The "Poor Man's BMW" Was An Unrivaled American Hit

Everyone loves the Datsun 510—it’s just one of those rare cars that hits all the right buttons for every type of enthusiast, regardless of whatever particular niche of cardom they’ve settled in. A friend of mine had a ’72 wagon that garnered so much praise from pedestrians and traffic it was embarrassing—gas stations became venues for impromptu interviews from grandmothers in minivans and high school kids in Civics with chopped springs. Everyone wanted to know what it was, how it drove, or what kind of engine he had in it (a built Mazda rotary). Though shamelessly based on contemporary European designs, the little Bluebird somehow carries a friendlier demeanor than those that inspired it—rightfully or not, it must be the badge.

Known as the fourth-generation Nissan Bluebird in its home market, the 510 was super sophisticated for a Japanese car of the day, and was among the first with both a SOHC motor and four-wheel independent suspension (wagons still made do with a more traditional solid rear axle). American-market cars came with 1.6 liter versions of the L-series four used across the range, and claimed 96 HP right out of the box. The 510 was as powerful as many sports cars of the day, and weighing no more than a ton for most versions, it’s no surprise how quickly it became known as a “poor man’s BMW”.

Prior to the 510, Nissans (Datsuns in North America) were very conventional, somewhat boring cars with frumpy styling and engineering biased towards economy. After limited success with earlier attempts at breaking into the American market, it was decided to send Yutaka Katayama overseas in 1960, where he was ordered to get a better taste for what Americans wanted in a small car. Now well-known as the legendary “Mr. K”, Katayama observed that economy wasn’t enough to attract Americans to small cars, we also wanted some style and fun to go with it. Mr. K, already a fan of small, sporting European cars, noticed the growing popularity of these types of machines on American roads, particularly the BMW 1600-2. He returned to Japan utterly convinced that the only way for an American presence to succeed was for the company to build its own BMW, and so the 510 was born. Incidentally, Mr. K would soon go on to be the driving force behind the development of the original 240Z.

Inspired by the 510’s great handling and easy tuneability, private owners began to compete with their cars. Datsun took notice, and by 1969 they were lending support to unofficial race teams across the country. Fighting against both BMW and Alfa Romeo for the 1971 Trans Am 2.5 Challenge, a red, white and blue liveried BRE 510 coupe took the championship that year, an accomplishment they would repeat again in 1972. 1973 likely would’ve netted similar results were it not for factory support being dropped, but Mr. K already achieved his goal—the little 510 was an unrivaled American hit, and in conjunction the 240Z and Roadster, it had helped make Datsun synonymous with affordable performance.

Mr. K still remains an active and important figure in the Nissan enthusiast community. This September, he’ll celebrate his 104th birthday. Known for his positive outlook and many “K-isms”, we’ll leave you with our favorite: “Love cars, love people, love life.”