Why do car enthusiasts always reminisce about the glory years? Why, if we were presented with a choice between driving an Aston Martin DB9 or DB5, would we unanimously choose the DB5? Up until last summer, my time spent driving vintage cars was all but non-existent. Clearly I was missing something, so when the opportunity arose to drive one of the most famous vintage racecars in American history — John Morton’s Trans-Am winning Datsun BRE 510 — naturally I jumped at the opportunity to spar with a legend.
Datsun’s 510 remains a fascinating machine. Once called a “poor man’s BMW,” it exists at all thanks the decisive leadership shown by Mr. K (aka. Yutaka Katayama, the first president of Nissan USA) back in the late 1960s who defied board members by producing a machine that held sportiness and performance at its core. Giving Datsun widespread U.S. acceptance was crucial, but many within the company disagreed with his approach.
Regardless, Mr. K coveted excitement over economy and pushed forth, adopting fully-independent suspension as standard and a sizable 1.6-liter engine to please America’s greed for horsepower. While these technologies were far from groundbreaking, what made the 510 an instant success was it remained priced like a Datsun, being sold for under $2,000, comfortably undercutting its competition, while possessing the same sporting qualities.
When I arrived at Memphis International Raceway, I knew of the 510’s history. I’d also heard about its racing pedigree under the Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) banner, and how successful they were as an underdog against the mighty German and Italian manufacturers. I was also astutely aware of John Morton’s talent as a racer. How the car would perform from behind the wheel, however, remained a mystery.
By 1971, with the production 510 selling extremely well as an affordable sports sedan with unassuming looks yet exceptional handling, the focus turned to the racetrack and the SCCA Trans-Am 2.5 championship. Facing the mighty BMWs and all-conquering Alfa Romeos, Mr. K instructed BRE to whip the little sedan into race-winning shape. This meant switching the standard 4-speed manual transmission with that of Datsun’s performance car, the 240Z, making it a 5-speed manual instead. It also adopted the 240Z’s diff, as well as boosting power substantially to around 190 hp – almost double its original output – while lightening the machine to a scant 1,700 lbs.
When I first set eyes upon the car, the word “unassuming” stood out. Externally it’s boxy, plain and, when comparing to modern race cars, decidedly un-aerodynamic. But, of course, aerodynamics were an evolving science back then; cars were designed by eye rather than computer. Does that add more character, more soul, and more passion? At that moment, I was feeling strangely besotted.
The Datsun BRE 510 arrived late to the 1971 season, due to the immense amount of work needed to go from showroom to racetrack in under a year. When it did hit the track, it dominated, taking the fight immediately to Horst Kweck and his Alfa. Amassing victory after victory, John Morton and his #46 machine clawed their way back into title contention. In the final race, after laps of bumping and barging, Morton pitted for fuel. Kweck, in the Alfa, did not, allowing him to win the race and clinch the championship. After careful inspection, Alfa had installed an illegal fuel tank, cheating their way across the line to eventual disqualification, handing the championship to Morton and his Datsun BRE 510. This, as one can imagine, wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s like Kia entering sports cars and defeating the mighty Porsche.
Morton and his #46 BRE 510 crushed the opposition in 1972 as well, and as I strapped myself into the car that shocked the racing world, the sense of history rung though my head as vividly as a dream you swear was true. Dreaming of this moment was, in fact, something I’d been doing for weeks, ever since learning I'd get to drive this storied machine.
Behind the wheel, the padded seat cushion proved surprisingly comfortable, but the 510’s inners were especially bare. In the name of lightness, the windows were plastic, the door panels felt like rotten cardboard and even the cigarette lighter was removed. The steering wheel didn’t align correctly and the dash was illegible. Every switch looked identical and none were marked. Even Nissan’s historian had no idea what they did.
Flicking the switches from right to left readied the car for action, leaving just a worn starter-box on the floor next to the gear lever, concealing a button that brought the car back to life. Immediately, the noise was intense.
When you’re about to drive an old vintage car, especially one as storied and priceless as this, peculiar thoughts circumnavigate your brain. Touching the abused rubber steering wheel, you almost feel the car’s heartbeat. You practically engage words with the machine, asking for patience and protection. At the same time, you feel bare and exposed to the elements. There’s also a sense of extreme isolation that’s refreshing and yet disconcerting, like camping deep in the Canadian woods with no phone service. You feel one with the machine in a way no modern car evokes.
Depressing the heavy clutch and selecting first gear, masses of revs are required to get the machine off the line without stalling. My ears became engulfed with the rawest, loudest, most extreme engine noise I’ve ever heard, and yet it wasn’t piercing or unpleasant. It was beautiful and refined, like it was back in the early ‘70s. To this day, it's the best sounding car I've ever heard.
Imagining Morton hurling the BRE 510 through Laguna Seca’s corkscrew, Kwech’s Alfa Romeo grinding his rear bumper as the crowd watched in awe, I was reminded how heroic these drivers were. I’ve lapped the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at over 227 mph, and yet driving this car fast somehow seemed a wilder challenge. I’ve raced in the Daytona 24 Hours, driving sports cars that resemble modern variants of the 510. Nothing felt familiar.
The first few laps I needed to discover the car’s characteristics, like going on an awkward first date. I had to learn what she liked, what she didn’t, what made her tick, and what made her mad. I quickly realized she responded to revs — more revs than I was brave enough to provide. As the needle approached 10,000 rpm, the 1600cc motor screaming for all its worth, I succumbed and shifted.
The speed felt akin to slaloming down a double-diamond slope in Aspen on a saucer sled. It was fast, sure, but I felt totally exposed, astutely aware of the apparent dangers of a flimsy 40-year-old component deciding its time was up.
The steering, too, was bizarre. During a quick S-bend, of which Memphis Raceway boasts many, the response between swinging left to right wasn't as fast as I thought it would be. Pressing the brake pedal felt like doing squats with a hippo on your shoulders. And even once the correct pressure arrived, the stopping force suggested the brakes came from a Walmart bicycle. All of this made me wonder if I was merely feeling the signs of age, or if this was what Morton truly wrestled.
But as my date with the 510 progressed, I began understanding her flaws. And what once felt uncomfortable, felt characterful. I didn’t want it any other way. I wanted every car to behave like this.
My newfound confidence allowed me to push. While I wouldn’t power-slide like Morton, I wanted to experience what made this car legendary. It was slower than the Alfas and BMWs on the straights, but its taught suspension, lightweight body and 13-inch fat, stubby tires annihilated the competition through the turns. It scampered with unfathomable energy, but once understood, was as drivable and accessible as any car I’d been in. It was majestic.
Only this car wasn’t like anything I’d driven. It probably wasn’t even like other BRE 510s from that era. I had a distinct sense that this car, and what I felt, was singular, despite its mass-produced underpinnings. There were no computers or electronic aids serving as interlocutors between my hands and the road — just metal and rubber. It’s the same feeling that draws enthusiasts into the world of vintage automobiles. What they lack in technology they exude in heartbeat and character, traits near extinction among polished modern machines.
Mr. K made Datsun a mainstream U.S. automaker, selling over 400,000 510s during its tenure. Peter Brock, teamed with John Morton, made the 510 the most unlikely of champions, embarrassing established performance brands in the process. But this group of individuals did something special for me. They carved a car that changed the way I view automobiles. They’ve rewired what I desire from a car, and offered a glimpse into what truly matters. And even though it’s been close to a year since I drove that beautiful Datsun, I still think about her most every day. Because that’s what a classic car in the truest sense does to you. You never forget your first.
Photos: JoeZero5 via Flickr; Getty Images