New Zealand Classic Car - - SPECIAL FEATURE - Dat­sun 2000 Sports ad­ver­tise­ment, 1968

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Ja­panese pro­duc­tion sedan could se­ri­ously hound the favoured Zephyr V6s and hot-rod six-cylin­der Vaux­hall Vic­tors was li­able to have you cited for sus­pect delu­sional ten­den­cies. Be­fore the race, that is!

In that B&H 500, a race for stan­dard pro­duc­tion cars, the po­tent lit­tle Dat­sun 1600 was driven ex­pertly by front-line sin­gle-seater driver Den­nis Mar­wood, along with Brian Innes. It em­bar­rassed a num­ber of the larger-ca­pac­ity front run­ners as Mar­wood moved through the field to the busi­ness end, with the Dat­sun prov­ing both fast and re­li­able, while many of the Zephyr and Vic­tor brigade struck re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues un­der pres­sure. Even­tu­ally Den­nis fin­ished fourth out­right, his well driven Dat­sun hav­ing punched far above its weight. An­other 1600 Dat­sun fin­ished in sev­enth place. The next four-cylin­der ma­chine home, the pre­vi­ously dom­i­nant Fiat 1500, could only make 10th.

Th­ese were ac­cu­rate in­di­ca­tors of a shift in power to­wards East­ern rac­ing mar­ques in var­i­ous cat­e­gories of lo­cal mo­tor sport over the next 20 years. Light­weight, high-per­form­ing Ja­panese ma­chin­ery en­dowed with seem­ingly bul­let­proof re­li­a­bil­ity would con­tinue to hunt down big­ger-ca­pac­ity ri­vals over the fol­low­ing years, par­tic­u­larly in pro­duc­tion car races. Mazda’s four-door ro­tary-pow­ered Capella would also prove to be a gi­ant killer and, a few years later, would al­most hum­ble its much big­ger-ca­pac­ity Chrysler Charger and Ley­land P76 ri­vals.

By the mid to late ’70s, the panorama of New Zealand mo­tor sport was chang­ing. The pre­vi­ously dom­i­nant V8-pow­ered sa­loons and sin­gle-seaters were on the wane, too ex­pen­sive and un­re­li­able to be sus­tain­able.

The time was ripe, and Reg Cook on the as­phalt with Dat­suns, and Bill Shiells’ ex­per­tise with Mazda ro­taries, was about to trans­form both the rally and dirt- oval sa­loon scene. Cook and Shiells were ma­gi­cians as en­gine de­vel­op­ers and tuners, coax­ing mas­sive amounts of power from rel­a­tively small Ja­panese en­gines.

The rest, as they say, is his­tory. For many years from the mid ’70s to the early ’80s, Cook and his var­i­ous Dat­sun coupés were al­most un­beat­able as he reigned supreme in New Zealand’s premier sa­loon-car rac­ing cham­pi­onship, the Shell­sport se­ries. He won the out­right NZ Sa­loon Cham­pi­onship, in the 1300cc cat­e­gory in 1975–’76, and again in 1977–’78, by which time his nor­mally as­pi­rated 1.3-litre Dat­sun en­gine was de­vel­op­ing a whop­ping 122kw (163bhp). He re­peated his suc­cess in the larger 2.0-litre class with two more ti­tle wins dur­ing the early ’80s.

Mean­while, Ron Ken­dall’s Shiells-built 13B ro­tary­pow­ered speed­way Mazda Capella proved its gi­antkilling ca­pa­bil­i­ties against more cum­ber­some and heavy Aus­tralian and US V8-pow­ered ri­vals. Equally, Rod Millen was pretty much in­vin­ci­ble in the NZ Rally Cham­pi­onship, win­ning the out­right ti­tle three years run­ning, from 1975 to 1977.

Later, of course, came the great Nis­san Sky­line Group A sa­loon era of the mid ’90s. Group A proved to be tai­lor-made for Ja­panese en­gi­neers as they de­vel­oped highly re­fined, high-power force-fed en­gines that were then shoe­horned into light­weight cars. As they be­came the dom­i­nant force in Group A rac­ing, the old myth that there’s no sub­sti­tute for cu­bic inches found it­self on very shaky ground. Even­tu­ally the lo­cal Aus­tralian man­u­fac­tur­ers, re­al­is­ing that their revered V8s would never get on terms with the crush­ingly suc­cess­ful ‘Godzilla’ Nis­san Sky­line, pulled the plug on the se­ries. In­stead they went back to the fu­ture with a new Fal­co­nand Holden-only V8 se­ries in 1993. When you can’t beat ’em, what’s the best so­lu­tion? Easy, leg­is­late them out of the con­test!

Bear with me — I even wrote a poem cel­e­brat­ing the Honda’s charms. I’ll only quote a few lines here (apolo­gies to Brian Wil­son):

She’s my lil’ red CRX, We got a good thing goin’ here, the sub­ur­ban screamer and me. Shades on, he’s com­bat hyped Satur­day morn­ing, in the tar­mac war Lashed down low, he’s clutch­ing the leather wheel rim, and pump­ing the metal plates. She’s my lil’ red CRX, five speed, 16 valve, twin over­head cam rock­et­ship. Ja­panese high-tech wiz­ardry, blitzkrieg per­for­mance, for the in­ept masses.

My 1985 Nis­san Sylvia/gazelle, with its FJ 20 turbo Group A–based high-per­for­mance mill, was the most ex­otic Ja­panese cult car that was ever in my pos­ses­sion. It boasted rac­ing driver Matt Hal­l­i­day as a pre­vi­ous owner listed on the pa­pers — which I still have. By the time it came into my hands the Nis­san had been se­ri­ously caned, and de­spite be­ing in need of a re­build, it was still a highly im­pres­sive piece of kit.

I’m al­ways on the look­out for in­ter­est­ing early pieces of Ja­panese tin, orig­i­nal run­ners, dere­licts or even pro­duc­tion dirt-track ma­chines. An ul­ti­mate fan­tasy of mine in­volved the un­likely pos­si­bil­ity of me stum­bling upon an orig­i­nal sur­vivor with early B&H en­durance rac­ing her­itage on its CV. Wouldn’t that be cool, to track down, for ex­am­ple, a mid ’70s Dat­sun 180B two-door or a late ’60s Dat­sun 1600, with match­ing num­bers and gen­uine B&H cre­den­tials?

My great­est au­to­mo­tive re­gret was pass­ing up on a gen­uine 1985 R30 Sky­line coupé, Turbo 2000RS FJ20 (Group A pro­duc­tion ver­sion) be­ing of­fered at a car fair in the mid ’90s for around eight grand. It was the car I’d al­ways wanted, but I man­aged to con­vince my­self it was too much. What was I think­ing? The ask­ing price was bug­ger all, and th­ese ba­bies are now very se­ri­ous col­lec­tor’s pieces, and priced to match.

Toy­otas have been my other main pas­sion. I’ve al­ways wanted an early ’70s Corolla coupé, like the mod­i­fied ver­sion that Dick Sel­lens raced in the up to 1300cc NZ Sa­loon Car Cham­pi­onship in 1971–’72. In 2001 I knew an old lady on Auck­land’s North Shore who had one in nice con­di­tion, and for sev­eral years she con­vinced me that I would be the lucky guy to be first in line when she was ready to part with the car. I would ring her reg­u­larly to let her know I was still keen, but some­how she never reached the cru­cial de­ci­sion. In­stead, I ac­quired a 1983 Toy­ota Sprinter, and that was a rev­e­la­tion. It had the ear­lier, glo­ri­ous­sound­ing eight-valve twin-cam mo­tor — pos­si­bly the rare and now revered 2T-G en­gine — that just wanted to rev, wind­ing out in an ex­hil­a­rat­ing blast of ac­cel­er­a­tion. I loved driv­ing the Sprinter, even though the bodywork wasn’t so flash, and it opened my eyes to what a mag­nif­i­cent en­gine the Toy­ota twin-cam was and still is.

I also find early ex­am­ples of the or­di­nary four-door

Ja­panese im­ports: Per­for­mance for the masses

It was the de­ci­sion to change im­port tar­iffs and loosen up the reg­u­la­tions in the late ’80s that al­lowed a mas­sive in­flux of Ja­panese im­ports into the coun­try. Very much a two-edged sword, this move has­tened the de­cline of lo­cal car as­sem­bly while al­low­ing those who couldn’t af­ford a Euro­pean per­for­mance car the op­por­tu­nity to get be­hind the wheel of some se­ri­ous per­for­mance ma­chin­ery.

With al­most trance-like dis­be­lief, I was in­tox­i­cated by the daz­zlingly rak­ish East­ern im­ports — al­most all of them within my price bracket. Af­ter many years of driv­ing tired and worn-out Bri­tish and Aus­tralian cast-offs, I sud­denly found my­self in charge of a sexy two-door ma­chine with mind-blow­ing fea­tures and ca­pa­ble of neck-snap­ping high per­for­mance. Co­coon-like wrap­around dash­boards, deeply sunken di­als and sport­ing steer­ing wheels — as far as I was con­cerned, we’d all been been de­liv­ered a mir­a­cle, and were ready to rock.

In 1990 a good friend and I lashed out our hard- earned read­ies and bought a cou­ple of sleek two-door coupés. My friend pur­chased a bright-red 1981 E70 Toy­ota Corolla Sprinter, while I went for a 1982 R30 Nis­san Sky­line Turbo. I can still re­mem­ber the sur­re­al­ism of it all — our pre­vi­ous rides had been 10- to 15-year-old old bangers that were, in re­al­ity, well past their use-by dates. By com­par­i­son, this was a strato­spheric change into some sci­ence-fic­tional won­der­land. Apart from a lo­cally as­sem­bled no frills 1982 Dat­sun Sunny I had bought in 1983 for an arm and a leg, the Sky­line was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of a fully op­tioned Ja­panese per­for­mance car. It was as if some­one out of nowhere had shoved me be­hind the wheel of the space shut­tle, the Nis­san was so fu­tur­is­tic.

Sub­se­quently the ’90s and the early years of the new mil­len­nium saw me in­dulge my­self with five dif­fer­ent coupés — the four Ja­panese mis­siles al­ready men­tioned, and a clas­sic ’70 Holden To­rana GT-R XU1.

While the To­rana was fast, it was raw and un­couth, and its road man­ners were way in­fe­rior to the best Ja­panese per­for­mance cars I owned. They all had char­ac­ter, but as a bal­anced driv­ing ma­chine the Ja­panese beasts from the East were al­ways more re­ward­ing to pi­lot.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had a piece of iconic Ja­panese per­for­mance in my shed, but I don’t dis­count the pos­si­bil­ity of own­ing an­other if the right piece of Ris­ing Sun iron presents it­self at the right price. As men­tioned ear­lier, an orig­i­nal ma­chine with gen­uine B&H his­tory would be of in­ter­est — and it wouldn’t need to be any­thing ex­otic, like a Mazda RX-2, and could even be a hum­ble Corolla.

What I have en­deav­oured to record on film are some im­ages of the cars from a now rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing time when they were still used as daily run­ners. The pho­tos will hope­fully bring back some mem­o­ries for en­thu­si­asts, and maybe in­spire the res­cue and res­ur­rec­tion of a few more of th­ese great au­to­mo­biles.

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