Like the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle of yore, the Datsun 510 enjoys a rather unique niche in the annals of automotive history. While never produced in the teeming numbers that the old vintage Bugs were, the 510 shares a similarity with those cars; it was instrumental in transforming the American public's perception of what an economical performance car could and should be. This isn't to say the old Datsun was a fire-breathing V8-killer straight out of the box. After all, its factory-equipped, 1.6-liter powerplant produced only 96 bhp in stock form-a goodly amount of power to make the car reasonably quick, but not really enough to let it go around scorching the pavement on a regular basis.
Even so, the old 510 was overbuilt by most standard engineering conventions of its day. For one, its front MacPherson strut and independent rear suspension configurations made the car an extremely competent handler, which was normally associated with much more expensive cars. Additionally, many of its hard engine parts were built to a greater degree of strength than the car's power output probably warranted. Some parts, such as the connecting rods, main bearings and U-joints were also used in the more powerful, six-cylinder 240Z. When the 510 made its way to the track in the late 1960s as part of Datsun-backed racing programs, it often ran with a stock valvetrain and factory-spec engine internals.
San Jose, Calif. resident Mark Nuenke owns the green 510 spread across these pages. It was, in fact, his very first car, so he has been involved with it for some time. The gradual project build-up took place over the span of 24 years, arriving at the impressive state of tune you see here. (Nuenke has, in fact, owned the car for roughly as long as this article's author has been alive.)
He bought it in 1976 for about $500, complete with a blown motor, and had to tow it home in order to begin the first phase of its restoration. There, he scrapped the old engine and rebuilt an L18 motor with dual carbs, dropped it into the engine bay, and installed a Datsun Competition racing suspension. A couple of years later, he decided he wanted to add something to the car's physical aggression factor. He purchased and installed a full set of fender flares from Far Performance, cleaned up the body panels and painted the car dark blue. Since then, the paint color has changed twice, but the flares and Nuenke's detailed bodywork remain intact.
The next phase of the 510's build-up began only six months later with an episode the car's owner would undoubtedly like to forget. He was visiting his mother one day in the San Jose mountains, and when he was ready to leave, he came back to his car to find it sitting on two big boulders with the wheels gone and the hood thrown open. It was being stripped!
"One of the thieves was still there trying to remove the carburetors," Nuenke recalled. "I chased him down and tackled him, waved down a passing car and told the driver to call the police."
When the cops showed up, they were able to talk him into admitting where the wheels and tires were hidden so Nuenke could reassemble his car. He even told them where the other thief was staying, just a short way down the road at a relative's house.
"They had damaged the paint pretty badly with the crowbar they used to get the door open," Nuenke continues. "The court had them pay me $2,000 in restitution for the damage to my car. I used this money to buy body work tools and a new, candy apple red paint job."
Nuenke drove the car for another 13 years, in which time he installed an L22 engine with a single Weber side-draft carb, modified with a split shaft to be progressive, and an old Cartech turbo kit. The increased performance of this new set-up gave Nuenke the highly addictive hunger for more power, and accordingly he upgraded the engine to the configuration you see in the photos.
As mentioned, the basis for this plant is an L22 block fitted with a modified L70B head. Compression is achieved using Total Seal rings and forged JE 7.5:1 pistons that link to factory-spec connecting rods, which are in turn secured to a stock crankshaft using ARP rod bolts. The head was modified by Rebello in Pacheco, Calif., and features a full street port and oversized stainless intake and high-temp exhaust valves, sized 44mm and 38mm respectively. An Elgin Turbo cam replaces the single overhead unit. The valves return to their seats via doubled-up springs, but the rockers, keepers and retainers remain factory-spec.
The venerable Cartech forced induction system has been replaced with a low-friction, ceramic ball-bearing T3 turbocharger that mounts to a custom Top End Performance exhaust manifold. The augmented intake charge then passes through a Top End-built air-to-air intercooler that was constructed directly to Nuenke's specifications. From the chiller, a TWM intake manifold and 45mm throttle bodies guide the charge air into the combustion chamber, where fuel delivery has been upgraded from traditional carburetion methods to a custom Electromotive electronic fuel injection system.
Combustion is masterminded by an Electromotive TEC II direct-ignition unit, which can be linked to a laptop computer for fine-tuning of the ignition and air/fuel curves. At the head of all this is a billet aluminum airbox that Nuenke built himself. On the hot side, a stainless-steel Borla 2.5-inch mandrel-bent exhaust system and muffler relieve the powerplant of excess backpressure and spent gasses.
Though the 510 has a reputation for bulletproof build quality all along its drivetrain, Nuenke decided to take no chances and now relies on a 1979 280ZX five-speed transmission and a modified Roadster clutch with a Datsun Competition disc to transfer the ponies to his rear axle. A Quaife limited-slip diff assists in eliminating wheelspin.
According to his ultimate performance vision, Nuenke has upgraded his suspension from the original Datsun Competition configuration he originally installed on the car. Shock absorption and damping are handled by full coil-over assemblies at all four corners: five-way adjustable Konis up front, and Pro Shock units in the rear. A slotted rear crossmember allows Nuenke to control his rear wheel toe and camber angles, while a Quickor three-way adjustable anti-sway bar helps eliminate flex in the rear suspension assembly.
The car's braking components have been swapped for big, vented 11-inch rotors and Wilwood four-piston calipers in front and a drum-to-disc conversion in back; the rear discs also get squeezed by Wilwood hardware, albeit smaller two-piston units. Pressure is applied using a 280ZX master cylinder unit, stainless braided lines and Motul 600 fluid. Last but not least, the 510's running gear is comprised of Panasport 16x7 wheels and 215/40-16 Yokohama A520 rubber. Nuenke informed us these wheels have recently been changed to larger, beefier 17x9s in the rear to provide for a larger contact patch and, hopefully, better out-of-the-hole traction.
To date, Mark Nuenke and his now-BMW Boston green 510 have posted a best quarter-mile jaunt of 12.91 seconds at 108 mph, running 20 psi boost (that's with the smaller wheels and tires on a G-Tech Performance Meter). For those who can't get their heads out of the 9-second Honda clouds, keep in mind that this is a fully street-worthy car with a full interior and street-legal tires; for comparison, an 8-liter, 450 hp, $75,000 Dodge Viper will also run in the 12s. And this car is 29 years old. Additionally, Nuenke said he still drives the car to work on a regular basis. Can the same be said of a tube-frame racecar with racing slicks and a "Stage 7" clutch? Not likely.