Restoring a Datsun 510 doesn't make any sense. Yeah, we said it. A flip through the NADA Classic Car Guide tells us that a top-notch bone-stock 510 two-door sedan will run a paltry $8,000, which seems a little low in the current market. Kelly Blue Book suggests that a two-door 510 is a $12,000 car, and a wagon in top condition tops $17,000, which sounds a little more on target, considering how few are really out there. Buy one cheap, and the metalwork (plus parts, in the absence of reproduction sheet metal) and a decent paint job alone would run that much. Seventy bucks an hour at a shop adds up quick if you're not handy with a welder or a spray gun. Who in their right minds would spend $25,000 of their own money to restore a $12,000 car?
Because of this sad economic fact, the 510 isn't the sort of car that gets restored much. Oh, they're redone plenty-modded and rodded to the owner's heart's content; just about any old-school car show you care to visit will bear that out-but rebuilding a car with just 96hp under the hood and skinny steel wheels on the ground back to factory specification? And then getting blown away by your girlfriend's Nissan Versa at a light? No way. And when it's so easy to build performance into a car you're keen on bringing back to life, temptation beckons.
Fortunately, the old-car hobby doesn't often make sense. The heart wants what the heart wants, and in Ryan Bauer's case, he wanted a Datsun 510. Aiding in his quest: as someone who has repaired and built cars for nearly two decades, he had the talent and work ethic to do most of what he needed to do himself, without farming it out to shops. Suddenly, without labor costs coming out-of-pocket, financial feasibility snaps back into line.
The Fullerton, CA resident (or, more correctly, his wife, Leslie) found this one quietly rotting away about ten minutes from home, back in '07. (Attention single men reading this: when your wife encourages you to have some fun with an old car, take her up on it and say "thank you.") Truth be told, what Leslie found was a mess. "It was generally a bucket [of what, Ryan did not say -ED], though it was fairly complete. The interior was thrashed, and there was no carpet, no headliner, and the gauges didn't function. It had a sunroof, cut in by a previous owner, which leaked and rotted out the floor pans. The lower rear quarters were rotted from the trunk seal leaking. Other than that it was pretty solid." It was still a running and driving car, though, with a rebuilt L-series 1600 and a five-speed stick.
Which, as you can gather from the pictures, promptly got yanked and replaced with a Nissan SR20. Old school is relative; even the all-aluminum, DOHC 16-valve all-electronic marvel of a two-liter Four known as the SR20 is a quarter-century old now. Even so, the turbocharged black-top SR20DET more than doubles the L-series' power, and allows for greater tunability. "I had wanted SR power for years, and now I could have one in a pre smog car. I'm not a carburetor guy so I didn't want to keep the L-series motor, and a built L-series is both pretty expensive and not nearly as good as an SR. Honestly, no other swap even occurred to me." For Ryan, the issues an SR20 solved were greater than the ones they caused.
Causing problems, we say? Well, despite the SR20's popularity under the hoods of recently-built 510s, existing kits require some massaging and finessing to make work. (See sidebar.) Ryan started with "a McKinney Motorsports crossmember that I heavily modified. That's the biggest part of this swap. The conversion is remarkably simple; it's why the SR is so popular in these. I had the swap done and running in about six months, I had the fuel lines backwards, once I reversed then it fired up first try." The "heavily modified" crossmember was to accept NISMO Silvia motor mounts, the Flaming River rack-and-pinion steering conversion, and the re-positioning of the control-arm pickup points; Ryan moved those by an inch.
The JDM S13 Silvia five-speed remained on board. Though it's not been to a dyno yet, a quick look at the pieces used in the build-a GReddy intake manifold, McKinney ceramic-coated exhaust manifold, Crower cams, Deatchwerks 550cc injectors and an ECU optimization-should bring it near enough to 300hp. The Silvia's transmission might be able to handle that, but the 510's stock rear end can't. Hence the swap to an R180 rear, a more-or-less direct bolt-in pilfered from a Subaru WRX STI. "For the SR guys, the STI R180 rear is popular. The R160 rear ends don't like big power. Plus, it's a factory LSD and plentiful, so it's kind of a no-brainer."
Tripling the power, you'd think, would make a mess of the unit-body, threatening to pretzel the subframe rails or pop the windshield clean out; a stock 510 wasn't built for the torque that 300 turbocharged ponies would send through it. Rather than add weight and complexity with a roll-bar, Ryan decided to seam-weld the subframes to the new floors. "So far, seam-welding seems to be enough," he reports. "Since I don't drag launch it, it doesn't get massive amounts of power applied from a stop. That's really what bends the chassis."
But none of this touches on the mess of a body he was presented with. The definition of a 20-footer, it looked fine under its relatively recent orange hue. (It wasn't.) Luckily, once again, hands-on experience eased things considerably. "With the exception of the roof replacement, this entire car was built by me in my garage. Troy Ermish did the roof; that's one thing I wouldn't attempt. He's done it countless times and is very familiar with the process. Also, I planned to do the interior in the original style, and doing the headliner would have been a total bitch. I did upholstery for a living years ago, and I didn't even want to deal with that." Patch panels, new floors and rear quarter sections were welded, smoothed and finished with little more than a skim coat of body filler. That got the body solid, and hours of blocking, sanding and painting made it look straight.
The paint is a BMW Z4 color, Urban Green; in some light it looks almost military, but it can look far cooler and deeper in diffused light. "I wanted a vintage look, nothing too modern and not too loud," Ryan tells us. "I was originally going to paint it grey, but I saw this shade of green on other cars; I just never knew what car it came from. Once I saw it on a BMW Z4, and I knew it was the original paint color, that just sealed it for me." It also helps the NOS badging stand out.
What's more, it's not just a show pony. "It's never been trailered anywhere, it gets autocrossed, and I've driven it to SoCal and back. The suspension evolved over the course of a year as I was heavily autocrossing it and making changes as I saw weaknesses. It's very stiff but rides very well, because all of the geometries are changed. So it's lowered but it doesn't ride like it because it has a lot of travel and proper control arm angles and correct bump steer. This is my first old school car of any kind, and it's the most reliable car I own," Ryan tells us. "More than 8,000 miles over the course of two years, although I don't drive it as much as I'd like these days. Life has gotten busy."
Ryan shies away from thinking about how much he's invested in his 510. "I've never added up the money...I've always been told to never do that." Yet if he did, we bet he would be perilously close to top-end guidebook money for his 510, if not more. Costs would likely have doubled had he subcontracted everything out.
Do it yourself? Take your time? Keep it restrained? Mods or no mods, we may just have tripped into the justification for restoring a Datsun 510. Have a go. Make it happen. Suddenly, it seems perfectly rational. The speed parts are just icing.
1970 Datsun 510
Owner Ryan Bauer
Hometown Fullerton, CA
Engine RPS13 SR20DET "Blacktop" engine; Brian Crower 264/264? stage 2 cams and valve springs with titanium retainers; Tomei solid lifters; Silvia S15 Spec R turbo (Garrett GT28R); McKinney Motorsports ceramic-coated turbo manifold and front-mounted intercooler; HKS SSQV blow-off valve; ITG air filter on custom intake; GReddy intake manifold and oil pan; Z32 mass air-flow sensor and fuel pump assembly with Walbro 225lph in-tank pump; Deatchwerks 550cc fuel injectors; HKS carbon/ti muffler with custom 3" exhaust; Aeromotive fuel pressure regulator; Griffin radiator with electric fan; Samco radiator hoses; Stance water pump underdrive pulley; NISMO motor mounts
Drivetrain Nissan/Aisin five-speed manual; Fidanza flywheel; Exedy stage 2 clutch; NISMO clutch fork pivot and shifter bushing; HKS shift return springs; custom aluminum driveshaft; '04 Subaru STi rear end with LSD and Perrin differential cover; Ermish Racing CV axle kit
Engine Management ECU ROM tune by RS Enthalpy; A'PEXi AVCR boost controller
Footwork & Chassis Seam-welded unit-body chassis; McKinney front crossmember,modified for swap, rack and pinion steering conversion, motor mounts and raised pickup points for lower control arms; Flaming River manual steering rack, steering U-joints and Mustang II tie-rod ends; T3 lower control arms and bump steer spacers; Ermish Racing tension rods; DGR Fabrications front sway bar; steering rods shortened one inch for more angle; K-Sport hydraulic E-brake; Ermish Racing camber plates with laser cut stainless tops and coilovers with 300 lb/in H&R springs (front) and 400 lb/in QA1 springs (rear); front strut casings shortened with Tokico 240Z inserts; urethane bushings; rear crossmember modified with pickup points raised, adjustable camber and toe and enlarged exhaust pass-through
Brakes Ermish Racing four-wheel Wilwood brake kit
Wheels & Tires 15x9" front, 15x10" rear -40 Advan A3A wheels rebarreled and finished by Araya Wheels; 205/50R15 front Bridgestone RE-11 tires; 225/45R15 rear Hankook tires; Project Kics lug nuts and locks
Exterior roof removed and replaced; new floor pans, and lower quarter panels; BRE-style chin spoiler; fiberglass front valance; Hakosuka rear spoiler; re-chromed front and rear bumpers; Euro front turn signals; T3 H4 headlight conversion; JDM Bluebird Coupe fender mirrors and tail lights with LED bulb conversion; Zf Frce Productions BAMF ZG flares; NOS emblems, door handles, and weatherstripping; re-chromed C-pillar vents; shaved rear marker lamps
Interior Auto Meter gauges; custom center console; Cobra Classic seats; Summit Racing MOAB heater; Skunk2 shift knob; Schutt shifter boot; Nardi Deep Corn 330mm steering wheel; NRG steering wheel quick disconnect; re-upholstered interior; custom wiring harness with Painless blade-type fuse and relay panel; JVC head unit; JL Audio front speakers, 10" sub and amp; Alpine 3-way rear speakers
Thanks You my wife Leslie, it was her idea to buy the car and her encouragement helped me finish it; Lorin Mueller, for the late night beer-filled brainstorming sessions and the occasional helping hand, use of his garage and building my kick-ass wiring harness; Araya Wheels, for their kick-ass work building my dream wheel setup
Is an SR20 swap worth it?
Who are we to say whether your time and efforts are worth the result? Only you can determine this. That said, we can tell you about some of the pitfalls.
- A lot more power as a baseline
- Even more power once you get in there and tune it
- Reliability, when dialed in
- Can get expensive, if you don't do it yourself
- Not a job for first-timers
- Parts may be of variable quality
- Originality is lost, on the off-chance that stock 510s become more valuable than your parents' house
Despite the popularity of this swap, it seems that there are precious few conversion kits out there. "There are a few kits in the market," says our source, a shop owner who used to do SR20/510 swaps but has stopped. "But even with those you still need to do fabrication. Guys are expecting to pay $5,000-6,000 for labor and parts... including the engine! It takes a lot more money than that for the time it takes."
"There's one kit available that comes from overseas; it costs around $1,300 to ship to the States, and it includes a DE/DET crossmember and most of the front suspension. That doesn't include the price of the engine, which can be up to $2,500. We're up to $3,800. Now, this doesn't include the price of a DET turbo manifold, downpipe, intake, radiator, intercooler, driveshaft, wiring, fuel pump, lines, etc. On top of the parts, you still need to do the water pump, seals, gaskets, belts, fuel and oil filter, a new clutch, etc. Oh, and while you can use the OEM ECU you'll need to go aftermarket to get more power-AEM, Power FC and A'PEXi are the most popular now. And none of this includes the hours and hours of labor."
Indeed, a 40-hour week of putting everything together at $70 an hour for shop rates adds up very quickly; two guys working on your car and only your car for a 40-hour week will see a $5,600 labor charge tacked onto your bill. "There are shops out there that can do the work," our source tells us. "A lot of them do great-quality work and do perfect fitment. But of course, that costs money." Keep in mind, Ryan had his car running in six months and he knew what he was doing! Granted, our feature car offers a number of alterations from the straight swap, including NISMO Silvia motor mounts and a rack-and-pinion steering conversion. To repeat this, the fabbing and sorting will take hours, and the bill will get higher and higher. More power to you if you and your friends are mechanically handy.
Is the resulting power worth it at that price? Only your taste, your heart and your pocketbook can judge. That said; go haunt car shows and message boards where people have done these swaps themselves. They'll tell you what worked and what didn't. Learn from their mistakes. One word of advice though: engine swaps like this are not for beginners. In the long run it'll be cheaper for you to bring a car and a pile of parts to a shop and say "make it go" than it will be for them to sort out your half-assed efforts and try to make everything right. Understand your own level of mechanical talent and act accordingly. You'll save everyone a lot of time and aggravation.