Datsun 1600 – a history of Australia’s greatest rally car
There can be no doubt at all that the venerable Datsun 1600 is almost entirely responsible for the popularity of rallying in Australia today.
Few people would argue that the Datsun 1600 has had the greatest long-term influence on the sport of any car available in this country and yet, even 50 years after its release, it is still almost as popular as it ever was.
Thousands of “1600s”, as they quickly became known, despite there being other brands of 1600cc cars available, found their way onto the rally tracks of Australia and despite their age and the scarcity of good, rust-free examples, they can still dominate club rallies today.
Although it would be very much outclassed by today’s 4WD turbocharged rockets, Geoff Portman and Ross Runnalls took their 1600, affectionately known as “Grunter”, to victory in the 1982 Australian Rally Championship. “Grunter” was arguably the best-known Datsun 1600 in the country.
Released in Australia in 1968 by the Clayton (Victoria)-based Nissan Motor Company and with a 60% Australian content, the 1600 (code named the P510), quickly became a motorsport favourite, and was more than a match for the other cars being used in trials and rallies in every state – Volkswagens, Cortinas, Anglias, Peugeots, Hillman Minxes and others.
It soon became evident that the 1600 was far better than the opposition in almost any event that it entered, particularly those that were a little rough.
Although it was initially aimed at the average family who were after a compact five-seater family car, it soon became evident that it had sporting pretentions.
Japanese cars had been imported into the country as early as the 1960s with models such as the Bluebird and the Datsun 1000, and at a time when Japan was just starting to get back on its feet after a disastrous World War 2.
The Japanese were great copiers and the P510 was the result of ideas adapted from many other vehicles – for instance, the 1600’s “L” series motor was a copy of an earlier Mercedes engine (it also powered the 240Z later on in 6-cylinder form).
Compared to other Japanese cars on sale at the time – Toyota Toyopets and Tiaras, Mazda 1000s and so on, the P510 was like a breath of fresh air.
Here was a car that was designed with the driver in mind. Datsun had copied the best features from other cars and added their own features, combining the whole lot into an altogether better package.
The car had a robust overhead cam 1600cc engine that developed a healthy 96 horsepower, a floor-mounted gearshift that operated a four-speed, all synchromesh gearbox, independent suspension all round, and front disc brakes.
In the days when even basic things that we now take for granted, such as heaters and seatbelts, were optional extras on many cars, the Datsun 1600 had these as standard. The car also came with a push button radio, bucket seats, clock, front seat head restraints, cigarette lighter, parcel tray, luggage compartment floor mat, carpets, bumper over-riders and a steering lock as standard.
The public couldn’t get enough of them and the Datsun plant in Clayton was stretched to the limit in turning out cars.
Nevertheless, in 1971 a four-door station wagon version, the WP510, was released, and Datsun signed a 5-year contract with a company called Motor Producers Limited to build the full range of Datsun models, including the smaller, but equally popular, Datsun 1200 model.
There was a great deal of sharing of production facilities in those days, and Datsuns rolled down the assembly line alongside Volkswagen Beetles.
Shortly after Mr and Mrs Australia bought their new 1600s, the bitumen roads of suburbia were left behind for the lure of the unsealed roads of the country. Its independent rear end soaked up the rough with ease and as well as giving a better than average ride, encouraged spirited driving.
Immediately, some owners realised that the 1600 had great potential as a rally car, much more so, in fact, than the other cars that were available at the time.
Almost all of its competitors had solid, leaf-sprung rear axles, designed for touring around leafy British lanes, but the Datsun had an independent rear end that soaked up the rough with ease.
Soon, a few examples started appearing in car trials of the era, notably events like the BP Rally and the odd Round Australia trial. The car’s durability, particularly over the horror stretches that formed part of these events, was much envied, and even the cars that were sweeping all before them in the 60s and 70s were looking poor by comparison.
Stock Datsun 1600s were taken straight from the showroom floor or the used car lots, fitted with a bit of basic navigation gear, some driving lights and a sump guard, and driven off to car trials and rallies all around the country.
Despite the Datsun 1600s early success, nobody dreamed about the important role that the car would play in the following years of Australian rallying.
Overseas, the Datsun 1600 ‘SSS’ (a twin-carburettor version of the P510) took out the Teams’ prize in the 1969 East African Safari and notched up first, second and fourth places in the following year’s Safari.
An 1800cc version of the car came second in 1974, losing the event on a tie-break, but by then the competitive days for the P510 overseas were at an end, the factory team moving on to Datsun 240Zs and Violet 160Js.
Strangely, the Datsun 1600 was really only popular in Japan, Australia, South Africa (only moderately), and America (where the car was a popular circuit racing car).
In England the car was something of a novelty amongst the hordes of Escorts, Vauxhalls, Minis and Triumphs. When the respected Autocar magazine tested a Datsun 1600 not long after the Safari victories, they were not overly-impressed with the car’s handling, claiming that, amongst its other faults, it understeered badly.
But Australians were obviously blind to its faults or engineered its shortcomings out when they prepared it for rallying.
The ensuing years saw the car transformed from a sedate family sedan into a rock-throwing, fire-breathing monster that bore only limited resemblance to the car it was designed to be.
The advent of the Datsun 180B, the 1600’s successor, was the signal that engine transplants were to be the order of the day. The extra 200cc was as much responsible for the increasing competitiveness of the car as was the later two-litre engine conversions.
Over the years, particularly with the introduction of the Group G regulations in Australia, a ‘sports-sedan’ formula, engine transplants saw engines as large as 2.4 litres being fitted, with power outputs of up to 220bhp quite common.
In those days a fairly typical “grunter” engine featured an FIA head, Cosworth pistons, titanium rods, as well as all the necessary bolt-ons, such as twin 48mm Weber side-draughts, tuned extractors, and so on.
It wasn’t only in the power department that big changes were made. Larger Datsun 240K struts and brakes were common, factory Option One close ratio gearboxes, four-wheel disc brakes and strengthened ‘everything’ were normal in the Group G days.
Some owners even went as far as fitting Mazda rotary engines to gain an upper hand, but by and large the L16 and L18 motors were by far the most popular.
Tuning shops, car preparation experts and component suppliers sprung up all around the country, specialising in Datsun 1600 modifications, many of which still exist.
Just like the Escort is the club rally car of choice in England, so the Datsun 1600 became the car to have in Australia.
Fifty years on, a well-driven 1600 is still hard to beat at club and state level rallying, but the 4WD opposition really spelled an end to its domination.
However, for those who want a fast, reliable and enjoyable car for almost any form of motorsport, and in particular, rallying, the humble P510 is very hard to beat.
- Stay tuned to RallySport Magazine for more Datsun 1600 features coming soon.
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Photos: Peter Whitten, John Doutch, Nick Morey, Peter Norton