The Hot Rod Datsun 510 That Makes Purists Squirm
As activities go, car building has some of the most latitude. It’s entirely driven by the prospect that you can have pretty much whatever you can afford to dream; focus groups and government oversight be damned. For the most part there are few constraints, the only person to please is yourself.
But there ARE a few unspoken commandments. Primary among them: Thou shalt not mix American and Japanese style.
That alone is enough to scare off the average enthusiast. But Jon Mannila is far from average. His shop, Metalworks Classics in Eugene, Oregon, turns out some damn respectable stuff; hot rods and restorations alike.
Of course he doesn’t do it alone. He relies on a diverse group of craftsmen, among them Tim Bridges. Bridges has a thing for 510s. Drives a snappy pale yellow one in fact. It’s tough to see a righteous car regularly and not harbor some sort of aspirations to build one of your own. But more than see a cool car, Mannila says he saw an opportunity to do something different.
Mannila drew partly upon the body of work developed by Pete Brock, a veteran sports-car racer who prepped 510s well before this supposed non-hybridization rule existed. Among other things Brock built cars for the Mexican 1000, precursor to the legendary Baja 1000. And there’s hardly anything more ’Murrican than racing down Mexico’s peninsula.
The car Mannila set out to build reflects Brock’s more conventional (and accessible and certainly more familiar) sports cars, in fact copying the Brock hallmark, the red-and-white paint scheme. It’s risky and largely unnecessary to alter the proportions of an icon so Mannila followed time-honored hot-rod practice by shaving the unnecessary badges and side lights. But don’t take that as fear of ruffling feathers; he also shaved the sail-panel vents, something that strikes directly at 510 purists’ sensibilities.
The body may be slightly hot rod but the chassis is all track. The front rides on a set of T3 coil-over strut housings with adjustable camber plates. The 510 and the 280 it inspired suffer a bump steer, a dynamic caused by a misalignment between the control-arm and tie-rod centerlines. MD Machine spacers minimize the misalignment and restore the roll center upset by lowering the nose. Datsun steering boxes also deflect, a consequence of mounting to basically sheet metal; however, a steering-box brace gives the box a better foundation.
Lowering a 510 wreaks havoc with rear-wheel camber and toe. Kelvin Dietz’ penultimate slotted rear crossmember kits restores the alignment and tunes out a bothersome oversteer issue. The rear of the car rides on a set of Dodge D50 pickup front coils, springs with an uncannily ideal rate once trimmed. KYB Gas-A-Just dampers and Suspension Techniques anti-roll bars further control the wheel motion.
In a sea of later engine swaps and electronic retrofits, this car’s carbureted L18 stands out as an old-school landmark. It’s built by Rebello Racing specs and even wears one of the company’s ported heads. An aggressive mechanical-bucket cam and 45mm Weber DCOE carburetors unlock the L-series engine’s high-speed potential even if at the cost of low-speed grunt.
A hybridized drivetrain begins with a five-speed 280Z transmission. As odd as it seems, Datsuns and Subarus share some components; the consequence of Datsun/Nissan’s part ownership of Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company. A limited-slip WRX-STI gear carrier gives both rear tires nearly equal bite, a requirement for respectable lateral acceleration…not to mention the ability to set the car up in a tasty drift. Bearing this punishment are 195/50R15 hides on Rota RB wheels, near carbon copies of the eight-spoke Panasports that defined early 510 racers.
It has a full cage which is fairly universal, but the remainder of the interior is pure hot-rod Americana: cream leather trim; Billet Specialties wheel, handles, and cranks; Hurst shift knob; Dakota Digital gauges in a fabricated dash; and German square-weave carpet. Nothing rolls out of Metalworks Classics shop without the potential to deafen someone. In this case it’s a Rockford Fosgate system from the marine head unit through P400-1 and -2 amplifiers, a 5 1/4” component set, and a single eight-inch sub in the console.
Though compelling, this multi-cultural mix-up is nothing original. In fact Datsun borrowed heavily from German design for the 510—call it a beggar’s Bimmer if you will. But like a good old glass of beer, this particular car finds common ground in three radically diverse cultures.
More recently this car found a new home in Kevin Winn’s garage. A Datsun nut for nearly 40 years, he understands the blend of Japanese, American, and German flavors; a combination he celebrates with his right toe planted firmly against the firewall.