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Sport Compact Car - November '97


By Dave Coleman

[Put into HTML format by Mike Mager]

The story of a good idea who's time has come and gone... twice.

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Family resemblance in German cars is almost a given. Look back over decades of BMWs, Mercedes, or Audis, and they will be immediately recognizable.   BMWs have always hade the kidney grille, Mercedes always have an air of substance, and Audis, even before they were called Audis, have always had distinctly clean and graceful lines.  This tradition is largely foreign to Japanese makers, who tend to design each car for a specific market, and let the badge on nose tell you who made the car. One look at the two Japanese cars pictured here, however, and the family resemblance is obvious.  It was something deeper than mere corporate policy that made the Datsun 510 Bluebird Coupe and Nissan Sentra SE-R look similar.  To really understand the connection between these two cars you must understand what brought them about.  The story starts more than 30 years ago...

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Top: The original 1959-1963 310 Bluebird epitomized the stodgy, British-looking cars that Nissan initially brought to the U.S.  They were less than a hit. Bottom: The 1963-1967 410 Bluebird was much more flamboyant, with styling by Pininfarina, and power from a dual carb 1600. The 410 still lacked sophistication and sales were still weak.

The 1960s were a decade of tremendous growth in the design studios and engineering offices at Nissan. By the early '60s the fledgling, war-ravaged Nissan motor company was still playing the role of a struggling, inexperienced young company, even after nearly 30 years as an automaker. Post-war Nissans were mostly derived from old Austin designs, stemming from their purchase of the assembly license for Austin's A40 sedan. For years after this purchase, most of Nissan's car's were an evolution of old Austin technology. Not having the experience nor the daring to depart too far from the Austin-based designs that had kept the company alive, most of Nissan's cars were heavy, stodgy-looking and underpowered. For Yutaka Katayama, President of Nissan's U.S. operations and a dyed-in-the-wool sports car enthusiast, Nissan's Austin-derivative designs were lacking the dynamics and the personality to excite him or the American public.

By the end of 1967, the culmination of several events resulted in the introduction of Nissan's first U.S. sales success, and a car that marked the beginning of a bold new personality for Nissan's automobiles. That car, of course, was the Datsun 510. By the time production ended early in 1973, more than 500,000 510s had been sold, and the American public's perception of Japanese cars as nothing but gas sipping transporters suitable only for the perpetually miserly had been, if not shattered, then at least severely dented.

While it was a landmark design in many ways, the 510 was not the first small performance sedan from Nissan. The 510 was the third generation in Nissan's line of Bluebird sedans, a line that stretched back to the 310 Bluebird of 1959. The 310 Bluebird epitomized the conservative Austin-based designs that Nissan brought to America for their less-than-dramatic U.S. debut. Its stodgy British looks were clean, but uninspired, and its 1189cc Austin-derived engine managed a meager 48 horsepower. In addition to its limited performance envelope, it was smaller than it looked, making it a reasonable purchase only for the short American who wasn't in a hurry.

nov04_small.jpg (15544 bytes)The 410 Bluebird that followed was the first of the Bluebird line that could truly wear the sports sedan label. For styling, Nissan finally made a bold move hiring the famous Italian design house Pininfarina to pen a dramatic silhouette for the car. Under its exciting new skin were much improved mechanicals. Debuting simultaneously with the SP310 Fairlady roadster in 1963, the 410 Bluebird shared the chassis, suspension, and drivetrain of Nissan's new sports car. (The 310 had also shared platforms with the previous generation Fair Lady, but with matching 0-60 and quarter-mile times of 23.4 seconds, even that so-called "sports car" wasn't much to get excited about.) The Fairlady that donated its chassis for the 410 sedan was much more potent. By the 410's curtain call in 1967, the Bluebird was sporting the Fairlady's 1.6-liter four with an aluminum head, dual SU carburetors, a tubular header, and 96 horsepower. (In case you're wondering, the earlier Fair Lady was two words, while the later Fairlady was one word.)

Despite the vast improvements in performance and style, the 410 Bluebird was still less than a dramatic success. Though it was much more advanced than the 310, the 410's chassis was still a body-on-frame design, and was technically about a decade behind most of its European contemporaries. To really turn Nissan's U.S. presence into a success the next Bluebird, the 510, would have to be designed with the U.S. market in mind from the start.

Dramatically successful new cars seldom come about without unusually fortunate circumstances, especially those emerging from a company as conservative as Nissan was at the time. Several fortunate circumstances converged on the 510's development to set the stage for Nissan's coming of age.

The first of these circumstances was Yutaka Katayama's presence as the President of Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A.  Katayama had been accused of being "too American" by his superiors in Tokyo, a statement that was considered a grave insult by the Japanese, but was, in fact, the greatest of compliments to Katayama. Mr. K, as most of his American friends knew him, was very American; his rebellious nature and unbridled enthusiasm for the automobile fit in very well in the U.S. His almost-intuitive understanding of the American car buyer, however, had left him frustrated with the cars that were arriving from Tokyo. At first, all he could do was change the names of the cars. Most Americans, he realized, would be embarrassed to drive a car called a Bluebird or Fairlady, so those names were abandoned shortly after the cars arrived. The 510 Bluebird would be sold here as the 510 and the Fairlady simply became the 1600 or 2000 Roadster. But changing details after the fact was not Katayama's way of conceptualizing the car that would finally sell Americans on Japanese cars. Katayama constantly communicated with Tokyo, telling them what they needed to build for America. He was persistent, probably to the point of annoyand, but he was right.

On the receiving end of many of Katayama's phone calls was a young designer named Teruo Uchino. Uchino had studied industrial design at the Tokyo University of Art and Design at a time when there was very little need for industrial design. Industrial design, after all, requires industry, and Japan's industry in the early '60s was still underdeveloped. Uchino was fortunate, however, as he had a natural talent and a mentor with the same passion for the automobile that he had. That mentor was Shiozo Sato, a man with a particular love and talent for designing sports cars. Sato is credited with designing Toyota's S600 sports car and the Datsun Fairlady, among others. It was probably Sato's connections in Nissan's design studios that helped him find a place for Uchino there in 1963. Uchino, then, was still a freshman at Nissan when he was given the opportunity to show his talents by designing what was to become Nissan's most important new car.

nov05_small.jpg (14680 bytes)The 510's styling objective was to find a middle ground between the conservative 310 and the flamboyant Italian 410. Designing a strikingly beautiful but impractical car is relatively easy compared to the task of designing a striking, but inoffensively conservative one. In the end, the 510's styling would be hated by none, invisible to many, and praised by those with an eye for proportion and detail. Uchino took the crease from the side of the 410--dubbed the "supersonic line" in the design studio--and carried it over in slightly modified form to the 510. This supersonic line and the subtle scalloped crease that ran along the top of the fender, below the window line, and back to the trunk created a delicate balance that Uchino credits as one of the more important aspects of the 510's design. The balance of proportions is supremely important when you have no fins, swoopy fender lines, or flashy design elements to work with. Similar balance can be found in Uchino's designs into the '90s. In fact, Uchino points out that the front fender contours of the 510 and one of this more recent designs, the Infiniti G20, are very similar in their visual effect.

If the 510's styling was to be more conservative than the 410 Bluebird's, the engineering behind the new car would be a bold leap forward. Bringing the technical sophistication of its cars from the level of decade-old British saloons to a level equal to the best sport sedans in the world would take more than a crash course in automotive engineering. It would take a corporate takeover. By 1965, the failing Prince Motor Company had established a strong history of well-engineered cars including the prestigious Skyline sedan and the incredible R380 sports prototype. It also had a history of poor business moves, and as Nissan was preparing to establish a serious American presence, Prince was on the verge of bankruptcy. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) had long been pushing for a Japanese auto industry made up of a few strong companies instead of the many weaker ones that had developed naturally. Prince's financial woes gave MITI an opportunity both to save Prince's valuable automaking experience and move one step closer to their plan. Following MITI's suggestions, Nissan officially absorbed Prince in January, 1966.

With the takeover came an influx of talented engineers. Many of the former Prince engineers had been aeronautical engineers during the war, and were therefore very skilled at making lightweight monocoque structures. Their engine designs were also superb. Nissan's engines, on the other hand, were largely an evolution of the powerplant they acquired with the purchase of assembly rights to the Austin A-40. Buying or "borrowing" designs of more established automakers was a common engineering technique in the early years of Japan's auto industry. One look at a Prince engine, and it was obvious that they chose skilled, if unwilling, mentors. Where Nissan bought designs from Austin, Prince borrowed its from Mercedes.

The Prince influence began to show in Nissan's products almost immediately. Halfway through the 1967 model year, a 2000-cc version of the Fairlady appeared alongside the normal 1600. While the 1600 had an Austin influenced pushrod engine, the 2000 sported a very Mercedes-looking aluminum SOHC cylinder head bolted to a stroked version of the 1600 engine block. The result was a very healthy 150 horsepower, and a car that could compete with Europe's best sports cars on the track.

There is little doubt that the former Prince engineers had a lot to do with the design of the 510, too. The lightweight, unibody construction was unlike anything Nissan had produced before, and the new L-16 engine was obviously still influenced by what had been learned from Mercedes' designs. But the inspiration and the direction for the 510 project came not directly from the fresh blood at Prince, but from Nissan's old guard. Uchino's responsibilities were largely confined to the styling of the 510; it was Kazumi Yotsumoto, as head of Nissan's design division, who was responsible for how it drove.

Yotsumoto's goal was a car that could bring out the user's self expression through its responsiveness and precise handling. It was a lofty goal driven by what Yotsumoto considered very German thinking. (Apparently that German thinking permiated all elements of the car's design; you don't have to squint very hard at a 510 to see a BMW 1600.) In the end, Yotsumoto didn't just succeed at his goal, he triumphed. The 510's road manners were inspirational for their day, and with simple modifications could be improved to a level that would challenge the best cars of the time.

When it arrived in American showrooms in 1968, the 510 was a hit, gaining cult status almost overnight. Finally, Katayama had a car he could be proud of. One of the many 510 buyers to be inspired by the 510's combination of performance and styling was a young aspiring designer by the name of Kouichi Yasui. For any car enthusiast, their first car holds a special place in his or her heart; a place somewhere beyond simple nostalgia. Yasui's first car was a 510 Bluebird coupe--the bodystyle pictured here which never made it to the U.S. He bought the car when he was hired by Nissan as a designer in the early '70s.

Though Yasui's 510 died when a freeze plug rusted through and caused the engine to overheat, he carried the influence of the 510's design with him even as he slaved through Nissan's period of hideously clueless car designs that followed the 510. In marked contrast to Uchino's early opportunity to shape Nissan's future, Yasui cut his teeth as a designer doing unglamorous cleanup work like designing the fastback rear end for the Datsun 1200, turning the Z into a 2+2, and styling the decidedly inelegant front end for the late '70s 200SX (the "stupid looking Silvia" in his own words). It wasn't until the late 1980s, as Nissan was preparing for a dramatic return to their high-performance heritage, that Yasui was given the opportunity to design the car that had probably been brewing in his subconscious for more than a decade. Part of Nissan's return to fame that included the twin turbo 300ZX and the "Four Door Sports Car" Maxima would be a new Sunny (known as the Sentra in the U.S.) that harkened back to the 510 both in terms of styling and in dynamics. (The Bluebird model line had by this time matured into a larger car known in the U.S. as the Stanza at this point and later as the Altima.)

At the time that Yasui was working on the new B13 Sunny, (as this new Sentra was known internally) Uchino had been promoted to head of Nissan's Atsugi Design center where Yasui was working. With the designer of the 510 overseeing a one-time 510 owner who was styling a car intended to embody the spirit of the 510, a decidedly 510-like result was inevitable. Indeed the B13 Sunny had many of the 510's same qualities. It had a body that offended nobody and slipped invisibly past the uninterested, but, like the 510, captivated those who either recognized the intentional family resemblance, or simply appreciated its uncluttered proportions.

Dynamically, the B13 Sunny was very much a '90s version of the 510. Despite the fact that it was now front-wheel drive, the B13's handling was every bit as entertaining as the 510's was in its time. With the B13, though, Nissan made one critical move that they had not made with the 510. Around the world 510s had been available with a variety of engines ranging from the modest 1.3-liter L-13 with a single tiny carburetor, to the healthy dual-carb 1.8-liter L-18. The L-18 found its way into the top-of-the-line SSS (Super Sports Sedan) models in Japan, but never made it to the U.S. in a 510. The second time around, the hot rod model of the Sentra, now known as the SE-R, would be available here. Car and Driver called the Sentra SE-R "a modern-day BMW 2002". If they had ever driven a SSS 510 Bluebird, they probably would have called it a modern-day SSS 510, but their comparison is understandable. At the time, Nissan still refused to publicly acknowledge its Datsun heritage, and the phrase "vintage Japanese car" still seemed like an oxymoron. Comparing the SE-R to the ground breaking 2002 was in fact the greatest of compliments.

In the end the SE-R would not have the same impact as the 510 did, but it was no fault of the car itself. The SE-R appeared as a great car in a sea of well qualified competitors. The 510 had the advantage of being so far advanced for its time that it stood out as the only game in town. It also had two well publicised decisive victories in the popular 2.5 Trans Am series thanks to Peter Brock and his extraordinary crew. Despite the different eras they came from and the different impact they have had on the automotive world, both the 510 and the SE-R have found their way onto the short list of truly great cars.

Editor's note: Pulling together the unwritten history of the 510 would have been an impossible task without a lot of help. We would like to thank Teruo Uchino both for supplying the photos of the 510's development, and for designing the car in the first place. Thanks to Shin Yoshikawa and the editors of Japan's Nostalgic Hero magazine for their research into the 510's development, and finally, thanks to Gina Pasco and Scott Vasin of Nissan North America for their help in translating Nostalgic Hero's research.

Reprinted with Permission