A young designer's sketches for a new sedan impressed his bosses. The result: the stylish Datsun 510, which sparked Nissan's exports.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1963
Role: Designer, Nissan Motor Co.
Key influence: Designed the Datsun 510, a breakthrough sedan that stoked exports to the United States and became Nissan's first cult classic
But the greenhorn hardly sat in humble deference to his elders. In jarringly un-Japanese fashion, Uchino instead upstaged them with a breakthrough design that changed the company's history.
His sketches proposed a sedan with a swept back windshield, sloping hood and short, sporty deck. One look and his bosses closed debate: This would be the blueprint for the Datsun 510.
“My design was the most dramatic. It had a speedy look,” recalls Uchino, 69, and now retired. “It was raised in the back and lower in the front. That's why they chose it.”
Call it beginner's luck. But when the Datsun 510 debuted in 1967, it was more than just an instant hit at home. The spunky 1.6-liter Euro-styled car almost single-handedly sparked Nissan's export boom to the United States. And the 510 soon earned a place in history as Nissan's first cult classic.
Before long, loyal fans worldwide were calling the car the “poor man's BMW,” a tribute to its reliability, performance and styling and price.
The car was conceived as a domestic foil to the Toyota Corona, which was outselling the 410. It also was hoped the car would stamp out Datsun's international reputation for boring econoboxes.
Datsun dropped the Bluebird moniker in the United States to make the 510 a little more macho. And soon the Dime, as it was nicknamed by enthusiasts, was appearing as a favorite on race circuits.
In its second year, about 261,000 510s were produced, doubling the best annual output of the 410. By 1969, Nissan was churning out more than 327,000 a year, thanks to booming overseas demand.
Making the numbers more impressive was the fact that Pininfarina had designed the 410.
To reward Uchino for his efforts, Nissan sent the youngster to the United States and Europe to pitch the car, his first trip outside Japan. With pride, he still remembers his shock at seeing one of his 510s parked outside a cathedral in Paris.
“It was bright red. And I was like, "I designed that!' “ Uchino says.
Sweating the design
For the Japanese company, the 510 was a milestone on many levels. It was the first project at Nissan to use full-scale clay models. It was made without the aid of market research. And its stylists labored in blistering studios without benefit of air conditioning.
“The design center was still very primitive,” Uchino says. “We sweated like crazy working on the clay models. The only way to keep cool was by eating ice cubes.”
Uchino and his peers started forming the clay model on a table but soon realized they couldn't see the finished product at eye level. But it was too big to lower. So the desperate design team instead built a new floor around it, raised flush with the tabletop.
Production of the 510 ended in 1972. The car's success propelled Uchino to a 35-year career as the designer of 12 other cars, including the critically acclaimed 300ZX sports car in the 1980s.
More than three decades later, the 510 often is cited as one of the auto industry's most important cars. And it certainly gets top honors at Nissan, alongside other greats like the Z.
“I loved all the cars I've owned,” reminisces former President Yoshikazu Hanawa, who orchestrated Nissan's alliance with Renault SA. “But the 510 was something special.”
You can reach Hans Greimel at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Hans on