Most notable among early Datsun roadsters was the Datsun Fairlady Sportster, a chubby-cheeked, rounded, and darned-cute little car. The roadster's lines were curved, shall we say, enthusiastically, almost like an Austin-Healey all scrunched up. It even had a Healeyesque sweep-spear for a two-tone paint treatment, perhaps an attempt to make the car look longer.
In 1959, Nissan added the 4-place roadster to the American lineup that included the Datsun 1000 sedan on which it was based.
Like British sports cars of the era, its convertible top was constructed rather than raised. At first powered by the sedan's 37-horsepower pushrod four, bigger engines increased performance with 48 horsepower and then 60 horsepower, the latter of which enabled the convertible to mosey through the quarter-mile in 24.3 seconds.
Americans, however, were largely unimpressed. For them "performance" still typically meant big-cubic-inch V-8s; thus fewer than 300 Fairladys were sold between 1959 and 1962. Nissan sales strategy instead relied on a lineup that included sedans, station wagons, pickups, and the Patrol, an early sport-utility vehicle.
The Fairlady was replaced by the Datsun 1500 Sports Roadster, making its debut in the spring of 1962 at the New York International Auto Show. (A prototype had been shown at Tokyo the preceding fall.)
Although often called a copy of the MGB sports car, this appearance actually preceded that of the British roadster, which wasn't shown to the public until October 1962. Any similarities were therefore coincidence.
The Datsun 1500 (the name Fairlady was dropped for America) was, however, a thoroughly traditional sports car that could easily have been mistaken for a British design. It had a steel body on a conventional chassis with box rails and A-arm front/live-axle rear suspension. It had narrow bias-ply tires and four-wheel drum brakes.
But, said Road & Track, "We have never seen a car that comes with so many extras at no additional charge." It was, said the magazine, "extremely easy to drive," and reasonably priced at $2,465.
But with only a 20-second quarter-mile time and just so-so handling and braking, the 1500 was merely adequate. It was, however, "favorably comparable" to other cars that "make no pretense of being raceworthy sports cars in the accepted meaning of the term."
At least Nissan was willing to learn. The 1500 Sports was replaced by the 1600 Sports, a bigger engine coming from a larger bore with a shorter stroke. Acceleration increased only marginally, but flexibility was much improved.
Nissan also added front-disc/rear-drum brakes and a new, fully synchronized 4-speed manual transmission. Race driver Ken Miles told Car and Driver, "the Japanese don't have the hang of" suspension yet, but Road & Track called it "predictable" and "a near ideal car to learn to drive sports-car style."
There's nothing that additional power can't remedy -- or at least cause one to overlook -- and when Road & Track tested the 1968 Datsun 2000 Sports, the magazine called it "insignificantly heavier, moderately more expensive, but abundantly more powerful" than its 1600 predecessor.
The heart of the change was a new engine, a single-overhead-cam four (U20 in Nissan parlance), producing 135 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque, a 40 percent increase over the 1600. An exotic-for-then 5-speed overdrive manual transmission was standard.
Not surprisingly, the 2000 could thoroughly skunk the 1600, doing 0-60 mph a whole three seconds faster. The 2000 ran the quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds, impressive for any contemporary four-cylinder sports car of its price range. Even more muscle was available through a competition engine kit that yielded 150 horsepower, and if installed by a dealer carried a full warranty.
Narrow and hard-sprung, the Datsun roadsters were as antiquated as the British sports cars that inspired them. They were the best of their generation, but the generation's heyday was passing. It was clearly time for something new.