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.