Monday February 26, 2018
For many, including myself, one of the most memorable aspects of the 120Y Sunny are its wheel trims. Before you had a chance to absorb the subtle beauties of its quasi-American styling, there were the hubcaps that resembled pie tin lids - yet another reason why the Datsun appeared so different from its British rivals. They are now rarely sighted – a propensity to corrode almost at will is one major reason – but the 120Y is an essential memory of the 1970s as Spangles and Whizzer & Chips comic.
The 120Y was the third generation Sunny, debuting in May 1973, with UK sales commencing in March 1974. By this time Nissan had been importing cars under their Datsun logo for over five years and if you look at many films or TV programmes of the 1970s what is noticeable is the number of imported marques among the ranks of Avengers and Toledos. The Sunny is the perfect example of the sort of vehicle that would tempt motorists to ‘buy foreign’ – its engineering was ultra-conventional, from the 1.2-litre OHV engine to the rear leaf springs, and it was very easy to drive. Autocar mused that it was ‘blessed with possibly the best gear change there is’ in addition to the ‘remarkably safe’ handling.
And for only £1,302.52, you could own a car with head restraints, two-speed wipers, a cigar lighter, clock and a radio as standard equipment – the last named would have been quite remarkable to anyone trading in their Ford Escort or Vauxhall Viva. A top speed of 96 mph was reasonable by the standards of the day although in the aftermath of the OPEC Oil Crisis, many drivers were more concerned with the Datsun’s excellent fuel economy.
The Sunny was available as a two or four door saloon, a five-door estate, a three-door van and, for those suave evenings in the clubland of East Cheam, a fastback coupe. The performance of the last-named may not have been in the E-Type class but this was a car in which style was all – ‘that long low look that leaps right out at you’ to quote the advertising copy. In 1976 the range gained a minor facelift and when the 120Y was replaced by the 310 Series in late 1978, nearly 150,000 models had been sold in the UK. This year will see Nissan celebrating its half-century in the UK and the 120Y was crucial in establishing major changes in car-buying habits. In the late 1970s the lightweight Datsun was a best-seller, not through technological breakthrough or even those pretty amazing hubcaps but because it was honest, everyday transport.
Of course, the Datsun Sunny was not the epitome of automotive perfection – the instruments were fairly unreadable, the ride was ‘entertaining’ and the C-pillars created instant blind spots – but it was dependable. When embarking on the school run, the commute to work or even a holiday in Weymouth, one very unwelcome sound on turning the ignition would be a succession of dispirited clankings. But with the 120Y you were more or less guaranteed to reach your destination sans mishap - and with Forever and Ever playing on medium-wave.