Datsun Stanza: overshadowed by older sibling
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Datsun Stanza: overshadowed by older sibling

By DrJohnWright - 08 March 2019

‘Stanza’ entered the English vocabulary getting on for two centuries before Dr Samuel Johnson wrote his famous Dictionary. Originally, this was an Italian word for ‘standing or stopping place’ or even ‘room’ but our usage has always meant a group of (usually rhymed) verse lines, or what is often (wrongly) called a ‘verse’ of a poem. In recent decades some sports commentators have come to refer to a ‘stanza of play’.

But nobody expected the Datsun Stanza, in entry level guise arguably one of the least poetic cars of its era.

At least there was poetry in Nissan’s intentions. That’s because the Stanza – otherwise the Violet or the Auster in Japan or the 160J and as the 510 (after the famous 1600) in the US – was designed as a latterday version of that celebrated 1600. The 1600 was rightly acclaimed in its own era as a standout car, a car worth stopping in a nearby stanza to take a gander at! In this work of near engineering genius, Nissan’s product planners and engineers took inspiration from the BMW Neue Klasse 1500 and packed it in a crisply styled and bargain-based car.

From front three-quarters, the Stanza’s debt to the much-loved 1600 is unmistakable.

Key elements in the 1600’s character were its excellent power to weight ratio, single overhead camshaft engine in the BMW idiom, ditto the independent rear suspension and its very tall gearing; when my Dad’s 1966 Peugeot 404 just made 45 miles per hour in second gear, my mate Tony Shepherd’s sexy red Datsun 1600 pulled 60 up Anderson Street past Merton Hall in the fashionable Melbourne suburb of South Yarra.

The Stanza, which arrived locally near the end of 1978, almost a dozen years after its famous predecessor had the SOHC engine and tall gearing but no IRS. And its power to weight ratio was compromised by ADR27A. Also by the passing of so many years, during which at least some other cars had gained in performance terms.

I suspect though that the Datsun Stanza was probably a better car than the harsh testers in Wheels made out. Could they have been too conscious of the Datsun 1600, a brilliant car from a bygone era? Some other 1970s cars sparkled less than their predecessors, perhaps the best examples being a pair of Fiats, the 131 and 132 compared with, respectively, the 124 and 125.

This maroon interior treatment recalls the VB Commodore SL/E with crushed velour trim as standard; tastes have changed since the late 1970s! Dash layout is neat and pleasing.

But before looking at how Australia’s most influential motoring magazine treated the Stanza, let’s consider its specification.

It was 4080mm long, 1600mm wide and 1390mm high. Weight was 905kg. Maximum power was 75 brake horsepower at 6000rpm. It took 14 seconds to accelerate to 100km/h on its way through the standing 400 metres in 18.9. Top speed was 156 in fourth (top). It was palpably quicker than its three rivals in a Wheels comparison test. The Gemini came closest (14.3, 18.9, 154), while the Escort (15.0, 19.5, 140) and Corolla (15.8, 20.2 and 138) were outclassed.

The wheels and tyres look skinny now but were fine back in 1981!

So there’s point one in the Stanza’s favour. In its 1979 price class, it was the standout performer. Just maybe its slightly heavier fuel consumption simply reflected that performance advantage.

A second is the appearance. The Stanza’s styling, so reminiscent of the 1600, was neat and pleasing, even if the garish SSS was somewhat over-garnished. (Interestingly, 120 coupes were offered in 1979 and – with virtually no advertising support – and these promptly found homes.)

There may have been some kind of programming glitch but Datsun Australia bolted together and quickly sold 120 coupes in 1979.

At first the Stanza offered a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission, but the SSS brought a five-speed, which was less of an improvement than one might have expected because that tall second gear (95km/h) gave way to a lower ratio which meant the SSS driver often found second too low (75km/h) while third was a tad high (112km/h).

Bob Murray criticised the gearshift (he criticised almost everything about the Stanza SSS he tested (Wheels, May 1981) but its Getrag pattern (second, third, fourth and fifth making the H, first towards the driver below reverse) must have pleased many keen drivers who’d scrabbled together the $6950 for what was a well-equipped variant.

Non-metallic pastel colours were still in vogue during the Stanza’s production run.

In addition to a five-speed gearbox – and 1981-82 was the period where it seemed every new car press kit detailed the introduction of a five-speed gearbox (decades after it was taken for granted in any Alfa Romeo!) – the SSS got a neat set of 13 X 5.5 70-alloys shod with 70-series radials. The suspension was slightly lowered and uprated with heavier duty springs and dampers, thicker front roll bar and a rear bar for the first time on a Stanza.

Revealingly, Murray, recently arrived from the UK, acknowledged that he lacked expertise in dirt road driving, even though his harshest criticism had been reserved for the Stanza’s behaviour on loose surfaces:

Though the other [motoring] rotters at the launch, those more qualified than I to drive on dirt roads, praised the Stanza’s handling, I rather doubt that any car with five-plus turns lock to lock of its steering can be said to handle well, at least not to handle easily.

Maybe, but unlike a manual-steered Falcon, the Stanza had a tight 9.9 metre turning circle. Murray also loathed the firm ride.

Of course, even in 1981, rear-wheel-drive was still widely regarded as the orthodoxy, despite the arrival of the Fiat 128, Volkswagen Golf, Mazda 323, Ford Laser and others. Significantly, all four cars in the aforementioned comparison were rear-drivers. Looking back all those years, many of us enthusiasts would just love to own a perky little rear-wheel drive car in the Escort/Gemini/Stanza mould.

Just checking through the new car price lists in that May 1981 edition, I find myself thinking that if you wanted a $7000 sedan, the Stanza SSS would have been hard to beat. With 59kW, it had three more kW than the $8990 Fiat 131 Mirafiore five-speed. It was more than a grand cheaper than a Cortina Ghia four-speed. The Mazda 323 SS (three-door) cost $7137 and the five-door Volkswagen Golf GLS four-speed cost $8448.

And here, I think, is the issue the Stanza faced in the Australian context. We were invited to compare it with the wonderful 1600 and it even used a de-toxed, less powerful version of that car’s 1.6-litre engine. But the Stanza competed in a different market sector. Realistically, the 1600 was a rival for the Toyota Corona and even the Peugeot 404, but the Stanza was priced in among the Corollas and Geminis. And the 1600 was remarkable for the late 1960s in having those BMW-esque features of a high-revving single overhead camshaft and IRS; even the Peugeot 404 had a solid rear axle.

By the time you’d specified some features into a Corona, you were looking at more than $7K. As for the awesome Peugeot 504 (successor to the 404), it commanded $11,990 and still used a four-speed gearbox.

So, I think’s its belatedly time to re-appraise the Stanza, especially in SSS guise.

Initially, the Stanza, although locally assembled, used many imported components. The engine was locally made and was essentially a smaller edition of the unit used in the 200B. Datsun Australia assembled three sedans and undoubtedly the Stanza – perhaps not in the first year or two before product evaluation manager Howard Marsden and his team had developed their local suspension tune – was more competitive in its sector than either the 200B or the 120Y.

Now let’s look at how Steve Cropley introduced his road test, headed ‘Stanza: another ordinary Datsun’:

The sub-heading reads:

Optimistic magazine writers periodically see a car like the Honda Accord as the beginning of a general improvement in Japanese car design. Then someone releases a car like the Datsun Stanza – economical, probably trouble-free but utterly pedestrian – and their hopes are dashed.

It doesn’t improve. The actual reports commences:

Let us start by giving you our verdict of the Datsun Stanza. We don’t usually do things in this order but this time it seems appropriate:

The Datsun Stanza is a flawed car. It needs improvement in the suspension, steering and some elements of its body construction. It is noisier and harsher than it needs to be and – as seems a tradition with smaller Datsun cars – it lacks character. On the other hand it is a neatly styled, economical and fairly good performing sedan which offers a good equipment level and undoubted reliability to buyers who want Just Transport. In some areas it is probably the best Datsun sold in Australia.

When WHEELS first looked at a Stanza, the magazine’s staff thought it was pretty good. It looked a more ‘buyable’ car than a Gemini, with which it competes in price, it was lighter and seemed quieter than the 200B whose various versions have been frowned upon by many testers, and it brought back memories of a good car, the Datsun 1600.

The last is, of course, just what Datsun had in mind. It is an old story now how Datsun’s US dealers, who make up far-and-away the firm’s biggest export market, kept instructing the company to ‘Just bring back the 1600, and we’ll sell a million’. That happened all through the 180B and 200B years.

Finally, about the time of the Arab oil embargo, late in 1973 and early in ’74, Datsun drew up plans for what amounted to a new 1600. They were already in the throes of building the 200B, but the coming scarcity of petrol threw a scare into their industry and induced the management to plan a smaller, lighter car which could do much the same job as the two-litre car. It became the Stanza, Auster, Violet and 160J, depending upon the market in which it was selling.

Peter Robinson telephoned Datsun Australia to relay the magazine’s criticisms of its new car and Howard Marsden flew up to Sydney. That early car had an entirely Japanese specification.

Like many sports variants of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Stanza SSS was ultimately more enhancing the SHOW rather than the GO.

Clearly Bob Murray didn’t like the SSS, but it is also true that by the time that variant was introduced Marsden had initiated a significant rework of the Stanza. Perhaps it was a mistake for Datsun Australia to launch the car in the Hunter Valley with a test route incorporating lots of dirt roads. Perhaps they just hadn’t counted on Bob Murray’s – to use his own word – ‘assassination’.

Murray admitted early in his test that he was not a competition driver. Interestingly, the many who tested the car for Modern Motor, the late Barry Lake, was. Lake’s verdict on the SSS’s dynamics read:

The handling is really good now, with the car riding very steadily through fast corners, even when they are bumpy, although there is still so much basic understeer that it is hard to get the tail to slide progressively even on gravel roads. It seems to be a case of either massive understeer or sudden oversteer in the extremes, but neither trait shows up in normal fast cruising speeds.

But he wasn’t keen on the unconventional ‘awkward’ pattern of the five-speed’s shift. Lake’s conclusion?

…Datsun have been often successful in the past with SSS and SX sporty versions of their cars and there’s no doubt this one will continue the trend. It has the same kind of appeal to the younger generation of drivers.

As I have implied above, judging the Stanza and especially the SSS variant, all these decades later (and in a new century), there’s a fair chance that the journalist might be almost overwhelmed with nostalgia for a small, wieldy rear-drive sedan; put me in that category. Of course, it is no longer possible to build a four-door sedan that weighs barely more than 900kg and passes all legislated tests.

As for the Stanza SSS which I sadly never got to drive, I can say this. I was friends with both Bob Murray and Barry Lake, both of whom were swift drivers. But when it comes to rating a car’s dynamics, I’ll put my money on Barry Lake, who raced several times at Bathurst and navigated in the third-placed car in the 1979 Repco Around Australia Trial. I perhaps should also add that I am an admirer of the late Howard Marsden and his engineering expertise. Datsun – later Nissan – Australian was lucky indeed to have him as product evaluation manager and he was doubtless mainly to credit for the SSS, though not perhaps its orange and black stripery!