Following WWII, America-at-large’s distrust and dislike of anything Japanese was strong. In the ‘50s, and even into the ‘60s, “Made in Japan” had the same stigma as “Made in China” can sometimes have today. Yet slowly, as always seems inevitable, popular opinion turned. Radios were the first salvo on American shores, where Japan’s efforts with transistors and miniaturization largely created the portable-radio market; next was in the world of photography, where Nikon and Canon cameras quickly worked to usurp the efforts of traditional European names like Leica and Hasselblad.
Cars were the third wave. On streets where Triumphs and MGB sports cars were common sightings (the relative newcomer Datsun was seen as an interloper), a copycat and possibly not to be trusted. Surely this, plus a fledgling dealer network in the ‘60s, accounts for the Datsun Roadster selling just 50,000 copies in the States over its eight-year life.
The first Datsun roadster of 1963 wrung 85hp out of its 1500cc; a 1600cc engine showed up a couple of seasons later. It received virtually no press attention in this country. Evolutionary styling changes—badging and fender flares, mostly—followed.
Though today any Datsun Roadster is a treat, that half a year’s production (roughly a thousand cars’ worth) is what gets collectors’ panties filled with bubbly warm yogurt—assuming they remember (or care about) it. Why? Well, for starters, it was the twin-Solex-carbureted 135hp two-liter aluminum-headed U20 OHC Four, coupled to a slick-shifting five-speed transmission. But in 1968, Datsun made some physical changes to the Roadster, including making the windshield two inches dorkier, er, taller, and installing a padded dash that helped the cabin conform to new-for-’68 American safety laws. Also, smog equipment came in and clogged up the works, removing some of the two-liter’s prowess. A machine that had been compared with quaint, fusty, ancient MGBs was now more on a level with technically adventurous Alfa Romeo, and at a far cheaper price. Still, the unpopular ’68 revisions meant that the one thousand or so half-year ’67 models, with the free-breathing big engine, shorter windscreen and the old dash, are the “holy grail” models of the series among fans.
San Jose’s Alvin Gogineni fancied a Datsun Roadster but wanted an all-around driver, and as he found a ‘67.5 1600 with a transplanted U20 near him in Modesto about a decade back, the whole bugaboo of originality and collectibility didn’t faze him. Feeding of a pair of carburetors did faze him, however, and when a rock punctured the low-hanging U20 oil pan on a Datsun club driving event, he cured both his dead engine and his fears by employing Datsun’s other high-revving two-liter, the SR20DE. (Plus, he could keep the 2000 badges on the fenders and not be a liar.)
Recall that Nissan’s all-alloy, naturally-aspirated SR20DE (as seen in Sentra SE-Rs, NX2000s and Infiniti G20s here in the US back in the day, pumps out a reliable 140hp all day long; not that much more than the stock, pre-blowed-up U20 made. The engine seen here, sourced from a Kouki JDM S14 Silvia, did exactly this. Truth be told, the old engine was rated at Gross power, while the SR20 is rated Net—and the SR20’s home-market power numbers grew slightly over time—so there was more of a power bump than the numbers alone might indicate. Even so, you know the deal with naturally-aspirated SR20s: a little light on torque off the line, but once they come on cam they’ll zing forth to a 7500rpm redline and beyond quite happily.
Making it fit was another matter: the stock exhaust manifold contacted the firewall, so they used a FWD Sentra header that dropped straight down for clearance; the variable-valve-timing JDM SR20 required a speed sensor, so a tweaked JWT ECU bypasses the sensor and triggers the valve timing based on engine revs. The chassis itself required some notching and welding for clearance, although the mods were subtle and minimal. This was farmed out to Michael Spreadbury of Spriso Motorsports, ZCarGarage’s Rob Fuller and DGR Fabrication’s Dan Gallmeister, who know their way around old Datsuns.
At idle, which settles in at 950rpm, everything is creamy-smooth—no nasty resonance, no feeling the engine bucking on its mounts, not even a hint from the exhaust note. Then you blip the throttle; the 3-inch Borla exhaust makes mockery of the engine’s calmness. Even a quick rise to 2000rpm makes some rorty noises out back. A couple of changes were made to the engine itself, subtle on the surface but ultimately character-altering: a set of Jim Wolf Technology C1 camshafts and engine-management system manage to bolster low-end torque while allowing the SR20DE’s free-revving characteristics to shine through. A drive in Alvin’s roadster flung us forth at such a rate that we wondered whether it was secretly boosted. No such luck, but those cams (and a JWT ECU) allow Alvin’s roadster to put 156 horses on the ground, which means something like 175 to 180 at the flywheel. That’s power that you could feel in a heavy Silvia or a Sentra; but in something that weighs an even ton as it sits, Alvin’s roadster has become an eye-opener. The engine comes alive at 4000rpm; the tach’s numbers stopped at 8, and Alvin himself asked that we rev no harder than 7000rpm, but it’s quite clear that the harder you rev, the happier this car is.
1967.5 Datsun Roadster
Owner Alvin Gogineni
Hometown San Jose, CA
Occupation Cancer researcher
Engine 1998 Nissan SR20DE; Jim Wolf Technology C1 racing cams; stock FWD Sentra exhaust manifold; Walbro 255 in-tank fuel pump; Borla XLS muffler with 3-inch pipes
Drivetrain 1998 Nissan Silvia 5-speed; B&M Short Shifter
Engine Management Jim Wolf Technology ECU
Footwork & Chassis NISMO front springs and sway bar (front); hand-fabricated four-link rear with two parallel links per side; QA1 coilovers; Panhard bar
Brakes Wilwood four-pot calipers with vented rotors (front); 1985 Mazda RX7 discs (rear)
Wheels & Tires 16x7" (+11 front/0 rear) Panasports; 205/45R16 Yokohama S-drive tires
Exterior Datsun 1500 grille; factory bumper over-riders removed; clear turn signals; Fairlady emblem; amber rear turn signals; optional factory hardtop
Interior stock with NISMO four-point rollbar; RJS harnesses; MOMO Competition steering wheel; Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo shift knob; Alpine head unit; MB Quart front and rear speakers
Thanks You Rob Fuller at Z-Car Garage