31st March 2009

Datsun B210

posted in Car News Articles |

When I think about the Datsun B210, I like to think that, sometime before its introduction in 1973, various Nissan engineers were sitting there, staring at an unwieldy wedge-shaped piece of clay, and said to themselves, “Y’know, we could do that … but we’re going to need to paint it avocado green, burnt orange, turquoise, or pale white. Oh, and put on honeycomb hubcaps.¬†It’s the only way it’ll come together.”¬†Then, they invited the marketing people out for drinks.

Unbeknownst to the marketing department, however, when the engineers were buying themselves drinks, they were just asking the bartender for glasses of water that only looked like sake. Once the marketing department was good and drunk, well, pictures were taken, and blackmail ws performed. The result was the fine piece of automotive history gracing our pages today, the Datsun B210. In an attempt to clear its inventory of this misbegotten son of drunken debauchery and engineering hubris, Nissan proceeded to grant it cut-rate pricing, with the seemingly vain and misguided hope that somebody somewhere might actually buy the danged thing.

Of course, as we all know, a funny thing happened on the way to production. I am, of course, referring to the 1973 Oil Crisis, which suddenly made previously irrelevant little cars like the B210 into sudden cult sensations. Since the oil crisis hit¬†the exact same year¬†Datsun introduced the B210,¬†one could say that the outlook for this odd little car was surprisingly… Sunny.¬†Yes, groan if you wish–in Japan, the Datsun B210 was sold as the Nissan Sunny.

In all seriousness, the B210 was the right car at the right time. Sold at about the same price, when adjusting for inflation, as the present-day Nissan Versa, and featuring a (laughably optimistic) EPA fuel rating of nearly 50 mpg, the B210 was the perfect car for those desperately seeking to escape their petrol-devouring automotive overlords. Consequently, sales were quite brisk.

This encouraged Nissan to perform what would eventually become a rather regular habit–only a year later,¬†Nissan updated the engine range, ditching the A13 four-cylinder for various trims of Nissan’s A14 engine.¬†Depending on which carburetor Nissan felt like throwing in,¬†the A14¬†produced anywhere from 50 to 85 horsepower.

The idea of a Datsun B210 and its 2,000-pound curb weight mated to an 85-horsepower engine leaves me strangely excited. To put that power into perspective, that engine/weight combination gave the B210 a power-to-weight ratio of 1 horsepower per 23.5 pounds, which was only slightly worse than the power-to-weight ratio of a V-6 powered Mustang II (1:22.1). Like the Mustang II, the B210 was rear wheel drive, which undoubtedly made it an absolute blast to drive in inclement weather. But unlike the Mustang II, even the hottest 85-horsepower B210 could exceed 25 mpg on the highway. If you ask me, the B210 even looked better than the Mustang II.

Of course, Nissan wasn’t the only¬†company releasing small cars into the American market during¬†this pivotal¬†time.¬†Around this time, Honda released the Civic, a humble little hatchback that deserves a Car Lust of its own.¬†Toyota brought the Corolla and the Starling, both of which helped establish Toyota’s well-deserved reputation for reliability.¬†

By 1978, the improved level of competition forced Nissan to retire the odd-looking little car. Unfortunately, instead of retiring the B210 and replacing it with a car that could compete on equal terms with the Civic and Corolla, Nissan simply replaced the¬†outer shell with a more contemporary-looking one and called the new car a Datsun 210.¬†Perhaps that’s why, decades later, Toyota is now the biggest automaker in the world while Nissan reached the brink of insolvency before partnering with Renault.

The Datsuns pictured above are courtesy of cjacobs53 and brianthompsondesign.  

– David Colborne

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