This Datsun Roadster Has A New Heart And Quite A Few Stories To Tell
Photography by Courtney Cutchen
The Datsun Roadster: a truly overlooked gem in the grand scheme of classic, Japanese metal. When you think of Datsun, chances are you envision a 240Z, or a 510. The Roadster remains generally overshadowed. It is what I would call a niche car, and has cult followings comparable to those formed around other cars like the BMW Z3 M Coupe. This may seem like an odd comparison, but the two followings have much shared between them: members of these niches share the qualities of undying loyalty, an almost impossible amount of stored info and obscure facts, and a genuine, unwavering adoration for the cars.
Enter Alvin Gogineni: a Bay Area-based scientific researcher at Genentech, dedicated father and husband, and of course, a Datsun fanatic. He also manages social media channels for Z Car Garage, and keeps a Z Car blog up to date with various Z happenings. I recently spent some time with Alvin to talk to him about his pronounced passion for Datsuns.
Courtney Cutchen: Alvin, tell us a little bit about yourself and where your love of cars originated.
Alvin Gogineni: I’ve been into cars since I was a kid—I blame my dad for my car addiction. He’s a mechanical engineer, and his first new car was an ’85 Pontiac Trans Am. It was burgundy and gold with a T-top, and it was our family car.
CC: That sounds like an ideal Trans Am. So if you grew up around muscle cars, what got you into the import side?
AG: Actually, my first car in high school was an MGB roadster! My dad’s friend gave it to us and we would work on it together. At the time, my friends were into Datsuns—mostly 510s—so my love of them really started at that time.
I spotted my first Datsun Roadster while driving with my dad. I only saw the back of it, and those rocket-like taillights were burned into my mind. After college I started looking for a 510, but I always remembered that image of the Roadster… I eventually hooked up with the folks in the Modesto Roadster Owners Club to help in my search, and finally got the car you see today.
CC: The irony of coming from an MGB to its Japanese competitor! I love it. So, in addition to your job at Genentech, you also work at Z Car Garage. What’s it like working for a shop that specializes primarily in Z cars?
AG: I run social media for ZCG, and I am also intimately familiar with the shop’s projects. We all participate in automotive events and motorsport too. The shop is an amazing place that has opened my eyes to Z car history, maintenance, and endless modification possibilities. I feel blessed to know the owner, Rob Fuller, and to be a part of the shop that makes customers’ dreams come true.
CC: Good to know that the Datsun denominations can live together in harmony. Can you give us a little backstory on your particular Roadster? How long has the build taken, and what all has been done?
AG: I purchased this Roadster in 2001 from a seasoned Roadster owner in Modesto. It was exactly what I wanted: a low windshield, flat dash (1967.5) 1600 model with an upgraded 2L engine from the 2000 model. It also had a host of go-fast goodies like Mikuni-Solex carbs, Competition 7.5qt aluminum oil pan, and a hotter “B” cam. I had dreams of tracking the car so I immediately added full Nissan Competition suspension front and rear, put in a roll bar, and mounted a set of 14” Panasports. I drove it for a few years and enjoyed it tremendously until I saw a Roadster with a KA24DE engine swap.
CC: So you were bitten by the swap bug! But you didn’t transplant a KA, you went in a different direction, right?
AG: Correct. That’s when I knew I wanted an SR20 swap for my own car. In October of 2002, I was on a Fun Run in the backroads of Santa Rosa when I struck a large rock, which went directly into my aluminum oil pan. The engine swap commenced, and it was completed in ’03. I put 20k miles on it in the first year!
Relatively soon after, more modifications began when faded brakes at Laguna Seca made me upgrade the fronts to Wilwood calipers and vented rotors in 2005. I enjoyed it trouble-free for the next eight years, and in 2013, I replaced the stock leaf spring rear with a full four-link setup, using coils and a panhard bar based on a Mazda RX-7 rear end. This gave me stock, vented discs, and calipers with a 4.08 LSD. We also did a front end refresh with new ball joints, arms, bushings, steering links, and a bigger sway bar.
I always wanted a body color hardtop too, so ZCG refinished one for me in 2012. The last five years have just been spent enjoying the ride every weekend, and every other chance I get. Kids sick at home? Take the Roadster to Work Day! I’ve put well over 100k miles on the car since ’01. It was built to drive; it isn’t a show car.
CC: The passion is incredible. So, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the following. Since you came from an MGB, what do you think sets the Datsun Roadster apart from its fellow lightweight convertibles of the era?
AG: Having spent time with both MG and Datsun, the Datsun is hands down the better car to me. Here’s what I think sets them apart from other late-‘60s competitors: the chassis. The Roadster was built with a body on a full ladder-style frame, making it extremely durable. The front disc brakes are the same as a Ferrari or Jaguar.
And it’s the drivetrain too: the Datsun’s 2L engine and 5-speed transmission were ahead of its time, and powerful. It’s no surprise that the Datsun Roadsters dominated the SCCA racing scene for 20 years in a sea of MG, Triumph, and Alfa ‘verts. So the winning racing history is there.
On the styling: the MGB to me is pretty in a fragile and dainty way. I feel the Datsun is more stylish with its jewel-like tails, rear fender, and sexy front flares.
Then in comparison too, there’s the MGB’s electrical system… ever heard of Lucas?
CC: All fair assessments. In summary then, the Datsun is superior in your eyes. Now, considering that you don’t have that 2-liter we keep speaking of, tell me about the SR swap in yours. I’m a sucker for a good modern transplant.
AG: The motto for this swap was “Old Soul, Modern Go.” I sourced a 1998 Nissan SR20DE (S14) engine and the 5-speed gearbox, complete with wiring harness. We wanted it to look like it belonged in the engine bay, so everything to be found in there is low key, no bling. To physically mount the engine and trans, the front crossmember needed to be notched for the front sump, in addition to fabricating new engine and transmission mounts. Surprisingly, the transmission comes through the factory Roadster shifter hole! Lucky for folks, now you can get an SR20 mounting kit directly from Spriso Motorsports. I wish this was available at the time!
CC: That would have simplified things, I’m sure. What else is going on regarding accommodation for the swap? What was it like when you first got back in the car?
AG: A custom exhaust was made to work around the rear four link suspension, and wiring needed to be redone as well. The new harness forced me to swap my instruments, but I went with Classic Instruments gauges because they accept electronic signals and look close to factory units. The only other notable piece is a C&R Racing radiator to handle cooling, and that was put in using factory mounting tabs.
When I first drove my SR20-powered Roadster, it was just an amazing experience. The new drivetrain totally transformed the car. There were no burps, hiccups, or backfires. No hot/cold starting issues, no chokes to pull or gas pedals to pump. To me, it was exactly what I imagined and wanted.
CC: The car is amazing as it sits today, and I think you and the team at ZCG have built something incredible. You said that you performed some track-purposed upgrades—how does the car handle itself on the track? Do you have future plans for more seat time?
AG: I love open track days/HPDE events, and the Roadster was my track car for several years. On course it performs wonderfully; it’s very easy to steer with the throttle but also very much a momentum car, like a Miata, and has a lot less compliant suspension. But that’s one of the beautiful parts of these cars: you feel everything. Beyond the wind-in-your-hair experience, they are nimble handlers with communicative steering, resulting from a front end that is essentially metal-on-metal bushings. It’s been to many tracks, including Thunderhill Raceway, Sears Point, Buttonwillow, and my favorite, Laguna Seca. My last timed session there was in ’06, running laps around 1:51 seconds on street tires. It was never a car I felt confident driving 10/10ths on the track, mostly because of safety and the thought of replacement parts. I got a Nissan 350z for that very reason; easy to drive all-out with no worries.
I last ran the Roadster at Laguna Seca in 2013. I also enjoyed running it at local drag strips, and did a 14.4 at 98mph at Sears Point Wednesday Night Drags with an open diff. It’s not V6 Camry fast, but it’s tons of fun and people get a kick out of it being there.
CC: After owning the car all these years, do you have any especially fond memories with it?
AG: I do, yes, but not in any particular order. A few really special ones include: driving through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca for the first time; driving to LA to enter the Roadster in the car casting of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift; taking my girlfriend (now wife) on our second date and later having the Roadster at our wedding; yearly trips to JCCS and Solvang shows; getting second place out of 300 cars at the Wednesday Night Drags at Sears Point; and running the Touge California in 2016.
CC: Alright, that’s it. You’ve convinced me to get a Roadster. Where do I start?
AG: First, go to 311s.org. Second, visit the Solvang Datsun Roadster Show in April—it’s the 30th anniversary of the show and more than one hundred Roadsters will be there. If you’re looking for a knowledgable base of owners, that’s as good a place as any to find it.
Alvin would like to extend a special thank you to Rob Fuller, Michael Spreadbury, and Becky Yang.