Getting Over Bataan: 1971 Datsun 521 Pickup

By Jeff Bennett

What’s a Datsun?  Well, for you younger readers, it was one of the first Japanese car companies to successfully market cars in the United States.  Along with Toyota, and to a lesser extent Mazda, Honda, and Subaru, these companies struggled for a number of years before getting a good grip on the American market.  Toyota has gone on to become one of the largest companies in the world, and Nissan, which is the name that Datsun evolved into, is right behind.  The early years in America for these companies were difficult both because of history and because their products were so different than what America is used to.  Take for example this 1971 Datsun 521 pickup for sale on Craigslist out of Macon, Georgia.  Compared to trucks from the Big Three, this pickup is certainly different.  However, for an asking price of $3000 or best offer, you could put yourself in a piece of automotive history.

The biggest obstacle that the Japanese makers had to overcome was history.  Japan was one of our enemies in World War II, and there is no denying the inhumanity exhibited in the Pacific Theater.  It also didn’t help that a lot of Americans didn’t come home from the battles there, and tales of Japanese brutality still curdle one’s blood.  These feelings were hard to overcome for many, and some could react quite negatively.  My grandfather owned an auto glass business in the 1960s, and was friends with the new Datsun dealer in town.  The dealer wasn’t selling any trucks at all, so he cut a deal with my grandfather to loan him one for his business.  The idea was that my grandfather would use it to deliver parts and make service calls, and the truck would get exposure around town as a good, economical business tool.  All went well until the day my grandfather went to a service call at a World War II veteran’s business.  Before he got the truck parked, the man came out screaming and cussing at my grandfather, calling him every name in the book.  In no uncertain terms, the man made it clear that neither my grandfather or his Jap truck were welcome at his business.  Dumbfounded by the treatment, my grandfather drove away and never returned.  Only later did he discover that the man was one of the few survivors of the Bataan Death March.

It also didn’t help that Japan got on its feet again selling simple, cheap items that had little practical value.  For years, Japanese products were thought of as cheap and inferior and were ridiculed mercilessly.  It took the determined efforts of companies such as Sony, Datsun, Honda, and Toyota many years to raise the reputation of Japanese products to what it is today.  The cars and trucks imported from Japan were also hampered by being so very different than what Americans thought they wanted.  It took a few OPEC oil embargoes and a systematic effort by American automakers to see who could build the car with the lowest build quality for Americans to begin seeing Japanese cars in a different light.  The rest they say is history.

This 1971 Datsun 521 pickup is a good example of the kind of vehicles that the Japanese were struggling to sell here.  In the narrow streets of Tokyo, trucks this size made perfect sense.  In America, they were seen as underpowered little toys by a lot of folks who should have opened their eyes a bit more.  While these trucks were no good for interstate travel, they were perfect for city use, and the half ton capacity made them actually quite useful.  This one is powered by a 1.6 liter engine backed up by a manual transmission and a conventional solid rear axle.  The trucks of this generation were designed to look more like Datsun cars, and you have to admit the styling has kind of a quirky charm to it.  Many of these trucks succumbed to rust, and it is rare to see one in such good condition today on the east coast.  Most of the survivors seem to be in California, where the Japanese automakers received the most acceptance at first.

I would also be neglectful if I didn’t point out that one of the rising segments of the collector car world is that of early Japanese cars and trucks.  While the market heavily favors the early Datsun roadsters and the 240 and 260 Z cars, trucks seem to have their own following.  These little pickups were ahead of their time, and I think a truck of this size could find a market once again in America.  They were a good idea then, but it took a lot of healing for everyone to see it.

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Comments

  1. packrat

    They often got ahead via unethical collusion with distributors in the U.S. who got a cut of the take. (Full disclosure: own two Japanese vehicles, one badged under the Pontiac name). Too big to fail; no one got spanked after news got out that Japan, the US, Japanese Manufacturers and American Distributors colluded to put them in the lead. Enough money to go around for everyone in the dark circle; no thought for the next generation. On the demise of the American Electronics industry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aesJTsZqm6c ps: Those neat little black patches hide one of the most common rustout points.

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    • Francisco

      It’s called capitalism.

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      • John D.

        In the 1960s, it was called dumping or selling for less than what they are sold for in the home market. It is an unfair trade practice to build market share and usually results in trade wars. Sony was a common dumper. Also, acquiring a product, then taking it apart to reverse engineer it to copy the design. If you ever get a chance, park a Jaguar XKE coupe next to a Datsun 240 Z and a Toyota Supra next to each other and consider all the similarities of design. Start with the architecture of the body then cam covers etc.

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      • Klharper

        looking at a competitors design and using it for inspiration is nothing new. Jaguar’s straight six was influenced by the BMW 328 straight six. GM has purchased everything from Lancia beta’s to study front wheel drive to Ferrari’s for casting techniques. Ford purchased an original Teste Rossa. Porsche has purchased everything from Corvettes to Hyundai’s. It is called competitive analysis, and every manufacture does it. I would be surprised if the Japanese didn’t. But you also look at things like the Honda s800 and the toyota 2000GT to show how inventive they could be.

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  2. Steve

    Tough little trucks. In the 70’s til the 90’s Japanese products proved their worth as quality products. IMO they are now as inferior in build quality as domestic products.

    Back in the 80’s, it seems my dad, brothers, uncle and cousins were continuously buying and selling vehicles. We picked up a little red datsun like this for $200. We lived in a rural area in south Texas between two towns with populations around 400 each, but even there it was a good little truck for errands and such. My uncle took a job that required him to travel pretty far, so my dad let him use the datsun to drive back and forth instead of his F250. The story was a hog ran out in front of him and he swerved to miss it, but I have to wonder if he didn’t fall asleep. In any case, the truck ened up on its driver side between two trees. We pulled it out and flipped it on its wheels and drove it back home. It was kinda tough to use, as you had to slide over to the passenger side to get out. We came across a local fellow who had a grey one with a bad motor. Not even sure what was wrong with it, but we gave $100 for it and swapped the engine out of the red truck into it. We sat the old engine in back. My aunts cousins came from Washington one summer to work the harvest and when they went to leave the engine in their van gave out before they got out of town. Dad sold them the grey Datsun for $400. They robbed a bunch of spares off the red truck including wheels and tires and piled them in back. Then, unknown to my dad til later, took the license plate off the red truck and put it on the grey truck (!) (I don’t think they even had insurance- Dad went to the courthouse Monday to report that he no longer owned the truck). Word was they made it all the way back to Washington state, using spares out of the back along the way.

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    • Sam Sharp

      Steve, I was never nervous about the build quality and durability on our Datsuns. 1600 SPL 311, 510s, several pickups, F 10, 200SX. Pathfinder and Nissan Hardbody.

      The Nissan 240SX and 2004 Frontier have given me pause. The 240 had to go to buy-back arbitration, and our current Frontier I am always watching for problems. The Frontier 4×4 has a rusted oil pan, which was discovered when I replaced the radiatior due to comments about trans fluid contamination from the bottom tank’s propensity for inhaling coolant into the cooler. This truck is our baby and I’m always fussing over any hint of rust with a POR 15 type product.

      It seems to me that Mazda and other manufacturers have taken over where Datsun left off as far as value for the dollar. Don’t mind me, the company that my dad worked for as an engineer in the 1950s is now called FIAT. The Buicks, Le Sabre and ‘River Area’, required very little attention, but were nominally maintained as is with our current fleet of ranch vehicles. Never give good cars to grandkids.

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  3. whmracer99

    Starting to see kids doing these as drift cars or low riders. Prices on all of the early Nissan or Toyota pickups here are going up quickly.

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  4. Dave at OldSchool Restorations Dave at OldSchool Restorations Member

    the Headline definitely brings back bad memories. I had gotten past most of them by the late 70’s, and later ordered a new 4 wheel steer Prelude in ’88… and later raced a 510.

    Still have the ’88 Prelude………. and still bothered by Rising Sun and Meatball emblems that I was raised to hate during the War, but I have no bad feelings about today’s great people or products

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  5. DaveT

    My fathers great uncle was a bombardier in B29’s over Japan. For 30+ years he drove Lincolns, never had a Japanese appliance etc. In the late 80’s he remarried and came to visit us with his new wife. In a Honda CRX…

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  6. AMXSTEVE

    Turning Japanese I think i’m turning Japanese I really think so…..

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  7. Klharper

    I think one of the worst marketing decision was the change the name from Datsun to Nissan. It always makes me think of those cheap nissen huts.

    Silly joke on how the Datsun name came to be.

    The Japanese were working with the American’s on bringing their cars to the US and setting up a distributorship. They were discussing what to call the company and it had not been resolved.
    Finally the american rep said “Well you need to come up with something and have it by next Tuesday.
    “Dat soon” replied his Japanese counterpart

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  8. TriPowerVette

    My brother and I know that our father gave his life for this country. The day he died, he was the commanding officer of the 19th Bomb Squadron out of March A.F.B. No, he wasn’t shot down over some God-forsaken hell-hole jungle. He died of cancer. He had been part of one of the last open-air atomic bomb tests ever conducted. It got him. Friendly fire, of sorts.

    A neighbor, two streets over from our house was also a Bataan Survivor. Dad and he were friends. Ironic that the worst that the Japanese war machine couldn’t do to one, our own government did to Lt. Col. Robert G. Graham.

    I write this background to give the reader a sense of my viewpoint.

    I had a slot car or two in the 1960’s. On my race box, I had a decal that said “Genuine Made in Japan Parts Inside”. It was supposed to be sarcastic. The irony here was that the electric motors I used, and the best there were at that time, were in fact made in Japan. I guess it was hypocritical, too.

    Later, in the early 1970’s, (once I got an actual driver’s license), I delivered auto parts for BAP (British Auto Parts) in a truck identical to the one above, except the color. All 5 in the fleet were red.

    The shifter was the proverbial broomstick in a bucket of oatmeal. The only way to keep up with traffic was to leave your left foot flat on the floor. It was noisy, cramped and hot. But it always started, It always ran. And it could carry multiple engines in the back. I did not love it, but I didn’t hate it, either. In spite of merciless thrashing by multiple drivers over a couple of hundred thousand miles (in some cases) it did its job. I guess I respected it.

    Did the survivor of Bataan mentioned at the beginning of this article have a right to his hatred of all things Japanese? Sure he did. But I wonder whether he expressed the same strong emotions whenever someone drove up in a Mercedes or VW. I don’t recall war crimes trials for Japanese atrocities (maybe there were, I wasn’t there). But the whole world remembers the Nuremberg Trials. Trials of Germans who committed monstrous acts continue (less frequently, now) to this day.

    War is war. Wars are waged by governments. You say governments are made up of people. Before war and after, people have to go on. Both Japanese and German governments were smashed to bits, and remade in a completely different form than they were before the war. They are now exemplary world citizens. Because of the people.

    Such is the only formula that works. In order for a people to be free to produce, they must be freed of their dysfunctional governments.

    Mercedes, Volkswagen, BMW. Sony, Toyota, Datsun. These are not symbols of tyranny. They are shining success stories, of a freed people.

    8+

  9. Francisco

    My dad was stationed at Henderson Field in Guadalcanal during the war. Growing up he told me a story about a Japanese Mitsubishi light bomber they nicknamed “Betty.” This plane made a regular daytime run on the field and always took out their radar emplacement with one accurately placed bomb. The amazed American Marines were convinced the enemy had some ultra sophisticated bomb sight equipment. Eventually the Mitsu “Betty” was shot down. My dad recalled examining the wreckage only to find that the bombardier had performed his precise task with a yardstick with two cloths pins attached. He recounted this story over the years, an in spite of it all, he liked Mitsubishi cars, and even owned a Galant

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  10. Howard A Member

    I’d like to thank Jeff for a pretty spot on description of what it was like for Asian cars and trucks when this came out. You’ve probably heard me say many times, there were 3 makes of cars that were NOT allowed in our driveway, German, Italian, and yup, ABSOLUTELY, no Asian. Milwaukee, home of such American icons as Harley Davidson and Rambler/AMC, you can imagine what a tough sell it must have been. I don’t remember the 1st Datsun dealer in Milwaukee, but the 1st Toyota dealer was called Jack Safro. Still in business today, but was located way out in the sticks ( at the time) for fear of vandalism in the city. In traffic jams, you’d hear people yell, like my old man, ” If you’d have bought an American car, I’d let you in, but a foreign car, you can just sit and wait” ( for another foreign car to let them in, I kid you not) Great for city deliveries, but like Jeff says, it took a long time for that to go away. And rust. These things lasted maybe 5 years in the salt, 7 tops. Still ran great, but nothing left. Cool find. Probably a 4 speed, big problem there, needs a 5 speed.

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    • packrat

      They had a pretty hard way to go up in Detroit. Word was that the earliest of these cars would be tersely yet thoroughly customized with steel toed boots and tire irons if left unattended in an automotive factory, or in one of the old neighborhoods full of UAW members and military veterans, with considerable overlap between the two groups. And decades ago, I have heard the Mercedes and VWs of the neighborhood profanely dismissed by an old gentleman who still had a faded serial number tattooed on one arm, as Souvenir Of His Trip. He was nonplussed when the local Studebaker Dealership started offering the M-B line. Had some choice words for Fords, as well, when he warmed to his oration–taught me some things about Henry that I didn’t know before. Someone dismissed it as It’s called Capitalism. Yep. It was never personal. It’s just politics. Just business. But people can’t help how they feel, either. And I’m not here to say those (now deceased) people I knew should have felt differently, either.

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      • Francisco

        It was referred to as capitalism, with a lower case “C.” As such, it is not personal, nor can it justifiably be considered political. A system of government can indeed generate discussions filled with emotion and sentiment, whereas a system of economics, in this case capitalism, is less didactic. It is devoid of moral judgment perhaps even to the point of being mathematical, almost scientific.

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  11. Phinias

    I had one of these trucks after my stint in the USAF. Good looking, tough, reliable…but any longer than an hour or so drive KILLED my back. It was not a comfortable ride, and I’m only 5’8”. I called riding in it for long drives “Hirohito’s Revenge.”

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  12. firefirefire

    Some never recovered. they carried that hate to the grave. they awoke screaming in the night. the Pacific theater was unlike the European. In the Pacific they took few prisoners because no quarter was given.
    We are their Sons.

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    • Howard A Member

      Right on, fff. My ex-father in-law went through the Pacific, not that the European deal was a day in the park, but my ex-wife said he NEVER talked about his war years,,,until he met my dad, who was in Germany. For the 1st time my FIL finally started to open up about it. It was a lot more intense than anything my old man talked about. He passed away last year, he was 93.

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  13. Mike H

    Is it just me or has the quality of the writing on this site moved up a few notches lately? Jeff, that was a great write-up of this truck, and the reader commentary this time has been really thoughtful and worth reading.

    I really like it here. Thanks guys.

    1+

  14. chad

    “…, whereas a system of economics, in this case capitalism, is less didactic. It is devoid of moral judgment perhaps even to the point of being mathematical, almost scientific.”

    and inhumaine
    couldn’t agree less
    except the part about “…devoid of moral judgment…”, but I digress
    (as much as the others on this vehicle).

    Back to autos/trucks/bikes’n such?
    (at least I was findin humor in the personal attacks…
    8^0

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    • Francisco

      There was no personal attack intended, chad. Sorry you took it that way. “Just the Facts,” as Sgt. Joe Friday used to say. I like to stay on the good side of Barn Finds.

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      • Dave at OldSchool Restorations Dave at OldSchool Restorations Member

        Not ” Just the Facts ” Francisco

        I think you are incorrect, saying
        ” capitalism, …. is devoid of moral judgment ” , and if you actually studied the “capitalists” upon which this Country was built, you would find plenty of moral foundation and judgment in most their lives.

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