The first reaction of many sports car enthusiasts when they saw the Datsun 1600 roadster in 1965 was that the Japanese had created a rather crude imitation of the already-dated MGB. They were wrong on three counts. The Datsun 1600 and its later companion, the Datsun 2000, were not copies of the MGB. Though not as attractive, they outperformed their counterparts in both quality and performance. And rather than being backward-looking automobiles, they actually were the first in the series of Japanese sports cars that each broke new ground in defining quality expectations for enthusiast cars.
The 1600 and 2000 roadsters certainly had more than a passing resemblance to the MGB. Exterior styling cues, interior layout, suspension, and general engine characteristics on the 1600 were virtually identical to the MGB. Even the dual sidedraft carburetors were identical, with the Datsun carbs manufactured by Hitachi under license from SU.
But this was not a copy, at least not in the sense of having been reverse-engineered. In fact, the Datsun 1500 (also referred to as the SPL-310 and called the Fairlady in Japan) was introduced at the New York Auto Show in January 1962, nine months before the MGB made its debut at the London Motor Show. Unless SU was slipping Datsun the plans for the MGB in its carburetor specs, the Japanese can't be charged with strict imitation.
The 1500, of course, seems to have been little more than a trial balloon, with very few sold in the United States. It wasn't until three years later that the 1600 (coded SPL-311) was introduced and made it clear that the Japanese had set their sights on the sports car market in North America heretofore dominated by the Europeans.
Selling for twenty percent less than the MGB, the 1600 offered a completely-equipped car with superior fit-and-finish and vastly improved interior comfort. Yes, acceleration was down a little from the European cars, and road-testers wrote that the Japanese didn't have a clue about how to tune a sports car suspension. Nevertheless, the transmission was significantly easier to shift, and braking (with front discs replacing the drums on the 1500) was the best of any sports car tested at that time. They also commented that with the top up, "GT" should stand for "giraffe transport" referring to the ungainly look, but no one complained about a lack of head room, problems with visibility, or rain penetrating the weather seals.
Bob Sharp Racing in Connecticut showed the car's true potential by tweaking the 1600 just a bit, and winning the SCCA F-Production national championship in 1967.
As with so many other Japanese developments in the '60s and '70s, the Datsun engineers took all the lessons from this experience and created the Datsun 2000 (SRL-311) which was introduced in 1968. An overhead cam engine with a lengthened stroke provided 400 extra cubic centimeters and produced 135 bhp. The five-speed transmission, not available on any other car at near the price, was standard as well, producing a top speed of 114 mph.
If you really wanted to kick, you could drop your car off at the Datsun dealer and have him install the U20 package, which used a hotter cam and dual Solex carburetors to up the ante to 150 bhp. The result was a car that was bumped all the way up to C-production and even with its four cylinders did quite well against the Porsches and Corvettes in the class.
I bought my Datsun 2000 the year it was introduced, because it was the cheapest C-production car available, and because my wife said that in comparison, the MGB drove like a pick-up truck. The advantages then are still advantages now. A car in good restored condition can be driven winter and summer in comfort, and long highway trips are a pleasure.
The performance differences also are the same now as then. When we autocrossed, if the Fiat club set the course, we could count on being beaten by the 124 Spiders because of their better handling on tight courses. But if the Corvette club set the course, we could count on bringing home trophies since the longer distances allowed us to beat the MGBs, Sunbeams, and Fiats, and we could still get around the corners faster than the 'Vettes. During the five years we owned the car, we had to replace the clutch twice (which requires pulling the engine) and the exhaust system once.
Caution is the watchword in buying an unrestored car today. Many of these cars became "beaters" because they could be driven with little or no maintenance until everything died simultaneously. Aside from the normal stuff to look for in any '60s sports car, worn cam lobes are a weak spot because of the rocker arm design. Compared to MGs, or even Healeys, there weren't very many made, but enthusiasts maintain a surprisingly good supply of parts and a strong support network.