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Japanese Car Museum Tour Datsun - 12 Years To Zama

A Tour Of Old Datsun Heaven

"Where is this?" I gasped, simultaneously thrilled and relieved at finally finding that some old Datsuns had been saved.Being an American Datsun geek, John Morton's '71 Trans Am 510 was, for me, the height of cool, but here in Japan it was the 510 Safari Rally cars that had all the glory. It was 1993. I was in Japan for the first time, and still reeling from the realization that there were not, in fact, old Datsuns cruising the streets of Tokyo as thick as old Fords litter ours. I had imagined, naively, that there would be old Japanese cars in Japan, just as I imagined the warm, dry air would make them plentiful in L.A. when I moved there. Each city is a thriving metropolis racing into the future, though, and people there don't putter around in the same car for 30 years like they had in sleepy, old Seattle where I grew up.

But after two weeks in Japan, here, finally, was some evidence that someone held onto these cars. On just two pages in the oddly named "BE-X" magazine published by Nissan, were pictures of the 1970 Safari 510 sitting outside a warehouse where it was apparently stored.

"Ah," said my host, after reading a few lines of the unintelligible gibberish on the page, "this is at Zama."

"Zama? We were there yesterday! Can we go back?"

Zama, at the time, was a massive assembly plant in a sleepy suburb of Yokohama. We had gone the day before to watch it churn out 800 B13 Sentras a day. Little had I known every old Datsun I had been looking for was right there in a warehouse.

We couldn't go back.

In the intervening years, Nissan nearly crumbled under the weight of billions of dollars of debt, the Zama assembly plant was shut down, and warehouses full of old Datsun parts were discarded. I feared the worst for the Zama collection.

Then I heard word through the vast, underground network of the Datsun-obsessed that the collection was alive and well. I sprung into action, throwing the considerable weight of my fame as a mega-important automotive journalist and factory Nissan rally driver (stop laughing) into the goal of prying a reluctant invitation from the guardians of this vast monument to obscure automotive history.

It's obscure mostly because few of the Westerners interested in these cars can read any of the stories that have been written about them. Much of my considerable base of nearly useless Nissan trivia is second-, third-, or fifteenth-hand knowledge. It might all be completely wrong, but I've done my best to fabricate utterly convincing explanations of what I saw at Zama.

First stop-Ginza. Before hitting Zama, I picked up a rumor on a secret Datsun geek mailing list that the R380 was on display at Nissan's showroom on one of the ritziest corners in Tokyo. The R380, as in the only one. As far as I know, the only one ever built. A lot of what I know about this car is "as far as I know." Precious little has been written in English about the Prince Motor Company, if, in fact, that was actually its name.

Imagine how excited you'd be about a Pakistani car company. That's how much anyone in America would have cared about Prince in 1966 when it suddenly flashed out of existence. Prince, I'm pretty sure, was a spinoff of Tachikawa Aircraft. Prince's talented ex-aircraft engineers, eager to find more peaceful ways to exercise their talents after the utter failure of that embarrassing trying-to-take-over-the-entire-Eastern-Hemisphere thing, turned to building extravagant, luxurious cars like the Skyline, and spectacular racecars like the R380.

Marketing luxury cars to a poor, war-ravaged country with a culture that celebrated a modest existence turned out to be a bad idea though, and in 1966, the Japanese government "suggested" the bigger and more successful, but less technically adept, Nissan should absorb the company.

But before that, in 1964, Prince had built this R380. Obviously, the Prince boys had been hanging Porsche posters in the design studio before they drew the body, but don't get the idea that it was a copy. Under the clamshell rear body work was a twin-cam, 2.0-liter straight six with triple Mikunis. The engine was Prince's own design and would evolve to power the Skyline GT-R well into the 1970s.

This innocuous-looking little turd is one of the most significant racecars in Japanese history. Built on a 1-ton truck chassis, it's so laughably underpowered that in full race trim it topped out at 93 kph (58 mph). Somehow, though, it finished fourth overall in the 1958 running of the long-forgotten Mobilgas Trial, a 10,100-mile version of what today would be called a Rally Raid.

Its significance comes from its teammate, an identical-but red- Datsun 210 that finished first overall. (It was on display in Ginza the day we went to Zama.) That was the first post-war victory for a Japanese team in any international competition. Well, any on four wheels, at least. Honda had already accomplished it on two.

The race took 19 days, most of it on dirt, and most of it across desolate stretches of outback with no radios, no chase cars, and only the slightest idea of where the drivers were going. Three people were jammed into each car, along with spare parts and two sets of tools (one metric and one inches, since the car used both kinds of fasteners), and two weeks worth of food to sustain them in the very likely event that they would be stranded. Other than a few extra gas tanks, the car was completely stock.

In addition to being utterly gutless, the stock suspension was nearly bottomed out just from the load of spares, and the rear main seal leaked oil onto the clutch, making it virtually impossible to get moving. This was all before the race even started. Nobody on the team had ever been in a race, but they had survived post-war Japan, which frankly wasn't that much easier than lumbering half-lost across the desert in an underpowered, slipping-clutch microtruck.

The team rigged a hose into the top of the bell housing so they could pour gasoline on the clutch to wash the oil off whenever they stopped. They had to push the car over hills, endure collisions with trees and kangaroos and eventually prevailed seemingly on raw determination alone.

The victory injected the Japanese car industry with the confidence needed to try shipping cars here which, in turn, convinced them to start making some better cars. Much of the team was also destined for greatness. The driver of this fourth-place car, Yasuharu Nanba, went on to become the first president of NISMO, and the team manager, Yutaka Katayama, went on to head Nissan's U.S. operations for decades.

And then I spotted it. From across the warehouse the familiar dark red roofline of the car that brought me here. The one I first spotted in a magazine 12 years ago. The one I stole suspension specs and a paint job from for my own 510 rally car. Edgar Herrmann and Hans Schuller's winning 1970 Safari 510, still showing scars from the brutal event that made it famous. Well, famous in Japan. It was cleaned, but never restored. Reach into a fenderwell and you can still find African soil.

Up close, the car is amazingly simple. The roll cage is a simple hoop with a single rearward brace. No triangulation at all. The driver's seat is a low-back fiberglass bucket, while the navigator gets a stock seat. Navigation was via two analog odometers bolted to the glove box door. Below sits a wire basket- seemingly pilfered from an engineer's kitchen-for the co-driver's notes.

The engine is a mildly tuned L18 with a bigger cam and dual Mikuni Solex carbs-all very simple stuff. Look closely, though, and you'll find the strut towers have twice as many spot welds as a stock 510, and suddenly you wonder how stock it really was.

Scour the countless histories of European rallying and you'll find precious little on Datsun rally cars. Nissan never really committed to full seasons of competition, instead cherrypicking events that had a good marketing ring to them, like Safari and Monte Carlo. These limited forays still involved a lot of cars, as the long row of rally cars at Zama reveals. They also helped launch some significant careers. Read the names on the cars and you find the likes of Shekhar Mehta (now FIA's rally director) and Jean Todt (director of Ferrari's F1 team).

Having finally found the Safari 510, I poked, prodded and photographed, but utterly failed to learn anything new about it. Turns out people in Japan speak Japanese. My life, then, is as complete as it's going to get.

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