Project Auto Recycler Part 3: The Datsun 510 Goes Camping

I took my restored Datsun 510 wagon camping. I did the math and calculated the fully-loaded 510 as getting 29 miles-per-gallon. As a representative of a car reclaimed, a low-cost benefit to the environment, and a fully-functional recreation vehicle, all the hard work is paid off.
datsun 510 wagon loaded

by Amanda Savercool

Monday ends the Cash for Clunkers program, putting an end to reign of terror responsible for the loss of so many automotive gems. Ok, that's a little dramatic, but I get that way when I see old low-mile Maseratis slated for crushing. These programs aren't necessarily operating for the sake of smoglessness–they are based on a car's age and not on emissions.

In Project Auto Recycler Project Auto Recycler Part I and Part II, I outweighed the pros and cons of taking an old car and gathering old and new parts to make a repurposed vehicle. The pros: a reliable daily-driver that is eco-friendly and cheaper than a new vehicle. The cons: a recycled car is not as easy as picking out a car off a lot. After all said and done, my recycled 1971 Datsun 510 wagon running an old engine with new gutty-works was ready to hit the road.

So with the Slayer sticker peeled off and an original "Do it in a Datsun" licence plate frame from the 70s installed, I loaded up the roof rack and the hatch with camping gear. The roof rack is also from the 70s–I bought it online for $60 (shipping included) from a dealership in Ohio that discovered two in their inventory. Everything on this car, minus the pistons and proper parts, is from the 70s.

The engine, at this point, has been "broken in," but the term is relative when the installation is a DIY job. The engine is a late-70s Datsun engine (L20, taken to a recommended machine shop for rebuilding). I chose this shop based on the simple fact that my good intent is greater than my mechanical ability and I would not have to source any of the engine parts myself. The engine was brought home and dropped in, and almost every other part under the hood was replaced new–distributor, starter, fuel pump, hoses, gaskets, and a rebuilt radiator.

The grand total was around $3,000 to put it all in myself, which I offer up as a disclaimer, because anyone with more experience would have brought it to a mechanic and paid for the peace of mind that would pave the road for a camping expedition. But with a lukewarm feeling of "good enough," 3 friends and I set out on our maiden voyage to the Kern river in California (about 50 miles north-east of Bakersfield). From Long Beach to Kernville, the trip is about 400 miles round trip.

datsun 510 radiator

"Extra" noises

Let's just start with the "cons". Often, while tooling around town in the ‘Goon, some unsuspecting passenger, and oftentimes myself will ask with fear, "what's that?" Translation: "What was that noise which just sounded like something falling off the car?" An old friend, who also drives old cars, referred to them as "extra" noises; they can result in your car having less-than-extra, when something actually does fall off. With all of the camping gear loaded on to this little Datsun, we had a big "extra" noise – that of the wheel well rubbing against the rear tires with every bump.

As pointed out in part II, the recycled car happens in stages, not all at once, with suspension being one of the last items to receive attention. The car, bought as-is, is lowered with two-inch blocks compressing the springs in rear. This looks cool, for sure, but of course doesn't allow for much functionality. In the spirit of "don't try this at home," we gritted our teeth and headed straight for the Grapevine anyway.

Like a Herd of Turtles

With this uncomfortable bit of noise coming from the rear, the Datsun otherwise comfortably speeds down the freeway at 90 mph when not overloaded. The added element of danger kept us at about 70-75 mph. You can't, however, drive an old car like a new one–no matter how well a rebuilt engine from the '70s runs, it will still be slower off the line than a new one. You don't just get in the car, mash on the throttle, and zone out on the tunes. Once you get up to the desired speed in an old car, you do everything you can to maintain momentum so you have to watch for the cars cruising slow in the fast lane. If they slow you down on un uphill battle, you'll have to spend a lot more gas and time getting back up to a reasonable speed.

datsun seats

Now for the "pro"–after the third stop to check the fray on the rear tires (eek!), I did the math and calculated the fully-loaded 510 as getting 29 miles-per-gallon. This keeps pace with some of the better production vehicles out there. As a representative of a car reclaimed, a low-cost benefit to the environment, and a fully-functional recreation vehicle, all the hard work is paid off.

The recycling continues

The ride home was lighter and therefore less scary, and after inspection, we did lose a few bolts here and there. Right away, I was referred to a venerable source for suspension which I immediately jumped on. This person is regarded as an expert on old Datsun wagons and he offered me some original stock springs and a pair of rear shocks for $50.

Perhaps the best part of this journey is the generosity and camaraderie that comes with automotive recycling. My suspension guru also offered me some other advice–get that spaghetti-mess of wiring fixed, and a proper mount for the battery so it doesn't slide up into the hood, or worse yet, into the engine. Fair enough, I agreed, and gratefully accepted one he had already in his collection of parts. Parts is parts but when they come from a co-consipirator and only cost 50 bucks they feel more like a badge of honor.

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