While the Brits were still making do with finicky overdrive units, the Datsun 2000 had a five-speed gearbox designed by Porsche
For a long time after WWII, Japanese products were viewed by American consumers merely as cheap copies of Western goods. Conventional wisdom held that a Nikon was a cheap copy of a Leica, a Seiko was a Rolex knock-off, and the Datsun Sports 1500 was a second-rate MGB. None of this was true (for instance, the Datsun predated the MGB by about a year), but fit the Western prejudices of the time. The Datsun Sports SP310 (known as the Fairlady in its home market) debuted in 1,500-cc form at the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show. It followed the bizarre SP211, SP212 and SP213 roadsters of 1959-61, which combined '50s color combos with bulbous bodies and suggested the Japanese were going to get it wrong again. In the U.S., the 1962-64 1500 (SPL310), the 1965-70 1600 (SPL311), and 1967-70 2000 (SRL311) are commonly lumped together as Datsun roadsters. All were thoroughly conventional sports cars in most respects, but evolved into class leaders in performance and features. 2000 IS A WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING Performance of the 1965 pushrod 1600, with 96 hp, was about on par with an 1,800-cc MGB. The 2000 with the 135-hp, two-liter, SOHC unit was the one to have. It could surprise a TR6 or a BMW 2002, with 0-60 coming up in about ten seconds. Even more interesting was the factory-authorized, dealer-installed competition kit, consisting of twin, dual-choke side draft Solexes, a finned seven-quart sump, and a hot cam. Good for 150 hp, a 2000 so equipped would do 125 mph. And while the Brits were still making do with finicky Laycock de Normanville overdrive units, the Datsun 2000 had a five-speed, all-synchromesh gearbox with well-spaced ratios designed by Porsche. At a time when MG was abandoning separate body and chassis construction with the MGB, the Datsun still clung to that layout with a live axle, leaf springs, and disc/drum brakes. Ride quality and handling was "vintage sports car," as the testers of the day noted. Styling broke no new ground, but at least it wasn't comical or grotesque like some Japanese cars of the period. The hood bulge and scooped headlights gave it a purposeful frontal aspect, though the stacked taillights were less successful. As I've often stressed, the wheels really do make the car. Standard steel wheels and dog dish hubcaps do nothing for the Datsun. Since there was no alloy or wire wheel option from the factory, you'll often see a Datsun roadster with a nice-looking set of period after-market alloy wheels. There are several that look great, including Minilites, Panasports, and even generic slotted mags. The four-spoke American Racing Libres look the best. They pop up on eBay from time to time; if you are contemplating a Datsun roadster, pick up a set. Dimensionally, the Datsun was close overall to the MGB, although a narrower (58.9 inches vs. 59.9 inches for the MGB). Interiors of the early cars were straightforward and handsome, with almost an Alfa Duetto quality to the painted dashes, toggle switches, and handsome gauges. Post-1967 cars got higher windshields and nondescript, vacuum-formed plastic dashes, somewhat similar to the later 240Z. Roadster geeks reckon the rare 1967 model year 2000 to be the most desirable. BEWARE DISSOLVING BODY PANELS Most old cars are susceptible to rust in one place or another. Zinc galvanizing and other truly effective means of rust-proofing were not developed until the late 1970s and didn't become widespread until even later. Like the 240Z, the roadster deserves a special place in the "Iron Oxide Hall of Fame." Roadsters exposed to the elements simply dissolve. Everywhere. Look for one that has had a good life in a dry climate. Mechanically, the Datsun roadster is the Miata of its day-similar to a traditional British sports car but with fewer headaches. Its twin Hitachi license-built SU carbs look familiar enough to the average British car mechanic. Luckily, Lucas never built a factory in Japan, so the Datsun never suffered from the electrical problems that beset MGs or Triumphs. Roadster parts will never be as easy to source as the more popular 240Z, but Rallye Enterprises (www.datsunroadster.com) in Graham, Washington, can supply most owners' needs. The U.S. was a good market for the roadster. Most of the 40,000 built wound up here, and paved the way for the 240Z that followed. Like the Z, the 2000 was a successful SCCA racer competing credibly in the C Production class despite being up against much more expensive cars like the Porsche 911 and Lotus Elan. Its only weak spot seems to be the timing chain tensioner-if the chain jumps, the results on this interference engine can be catastrophic. Why is a relatively reliable, well-equipped convertible sports car that will outperform many other well-regarded cars from the period still trading hands for rubber-bumper MGB money? The market seems to make room in its heart for only one collectible sports car from Japan (in addition to the super exotic Toyota 2000 GT, which is in a class by itself), and that spot is currently occupied by the roadster's more glamorous six-cylinder descendant, the 240Z. Roadsters are appreciating modestly, but they're still a great deal. Let this be an official "undervalued alert," as a good Datsun roadster is absurdly cheap for the fun that it represents.

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