Datsun Roadster: Classic looks from an unlikely suspect

Photograph Courtesy Nissan

Call Datsun’s roadster a Johnny-come-lately copy of the MGB and, well, you’d be wrong. The Datsun made its public debut at the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show; the MGB’s introduction came soon after. Both cars, though, share contemporary styling, sugar-scoop headlights and sporty performance. They also weren’t the first sports cars from their respective brands. 

Datsun had stuck a toe in the sports car waters with the S211, a 1959 release that featured two seats, a convertible top and fiberglass bodywork. Thanks to the 36 horsepower on tap, performance was meek at best and Nissan only delivered about 20 units. 

The SPL212 and SPL213 followed. The styling got a little less frumpy, steel replaced the fiberglass, and a tad more power could be found under the hood. Nissan only built a few hundred copies of these two models, but they introduced a name that would live on: Fairlady. As the story goes, Nissan President Katsuji Kawamata enjoyed seeing “My Fair Lady” during a visit to New York City and felt that “Fairlady” badges would look good adorning the brand’s sports cars.

After that 1961 introduction, Nissan’s all-new Fairlady made its debut for the 1962 model year. Thanks to its 1500cc engine, stateside it was simply called the 1500 Sports. (Internally, U.S.-market cars were known as the SPL310.) Its sideways rear seat gave the car room for three. Nissan finally had a base hit with the 1500. Road & Track, however, gave it a somewhat lukewarm welcome.

Nissan followed up with the 1600 Sports for 1966. Bumping the displacement to 1600cc and adding discs at all four corners transformed the car. Road & Track’s review even ended on a positive note, declaring that “the Datsun 1600 Sports offers more for the money than any other sports car in the low-priced field.”

During the 1967 model year, the lineup expanded with a 2000cc version–same looks but even more engine. Buyers craving more power could opt for twin Mikuni-Solex carburetors, bumping output to 150 horsepower.

Datsun had on-track winners in both the 1600cc- and 2000cc-powered roadsters. Bob Sharp drove a 1600 roadster to the 1967 SCCA F Production national championship. Two years later, Jack Scoville gave the 2000 roadster its first title with a D Production win. Frank Monise, John McComb and John Morton famously drove roadsters for Brock Racing Enterprise.

After Datsun’s entire roadster production run ended in 1970, the Fairlady name transferred to another iconic model, the then-new Z-car. Today, the most desirable roadster is the 1967 2000: It has the most power and features a sportier, shorter windshield that didn’t carry over to the 1968 car. Hagerty values a No. 2 example at about $42,000; the 1500 and 1600 cars trade for less, as do the later models.

Shopping Advice

Les Cannaday, the owner of Classic Datsun Motorsports, knows vintage Datsuns inside and out. 

Rust is, as with anything from the era, a potential issue. Look for it on the lower fenders and rockers, in the trunk, and on the floors if the trunk seal or roof show signs of leaks. Patch panels are available, and Classic Datsun Motorsports is developing fiberglass parts. 

Those doors are temptingly low, but they’ll develop stress cracks if you use them to hop into the car Hazzard-style. Open it to get in, Bo.

Watch where the hood is bonded together near the scoop. As it ages, it could begin to delaminate. Making the paint look good elsewhere means removing the lead filler from the seams and replacing it with modern body filler. The lead will show through the paint eventually if it’s left there.

The standard SU-type carburetors are perfectly effective for street-driven cars, but Mikuni-Solex carburetors were available as part of a competition package that upped horsepower to 150. That’s a solid number for 2.0 liters, even today.

But the Mikunis are not exactly street-friendly. They look and sound great and will return good gas mileage if you have a light foot, but they run best at 4000 to 9000 rpm. They’ll also have flat spots in the powerband unless you spend a lot of time on a dyno.

With the standard carbs and a non-smog distributor, set timing to 16 degrees BTDC; with the Mikunis, set it to 20 degrees.

Datsun’s SU carbs are much less finicky than the British SUs. They don’t need adjusting very often. The same goes for the ignition system. If you find a car that’s sat neglected for a while, even years, there’s a good chance it’ll fire right back up with little coaxing–so long as the engine’s not seized.

The 2000 engines are very robust, with a double-roller timing chain, beefy rods, and huge valves and intake ports. When built for race use, they can make more than 200 horsepower. The most effective horsepower upgrades are a hot camshaft and a better exhaust. Get a quality header, too. The original is prone to cracking.

The tensioner is the last thing in the engine to get oil, so it’ll give an audible “death rattle” during dry starts if the chain is stretching. When the chain breaks, it’ll take many engine parts with it. If a rebuild is claimed, rattle or not, verify it–or be willing to spend the $2500 in components to do the job right.

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wspohn Dork
5/23/18 10:27 a.m.

The 1500 Fairlady was, like the MGB, a development from the MGA early B series engines.

And the Datsun engines were stronger and better breathing than the BMC engines they had copied (they'd been licensed for Japanese use as far back as the 1930s IIRC).

racerdave600 UltraDork
5/23/18 3:41 p.m.

I bought my house because of a Datsun roadster, but that's another story.  I've always liked these.

clshore New Reader
5/24/18 2:57 p.m.

Nearly had a chance to race a Datsun 2000 at Sebring.

Three of us, all racers, teamed up for the effort.

Had secured the car, a spare motor, sponsorship, a tire deal, and support from Datsun.

Were trailering the car to the shop we had rented, had a flat, no spare.

Left it for 15-20 minutes to fetch a spare, and when we returned, the whole rig was gone ...

Oh well.

Flyman615 New Reader
5/24/18 4:38 p.m.

My first Datsun Roadster was a 1963 1500 Sports purchased for $500 in 1972. It had dual carbs (some were single) and the third sideways jump seat as well as 13" wheels and a non-synchro first gear. Still, it was loads of fun on the paved back roads of Northern California. Sold it to a neighbor and bought a 1969 2000 doubling my fun with a five speed, 135 hp, and a white hardtop. Alas, it went the way of my ex-wife.

Then in about 1985 I found another 1970 2000 which I own to this day. It has 71K miles and was one of the last imported (SRL14360) via Taiwan by a USAF member.

Frankly, it's too bad the Datsun Roadsters are still confused with the MGB because IMHO, they are MUCH better cars!

Scott Z.

B13Birk Reader
5/28/18 9:26 p.m.

I love my 1969 1600 roadster. Factory all original Black with Red interior. Its a snug-top removable hardtop. 

My favorite car I own. 

randyracer New Reader
3/1/19 8:50 a.m.

In reply to clshore :

Tragic, truly tragic.  That woulda been SO epic.  I had a 2 Liter Roadster in college.  Fantastic engine that got me rudely reclassed at an autocross, due to its booming intake noise.  Okay, okay, you tough guys, the air pump is gone, so shoot me!  The 2000 was a total sleeper that could take on many sporty cars who had no idea what they were up against.  And man, the springs were stiff.  But what fun!  Sorry about your theft loss.  Oh, that hadta hurt.  Today, we’d post it on Facebook, and find it.  I just did that for fan in Vegas, and got his Mustang back

RPO469 None
12/10/23 2:27 p.m.

In reply to B13Birk :

Beautiful, beautiful car!  I had a 67 1/2 1600 in college and loved that car and like so many wish I still had it.  Did a little rallying in it, drove to Mid Ohio and generally had a good time with it and in a friend's big Healy.  Those were the days as they say.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/11/23 11:21 a.m.

For some more Datsun roadster reading, check out this piece on the Grassroots Motorsports site about Bill and Elliot Harvey’s autocross car. Past Perfect. It’s a piece of autocross history. 

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