The cars we loved.
The 70’s was a great time for Datsun (or Nissan as it would later be known in the States). It had a few hits including the new Z car and the beloved 510. The 510 line of cars and its offspring had become the bread and butter for Datusn by the mid 70’s. It had evolved into the 610 and later 710, getting larger and losing some of what made the 510 special along the way (like a rear independent suspension). When word came that there would be a new model in the true spirit of the old 510 coupe, there was a lot of excitement in the automotive press.
What materialized during the auto show circuit of 1974-75 proved to be a disappointment for those looking for a sexy coupe along the lines of a cheaper Z car or even a newer 510 successor. The new for 1977 200SX was based on Datsun’s new S platform intended to be a low price sporty car along the lines of a smaller Japanese version of the American personal luxury coupe (Thunderbird, Monte Carlo, etc.). Size wise it fit neatly between the 510 2 door and the 810 Sport coupe.
Mechanically it was nothing special. Its rear wheel drive layout featured a 2L overhead cam engine that produced about 90hp. Like many cars of the era, it had a live axle leaf spring rear suspension and MacPherson struts up front.
On paper it all sounded nice, but when equipped with the 5 speed manual transmission it could only manage to reach 60mph in 13 seconds.
Not at all a sports car, Datsun sold the 200SX as a “sporty car”, as to relive itself of any expectations of performance. It did use the same drivetrain as the 510, but lacked its driving dynamics. Handling was not ideal due to the short wheel base, heavy front end weight bias and skinny 13in wheels. Somehow the 200SX was used in racing, even being featured in an ad with noted Datsun driver Paul Newman. Critics were hard on the 200SX , but not from a mechanical or performance standpoint (it was actually about average as mid 70’s cars go) – they hated the styling.
The 200SX’s styling was polarizing (at least to most of the automotive press). Even by 70’s impaired aesthetics standards, the 200SX was strange looking. Looking like a like a cross between a Citroen SM and a AMC Matador, the 200SX looked like nothing else in Datsun’s line of cars. The odd design language borrowed heavily from Citroen, but added angularity. In some ways the 200SX was ahead of its time, with cut off wheel arches, and wrap around tail lights. The combination of pronounced character lines slicing the wheel wells and the giant “A” shaped C pillar was enough to universally tag the 200SX as ugly. Ugly or not, it sold well. Over 150,000 were sold from 1977 to 1979 in just America alone. In fact America accounted for 2/3 of all 200SX sales. Not bad for a car that was supposed to be ugly.
Part of the reasons for the high sales may have been due to the well-appointed interior featuring a high end AM/FM Clairion stereo with space for a future cassette module. The dashboard was oval shaped and had all the gauges for sporting pretensions. Most importantly and more likely the sales of the 200SX defied the critics because it was simply a better built car than the Vegas and Mavericks out there. The primary competition for the 200SX was the Celica and Scirocco, two cars that were more expensive, but in a performance league above the 200SX.
The Mazda Cosmo was closer in spirit, but was not as mechanically sound due to issues with its rotary engine. There were few changes from 77 to 79 aside from safety and smog induced bumpers and emissions controls. In some ways the larger bumpers resulted improved looks for the 200SX, but power had been reduced and the model was soon to be replaced by a far more appealing car in 1980.
The first generation 200SX represent an odd beginning in the history of an otherwise well liked sports coupe. Datsun’s designers seem to have lost the bet that the future would catch up with the first gen 200SX, but the car is not as strange looking now as it must have looked when new. With that said, it’s still not the most attractive late 70’s Japanese import, but by far not the ugliest car from the era. Had the public listened to the critics, we may never have received the improved 200SX cars that came after. For that reason we owe a debt to the odd looking 1977 to 79’ Datsun 200SX.