Car of the Week: 1978 Datsun 510 station wagon

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By Brian Earnest

John Parker knows it’s pretty easy to get people to turn their noses up at his lovely 1970 Pontiac GTO.

All he has to do is park it next to his 1978 Datsun station wagon.

Once again proving that variety is not only the spice of life, it is the magic of the collector car hobby, Parker has found himself a car hobby prize that might be unlike anything hiding in barns, garages and backyards from coast to coast.

Even after owning the little hauler for more than four years, Parker can hardly believe it when he gets in the Datsun for a short joyride or gathering of collector vehicles.

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“I take it to car shows and people ask who did the restoration, and I tell them Datsun did it in 1978,” laughs Parker, a resident of Grand Prairie, Texas. “That’s really what caught my eye about the car — it being so unique and the shape it’s in. It’s really unbelievable.”

The Datsun belonged to a little old lady — not from Pasadena, but about 375 miles away in Oakland — and rarely saw the light of day for many years. The woman, Helen Jones, only drove her station wagon on short trips and in nice weather. She put exactly 17,136 miles on the car before selling it in 2006 to a man from San Francisco for a whopping $1,000. From there the car changed hands several times before landing on eBay with 18,488 miles.

“One of my pastimes is I’ll get on eBay Motors and just look at cars. It’s kind of like a virtual car show,” says Parker. “I came across this little car and it just sounded too good to be true … Long story short, I e-mailed back and forth with the guy — his name was Brad — and I asked for some pictures and he sent me some and it looked exactly like he said it was. It looked mint, and that’s why I bought it.”

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That’s when the fun really started for Parker. He soon wrote to the California Department of Motor Vehicles and requested whatever paperwork and ownership history was available for the car, and discovered that Helen Jones was the original owner. Parker was curious how the car had survived so well and tried to contact Jones. He didn’t find her, but did contact the woman who had lived next door to her. The neighbor said Jones had passed away, but she remembered the car.

“For years she and another lady would take the bus to San Francisco, which is where they both worked, I guess,” Parker said. “Eventually the other lady … bought herself a little station wagon, and Miss Jones liked it so much, about a year later, she bought one, too, and I have the one she bought.

“The other lady drove hers all the time. She drove it into the ground, but Miss Helen liked hers so much she kept it nice and clean and in the garage. It was kind of a joke that she called it her garage art.”

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A couple of years ago, Parker actually visited the home in California where Helen Jones lived and met the neighbor lady who helped fill him in on some of the car’s history. “It was fun doing it. The lady was so nice and I got to be friends with her and I took pictures of the garage and driveway where the car had been kept all those years,” he said.

“The whole thing about it is when I was a kid I don’t even remember seeing those cars to tell you the truth. I remember the little two-doors, but don’t ever remember the station wagons. It’s just very unusual that it was able to survive in this kind of condition. I’ve never seen one anywhere, ever! I’ve never even seen one in dogged-out condition on the side of the road. I didn’t even know they existed.”

The Datsun 510 series was a fixture line for the Japanese automaker from 1968 through the 1970s.  The first series lasted until 1973 before the model went on hiatus and was replaced by the 710 series as Datsun’s midsize offering. The 510 was reintroduced for 1978-’79 with a new chassis and body and the overhead-valve, L20B four-cylinder, 97-hp four-cylinder engine that displaced 1952ccs.

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The car’s styling mimicked some European sedans, and the line eventually became well-known for its success as lightweight rally cars.

Two- and four-door sedans and a four-door wagon were staples of the 510 series cars, which offered gas mileage generally between 25 and 35 mpg, great reliability, many interchangeable parts and attractive sticker prices. The wagon was discontinued in 1972, but returned in 1978, when a hatchback was also offered.

The unit-body 510s had independent front suspension and four-link coil rear suspensions, except the wagon, which had leaf springs in back. Sedans and hatchbacks had reclining front bucket seats, and all models had fold-down rear seats, carpeted cargo areas, tinted glass, electric rear defrosters, side window defoggers, transistorized ignition, and all-vinyl or cloth-and-vinyl upholstery.

The wagons measured 172.6 inches from tip to tip and weighed in at 2,365 lbs. with the four-speed manual. Four- and five-speed manual transmissions were available, along with a three-speed automatic. The second-generation wagons were not available with the five-speed (Parker’s car has the automatic). Fuel consumption with the four-speed manual was rated at 32 mph highway, 24 city.

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By 1978, the 510 Series cars were being built by Nissan Motors and were offered only in North America. After 1981, the lineup disappeared for good, giving way to the Nissan Stanza.

Even in warm climates, unmolested survivors of the 1970s Japanese auto invasion are hard to find these days, and Datsun/Nissan station wagons would sure be at the top of the list of unlikely survivors. There are a fair number of 510 sedans and hatchbacks around from the 1970s, particularly cars that had some rally racing history. Wagons are another story.

“I worried at the time, maybe I’m being duped … maybe this is too good to be true and you know what they say about that,” Parker admitted. “But I got some car people to look at the car and they said no, this paint is original, everything is original … This is an original car.

“I haven’t even put any tires on it. Only two things aren’t original, or three things, if you want to get real technical: battery, tires and oil filter. Everything else is original. I don’t know what’s out there in the world, but it’s got to be one of only a handful that exist in this shape, if there is even another one. I don’t know.”

With the help of the California DOT, Parker has even been able to calculate how many miles each of the Datsun’s previous four owners have put on the odometer. “Miss Helen put 17,136 on it; then the guy she sold it to in San Francisco put 664 on it; then the next guy put on 90; then he sold it to the guy who put on 70; then Brad, the guy who sold it to me, put on 528 miles.”

Parker admits he doesn’t drive the wagon much, just a few miles here and there. He’s happy to keep the miles down on the odometer and knows if he wants to keep everything original on the car, he’s going to need to keep the Datsun’s road trips to a minimum. Parts for 1978 Datsun 510 wagons don’t necessarily grow on trees.

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Actually, Parker has another survivor with a similar story in his white, 1979 Ford Pinto with only 5,000-plus miles. Both 1970s cars have proven to be feel-good time machines for a generation that grew up with them.

“I take the wagon to shows and it never ceases to bring a smile to people’s faces,” he says. “And when I take it to car shows and they have an original class, it wins every time. Nobody can believe it hasn’t been painted or restored.

“People flip out about it … and some of them don’t even know what they are looking at. They don’t even know what it is. And it drives like a new car. I can’t imagine it driving any different than it did in 1978.”

 

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