Datsun 510 Long Term Test

pretty bikini girl next to a datsun 510

From Road & Track, February 1972

Caution: This is an old article. A lot of the information in this
article may be considered out of date or just plain wrong.

JAPANESE CARS are coming on strong in the U.S. and we
wanted to get more experience with one than just a
road test. We had been impressed by the specifications
of the Datsun 510 when it,was introduced and were convinced
after testing it (March ’68) that it was exceptional
value for the money. We approached Datsun’s headquarters
in Gardena, Calif. about borrowing a car for a long-term
test and they were happy to provide a test car, one of the
recently introduced 510 2-door sedans.

The car, red with black vinyl interior, was released to us
at the beginning of 1969; a 1969 model, serial no. PL510-
2D-041962, license no. YQF 025. The Datsun people had
put 575 miles on it to make sure it was a good example, but
it had had no special preparation and had a few minor
defects that we noted in our first few days with it: there was
a constant vibration in the instrument panel whenever the
car was being driven, the headlights were aimed too high,
and the engine idle speed seemed too high even for a nearly
new car. Otherwise it was its pleasant 510 self-a peppy,
light-steering sedan with lots of space inside, attractive styling
, good vision all around, a comfortable ride (except for a
distinct tendency to bottom its front suspension on dips) and
passable handling. The latter was made better than passable.
actually, because the distributors fitted the car with a set of
Goodyear 175-13 radial tires-being anxious that a tire
replacement not be included in the costs for the 24,000 miles
we proposed to do on the car as it had been on the Jaguar
420 we reported on in 1968. These and an AM radio were
the only extras on the 2-door and are included in the
delivered price we have listed.

Datsun’s service schedule for the 510 (see the Routine
Maintenance Summary) calls for an initial checkup at 2000
miles, another at 4000, and from 6000 miles on a regular
interval of 3000 miles between routine service operations. We
returned the car to the distributor for its 2000-mi service as
they had requested, got it back the next day and found all
our complaints corrected.

The only thing we noticed before the 4000-mile service
was an increased octane requirement (it now pinged mildly
on regular fuel, despite the official regular-fuel recommendation
in the owner’s manual, and would run on after the
ignition was switched off). From this point on we had the
car serviced at Barwick Imports in Laguna Beach, who cured
the running-on by resetting the timing: but the need for
premium fuel remained and we elected to use premium
from that point on. Bill for the 4000-mile service was $ 12.39.

We found ourselves driving the 510 hard and fast, within
the highly restrictive conditions of driving in Southern California
. The 510 seemed to thrive on it, and the radial tires
gave it roadbuilding that encouraged us to corner vigorously.
But we were getting 24.5 mpg by an odometer that was
slightly on the pessimistic side because of the oversize tires
(the normal size is 5.60-13) and this seemed highly
satisfactory except for the fact that the fuel, as with the Austin
America reported on two months ago, was premium. The
windshield wiper/washer knob came off because its set
screw backed out, the right backup light bulb burned out,
and we were occasionally getting a backfire on deceleration.
The backfiring seems to be an inevitability with engines
whose emissions are controlled by air injection; a “gulp
valve” diverts the air pump’s fresh air supply away from the
exhaust manifold and to the intake manifold for a short
time when the foot is lifted from the throttle to avoid the
backfiring that would be encouraged by a supply of oxygen
in the exhaust manifold, but it’s not 100% effective on any
car we’ve driven with it. This never became a serious problem.

Brake squeal-common with disc brakes on inexpensive
cars-was getting worse on the 510 but was not bad enough
to report it at the 9000-mile service. The ignition switch had
worked loose in i;s hole; a $4.50 labor charge for this-in
retrospect, this should have been covered by warranty-
and a 65c backup light bulb combined with the charge for
the routine operations brought this bill to $27.49.

We learn a lot about the road test cars in the week we
keep most of them, but it’s amazing how so many more
things come out with an extended acquaintance. We got so
finely tuned to the car that we could pick up a slight engine
surge when cruising at 35-40 mph, due no doubt to the lean
carburetion required for emission control. We learned that
the 510 was a “cold natured” car requiring much use of the
choke in the morning. We came to appreciate the fact that
one key opened all locks-some cars have as many as three
-and we got very irritated at the ventless front windows
which create such a draft at anything over 30 mph that we
would wear ourselves out cranking the windows up and
down in stop-and-go traffic. Offsetting the latter is excellent
ventilation-so good that when motoring at 70 mph in
sunny, 100-degree weather we still kept the windows closed
-but at the low speeds mentioned this can t do the job.

By 11,000 miles the brakes had become very much noisier
and were pulling to the left sporadically. One day we took
the 510 into Barwick to get a diagnosis, and wouldn’t you
know it, they quietened down and would neither squeal nor
pull. Machines are as perverse as people sometimes! Sometime
around the 11,000-mile mark, a staff member had all
four tires and wheels balanced, for $6.00.

When we took the car in for its 12,000-mile ritual-
which is a major service-the brakes were consistently noisy
and the clutch pedal was squawking when used. So, in
addition to the extensive routine items, we had Barwick
sand the brake pads and they found the clutch pedal return
spring to be all bent out of shape. There was no charge for
the brake work-the car was out of warranty but we had
reported trouble earlier. The 45c spring and a 40c choke
knob to replace the one that had broken brought this bill to
$43.60. The new choke knob was of a revised design that
is less likely to break.

The brakes still squealed as loudly as ever, so we contacted
the distributor about them. As soon as we could get
the car in-which was at 14,500 miles-we left it off for a
day and a new set of pads was installed on the front disc
brakes (the rear are drums). These reduced the amount of
squeal on braking considerably, but now there was a strong
tendency for them to squeal during cornering when not
applied! We decided to wait a while before complaining any

The 510 isn’t specifically a long-distance car, and we
think most owners use it mainly for local driving, but it has
enough performance and such good ventilation that staff
members were usually happy to take it on long runs. One,
about to go to San Francisco, delayed the 15,000-mile service
until it was too late to get an appointment at the dealer and
had to settle for an oil change at a service station. As the
maintenance summary shows, this is of little consequence
and we got off cheap at $2.94. The trip to San Francisco
was not merciful unto the machinery: going up the car was
driven con brio on the swooping and twisting Cabrillo
Highway. But the willing sohc engine seemed to thrive on
the punishment of being repeatedly subjected to its rev limit
and wide-open throttle up through the gears. The shift
linkage-which we found to be delightful generally-began
to get sticky and at times we’d have difficulty getting into
3rd and 4th gears. For the record we tried regular fuel again
on this trip; the engine clattered and ran on again so back
to premium.

At the 18,000-mile service we had the dealer inspect and
lubricate the shift linkage; he didn’t find anything wrong.
The clearance light on the left front fender was burned out
and another 40c bulb brought this service to $20.45.

By the 20,000-mile mark the brakes had returned to their
previous state of being noisy at times, quiet at other times,
and usually pulling to the left when they were noisy. They
were at their worst when they were cold and once warm
were decent enough that we let them go and kept driving.
We had begun to note increasing slack in the steering at the
straight-ahead position, as well as worsening creaks and
groans from the front suspension. Not really worried about
either of these-Barwick had squirted some rubber lube on
the bushings at 18,000-we headed for Reno to test a
Ferrari, the Datsun’s trunk loaded with test gear. After
getting into Nevada we did the natural thing-opened the
Datsun up to its maximum of 98 mph. It went some 10
miles at this speed without overheating, but didn’t really
feel as if it were designed for this sort of thing, so we backed
off to about 85 and held this for the remainder. During
this trip we got up to elevations of 7000-8000 ft and what we
called “peppy” performance fell off to “gutless.” After all
if you follow the rule of thumb that an engine loses about
3 % of its power for every 1000-ft increase in elevation, we
were down 24% or making do with 73 bhp in a car that
was loaded to about 2500 lb. Looking at it another way
we still found ourselves passing nearly everybody, which
confirms our feeling that you really don’t need much
performance in America to outrun 95 percent of the people
on the road. Most Americans just don’t like to press down
on their throttles, even when they’re driving 300-bhp cars.

The 21,000-mile service was done by the dealer in Reno,
and again a bulb-this time the right stoplight-had to be
replaced. Total bill was $6.66 with the bulb. Again we
mentioned the front suspension trouble but the dealer offered
no more help than “they all do that.” So we waited until
we were safely home and had Barwick do what was necessary,
which turned out to be new bushings for the front
suspension. A steering adjustment was done also, and the
bill for all this was $13.38. We think we can rightly lay the
blame for this premature front-end wear to the big tires and
our taking advantage of them so often.

We were nearing the end of our allotted time with the
510. Anything that went wrong with it from 21,000 on was
of a mysterious and sporadic nature. The shift linkage
would occasionally get sticky but could be freed by getting
it over into the reverse gate; a ticking noise would emanate
from the transmission on some mornings, and we found we
could usually stop the brake noise by tapping the pedal a
couple of times-indicating that the problem lay in the
caliper mechanism. The 24,000-mile service cost $38.98 and
it was time to return the car to Gardena.

What did we think of the 510 after 24,000 miles with it?
To be sure, it was well liked by most of the staff and was
generally considered an enjoyable and entertaining car to
drive. At the end of the test it still seemed mechanically
sound-certainly the much-used engine was as healthy as new.
The radial tires had at least 10,000 miles left in them despite
the hard driving. On the negative side, the brakes had been a
real bother, and there may have been impending trouble in
the transmission what with the sticking linkage and that
elusive tick-tick. There were a few rattles-the main heater
flap would rattle loudly when in the “room” or interior posi-
tion-and the knob seat-adjuster knob on the driver’s side
had fallen off. And we couldn’t help but remember how
many bulbs had burned out.

We have to conclude that the Datsun 510, excellent basic
package though it is, could do with better quality control and
that its front disc brakes probably need some redesign work.
What we can’t fault is the overall cost-per-mile: at 5.72c it
is the lowest figure we’ve recorded so far.

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