Old cars are secretive; they hide away the veneer they had when new, stowing away their identity under ever deeper layers of paint, distorting their complexion with dings and dents, even erasing their own history in rust. All the rust and the patina can be so entrancing, but I often wonder how an old car presented itself to the world when it was new and how the market received and perceived that once-new automobile.
What is wonderful about cars is that they seem so permanent, so immutable. Cars can age for decades, picking all kinds of scratches and dents, but they’re thick-skinned. The shape of a car really doesn’t change over the years, but then, it completely does. Cars are actually completely contextualized. Standards of speed, comfort, reliability, economy, and safety are constantly evolving. An ugly car can become pretty, a fast car can become slow.
Let us not leave the agency to something so ambiguous as time itself. There are cars in specific that have actively changed the standards by which cars are judged. After all, judging a car never deals in absolutes – one is constantly measuring an automobile against one’s expectations. This Datsun 510 is part of a larger history of changing expectations in the American market of what a car is.
No one expected a car to have air conditioning in 1920, no one expected a car to have ABS in 1950, no one expects a car to have a choke in 2011. These are easy comparisons – they are extreme cases. The Datsun 510 played into a slower evolution of the expectations one has of a car.
It’s not a Toyota or a Honda, so it doesn’t have the landmark status of something like a Corolla or an Accord, nor does this 510 have any of the mystique of its poor-man’s-BMW predecessor. Any zest that you might find in a Mazda is absent in this Nissan, as is any imported-for-Dodge/Plymouth historicity. It’s just an old Japanese car.
And that’s really what makes it special. It was cheap and it was reliable. Need more be said? This 510 must have made such a contrast to thirsty, recall-prone contemporaries like the Volare/Aspen, the Pinto/Bobcat, or whatever GM was hammering together.
This 510 just marched on without any outstanding features, no real ‘hook,’ nothing to stand out as a remarkable car in any way. It was utterly traditional from tip to tail, inside and out, but it hailed from a period after the second oil crisis of a decade, when Japanese cars might not have needed so much more to grab the attention of the American buyer than they did back when the original 510 struggled to find a place in the American market in the late sixties/early seventies. Smallness, cheapness, reliability, economy. earlier doubts of parts availability or foreign fragility were washing away through the 1970s and this 510 here was part of the normalization of Japanese cars in America.
With that normalization of Japanese cars came a normalization of Japanese car traits. Certainly, in the age of the original 510, Japanese carmakers had to work to Americanize their engines and suspension to fit the landscapes and driving styles of the United States, but by the time of the second 510, the drab, slab-sided block of car we see here, it was the turn of the American firms to emulate the economy and reliability of their Japanese rivals.
Or not. The 1980s were a curious time for Japanese/American relations across the showrooms of the USA, and though Detroit struggled to recognize and accept Japanese design, the American public did, and today you see the streets clogged with Nissans new and old, rattling out hip hop beats from ’90s Altimas or making everyday rounds in creased-skin Maximas. The modern buyer would not put up with the dramas of owning a late ’70s American car back forty years ago, and today it is no question that the standards by which we judge the quality of an automobile have much in common with the evolving traits of a solid, stolid old Nissan like this.
See Ate Up With Motor’s history of the Datsun 510 for some context in what Japanese cars were like before the latter days of Corollas and Accords here: http://ateupwithmotor.com/compact-and-economy-cars/70-datsun-510-yutaka-katayama.html
And see my previous series on Toyota and other Japanese makes in the 1980s in my series on the first-gen Toyota Camry: https://autofrei.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/fascination-of-the-boring-1985-toyota-camry-pt-2/