Datsun 1600 - Buyer's Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Stuart Grant

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The Datsun 1600 taught Ford boss Bill Bourke a thing or two about Japanese cars and RSL car parks

 

Datsun 1600

Prior to 1968, the dominant force in Australia’s medium car market was the Ford Cortina. In Mark 2 form, the Cortina had a 1.6-litre engine with overhead valves, a live rear axle and (unless you bought the GT version) drum brakes front and rear. In typical 440 (four door) form, the Cortina cost $2120 and Australians were happy enough with that.

Then the medium car segment and its dominance by Brit-sourced models was altered forever by a ground-breaking design from Nissan.

The Datsun 1600 was a four-door sedan with bucket seats where most had a bench and through-flow ventilation like the Cortina. In place of overhead valves, the Datsun came with a grunty single overhead-camshaft engine delivering 71.5kW. Front disc front brakes and independent rear suspension, as fitted to upmarket Brit models like the Triumph 2000, were standard equipment.

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Early 1600s had distinctive ‘clap hands’ windscreen wipers (the wiper pivots were towards the edges of the windscreen, not in the centre) and a tall final-drive ratio. Acceleration was ordinary but those Datsuns when revved past 6000rpm on long a downhill run – such as Conrod Straight on Bathurst’s Mt Panorama – easily hit speeds above 100mph (161km/h).

With a straight-line advantage over its Class B rivals, classy handling and exceptional reliability, Datsun scored a string of Bathurst 500 class wins until being forced to compete in a new category against Escort Twin Cams and Mazda’s RX-2 rotary.

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Dirt rally roads allowed the light but strong 1600 to write itself into the annals of motor-sport. Only the arrival of Holden’s potent XU-1 Torana stopped it winning at Australian Rally Championship level, but in State events and at Club level the story was different.

Also helping build the legend was a dogged performance in the 1970 Ampol Trial that saw a lone 1600SSS finish level on points lost with a factory-backed Citroen and ahead of the more fancied Holden Monaro and Falcon GT teams.

Minor changes for 1969 shifted the position of the wiper posts, changed the grille and improved the interior. Power output remained unchanged but the final drive ratio was altered to improve acceleration and top speed of road-going cars diminished to 148km/h. The Bathurst runners remained quick though.

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Three-speed automatic transmission became an option in 1970, adding $250 to the cost of a basic 1600. Auto-tranny cars sold well but survivors like our photo car have become scarce because so many have been converted to manual using the later five-speed gearbox.

Australia missed out on SSS versions of the 1600 sedan, as seen in the Ampol Trial, and also the sleek and lovely SSS Coupe. These do pop up for sale occasionally thanks to private imports.

Aussies do love a family station wagon and in 1971 Datsun gave us a 1600 version. However, due to engineering considerations, the independent rear-end that endeared so many to the 1600 sedan couldn’t be carried across, so the wagon made do with conventional ‘cart’ springs at the back. Lots of room for its size and worth a look if you want a family classic.

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1973 brought the 1600’s reign to an end; its replacement  the heavier, better equipped but less durable 180B.

ON THE ROAD

Lots of this country’s best rally runners found early success behind the wheel of a Datsun 1600. Among them was national and international rally star Ed Ordynski whose successes include the 1990 Australian Rally Championship, multiple Group N category wins at Rally Australia and the 1995 Repco Round Australia Trial in a Commodore.

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"I already had a Datsun that I bought in the late 1970s as my everyday car," Ed revealed. "When I got my rally 1600 in 1982 it was built along established lines with a 2.0-litre motor, twin Webers, a 240K five-speed gearbox, 4.8:1 limited slip diff and heavy-duty suspension."

"What I did next was compare how well the road car and rally car dealt with rough surfaces and in a lot of circumstances the road car was better, leading us to a rethink on our suspension settings."

"The best thing about the Datsuns was they were light but so over-engineered they could take a fearful pounding and stay together," he commented. "Riding in one when I was still a kid of about 12 I was amazed how comfortable it was. You would have thought you were in a Peugeot."

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Ed was competing at a time when South Australian rallying was dominated by the Datsuns of Barry Lowe and Jim Conaghty; both powered by Mazda rotary engines and nicknamed ‘Dazdas’.

"I had been running a hot RX-2 before building the 1600, so I knew the kind of power those guys had available," Ed recalled. "However in events where the roads were tighter, where you couldn’t fully exploit a powerful car I could still take stages off Jim and Barry and win events."

"In three years of rallying in that car I never had a DNF and was pretty much in the top three at every event. That’s pretty good for a car that didn’t have a big budget and was built and run largely on a teacher’s wage."

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Ed’s rally Datsun is long gone but his road-going version – a rare 1968-build with cross-over wipers – is still in the shed on his semi-rural block.

"The last time I drove it I think was the 1990s to a Datsun event at the National Motor Museum," he said. "It’s still in decent condition though it's been up on blocks; it’s not rusty and wouldn’t take much to get it going again. I’ll let you know when I do."

The writer’s 1600 was bought in the late-1980s from a bloke in a loud jacket down the ‘budget’ end of Sydney’s Parramatta Road. Two minute walk around, five minute test-drive, no REVS check (no such thing in those days), she’ll be right.

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The journey home was more than 100 kilometres; half of it on dark, unforgiving rural roads  and I hadn’t even checked if the lights worked. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing really. More concerned about encountering a suicidal Skippy than whether a $1550 Datsun was going to self-destruct under me, the speedometer wasn’t a priority. Luckily, Mr Plod wasn’t lurking, because when I finally found time for a scan of the dash I was amazed to find that the old Datto had slipped its leash and was sitting easily at 115-120km/h.

The only sensation of increased speed was some vibration from front wheels in need of a balance and a strange gear-lever buzz that started at about 110km/h and wasn’t cured until the standard 'box was flung to accommodate a five-speed.

That stop-gap Datsun became part of the family and for several years our spare car. It was frequently on loan to friends or neighbours in need of temporary wheels who invariably brought it back amazed at just how good the old ‘bomb’ was to drive.

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BUYING

Anyone buying a ‘cheap’ 1600 in today’s market will be in for a very different experience. ‘Cheap’ now involves an outlay of $10-12,000 and the car will most likely come with a 1.8 or 2.0-litre turbo engine, late-model seats and maybe rear-wheel disc brakes. The wheels will be larger in all respects, carrying vastly superior rubber to the scrawny original tyres.

The paint will almost invariably have been replaced but hopefully no one has messed too much with the original dash – especially the early one with its evocative 1960s strip speedo.

Finding a stock 1600 in anything approaching showroom condition is going to be difficult and will now cost twice the money you might have paid just a few years back.

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There aren’t many Datsuns of any kind in the market, and most that are there have been modified to some degree.  In a lot of cases their last major work was 15-20 years ago and these could be in line for quite significant expenditure. Be cautious before finalising a price on one of these then having to outlay half the purchase price again on refurbishing.

Two-door cars are scarce and should bring 30-50 percent more money than a sedan of similar quality. Wagons tend to cost less than sedans but this could be related more to the quality of vehicles on offer than lower demand. 

When seeking out cars and parts, remember that the 1600 goes by its ‘510’ model code in the USA and other overseas markets, so searching ‘Nissan 510’ can bring results.

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VALUE RANGE:
Datsun 1600 Fair: $5000
Good: $12,500
Excellent: $18,500 (unmodified sedan)
(Note: concours cars will demand more)

BUYER'S CHECLIST

BODY & CHASSIS

Datsuns these days are likely to be decked out in non-original colour-schemes and even feature panels reproduced completely in fibreglass. That still leaves a 45-year-old structure to be checked for kinks, twists, repairs of suspect quality and rust. Rust repair panels are available from local suppliers but for larger items look overseas. Futolab in the USA advertises front and rear bumpers at US$360 each (less than the cost of having a damaged bumper repaired and rechromed here) plus freight. A complete bonnet will cost $495 but expect that to double once freight and currency conversions are factored in. Rare Spares sells a complete kit of body rubbers for around $900, with a front windscreen surround on its own costing $110.

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ENGINE & TRANSMISSION

With so many modified cars in today’s market it is difficult to be specific about problems. Any smoke from the exhaust is bad, especially if the engine is turbocharged. Listen at start-up for rattles from the top or front of any engine; signifying camshaft or valve train wear and looseness in the timing chain. High-performance engines need an uprated radiator which can cost around $1000 in aluminium. Automatic cars use a Borg-Warner three-speed which is easily fixed if slipping or slow to change. Replacing a clapped out manual gearbox with a five-speed isn’t much more expensive than rebuilding the original and will make for quieter cruising and better fuel economy. Rear half-shafts that click when reversing may need replacing.

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

If a Datsun doesn’t handle don’t buy it. Unless a car has sat in the corner and been forgotten for a long time the springs and shocks should be in reasonable shape with perhaps some clapped bushings and tie-rod ends to amuse the home mechanic. Standard 1600s use recirculating ball steering which may feel vague if you’ve stepped out of a rack and pinion car. Serious wear is cause for concern so check the steering box isn’t moving on its mounts and if there is more than 50mm of play at the steering wheel. Conversion to a rack is possible but tricky and needs engineering approval. 180B style brake boosters can be adapted; new discs, calipers and brake hoses are all available. Parts needed for a rear disc-brake conversion cost $1300-2000 plus installation.

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INTERIOR & ELECTRICS

The original Nissan seats owe a lot to the design parameters of a park bench. If the original buckets are gone don’t worry or if they are there but beyond redemption (and the rest of the car isn’t totally authentic) then just replace them. Original seat frames break and the foam padding has likely turned to dust. Dash cracks are endemic and the only remedy may be recovering by a motor trimmer. A US supplier is offering reproduction dash pads which might be suitable for RHD cars but check before ordering. Window mechanisms jam with age so make sure they all work. Some owners have adapted Hyundai blowers as a replacement for the inadequate Nissan heater fan.

SPECIFICATIONS

1968-1973 Datsun 1600


NUMBER BUILT: 550,000 (approx)
BODY STYLE: all-steel integrated body/chassis two and four-door sedan, four-door station wagon
ENGINES: 1595cc in-line four cylinder with overhead camshaft and single downdraft carburettor
POWER & TORQUE: 71.5kW @ 5600rpm, 135Nm @ 3600rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h – 12.7 seconds 0-400 metres – 19.2 seconds (manual)
TRANSMISSION: four-speed manual, three-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Front: independent with coil springs, struts & anti-roll bar. Rear: independent with trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers
BRAKES: disc/drum,
power assisted
TYRES: 5.60x13 crossply

 

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