Datsun 510 Buyer's Guide | No longer a five and dime special

Photograph Courtesy NIssan

Remember when a Datsun 510 served as an inexpensive, practically disposable car–something you could write off and not lose sleep over? Those days ended so long ago.

What’s a 510 worth today? Depends. Hagerty says about $35,000 for the best of the best, but Bring a Trailer has fetched more than $40,000 for ones that could be called tastefully tweaked.

The 510 has served as a blank slate since the model entered the market in 1968, and Classic Motorsports’ Peter Brock helped blaze that trail. In the late ’60s, his BRE team entered several 510s in the Mexican 1000–the precursor to today’s Baja 1000–before taking the model road racing, outrunning premium machines from BMW and Alfa Romeo to dominate the SCCA’s small-bore Trans-Am class in 1971 and 1972. 

From an engineering standpoint,” Brock tells us, “it had all the basic components–engine/trans, suspension and brakes–that could be easily and inexpensively modified for competition.” To end the Datsun’s reign, in fact, the SCCA simply pulled the plug on the class. 

Fifty-plus years later, the 510 remains popular with enthusiasts–including Brock, who has since reopened BRE and now offers the wheels and spoilers found on his race cars back in the day. “The lines are pure and timeless,” he says regarding the car’s longevity among enthusiasts. “Its racing history adds credibility that cannot be added at any cost.”

Despite that huge impact on car culture, the original 510 enjoyed a relatively short model run–from 1968 through just 1973. Thank Yutaka Katayama, known as Mr. K and also the father of the Z-car, with bringing the 510 to market. 

The hardest part of 510 ownership today? Perhaps finding a clean, stock example. 

Why You Want One

Like Lego, the 510 is adored by all ages, from newcomers to those who remember Datsun dealerships. Famous 510 owners have included Paul Newman, Snoop Dogg and Hong Kong-based actor Daniel Wu.

Rather technologically advanced for its day: MacPherson front struts, independent rear, overhead-cam engine and front disc brakes. 

True racing cred thanks to competition success around the globe, from Laguna Seca Trans-Am races to the East African Safari. 

Today’s market offers reproduction chrome trim, interior parts, sheet metal and mechanical bits.

Multiple flavors: The American lineup featured two- and four-door sedans plus a wagon; some overseas markets also received the two-door Bluebird coupe that could almost be called sleek. 

Shopping Advice

Dave Patten, Owner
FutoFab, LLC

In stock configuration, the Datsun 510 is tough as nails. The driveline is nearly bulletproof, with most cars going well past 100,000 miles and many reaching 200,000 with no more than regular maintenance. 

The car’s four-cylinder, L-series engine was a new design for Datsun, introduced in 1968 in the 510. The engine was so durable it saw 13 years of use in North America with displacements ranging from 1.3 to 2.0 liters. That might as well be a millennium for Japanese engine architecture use.

The brakes and suspension are equally reliable. U.S.-market cars came with disc brakes on a MacPherson strut suspension up front and drum brakes in the rear. Sedans had semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension; wagons had a live rear axle. The suspension engineering was cutting edge for the day. Its design is simplistic and provided longterm durability. 

One of this car’s biggest enemies is rust. The metal in these cars is thin and lacks any of today’s rust-inhibiting alloys or coatings. Most of the Rust Belt cars are no longer around because road salt ate them alive. 

Look for a structurally solid car. Parts to service the mechanicals are still easily sourced. The aftermarket offers exterior body panels and floor pans, but the undercar structural sections are still not available. These can be expensive and/or time-consuming to replicate. 

Be wary of repainted and repaired cars. The value of 510s has increased significantly over the past few years. Vehicle values often drive the quality of crash/rust repairs, so older work could be substandard because of that. Always bring a magnet to check for excessively thick body filler. 

If you don’t like a modification, look at what is involved to return it to stock. Given the trend toward stock body appearance, you may want to remove flares. Thoroughly inspect their installation; many involve structural modifications that will require repairs to return to stock configuration. 

A poorly done install or an unusual motor can be problematic. Any newer EFI engine swap can be a nightmare if done poorly, especially if it’s an offshore-market engine. Carburetor-based engines generally are the simplest and least hassle. Look out for any cut-and-weld modifications done during a swap. 

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yupididit
yupididit PowerDork
9/16/21 8:24 a.m.

Across the street from my son's school there is a somewhat rusty blue 510 wagon with a manual sitting on gold enkei92 wheels. It's been under a car cover along with a beetle and e36 bmw. I asked the owner of the house about it and the 3 cars belong to his son who passed away a couple years ago. He has no plans for them nor will he sell them. He's a really old dude (Vietnam vet) who was more interested im talking about me being in the military than the cars. Maybe I'll give it another go.

APEowner
APEowner SuperDork
9/16/21 8:47 a.m.

A friend of mine races them but he's starting to re-think that choice because they're becoming too valuable.  He couldn't afford to replace one if it got wrecked.

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