In the U.S., there are certain Datsuns and Nissans that everyone remembers. Namely the 240Z, 510 and seemingly immortal compact pickups of the late 1960s through the ‘80s. They were all renowned for their build quality, surprising performance, low price tags and near bulletproof reliability.
But Nissan’s humble beginnings in the U.S. Domestic Market (USDM) are often forgotten though.
When someone mutters “Fairlady,” you likely envision some version of a 240Z. If you’re a more serious J-tin fan, perhaps you’ll recall the popular Datsun Roadster – a car distilled from the British Roadster recipe with a tastier result. What you don’t conjure is this lidless four-seater that resembles a 100 percent cotton 1950s American convertible that spent far too long in the dryer.
This 1961 Datsun Fairlady Sports is a member of Nissan’s personal heritage collection and was the first model donning the name Fairlady. Rumor has it that Nissan President Katsuji Kawamata got the “Fairlady” name from watching “My Fair Lady” while visiting the United States in 1961. Coincidentally, Nissan was already developing its American-market-aimed sports car and Kawamata thought the Fairlady tag would be a good marketing tactic.
Datsun was determined to establish a presence within the American market with a full vehicle lineup. In 1960, its first shot at a sports car hit the market in 1960 with the Datsun Sports 1200 (SPL212). After just 288 units sold, Nissan released its slightly revised successor, the Fairlady Sports (SPL213) in 1961 – this example being one of just 217 built.
But what’s it like to drive? That’s what you really want to know, isn’t it? Thankfully, the Nissan Design America studio general manager, Richard Plavetich, threw me the keys and let me have at it. Now, I’ve driven Datsuns of all kinds, but this one was different. It was odd. Right off the bat, you’ll notice it’s a four-seater convertible – not exactly commonplace for JNC. And its proportions don’t scream “sports car,” especially when compared to its capable and low-slung Datsun 1500/1600/2000 Fairlady successors.
Still, it had a certain panache. It was still Datsun-esque. For example, the door “popped” open upon actuating the door handle. I hopped in the driver’s bucket and… it curiously reminded me of my ‘73 620 pickup, sitting rather high with the wheel in my lap. Reaching to close the door, I realized it shares a near identical (if not of the same mold) metal door pull with its roadster successor and 240Z models.
In typical Japanese fashion, it started effortlessly. Then the feathery clutch gave maybe two inches of travel before the car gracefully pulled away. Even its four-speed manual gear lever was snickety in action, precise and lightly weighted. The steering? Well, it is 55-years-old. It was light with a little play at center, but it did the job. The power delivery is easiest to criticize. After all, this is a “sports car” and it accelerated like a truck. Not like an American pickup of the era, but like my aforementioned Datsun 620: eager but dreadfully slow.
I suppose it’s expected considering what’s under hood. Powering this wine-colored drop-top micro sedan is a 1,189-cc inline-four that churns out an optimistic 59 horsepower and 67 pound feet of torque – the same powertrain found in the Datsun 223 truck these Fairladys were based on. With that gripe out of the way, know this: although this isn’t the world’s most visually striking, fastest or greatest handling classic Japanese sports car, it was Nissan’s first bold step in the right direction.
Today, we benefit from Nissan offering the GT-R, nicknamed “Godzilla” for its prodigious, science fiction-like performance. Brilliant Japanese engineers at Nissan now sell a car that outpaces the majority of machines hailing from Maranello, and they started with a quirky 2+2 roadster in 1960. They started with this – the first Fairlady.