Roughing it in the rare Datsun 411 SSS

Photography by Zachary Mayne

The words “vintage Datsun sedan” generally conjure up images of that iconic box of greatness otherwise known as the 510. And for good reason: The 510 is one of the models, along with the 240Z and Roadster lineups, that made the Japanese brand so beloved by American gearheads. 

Not only was the 510 a fun street car, but it was one hell of a racer, especially when driven by Bob Sharp, John Morton, Paul Newman and other notable and talented wheelmen from that bygone era. The 510 was good enough to win the Trans-Am 2.5 series, not just in 1971 but ’72 as well. 

[How BRE got its stripes]

But the 510 was preceded by two other small, sporty sedans from Datsun: the 410, built during 1964 and 1965, and the 411, the follow-up model for 1965-’67. In Japan and other markets, the entire line–including the 410, 411 and 510–carried the Bluebird nameplate. 

The 410 and 411 models may not be able to belly up to the bar and boast about competition successes like their 510 sibling, but they were built on the same basic formula: a compact commuter car platform paired with a lively, enthusiastic, carbureted four-cylinder up front that, importantly, delivered its power to the rear wheels. Add in Pininfarina styling and–in the case of the performance SSS variant–1600cc power from the Datsun Roadster sports car, and you had something special indeed.

Before the now iconic 510, Datsun offered the 410 and 411 sedans, with the SSS serving as the high-performance variant. One finished first in class during the 1966 East-African Safari Rally. Datsun enthusiast John Lorio owns this 1967 example, which is rather original but for a few period-correct tweaks.  

The 410s and 411s were the first unibody cars for Nissan and they laid the groundwork for the 510,” says John Lorio, owner of the 1967 Datsun 411 SSS pictured here and all-around Datsun fanatic. “Some parts were carried on to the 510, but in general the 410s and 411s were built more robustly than the 510. The 410s and 411s were designed by engineers for third-world duty. The 510s, by contrast, were influenced by the bean counters and are much more lightly constructed.”

The discussion about what car manufacturer made the first true sport sedan will probably never be truly resolved, but the 411 SSS is certainly a contender for one of the first attempts at infusing a small, practical four-door family sedan with sporting abilities. 

The 411 SSS, for Super Sport Sedan, is named because Nissan took the R16 1600cc, dual-carb drivetrain from the Roadster and dropped it in the 411 sedan body,” John explains. The normal production version used a less powerful 1.3-liter engine known as the J13. It was derived from the ever-popular BMC B-series engine–like what you’d find in an MGA or MGB

So the horsepower went from 67 horsepower of the J13 to 96 horsepower in the R16,” he continues. The 411 is quite a small car, however, so fitting the larger engine took some finagling. The engine was fitted with a lower-profile oil pan, and the intake manifold was reworked so the dual carburetors would clear the sides of the engine bay. “At the time of importation, the SSS was actually one of the most powerful imported small cars you could buy,” he adds. 

The 411 chassis was fitted with a redesigned lower crossmember that worked in concert with the altered oil pan. Nissan even had to route the exhaust system through a hole that was added to the front driver-side fender well.

Nissan installed front disc brakes that were later used on the 510, a slightly lengthened rear axle from the Roadster, as well as a four-speed manual transmission that’s a cross between a Roadster four-speed and a 510 four-speed,” John explains. And though the SSS was offered with a manual gearbox, he also notes that most of the examples that were sold in the U.S. used a BorgWarner three-speed automatic. 

Super Sport Survivor

Nissan only imported the 411 SSS to the U.S. for the 1967 model year, and John found this one about 10 years ago: “I traded a ’67 Datsun 411 wagon that I found in New Mexico with my friend Tom Neely in California for the car.” The 411 sedan was sold new at Thoroughbred Motors in Tucson, Arizona.

“My wagon was a J13, and I wanted an SSS,” John explains. “I’ve always liked the 411’s Italian styling. Nissan went to Pininfarina for the design because the [earlier] 310 cars were considered to look too British. The 411s have a considerable Italian look to them–think contemporaneous Alfas to Fiats.” 

John’s car still wears its original paint, which has thinned out in a few places due to buffing and polishing. The bodywork sports several small dings. The car shows the well-weathered look of a true survivor. 

“You can still see the sticker from Thoroughbred Motors in Tucson, Arizona,” John notes. “This car is remarkably rust-free as these tended to rust, especially along the roof gutter. I like the patina of the original paint, though some would want to paint it.” 

At some point in the car’s life, a very cool, period-correct roof rack was added. It’s easy to picture the Datsun loaded up with surfboards cruising down Highway 1 somewhere in Southern California. Another stylish touch are the Japanese-market chrome sun visors that were installed at some point. 

Rebuilt Better

Since acquiring the car in 2012, John has tastefully upgraded it in several areas with the help of Neeley and his company, Neeley Motorsports, in Lawndale, California. “One of the cool things he figured out was how to install a five-speed transmission,” John says. “The bellhousing is from a Nissan diesel truck, and the five-speed transmission is from a 720. It pieced right in like Legos. Datsuns are pretty good about being able to mix and match parts that way.” 

The engine was left as is since it had been rebuilt in 2012, the same year the Datsun specialists at Z Therapy rebuilt the carburetors. “They are unique to the SSS due to the issues of packaging them in the narrow engine bay,” John says. He also upgraded the fuel delivery with an electric fuel pump. A custom header and exhaust were fabricated by Neeley Motorsports because, as John notes, the original cast-iron manifolds tend to crack. 

When the five-speed was installed, John also had Neeley modify the suspension for better handling. A set of stiffer and lower Datsun Roadster competition springs were installed at the front, while the rear leaf springs were recurved for a lower ride height. 

“We also swapped out the stock rear axle for the identical but slightly shorter Roadster axle in order to fit the tires under the wheel wells,” John says. “The differential is a 3.90 ratio just like the Roadster but with a cast-iron third member.” 

Since acquiring the car, John has also replaced the stock steel wheels and hubcaps with a set of period-correct, 14-inch Revolution alloys. “It’s very small and tossable,” he says of the 411. “The ride is a bit rough given the short wheelbase and stiff springs, but it handles quite well–though it is unsophisticated.”

Rounding out the upgrades are LED lights and a new wiring harness. The interior of the 411 remains remarkably original and still uses the original door panels, carpeting and headliner. John recovered the seats, carpet and dash, although they now sport a decade of use. 

The dashboard’s original wood grain trim was damaged and beyond repair. Given the rarity of the model, replacement pieces weren’t just a phone call away. So John turned to a new form of technology for the fix: hydro dipping, otherwise known as water transfer printing. 

The process, which can be used to apply artwork to most any solid, 3D object, starts with special inks printed onto special films. This film is then floated across water; dipping the object into the film applies the artwork. In this case, at least, the result is convincing enough to pass for the real deal.

Another change to the dash involves the gauges. As originally equipped, the 411 would have had a sweeping speedometer design, similar to those in American cars from the same era. John came across a very rare rally pack gauge cluster–it features a trio of classic-looking dials–and had it shipped all the way from South Africa.

The Datsun Connection

The 411 currently shares garage space with a pair of Datsun Roadsters, a right-hand-drive 410 coupe and a handful of other interesting cars. Though John dailies a Mercedes SUV and also owns a BMW 1600, he’s a huge fan of Datsuns and the culture behind them.

[Subtle upgrades make this BMW 1600 sing]

“The community around Datsuns is so fun,” he says. “It bridges several generations, from guys like me who grew up in the ’60s to young guys who are into trucks. I really like that I have something in common with younger generations.” 

He also appreciates the ease of maintenance on most vintage Datsuns. “Parts are relatively easy to find, the cars are dead simple to work on, and everybody seems to have a Datsun story somewhere in their past.” 

 

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ClearwaterZ
ClearwaterZ New Reader
1/7/22 5:46 p.m.

When the Nissan Stylists / Designers first saw the Pininfarina design for the 410/411… only 1 had the nerve to criticize it.  That was Mr. Matsuo.  So when the initial sales of the model proved to be disappointing to Nissan, Mr. Matsuo was given the task of improving it.  Mr. Matsuo said he could not change the styling at that point as the car was already in production, so the cost of new stamping dies prohibited changes to the styling.

 

So he decided to change the “image" of the car from that of a family sedan, to that of a “Sports Sedan”. The 411 SSS was the result of Mr. Matsuo’s work. It was so successful in improving sales over-all, that when Nissan reorganized its Vehicle Development Section - Mr. Matsuo was put in charge of the Sports Car Styling Studio, which would then turn out the Datsun 240Z.

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