If Nissan was aiming to emulate the practicality and sporting prowess of BMW’s compact sedans of the 1960s in a more affordable form, the burgeoning Japanese manufacturer proved a crack shot. The Datsun 1600 (or 510) released in 1968 hit the bulls-eye, with strong sales and four years of Bathurst dominance straight off the showroom floor.
Nissan struck just the right balance of crisp, ageless styling, four-door practicality and a bullet-proof drivetrain and chassis just as well suited to the grind of daily shopping duties as it was to amateur and professional racing and rallying.
With compact dimensions and a light kerb weight of 915 kgs, the Datsun 1600 was powered by a tough and spirited 1595cc four cylinder engine. Its excellent single overhead camshaft design produced around 96bhp in stock form.
Such an athletic power-to-weight ratio, combined with powerful front disc brakes, tough MacPherson strut front suspension and a well-designed semi-trailing arm independent rear, resulted in an outstanding yet affordable performer with ‘Bathurst winner’ stamped all over it.
During four remarkable years, the Datsun 1600 went unbeaten in Class B at the annual Hardie-Ferodo 500 at Bathurst. It easily saw off all challengers until the arrival of even quicker class contenders in 1972 brought its reign to an end.
“It didn’t have any weaknesses because it was just so good all round,” recalled Bruce Stewart, twice winner of Class B and one of the leading Datsun 1600 drivers during the golden Series Production era at Bathurst.
“You could drive it right on the limit all day and it could take it. There was never anything that gave trouble provided you respected the fact that they were still just standard road cars, so you couldn’t flat-change the gears or do anything silly like that.
“What helped them so much was the independent rear suspension. They just had so much grip. As soon as you finished your braking, you just put your foot flat to the floor and they’d squat down and power through the corners with no wheel spin. They had no vices in the handling department.
“The brakes were excellent, too. The pads that Ferodo gave us went through the whole (Bathurst) race without a problem. And you could brake as late as you liked and they never locked wheels up or anything, they were really good.
“In those days, my wife used our car for shopping during the week and we’d drive it to the big events at Bathurst, Sandown and Surfers, race it and then drive it home again (to Sydney). You couldn’t kill the thing, it was just incredible.”
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Datsun 1600/510 proved its enviable versatility with major sporting success on bitumen and gravel. In addition to its Bathurst achievements, other victories included the 1970 East African Safari and, closer to home, the 1970 Ampol Trial. It also dominated the 2.5 litre class in the US Trans-Am series with consecutive titles in 1971-72. And a decade later it was still a potent force in the forests, claiming the 1982 Australian Rally Championship.
In Australia there has been no other car as consistently successful as the Datsun 1600 at grass roots level, winning everything from club rallies, dirt/bitumen circuit sprints and motorkhanas right up to state rally championships over several decades.
Testament to its inherent qualities as an all-purpose performance and competition car is that even today, having ceased local manufacture in 1972, the Datsun 1600 is still revered by hands-on enthusiasts in Australia and around the world.
From highly modified street cars to all disciplines of competition, it is one of the foundation stones on which Nissan’s global performance car heritage and fanatical modern day following were built.
1968 Hardie-Ferodo 500: Give ‘em the old 1-2-3
The huge 60-car grid for the 1968 Bathurst clash was broken up into the usual five classes from A to E based on showroom prices. Class B ($1851-$2250) was dominated by the Datsun 1600, with seven of the new Japanese sedans facing a pair of Hillman Gazelles, one Hillman Arrow and a Morris 1100S.
Leading the Japanese onslaught were two works entries for Datsun Racing Team boss John Roxburgh and multiple AGP winner Doug Whiteford, along with Japanese factory drivers Kunimitsu Takahashi and Yoshikayo Sunago.
Other Datsuns were backed by enthusiastic suburban dealers who would have taken great delight in beating the works team. A victory for a dealer-backed car brought great prestige to the dealership, with a corresponding increase in customer traffic.
Dependable Motors fronted with two cars for Bruce Darke/Bill Ford and Hans Tholstrup/Dennis Cooke. Sydney’s W.H. Motors under dealer principal Frank Palmer backed a single entry for Don Smith/Herb Taylor, with George Garth and Bruce Stewart teamed in another car entered by Peter Langwill Autos. Matt Daddo/Peter Ulbrich rounded out the Datsun attack, in what promised to be a ferocious inter-brand fight.
Notably absent from Class B was BMC’s mercurial Morris Mini Cooper, which had only been defeated once in its five appearances at Bathurst since the first 500 race was held there in 1963. In the new Datsun 1600, though, it finally met more than its match.
The lone Morris 1100 S did not pose a threat to the Datsun crews, but there was no room for complacency either due to a pair of very quick Hillman Gazelles driven by Jack Eiffeltower (aka Nougher) and David O’Keefe, along with Rusty French and Alton Boddenberg.
Eiffeltower and O’Keefe had already shocked the Datsuns with a three-lap thrashing at the Sandown 3-Hour enduro a few weeks prior to Bathurst. They looked even more formidable after official practice on the Mountain by claiming pole position.
Eiffeltower applied maximum pressure from the start of the race. After almost two hours, the Gazelles in first and fifth places were sandwiching the Datsuns of Takahashi, Whiteford and Garth in an intense class battle.
After the first round of scheduled stops, the two works Datsuns were leading and setting a cracking pace, easily topping 100 mph (160 km/h) on Conrod Straight and clearly devoid of the problems that had affected their debut at Sandown.
Maintaining such pressure perhaps triggered the unscheduled stop for the Eiffeltower/O’Keefe Gazelle just before midday, with a worrying knock coming from the engine. Adding several pints of oil failed to cure the problem (reportedly main or big-end bearings) which soon proved terminal.
The flying Japanese duo of Takahashi and Sunago struck cruel luck just after 3pm when their works Datsun blew a tyre while leading Class B almost a lap in front of their Aussie team-mates. The considerable time lost in driving slowly back to the pits and changing the wheel resulted in a two-lap victory to Roxburgh/Whiteford, with the Japanese having to settle for a close third behind the Garth/Stewart 1600 in the runner-up spot.
“We were driving pretty conservatively that year compared to the works team, because it was the first time we’d ever driven the Datsun 1600 over that distance and we didn’t know how they’d hold up,” Bruce Stewart recalled.
“Of course it turned out to be a brilliant little car that could take a lot of punishment, so the next year we drove the wheels off it and that’s when we won the class. You just couldn’t kill those cars, they were so tough.”
1969 Hardie-Ferodo 500: The Wall of Death
Following their dazzling 1-2-3 clean sweep on debut, it was no surprise to see the same number of Datsun 1600s entered for Class B ($1861-$2250) the following year.
The Datsun Racing Team again headed the line-up. Reigning champions Roxburgh and Whiteford were paired in one car, with Bill Coad and Jon Leighton replacing the previous year’s Japanese stars in the second works entry.
The dealer-backed teams clearly raised the bar after taking a more cautious approach than the factory squad in 1968. The W.H Motors team expanded to a two-car operation, with a pair of well-prepared cars for Bruce Stewart/George Garth and Don Smith/Peter Wilson.
This quartet was backed by three more Datsun entries, giving Nissan a virtual mortgage on Class B. Opposition in the form of a Cortina 240, VW 1600, Morris 1500, Renault 10 and Hillman Gazelle would prove feeble against the Japanese juggernaut.
W.H. Motors drew first blood in the works-team-vs-dealer-team Datsun war, with Stewart/Garth claiming pole position with a time 2.7 seconds quicker than the Roxburgh/Whiteford car. The quickest of the Datsuns were whistling down Conrod Straight at 108 mph (173 km/h) with lap times that were giving some of the slower S-type Mini Coopers from Class C a run for their money.
The stage was set for another mighty inter-brand battle for Class B until Bill Brown’s infamous roll-over in his Falcon GT-HO at Skyline on the opening lap, which triggered a massive pile-up that temporarily blocked the track and snared more than a quarter of the huge 63-car field.
It was Bruce Stewart’s quick thinking and sharp reflexes that allowed him to somehow avoid the carnage. His miraculous escape also created a winning advantage, as his Class B pursuers remained caught in the traffic jam until the wreckage could be cleared.
“I don’t know how I did it, but it was like driving on the Wall of Death,” Stewart laughingly told Shannons Club.
“When I arrived at Skyline there were cars going everywhere and the whole track was blocked. I knew I was going too quick to stop in time, so I just swung it hard right and drove up the earth bank on the inside of the track. I just kept my boot into it and the thing was sliding and bouncing around over all the rocks and everything. It was a wild ride.
“I remember looking down (through the passenger side windows) at all the cars jammed together on the track and thinking I was about to tumble over on top of them, but somehow I kept going and I ended up re-joining the track with some clear road ahead!
“I looked back in the mirror and couldn’t believe I’d made it through and that the car’s suspension wasn’t left hanging on the side of the mountain. I was very lucky to get away with that, so thought I’d better get stuck in and make the most of it.”
Roxburgh and Whitehead lost at least half a lap as they waited for the track to be cleared. By mid-race distance, they hadn’t been able to bridge the gap to the W.H. Motors Datsun which was still holding a commanding lead. And that’s the way they finished, with Datsun 1600s filling the first five places in Class B.
The first victory for a dealer-backed team over the Datsun Racing Team was cause for a big celebration by W/H Motors’ dealer principal Frank Palmer, who was known for hosting some great parties. The superior speed shown by his Liverpool-based team in claiming pole position and maintaining a near one lap buffer proved they were more than a match for the factory operation.
“At one stage there, Whiteford, Donnie Smith and I all got the (class) lap record and we all set the exact same time in doing that, which would be a pretty rare thing,” Stewart said. “That was my first lap record at Bathurst and it showed how close we were to the factory cars.
“The first year (1968) they seemed to have an edge in power, so for the next year we concentrated more on the motor side of it with thorough blueprinting and making sure everything was absolutely spot-on. We were just as quick from then on.”
1970 Hardie-Ferodo 500: Business As Usual
The Datsun 1600’s dominance at Bathurst in 1968-69 had been most impressive, but it also had the undesired effect of reducing the number of rival competitors prepared to take them on in other makes and models.
Class B ($1961-$2400) was another Datsun benefit in 1970 - the first year that drivers were allowed to do the entire 500-mile (800 km) distance solo. Numerous teams exercised the new option, including the Datsun Racing Team with only one car this time for Doug Whiteford (Roxburgh had moved to Class A in a Datsun 1200 to take on the AMI Corollas).
W.H. Motors stuck to its guns with two cars; Don Smith paired with Herb Taylor (Smith would drive solo, though) and Bruce Stewart with Dr Ian Corness. A Cortina 240, Fiat 128 and LC Torana 2600S made up the numbers in a depleted six-car entry.
Don Smith showed the Sydney dealer team’s superior speed in qualifying the previous year was no fluke, taking pole position again ahead of Whiteford and Stewart in the second W.H. Motors Datsun.
Smith then drove to a comfortable race victory, with a winning margin of 1 min 20 secs over Whiteford. Stewart was in contention in the early laps until a collision with another car forced retirement after only 32 laps.
“I was coming up to lap a bloke in a Fiat, but he didn’t see me coming and suddenly pulled out from behind another car,” Stewart recalled.
“I swung to miss him and only just clipped him, but it was enough to make the fan hit the radiator and cut one of the cores. The engine lost all its water and then blew a head gasket.”
1971 Hardie-Ferodo 500: It’s only illegal if you get caught
After two losses to W.H. Motors in two years, the works team was determined to regain what it saw as its rightful place at the top of the Datsun 1600 pecking order.
John Roxburgh was back in Class B ($2151-$2500) paired with Jon Leighton, while Whiteford replaced the Datsun team boss in Class A. Reigning Class B champs W.H. Motors returned with another two-car campaign for Bruce Stewart and Don Smith.
The only other class contender was a new Mazda Capella 1600 sedan entered for John Hall and Datsun defector George Garth, who would cop plenty of ribbing from the Datsun boys that weekend. It was looking like a smart move, though, when Garth secured pole position.
Unfortunately for the Mazda team, Garth’s Capella was one of several cars to get tangled in fencing wire that was dragged onto the circuit after another car left and re-joined the track. As Garth drove over a section of this fencing, it flicked up and got wrapped around the tailshaft and handbrake cables, which jammed on the rear drum brakes and quickly burned out the linings!
Roxburgh/Leighton raced away to a convincing two-lap victory ahead of Stewart, who suffered a lengthy delay when forced to stop due to a broken wheel as he exited The Cutting. He then had to fit the spare wheel himself on the side of the track, using the standard jack and wheel brace which had to be carried in each car. It really was ‘showroom stock’ racing in those days.
It was Stewart’s team-mate Don Smith’s turn to suffer a blown head gasket this time. However, rather than retire it, the well drilled W.H. Motors’ mechanics took only 25 minutes to repair the damage and get him back on the track. Their efforts were rewarded with fourth place, two laps behind the semi-brakeless Mazda in third.
What appeared to be another dominant 1-2 result for the Datsun 1600 lasted only until post-race scrutineering, when the winning Roxburgh/Leighton works car was disqualified.
“They clearly had more power than us again, so I started thinking there was something weird going on,” Stewart revealed.
“I knew one of the head scrutineers and when we went to scrutineering he said they’d been watching our cars during the race and they (the works team) seemed to be able to pull away from us going up the hill.
“He said ‘we’re going to pull your carby apart, we’re going to look at your inlet manifold, we’re going to count the number of teeth in your gearbox, we want the diff out so we can measure your diff ratio and we want to pull the head off to measure your valve sizes and camshaft.
“Once they had our car in pieces they went and checked it all against the winning works car and they found that it was running a bigger camshaft from the SSS engine (the hotter twin carb SSS model was not sold in Australia). Datsun fought it for a long time but in the end their appeal was quashed.”
Everyone stepped up a place as a result, with Stewart winning Class B for the second time. It was also a Bathurst hat-trick and third win in four years for the W.H. Motors team.
1972 Hardie-Ferodo 500: End of the road
After four years of unbroken success the W.H. Motors team and Datsun Racing Team abandoned the class they had made their own, with only two privately entered Datsun 1600s on the Bathurst grid for the 1972 race. The finished second last and last in Class B – a startling contrast to previous years.
It was a sign of the times, as potent contenders in the shape of Ford’s Escort Twin Cam and Mazda’s powerful rotary-powered RX 2 were now the cars to beat.
“We didn’t think we could knock off the Escorts and Mazdas that year,” Stewart recalled. “You’d have to say we had a pretty good run over four years, so it was the right time to call it quits and finish on top.”