TRIPLE JUMP

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By Stuart Grant with Douglas Abbot behind the camera

Some big things happened in 1969. The Beatles performed at their last public appearance on the roof of Apple Records, Concorde conducted its first test flight in France, the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet debuted, more than 350 000 partygoers attended Woodstock, and then there was that small matter of a man landing on the moon… On the local motoring front there were a few notable announcements, but in hindsight one of the most influential of these was the April announcement of the Datsun 510 series – what we all came to know as the Datsun 1600.

Before getting into this somewhat personal SSS story, let’s take a brief stroll through the sporting saloon’s history. Following WWII, Datsun (Nissan) teamed up with British car maker Austin and collaborated to produce the Datsun Bluebird L210. A small, entry-level car, it went head to head with the Volkswagen Beetle but clearly didn’t sell as well. In order to increase sales and target a more international (read: American) market, Datsun designers churned out a new, larger and more contemporary-styled P310 version in 1959. In this guise, Bluebird sales improved, but the car was still seen as a little too British by the American market. When the agreement between the Japanese outfit and Austin ended in 1960, it left Datsun/Nissan president Yutaka Katayama, who believed empathically in his designers’ abilities, a clean slate on which to design a fresh Bluebird with the American desires in mind. With Pininfarina lending a hand, the 410 series launched in September 1963 and the Bluebird, following Italian trends, started finding real favour across the pond. It still didn’t tick the must-have-at-any-cost box, though.

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And then, in 1967, the Bluebird badge was dropped and the all-new 510 broke cover, the result of Designer Teruo Uchino being tasked with penning a saloon car that had less English or Italian flavour. Many called it the poor man’s BMW 1602, and rightly so as the lightweight monocoque, MacPherson struts up front and independent, semi-trailing arms in the back put it in this German’s league. Various engine sizes were offered but the best of the bunch was the Prince Motor Company’s 1596cc 1600 (Prince had been bought up by Datsun/Nissan in 1966). The 510 did the job, beating the likes of BMW and Alfa Romeo in the hotly contested Trans-Am race championship, and by the close of production in 1973, over 400 000 units were running around the globe.

South Africa wasn’t left out the picture though, and various specification 1600cc 510s were assembled and sold here. We raced it too. And rallied it – do names like Ewold and Minota von Bergen ring a bell? They should trigger memories of 510s blasting through a forest stage with an armful of opposite-lock and dust flying. Or for the track lover perhaps it’s memories of the 510’s body-rolling antics as the likes of Jan Hettema and Jannie Kuun harassed the 1750 Alfas in production saloon racing.

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Of course, these competition cars would have been the hotted 1600 SSS versions. In the November issue of CAR magazine, the testers claimed that the SSS (Super Sports Sedan) was a brilliant engineering exercise and a new champion of the 1600cc production saloon ranks. With a set of twin carbs and richer camshaft, the SSS power output was up from the regular 1600’s 71kW to 81, and the torque figure rose from 135Nm at 3600rpm to 140Nm at 4000. This combined with a reasonably close-ratio gearbox to see the SSS cover the ¼ mile in 17.9 seconds (the standard 1600 did this in 19.1) with a 0-60mph sprint of 11.5 seconds instead of 14.2. True speed testing revealed that the SSS was good for 100.5mph.

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Other differences between the SSS and the early, run-of-the-mill 510s included improved, fully reclining front seats, deep-dish sports steering wheel, wood-trimmed gear knob and a full arrangement of gauges, including a rev counter marked optimistically with a red line up at the 7000 mark. Handling was said to be progressive, balanced and able to take some hard driving with a high level of safety. But the brakes, although acceptable, did get knocked down a touch for locking the rear wheels.

In the end the testers summed up the 1600 SSS as: “A virtuoso among light performance cars, quite thrilling to drive, with a high standard of engineering throughout”.

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Having cut my classic-car-ownership teeth with a BMW 2002, I was well aware of the SSS’s reputation as a cheaper Japanese version of the German. And as the local 50th celebration of the 510 loomed, I had been on the hunt for an early, original SSS to feature. Despite 18 683 of the four-door 1600 and 14 330 of the SSS being sold, finding one in the condition it left the factory is no easy task; their sporting nature has seen to it that they have become favourite race cars and are high on the list of wants for tuners and modifiers.

But as luck would have it, last year Brian Noik of www.oldcars.co.za called to ask if I’d like to accompany him on a trip to the Free State to look at a car – a one-family-owned SSS. Would I? You bet!

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So, at 5am on a dark and cold winter morning, we set off from Johannesburg. An hour into the trip, we stopped for coffee and a toasted sarmie and I finally woke up enough to quiz Brian about the car. When I began to question him, his face clouded with worry. Turns out he’d paid for the car in full following nothing more than a WhatsApp conversation with the owner, breaking the number-one rule in the car-hunting book. Sure, he’d seen some pictures of a SSS in a barn, but did it really exist? The rest of the journey was spent in silence as we both wondered if we’d be leaving with a car or just an empty bank account.

Our destination was Brandfort, a town that supports the surrounding agricultural industry but is famous for a number of things, including: being Winnie Mandela’s home during her banishment, the location of a concentration camp for Boer women and children during the Second Boer War, home to former prime-minister Hendrik Verwoerd and also where Admiral John Weston designed and built the first aeroplane in Africa and the first RV/caravan in the world. But I digress.

Just before town, the navigation system took us off the tar road and a few kilometres up to a rustic barn. From the outside it looked as though it could be the one in the WhatsApp images. A helper unchained the large corrugated iron doors and I saw the relief on Brian’s face as he spotted the Datsun in the gloom of the barn, tucked away in the furthest corner alongside a tractor. We hurried in with cell phone torches blazing, looking for every tell-tale sign that would confirm it was indeed a SSS. It was. It was freezing inside so we got all hands on deck, pushed the car out into the light (apparently for the first time since 2011) and loaded it onto a trailer.

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With the Datsun safely on its way back to Joburg we decided to take the long road back, stopping off at any place of interest along the way. We found the house where Admiral Weston stayed, a scrapyard with a solid-looking round-nose Mini shell and an equally solid-looking dog. From there it was off to Theunissen and another scrapyard where the patron showed us a DKW, Rover SD1, Chevrolet Firenza coupé, Wolseley and a pair of oval track racing Ford Escorts. It was also where I spotted an impressive red brick building – upon closer inspection, the hand-painted sign read ‘Lederle Meule’ (Mill)… remember F1 racer Neville Lederle?

On the way home we stopped in at Freek de Kock’s Datsun/Nissan Heritage Museum in Bothaville. Said to be the largest collection of Datsuns and Nissans outside of Japan, this place is well worth a visit and Freek’s wealth of knowledge was an invaluable resource, considering our freshly picked SSS.

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All we knew by this stage was that the Datsun, first registered as a 1970 model, was sold to a farmer based in Britstown in the Karoo. The family put it into full-time use, then it went to the daughter and was eventually passed on to the grandkids where it landed up farming in Brandfort. With their own families growing and feeling bad about the car being used on the harsh farm roads, it was then parked up in the barn, complete with a rugby ball, set of cricket stumps, an old Kookaburra ball and a crocheted blanket hiding the sun-damaged rear seat.

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When the car arrived in Johannesburg, it was given a go-over mechanically with the intention of celebrating fifty years with a road trip. Sitting for years meant that the brake and fuel lines, and radiator and water hoses were first to be replaced, and the fuel tank needed a serious flush. It was while removing the tank that Japanese writing was discovered and further investigation ensued. There’s a Rosslyn South Africa assembly plate numbered 510/1, but parts such as the taillights (manufacture stamp date 1968) and bumpers clearly indicate that they originated in Japan. Unlike most 1970 models, the dash is in mph – according to those in the know this would correlate with a batch of fully imported units that entered SA in 1969. This left us asking more questions: is this in fact a 1969 model? And just how complete were the CKD kits that left the plant with an assembly tag?

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Datsun South Africa is currently trying to locate the 510 assembly records but to date only records going back to 1970 have been found, so we are looking for any additional information from those who might have been around in the day. (Some Datsun 510 memories and ownership letters from readers wouldn’t hurt either.) In the meantime, preparation for the road and an old-style road test is underway. This SSS will never be a show car, but we wouldn’t want it to be. All its bumps, bruises and personality will remain – it will just get a good clean and polish. And you can be sure that the sporting goods and blanket are staying put, too.

We’ll have to wait for the final test figures, but initial runs have shown that the 510 SSS is a decent match for the 1960s and ʼ70s European sporting saloons I’ve had the chance to drive. Happy 50th to the 510, a worthy classic that is quite rightly enjoying a charge with collectors the world over.

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