BRE tension control rods. For serious dialing, Carrera coilovers with small-diameter 200-pound front springs and Tokico 5-way adjustable shocks mount to Tilton camber plates.
Tubular pillow-ball tie-rods, steering arms and knuckle risers from Design Products help eliminate bump steer and keep the steering geometry in tact on a car substantially lower than stock. All of this is controlled via a MOMO wheel paired with a Mark Williams quick release hub.
Out back, the trailing arm suspension is kept largely in tact but for the addition of Tokico 5-way adjustables, Datsun competition rear springs and a modified rear crossmember.
The brakes are a pretty standard kit popularized by Troy Ermish, consisting of Wilwoods up front and larger-diameter vented rotors up front. Aluminum drums from a Z grab the rears. Naturally, all the wheel cylinders, adjusters and hardware were new.
Make no mistake, however, the car isn’t just a pile of rare parts for show. Robert takes it to the track, and in fact has a different suspension setup just for the occasion. For street driving duties, a 1-inch sway bar on the front and a 7/8-inch adjustable for the rear, both by Quickor, suffice. For the track, Robert runs a 1-and-1/8-inch Tilton sway bar on the front and a Tilton road race bar for the rear to stick his alternate race shoes — a set of VTO 13×7 Libre lookalikes with 225/45-13 Hankook track rubber — to the tarmac.
Inside, the car has been caged and all the sound deadening removed from the floorpan. The spare tire well was cut out and covered with an aluminum panel. A replica BRE racing seat puts Robert where the action is and a classic Wink mirror gives him a good view of the cars he’s leaving in the dust, which is really all the entertainment you need in a car like this. “There’s no heater, no radio, or any creature comforts whatsoever,” he emphasized.
All the effort and money poured into a car that cost less than $2,000 when new may appear excessive, but Robert didn’t build his car for profit or to make a statement. He’s one of the most humble owners we’ve ever met, despite the fact that his 510 could easily walk away with a trunkful of trophies at Nissan Jam or JCCS. What inspired his all-out build, then? Perhaps it was destiny.
“When I was just a young kid,” explained Robert, “I knew 510s were going to be my life [laughs]. In the Eighties I had numerous 510s , but I knew I wanted to build a BRE replica someday. I just had to wait until later in life to afford it!”
In the late 60s and early 70s the Datsun 510 stood out among Japanese compacts for its racing prowess, winning the SCCA 2.5 class twice against far more established and powerful rivals. Today, those victories aren’t as fresh in the minds of enthusiasts, and many 510 drivers weren’t yet born when BRE made its stand. But then you stumble across a car like Robert’s and you instantly understand just how epic the 510 had to be to inspire such a build. Today, in 2016, it’s very much efforts like Robert’s that keep the 510 legend alive.
Special thanks to Robert Johnson.