What driving a 40-year-old Datsun race car taught me about greatness
Why do car enthusiasts always reminisce about the glory years? Why, if we were presented with a choice between driving an Aston Martin DB9 or DB5, would we unanimously choose the DB5? Up until last summer, my time spent driving vintage cars was all but non-existent. Clearly I was missing something, so when the opportunity arose to drive one of the most famous vintage racecars in American history — John Morton’s Trans-Am winning Datsun BRE 510 — naturally I jumped at the opportunity to spar with a legend.
Datsun’s 510 remains a fascinating machine. Once called a “poor man’s BMW,” it exists at all thanks the decisive leadership shown by Mr. K (aka. Yutaka Katayama, the first president of Nissan USA) back in the late 1960s who defied board members by producing a machine that held sportiness and performance at its core. Giving Datsun widespread U.S. acceptance was crucial, but many within the company disagreed with his approach.
Regardless, Mr. K coveted excitement over economy and pushed forth, adopting fully-independent suspension as standard and a sizable 1.6-liter engine to please America’s greed for horsepower. While these technologies were far from groundbreaking, what made the 510 an instant success was it remained priced like a Datsun, being sold for under $2,000, comfortably undercutting its competition, while possessing the same sporting qualities.
When I arrived at Memphis International Raceway, I knew of the 510’s history. I’d also heard about its racing pedigree under the Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) banner, and how successful they were as an underdog against the mighty German and Italian manufacturers. I was also astutely aware of John Morton’s talent as a racer. How the car would perform from behind the wheel, however, remained a mystery.
By 1971, with the production 510 selling extremely well as an affordable sports sedan with unassuming looks yet exceptional handling, the focus turned to the racetrack and the SCCA Trans-Am 2.5 championship. Facing the mighty BMWs and all-conquering Alfa Romeos, Mr. K instructed BRE to whip the little sedan into race-winning shape. This meant switching the standard 4-speed manual transmission with that of Datsun’s performance car, the 240Z, making it a 5-speed manual instead. It also adopted the 240Z’s diff, as well as boosting power substantially to around 190 hp – almost double its original output – while lightening the machine to a scant 1,700 lbs.
When I first set eyes upon the car, the word “unassuming” stood out. Externally it’s boxy, plain and, when comparing to modern race cars, decidedly un-aerodynamic. But, of course, aerodynamics were an evolving science back then; cars were designed by eye rather than computer. Does that add more character, more soul, and more passion? At that moment, I was feeling strangely besotted.