The early Datsun Fairlady is an odd beginning for a sports car legacy

Datsun Fairlady

The profile resembles an Austin-Healey and the taillights say “Made in England,” but this is no British roadster. For one thing, I have no doubt it will start. Even after sitting for weeks, this tiny car fires right up, settling into the cheerful put-put of a small-displacement four-cylinder engine. It's an early Datsun Fairlady—simple, charming, and incredibly rare. Whether it’s the Z, the 510, or even the Skyline GT-R, every performance vehicle produced by Nissan can be traced back to this car.

Faint heart never won fair lady, as the saying goes, and the first Fairlady is one of the pluckiest vehicles ever made. It was also a complete commercial failure.

Tucked in a garage in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, this 1962 Datsun Fairlady SPL213 is one of only a handful of survivors remaining. It was discovered in badly rotted condition and then restored over two years by Mitch Jensen, who has been fixing up Datsun Roadsters since he bought his first one at 17 years old. His workbench is covered in Fairlady trinkets and trophies, and there are two second-generation Fairladys in his garage: a last-of-breed 1970 model and a hot-rodded example with a crate Nissan SR20 engine tucked under the hood.

Of the motor in the SPL213, Jensen says, “I never rebuilt it, that's 91,000 original miles. All I did was paint it.”

More than meets the eye

Datsun Fairlady
Brendan McAleer

Standing in front of the toy-like car, it’s a little hard to believe that such a delicate machine is the grandfather of the 240Z. It looks like it should have a giant windup key sticking out of the trunk, with Mickey and Minnie at the wheel. The SPL213 is from the early 1960s, but the styling is a decade out of date. How can it be that a scant six years after this cartoonish convertible left the factory, Pete Brock and his BRE racing Datsuns were giving Carroll Shelby and the Toyota 2000GT hell in SCCA racing?

Slotting the four-speed gearbox into its non-synchro first, I apply a little throttle, and the first Fairlady toddles off down a country lane. The simple torsion-bar front suspension and bias-ply tires don't communicate even a whisper of the performance from later Nissan sports cars, and the 60 hp available from the 1200-cc engine feels modest at best. Chugging up hills takes patience.

While it might not feel thrilling, the early Fairlady is represents a pivotal moment in Nissan’s history. Built only in left-hand drive for the U.S. market, the first generation of the Datsun Fairlady was the Japanese automaker’s way of planting a flag in America. It was an act of corporate bravery, declaring that the fledgling company was worthy of producing more than just tiny trucks for Japanese landscaping services.

Ambitious origins

Datsun Fairlady
Brendan McAleer

Let's take a closer look at those Lucas taillights—a clue to Datsun's post-war story. In the period immediately after World War II, personal car ownership in Japan was uncommon. Most domestic automakers built only trucks and other industrial vehicles. In 1950, only 2 percent of total vehicle production consisted of passenger cars, but demand was growing. The solution to capture that growing market, for many Japanese automakers, was to collaborate with a European manufacturer. Nissan, after considering MG, inked a deal with Austin. The partnership was officially formed in 1952, and between 1952 and 1959, Nissan built some 20,883 Austins under license.

Founding a car company based on the ideals of the British Motoring Industry is a bit like opening a gourmet restaurant that only serves boiled beef and Spotted Dick. However, Nissan simply took English engineering and built it to a set of tighter tolerances. The cars weren't any sportier to drive, but they were much more reliable. When the first Datsuns began arriving in America, these faithful small trucks with Austin underpinnings became quite popular.

But Datsun didn't just want to build work tools. In order to tempt their local market into personal car ownership, as well as improve their image in the U.S. market, a sports car was necessary. Yutaka Katayama, the beloved Mr. K, believed that customers might walk into a showroom to look at a sports car and drive out in something more practical.

The rest of Nissan's leadership was a little cooler on the sports car strategy. Then-president of Nissan, Katsuji Kawamata, did however believe that he’d need to build something ambitious for the world to take his company more seriously. While visiting the U.S., he was particularly taken with the musical My Fair Lady, and so the little Datsun was christened.

A tiny flagship

Datsun Fairlady
Brendan McAleer

The early Fairladies were built on the chassis of the 210 sedan, used the 998-cc powertrain of the 310 Bluebird, and wore a fiberglass body (likely influenced by the Corvette). The engine produced a feeble 34 hp, but these early right-hand drive models attracted public attention in Japan—and that was the objective. Still, Nissan only managed to build 20 of them for 1959.

More important were the 1960 SPL212 and 1961-62 SPL213 export models that followed, which changed to steel bodies in part to allow for greater production volume. These cars were all made left-hand drive for the U.S. market, a statement of Nissan's confidence in the necessity of broaching foreign markets.

Perhaps only a mild statement of confidence, though. Just 228 Fairladys were built in the initial production SPL212 run, and only 217 of the later, more powerful SPL213 model. This 1962 Fairlady is one of only 52 made that year. Meanwhile, Japan was exporting tens of thousands of cars to America, making this quirky little roadster just a drop in the ocean.

No one really wanted a weird, underpowered roadster from Japan. Despite a bump to 8.2:1 compression ratio and a dual carburetor setup for the SPL213, the little Datsun's four-cylinder only made 60 hp. It didn’t help, either, that the car drove like the truckish Austin sedans it was based on. People were not giving the Datsun SPL213 a single thought as they tooled around happily in their MGBs.

A legacy in the making, still cared for today

Datsun Fairlady
Brendan McAleer

Still, the first Fairlady led the way for Datsun's second sports car. In 1963, the second Fairlady roadster arrived on U.S. roads. Being that it was a much more polished product, it was also much better received. Soon, Datsun enthusiasts were buying racing-prep guides from the likes of Bob Sharp, or cheering as the red, white, and blue BRE Roadsters led the field.

Today, Jensen uses his SPL213 for annual parade duties and occasionally drives it out for meets and car shows. “I drive all my cars,” he says, “That's kind of the point, isn't it? Besides, these cars really don't like to sit.”

Beautiful in its own way, and obviously well cared for, this important piece of Datsun/Nissan heritage still drives with grace. Even though most who see it don't understand its importance, the fresh air of the open road is a far better fate than being tucked away in some museum. Such a Fairlady should never be kept in a gilded cage.