Japanese Nostalgic Car profiles cover


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Pride Ride
The Hiraishi Brothers' rotary hybrid was built on tradition.

T radition. It's a key factor separating us from the animals. It's what gets passed down from one generation to the next, what defines a culture and, if the very concept could be conjured into a physical embodiment of steel and glass, it would be our debut profile car.

By the time we met Kelvin and Jeffrey Hiraishi, their stunner of a '71 Datsun 510 was already in its fifth iteration. But before Kelvin, the elder of the two, would talk to us he insisted on asking why we chose to write about this car in particular. He wanted to make sure, understandably, that we would fully appreciate and pay proper respect the concept behind the project. After all, it was a rolling tribute to friends, family and tradition.

He then took us back to 1968, when the 510 first stepped onto the scene like Jack Lord onto a hotel balcony. Absolutely nothing like this had been exported from Japan before, nothing in this class with the goods to go mano-a-mano with the premier European sports sedans of the time. If the 410 series Bluebird was a stubby-legged eel crawling onto the beach, this successor was tossing spears at a woolly mammoth. Up front, discs and MacPherson struts flanked an overhead cam 1.6, while in the rear the suspension declared independence. Armed with this setup, quite modern for its time, rival after rival from big names like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Alfa Romeo fell like Goliaths to the instantly recognizable black-on-red Safari Rally machines and white, red and blue BRE and Sharp SCCA racers.

Despite these successes though, look up any article, magazine, or book - anywhere man has spun thoughts into words to describe the 510 - and you'll find the phrase "poor man's BMW." Sure, it sold for a bargain $1996, but just as much of this nickname probably originates from popular misconceptions circulated for enough years to become scripture. Some of the most common charges claim that the 510 outright copied the famous BMW 2002 or that Italian designers Pininfarina styled the 510. Fortunately, we talked to Merlin Blackwell of DatsunHistory.org, an authority on the subject with years of research under his belt.

According to Blackwell, then President of Nissan USA, legendary Yutaka "Mr. K" Katayama, "requested specs for a 410/411 replacement based on a car that could go head to head with the BMW 1600." The 2002, an evolution of the 1600, "came out months after the 510. The 510 was inspired by the 1600, but done the Japanese way for sure." Although the technology is common nowadays, back then few cars besides BMWs ran trailing-arm suspensions like the 510. Perhaps part of the lore also stems from the fact that, as Blackwell notes, Nissan's L16 engine was likely influenced by the recent merger with Prince Motor Co., who in 1960 based their L20 6-cylinder on an earlier motor from that other German manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz.

Even more curious is the persistence of the design myth. In 1986 Autoweek wrote, "Pininfarina had been hired to create its graceful lines. (Not that even Datsun fully saw the genius in this; the 510 was followed by the 610, 710 and F-10, each more appalling than the one before)." In reality, Pininfarina had designed the 410, but the 510 "styling was completely up to Japan," corrects Blackwell. "In the end it was an effort to do in house styling to get away from a perceived too-Italian look."

Thankfully, designer Teruo Uchino, who had worked under Toyota Sports 800 stylist Shiozo Sato, ended up with a simple but elegantly boxy, even slightly sinister shape, though his intent was initially a basic, flash-free economy look. Upon reflection, however, one can't help but wonder if the mechanicals had coincided with a different body, whether the resulting package would be as beautiful or iconic today.

Still, despite becoming a slayer of titans and a legend in the annals of Nissan history, to some the 510 held a significance much deeper. For the Hiraishis and other So-Cal street-racing nisei at the time, it was a matter of pride. Here stood a Japanese car that someone shopping for new wheels in 1968 could be proud to own, one that could be displayed under the carport despite, not because of, a thin wallet. Japanese American communities, dissolved and scattered during the internment years, had been rebuilt. LA was home to four prominent communities - Gardena, East Side, West Side and Silverlake - each replete with dances and cruise nights. But when races inevitably broke out, Detroit iron dominated the field of contenders. That is, until the 510 appeared.

This may come as a surprise to those who live life a quarter-mile at a time, but import racing began back when platforms like the DC2 Integra was still the stuff of science fiction, pioneered by men like the Hiraishis. Says Kelvin, in those days a racer was known by his car, pre-made off-the-shelf speed parts didn't exist, and what the hell was an Internet forum? Practically every performance mod was born from innovation. While those with cashish may have moved on to newer Zs or Celicas, "everyone from this generation either had a 510 or knew someone that did," adds Jeffrey. Kelvin fully admits that back in the day street cred and pulling ladies provided equal amounts of motivation for modifying one's ride, but as he got older and wiser he just wanted to build a simple, fun to drive car, one in the tradition of that era.

Kelvin came across the canvas for this 200-horse homage at the Pomona swap meets in the early 80s. Then, many swaps ensued. An L18 replaced the stock block, which then got bumped for an LZ22 hybrid comprised of a L20B truck bottom end and a Z22 head. As Director of Mazdaspeed Development, you'd think Kelvin possesses the skills to go nuts and wedge in the any engine he wanted. Well, he does. In spades.

The next engine to find itself under-bonnet was a rotary 13B peripheral port with Weber IDA downdraft carbs. This didn't just happen because of Hiraishi's nine-to-five. Like the 510, when the rotary first arrived on these shores, with its huge power to size ratio, another quantum leap in import racing followed. Unfortunately, the car didn't feel streetable to him and didn't exactly play nice with fuel consumption either. So for the next and current version he pursued a different direction, one that led him to a light, balanced car combining the class and style of an old school ride with the improved performance of modern technology. To borrow a term from the muscle car heads, a resto-mod.

Once the concept was laid out neither nut nor bolt nor clip was spared. While defrocked, the naked shell received strengthening welds, original BRE one-piece fiberglass fender flares and a genuine BRE front spoiler. The stock white paint was stripped to make way for a sunburn-inducing Hugger Orange spraydown from a 1969 Camaro. The incredible paintwork, done entirely in Kelvin's garage in 1996, still pops as bright as any spanking-new showroom sitter today and gleams like a solar flare while driving through traffic in a sea of modern silvers and grays.

Propulsion results from a 13B street port with Dell'Orto 44mm carbs, all secured in place with a custom crossmember. Being a rotary, the piston-free pros at Racing Beat provided cooling and exhaust, as well as a lightweight flywheel and heavy-duty clutch, now sandwiched by a second-gen RX-7 5-speed gearbox. To top it all off, co-founder Jim Mederer himself then personally tuned the whole shebang.

Supplying balance to the equation are Interpart swaybars, custom triangulated strut tower braces, custom coilovers and a plethora of 280Z hardware. Control arms received extra sheetmetal welded for reinforcement to give the car a beefy suspension with solid tracking, while Wilwood cross-drilled discs with 280Z calipers up front restrain the beast. And while a rear disc swap would have been cake for a guy like Hiraishi, a peek through the spokes of the rear 17" Racing Hart C4Rs reveals 280Z drums for the sake of - say it with me - tradition.

For icing, the trunklid sports autographs by some of the legends of Datsun and Mazda history, including Pete Brock, founder of BRE, the team that brought the 510s their SCCA fame; Takaharu "Koby" Kobayakawa, former director of R&D for Mazda USA and head FD RX-7 development; Don Sherman, former Mazda racer and Car & Driver editor; Jim Mederer, co-founder of Racing Beat; and Nissan's godfather of speed, Yutaka Katayama himself. Inside, the rotary shaped shift knob caps off the entire theme perfectly. And should the desire for true old school cruising ever take hold, the Hiraishis keep a set of Epsilons at home.

Cutting through rush hour traffic, we notice that the denizens of air-conditioned SUVs can't help put swivel their heads like compass needles towards the magnetic 510. "It drives not quite, but almost as good as a modern day 911," says Jeffrey. He would know, too - his daily driver is an '04. "Beyond racing and drifting, what's the future direction of the import scene?" asks Kelvin. "I think this is it." We could not agree more. Generations of enthusiasts grew up in eras where cars like the 510 had already become legendary. The Hiraishis' monument in motion exemplifies and carries on that tradition, and for that, we couldn't think of a more appropriate car for our premiere profile. end

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