In the 1950s, in America, cars were all about jet-age this and rocket-power that. In the '60s, in Japan, Nissan borrowed that motif and adapted it for the times, calling its new Bluebird model "Supersonic"; the 510 Bluebird launched across Japan, in magazines and on TV alike, in the fall of '67 with images of Concorde (and only images, as the actual Concorde didn't fly till the spring of '69) and ideas about swift comfort put firmly in the Japanese car buyer's head. Faster-than-sound capabilities strained credulity —the hottest version, the triple-carb 1800SSS, was good for 115 horsepower; not even its designer (see sidebar) considered believing it. But then, no one really believed that those two-and-a-half-ton American tanks of the '50s were actually jet-powered, either; it was all about image. And the Bluebird had image in spades. Supersonic!
It was the 510's confessedly subsonic capabilities that attracted Chris Houts, now living in Amarillo Texas, and even then he had to be pointed in its direction. Such is the crime of youth; the learning curve is steep, and direction sometimes requires a guiding hand. "I had done some SCCA racing in a Dodge Neon when I was 19; it did OK but was plagued with electrical issues. At an event, a seasoned racer told me to get a Datsun 510 instead; he told me all about their heritage and how capable they were on the track. So I bought one." Quickly, Chris discovered the joys of 510 ownership—light on its feet thanks to all-independent suspension, gas mileage, reliability and an old-school charm that's lost in newer steel. Then things got crazy: a boosted '91 Civic Si hatch, an '01 Civic Si, a track-day Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII, a '10 Evo X and finally a BMW 3-series that put 400hp on the ground. Yet the lure old the Datsun—its simplicity, its honesty, its reliability, its unassuming nature—lured him back into the fold.
Finding the Bluebird you see here was something of an accident. "I had just started my new job in Amarillo, and I decided I wanted another Datsun 510; I was finally making enough money that I could afford to really do it up right. A very nice '71 510 4-door was for sale in Dallas, although I also had cars I could have looked at in Denver and in Los Angeles. I bought the Dallas car, but when I went to pick it up, the seller showed me his baby: a genuine RHD Bluebird coupe. Of course, I wanted it, but he insisted on keeping it."
"Fast-forward six months; my 510 got hit and I needed body parts. I called the seller to see if he had spares I could purchase. He did, but the seller was in a financial bind; I ended up trading the drivable four-door and some cash for his Bluebird coupe." The trade-in plus the cash amounted to eight grand, and must have been wringing his hands over unloading what was, for all intents and purposes, a turd. "I sent it to Racecraft Northwest in Seattle, where Jim Froula looked it over for the initial estimate. The car had so much rust and poorly-repaired body damage that we decided to use another shell to complete the project." Think about this for a second: Chris sent his car 1750 miles to a shop that told him that it, a machine which was not sold on the American continent when it was new four decades or more ago, isn't salvageable. Time + distance + parts availability = uh oh. And yet somehow, Racecraft Northwest managed to have an answer for him. "They found a Bluebird shell; it had been turned into a race car, and had been in a bad wreck in California. It needed a new front clip, but whatever rust it may have once had was already removed, so we decided to use that shell for my car instead." The work to get the unit-body solid and straight again, including time on a frame jig, took the better part of a year.
That gave Chris time to track down parts from quite literally around the world, places such as Japan, Australia... "I even drove halfway across the US to get a windshield from a friend in California, since the one I ordered from Japan showed up in pieces." New-old-stock (NOS) and reproduction body pieces mixed with vintage lumbar-hugging Recaro chairs and a wood-rimmed Nardi steering wheel are some of his most cherished finds. He even located an NOS Datsun AM radio, which remains bereft of aftermarket amplification. Yet the Techno Toy Tuning coil-over suspension gives it a very up-to-date feel, as does the pieced-together rear disc brake system, incorporating both Nissan and Wilwood parts to great effect. The wheels are 16-inch Advan Onis on Federal 165/45-16 rubber, an old-school style which fills the wheel openings dramatically.
Under the hood, the blend of old and new continues with a curious choice, the naturally-aspirated driveline from a home-market S14 Silvia. That's 140 horsepower, and a transmission that, while possessing an Overdrive gear, has a 3.32 First, rather than the stock Datsun's 3.66 First. Granted, that's 25 more bone-stock, dear-nuts reliable horsepower than an L-series 1800SSS would have offered, along with an Overdrive gear to keep the revs down on the freeway; also, at 2200 pounds, it's lots lighter than the Silvia it came out of, and is hundreds of pounds lighter than an early '90s Sentra SE-R which ran the same engine. Those extra 25 horses will scoot, and the factory reliability means more can be added in sometime in the future. On the other hand, precious time off the line is lost in gear multiplication.
So... no boost? "I wanted to keep it naturally-aspirated, since that's the way the car was from the start." As for the transmission, "I used the the S14 five-speed; it's longer then the factory four-speed. I used a home made five-speed conversion bracket and cut the factory hole in the trans tunnel a little larger, then welded in a Datsport Trans tunnel cover for a clean, sealed look. All the factory hydro hardware for the four-speed bolts right to the SR trans. I love that Nissan's stuff is so cross compatible." Fair enough. Plus the sheer reliability of Nissan's twin-cam, two-liter SR20DE will ensure that it's running until well past the next time Nostradamus predicts the world will end. A hand-built header and large-diameter exhaust will add a few horses and minimize backpressure to boot. (In any event, Chris swears that his next modification will be adding a limited-slip diff to help get the traction down. No need for a car this righteous to settle for a one-wheel peel when the owner stomps on the gas.)
The effect you see here, the grey engine bay and the blue body, was quite deliberate. "I sent it off to Kenny's Kustoms [just half an hour up US-60 in nearby Panhandle, Texas] for paint; shop owner Kenny Segura painted the car Blue Pearl Clearcoat (code RAE), a shade that was released in limited numbers on the 370Z. I felt it was important to keep it a Nissan color." It's also easier to match, should any issues befall the sheetmetal in uncaring Texas traffic. As for the grey engine bay..."I also decided to paint the engine bay a separate color to help highlight the engine swap."
The complete build took about three years and entirely the wrong side of $25,000 (including the cash outlay for the decaying corpse of a Bluebird), and the last year of the build was Chris putting everything together in his garage at home. Since it's come out to play, including a spot at SEMA in 2012, "The reaction has been insane! It appeals to such a variety of people; some remember their parents owning one like it when they were a kid, and plenty of people remember John Morton beating the V8s in the Trans Am series in the early '70s." He's also finding that the kids are grooving on it as well. "Now that the old school craze is getting huge, the younger crowd are falling in love with the Bluebird all over again." Chris' car, encapsulating newer technology in the character-by-the-bucketful old school body, gives the younger generation something to relate to. That proves slightly problematic, as our Supersonic Bluebird rarely gets to stretch its wings and fly. "Its so rare that I'm scared it will get hit or stolen," Chris frets. "I do drive it around town on weekends and sunny days, but that's about it."
So we've got something old (the car itself, dating to 1968), something new (all of that high tech under the hood), and something borrowed (Supersonic, indeed!), all to make an altogether remarkable blue(bird).
1968 Nissan Bluebird
Owner: Chris Houts
Hometown: Amarillo, TX
Occupation: Federal officer
Engine: JDM Nissan S14 SR20DE engine; custom radiator; tucked Wiring Specialties wiring harness
Drivetrain: stock Jayco 5-speed manual transmission with Overdrive
Footwork & Chassis: Techno Toy Tuning coilovers and front camber plates; Eibach springs; TRS tie rods
Brakes: Datsun 280ZX calipers on slotted rotors (front); Wilwood Dynalite calipers on Brembo 300ZX rear rotors (rear); Hawk HPS pads; Goodridge steel braided lines; Wilwood proportioning valve
Wheels & Tires: 16x7" +12 (front)/16x7.5" +2 (rear) Advan Oni wheels; Federal 165/45R16 tires; Sickspeed extended NEO chrome lug nuts
Exterior: stock with Nissan 370Z RAE blue pearl paint
Interior: Vintage Recaro front seats with custom brackets; Takata harnesses; Nardi wood grain steering wheel with NRG quick-release; ProStyle oil pressure and water temp gauges; factory-style replacement carpet, headliner and upholstery; NOS AM radio
Thanks You: Jim Froula at RacecraftNW; Yury at Wiring Specialties; Kenny at Kenny's Kustoms; all my Team Sunworks members for their support and help.
Teruo Uchino: Datsun 510/Bluebird Stylist
Mr. Teruo Uchino was born in 1938 in Meguro, Tokyo. When he was little, his dad was frequently transferred around Japan, and he changed schools yearly; once he started at Toyonaka High School, Osaka, he rented a room and stayed at one school. He loved drawing from young age and his enthusiasm in his high school art club led him to the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, majoring in industrial and graphic design. In his senior year, he decided to be a car designer.
Shozo Sato, who worked in Nissan's design department, was a part-time professor, and was a supervisor for Uchino's graduation project. Inspired by Sato-san, Uchino joined Nissan in 1963; his first project was a component designer for the 410 Bluebird. R&D work on the 510 began in the summer of '64, and his team was one of several to dream up ideas for the new car. But just as the teams were ready to go to clay, the project was halted until the team was reorganized in 1965; a marketing change demanded updates mid-design. Hidehiro Nozuka, a designer of the original Fairlady, became the new project leader. Once they had reached the clay-model stage, Uchino's design was selected from multiple proposals. He was one of the youngest design department members, and a Nissan employee for just two-and-a-half years.
The basic style took the brief for the now-retired Sato's design for the 310 (the first Bluebird) and updated them. Uchino told Japanese magazine Nostalgic Hero: "I thought the 310 had an image of an orthodox sedan. The 310 doesn't have any unnecessary shapes; it looks so simple and tough. I wanted to express that image with the best proportion. Generally, the proportion means the ratio of lines. But I also included surface curve balance and expression balance as good proportions. The 310 had it. So, I thought it would be a good design if I could re-produce that image in the 510 dimension."
His design-department boss Yotsumoto provided additional inspiration. "Yotsumoto's design concept was to give the third function. The first function is to run and carry; the second is to drive and control. The third function is to self-express. A designer has to be able to give users this self-expression by their car."
The curved side glass that Uchino incorporated was the first on a Nissan sedan; this allowed greater shoulder room, width and side contouring, while helping to integrate the greenhouse into the rest of the vehicle. The styling in the home-market ad campaigns was referred to as "supersonic" but Uchino insists that this wasn't in the plan when he designed it: in his Nostalgic Hero interview, Uchino simply "imagined a speedy car on highway that could be built very soon in Japan...but SST was not the motif of my original design. The truth is not always so exciting."
Uchino's distinguished career continued on the Bluebird U (Datsun 610), Violet (710), the S11 Nissan Silvia (the '79 Datsun 200SX), and the interior of the Nissan Leopard (Infiniti M30). He was also team leader for the 1990 Nissan Primera (Infiniti G20), a car that Uchino considers the culmination of all of his philosophy, one which pursued function over design.