Mark Mastrototaro casts a fond eye over one of the UK’s favourite imports during the 1970s, the Datsun 120Y. Why was it so popular? Striking British factories, waiting lists for Morrises, and an increasing disillusionment with home-made products meant the Sunny’s success in the UK was something of a home goal for the Brits.
But that’s not to downplay the Sunny’s abilities as a likeable family saloon – as the buyers kept coming back to Datsun.
The Rising Sun-ny
By the early to mid 1970s, the pieces were starting to fall, albeit loosely, into place for the ever-widening import market for Japanese cars. Already achieving respectable sales for new-comers at least, Toyota, Mazda, Honda, but more noticeably Datsun, were gearing up for a ‘big-push’.
The Japanese brands must have awoken every morning not believing the hand they were being dealt by Dame Fortune in their export territories; labour issues affecting quality and quantity of vehicles; increased demand for better, more reliable cars, loaded with more kit and to top it all and oil crisis which meant customers needed something a little more frugal.
One car which seemed to typify this was the Datsun 120Y (Sunny B210). The UK 120Y range consisted of; two-door Saloon, three-door hatchback, Coupé, four-door saloon, five-door Estate and a three-door Van, all with the same 69bhp 1171cc mated to a four-speed manual gearbox with the option of a three-speed automatic on the two- and four-door saloons.
MacPherson struts up front and rear leaf springs could give a sometimes bouncy ride, yet the quality of the oily bits was what really surprised many a would-be buyer at test drive stage. A clutch, light by even today’s standards, crisp, precise gearbox and light (and under-geared) steering made the 120Y incredibly easy to take to. Add into the fray 40mpg and impressive performance from the nippy A12 engine, it’s not hard to see how a relative unknown to the UK market shifted almost 150,000 120Y B210s between August 1973 and August 1978. Indeed, Nissan sold over two million worldwide.
The 120Y’s looks may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, the resounding memories of many people seem to focus on the two styles of wheeltrims it wore. They were the 12in items which resembled a pie dish, and the later, post-1975 13in items which – for want of a better description – had a honey-combed effect. But its contemporary, quirky styling won many fans as did the equipment levels. Standard features included a heated rear screen, two-speed wipers, a dual band radio and reclining seats (vinyl initially, before being replaced in late 1976-’77 by half vinyl, half cloth items).
Of course, history has shown the Achilles heel of these cars to be rust; particular areas of death for the 120Y being the inner wing trumpets, however no metal part of a 120Y could really call itself unlikely to succumb. It was a shame because the mechanicals of the little Datsun would happily whirr on for many years after the body had long given up the ghost. And they were always driven to the scrapyard.
Whilst the lack of engine choice may seem unusual today, the wide Datsun range, had something for everyone. It spanned the front-wheel drive Cherry 100a and 120a, Sunny 120Y, Violet 140J and 160J, Bluebird 160B and 180B up into the larger executive class Laurels and Cedrics was topped off by the 260Z. Choice enough for everyone.
To summarise, then, it was the whole package that brought increasingly disillusioned UK motorists to, not only the 120Y, but to Japanese cars in general and a tide that; in true Canute-like fashion, we were unable to turn.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.