1971 Datsun 1600 SSS
Screams In The Night
Cars make noises. It's part of what we love about them. But when you start hearing a shrill squeal from the engine compartment barely 200 kms into a 1300 km journey, it's rarely a good sign. It started as a very occasional scream only under heavy load at low RPM, but it was getting worse, and happening more frequently. I could feel the Datsun was humming along as smoothly and strongly as ever, but the noise wanted checking. And fast. It was a belt squeal, that much was obvious, but belts don't often squeal for no reason. It could be an accessory going bad. Maybe the alternator seizing up. A pulley coming apart, perhaps. I always say: "A belt squeal could simply be an old belt, but in my experience it never is." Call it a personal belief - sort of the opposite of Occam's Razor. I needed a place to stop and have a look, but I couldn't have been in a less convenient place.
The run east from Porto had been fairly uneventful for most of the afternoon, along tree-canopied secondary roads and through charming riverside towns, but as the sun set I was making fast for the Spanish border, breaking out of the villages and crossing a stretch of relatively desolate mountains high up in the northeast of Portugal. A driving February rain had started and the temperature was dropping precipitously. With no moon, dense rain and little other traffic on the highway, I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for. A rest stop, perhaps. Or a big petrol station. Something welcoming. Somewhere with light and shelter, where I could try to figure out the noise and see what the plan should be. But there was nothing of the sort, just a seemingly endless ribbon of wet asphalt. And rain. Lots of rain.
The goal had originally been to make Madrid, driving late into the night before stopping, but that plan was out the window, now. With the noise I reduced speed and kept one eye on the gauges at all times. Limping along. I really didn't want the belt to break out here in no man's land. My brain repeated things over and over again. "Light throttle only. Gauges normal. Light throttle only..." More tarmac. More rain. More desolation. The squeal was constant now, at all engine speeds and all throttle positions. The kilometers passed sluggishly by. If the belt broke out in the middle of nowhere, late at night, well... annoying wouldn't begin to describe it. I wasn't sure offhand what I'd do. Hell, I wasn't even sure precisely where I was.
Finally, in the darkness, an internally lit sign loomed. I pulled in and found a small petrol station with a sort of general store attached. The same kind of thing you might find in many parts of rural America, and although it was small, there was a thatch-covered parking area to one side. Unlit, but dry. I got out and took a look. The drive belt looked old, but not frayed or split. The tension on it seemed okay. I let the car run for a bit and shone my little Fenix flashlight on the pulleys, trying to see if any seemed out of alignment, or if the noise appeared to be coming from inside one of the accessories, but everything looked pretty normal. I dried the belt off thoroughly and the engine ran quietly. I sprayed a little water on it again and the squeal quickly returned. Wow. Seemed like just an old belt. Three cheers for Occam.
I fueled up, checked the oil, and got back on the road. I had lost a lot of time, but figured I could make Zamora before finding a place to sleep. I know Zamora. I bought a Citroën 2CV there. It is a good town with good hotels. I felt the tension drain out of me and exhaustion take its place. The car was fine.
I should have never doubted an old Datsun.
Less Warm, And Yet Warmer
When the plane landed in Porto and I walked out onto the tarmac, things seemed pretty familiar. It was my first time in Portugal, but as you would expect, it looks and feels a lot like Spain. Having flown in from Valencia, the temperature was lower, but the sun felt every bit as intense and the scenery of northern Portugal looked like the scenery in the north of Spain. Beautiful, rolling hillsides and those typically Spanish (Iberian?) red rooftops.
I grabbed a taxi for the 30 minute drive to Braga, and met the seller, a man named Paulo, at his garage inside an industrial park. The garage, perhaps 3000 square feet of it, was half full of classic cars and half full of parts. A w126-chassis Mercedes-Benz SEC sat next to a Ford Taunus and Volkswagen Camper Van. Complete engines hung on walls, tagged clearly by application, and huge shelving units were lined with boxes of parts, all labeled clearly. Morris Minor. Triumph TR4, Datsun Fairlady... An old BSA motorcycle was parked next to the shelves. "Does it run?" I asked Paulo, and he nodded in reply, smiling, as if to say: "Of course it does."
Paulo speaks perfect English. A little hesitant, perhaps, as if he is trying to find the right word, but he always seems to and the result is elegant, grammatically perfect English that is a joy to listen to. He is a warm and welcoming person, with a wry sense of humor, traits I would come to associate with pretty much all Portuguese. They are serious and slightly formal people, like most Spaniards, but whereas Spaniards tend toward reservation, particularly upon first meeting someone, the Portuguese are more open and instantly friendly. This was true of everyone I met during my time there. Taxi drivers, hotel staff, cafe waiters, gas station attendants, and even pedestrians in the streets. People smile more and wave at strangers more. The result is an incredibly warm feel to the entire country that makes you feel at home. I tend to like most places I travel to, but Portugal is a country I could see myself moving to.
We chatted about his garage, which is not a business but rather a clubhouse for his ever-expanding car hobby, while the Datsun was brought around. Shining from a recent respray in the factory "Cocoa Brown," the rally wheels and Fedima tires gave it the perfect vintage rally look. The black vinyl interior, mostly original, was in good shape, and a thorough inspection revealed solid metal everywhere. No rust. A test drive sealed the deal, we finished the paperwork, and Paulo and I shook hands before I headed off in the 1600 SSS. I had a long drive back to Javea ahead of me, but I made sure to keep Paulo's number in my phone. He is a good man, and extremely knowledgeable about a wide variety of old cars. I feel certain we will keep in touch.
The Most Difficult Event In The World
Long before Thierry Sabine dreamed up the Paris-Dakar rally, it was widely recognized that the most grueling event in the world was the East African Safari Rally (later renamed simply the Safari Rally.) Contested every year from 1954, it is one of the longest (at between 3200 and 4000 miles) endurance rallies of its kind, and has always been known as a "car breaker." To this day, it is not uncommon for 90% of the cars which start to drop out before the finish line. Throughout the 1950's, 60's and early 1970's, the East African Safari Rally ran through Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and became something of a proving ground for manufacturers who wanted to demonstrate that their cars were quick, balanced, and above all, tough.
What made it so grueling? The sheer length? Legendary African dust, perhaps? Animals wandering into the track? Rough terrain and broken ground? Well, yes. All of those things. But what really set the EASR apart was that it was run every year in the springtime, during the height of the rainy season. And rain means mud. Lots of it. Thick, sticky, car-stopping mud. Mud so enveloping it could act like quicksand when wet and dry like ghastly, rutted concrete if exposed to the hot African sun for any length of time. In many years, of more than 100 cars taking the start, only five or six might finish.
So it was into this fearsome forum that Datsun decided to toss the plucky little 1600 SSS. Built in many ways as the leading Japanese answer to vehicles like the BMW "neue klasse" and 2002, the 1600 SSS was a dynamite driver, with precise steering, a revvy and durable engine, and astounding reliability, and Datsun was keen to show the world what it could do. The company had been a presence in the rally since the early 1960's, with various different cars and varying levels of success, but in 1969 they brought the SSS, and in its first year the team took six of the top thirteen places and first through sixth place in class. It was an auspicious start, but only the start. The SSS went on to become part of Safari Rally history with a string of excellent results including an outright win in 1970, and the model stayed a dominant force in the event even after Datsun replaced it with the 240Z for their factory-backed efforts.
This particular 1600 SSS, which I was driving in a rather spirited manner through northern Portugal, had originally been intended as a tribute to those fast and furious Safari Rally cars of the early 1970's. Starting with a beautiful, rust-free and entirely original example, Paulo had fitted uprated springs and dampers, correct rally wheels and road-legal Fedima rally tires. He had the mesh grille headlamp protectors fabricated from scratch, a factory-style skid plate under the engine, and the ladder-style steps installed on the rear bumper (which, when accompanied by corresponding handles in the trunk lid, would allow a co-driver to stand on the rear bumper and bounce up and down to improve traction in slippery conditions.) There is even a mount for the single fog light that the factory cars had installed on the front bumper.
But then, the project stalled. "When it came time to paint the car, I was planning on red with a black hood, in deference to the factory vehicles of 1970," Paulo said to me. "But it was too nice a car. So original, so correct. I didn't have the heart. I sprayed it in the correct factory color of Cocoa Brown."
It is, in my mind, the right decision. Rust free, virtually original, and beautiful, but with a tauter feel to the suspension and better control over bumps, this Datsun has everything it needs to carve up any back road you can think of, and I set out fast through Portugal intending to carve up as many of them as I could find.
Never Doubt A Datsun
Heading south out of Braga, I made my way down to Marco de Canaveses to check an old Land Rover we were interested in buying, had a lazy supper in town and got on the road as the sun started to get low in the sky. Traffic was light as I headed east, with the goal of criss-crossing the mountains toward the Spanish border, entering Spain as quickly as I could get there, and then making a late night highway blast down into Madrid. The following day would be a lazy hop back to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and home. 1300 kilometers in total. All the way across the Iberian peninsula by vintage Datsun. The kind of trip that always makes me smile.
Winding up through the hills, with the sun setting behind me, I couldn't stop thinking about the Safari Rally. For a forty-five year old sedan, this 1600 SSS drives remarkably modern. The brakes are powerful, the steering is precise, the controls are light and easy to operate, and the snarly little powerplant, fed by twin-carbs and with a different camshaft profile than the US specification 510, pulls the lightweight sedan from corner to corner with commendable alacrity. Bend it into a corner and it turns in nicely - maybe not as crisply as a similar vintage Ford Escort, but there is no flex in the chassis and the body lean is minimal. Corner on steady throttle and the chassis stays pretty neutral, but the tail can be made loose with either a boot of throttle in mid corner or by lifting. Your choice! Either way, there is a sting in the tail, here. Well, maybe not a sting, but a light, lively feel to the rear end that is just fantastic. It's the difference between an ordinary car and a driver's car, that ability to tailor the steering with the throttle. The BMW 2002 has it, and so does this Datsun. It must have been a treat on those rally stages.
You can really drive this car. You can make it do what you want it to do. The engine is flexible and smooth, and sounds great when you stick your foot in it, but the cabin is remarkably comfortable, even for a pretty big guy like me. With four real doors and a generous trunk, this car would be a liveable daily driver for virtually anyone. And it's economical, to boot.
After my experience with the belt squeal, and the luxury of a comfy hotel bed in Zamora, I took the Datsun to Zamora's Bosch Certified repair facility for a little checkover. As luck would have it, the 50-something technician on duty was something of a Datsun lover, and he allowed me to look the car over with him. We changed the belt, which was just old and worn, and the noise was gone. The alternator was tested and working perfectly, and all the accessories and pulleys were perfect and spinning true. Oil and fluids were checked and fine, and he even checked the timing for me, which was dead on the money. "This car just needed a belt," he said with finality. "Everything is fine."
With the rain gone and the Spanish sun back to its true self, I set off for Javea and home. Just me and the zingy little rally Datsun. No noise, no stress and no problems.
Everything was fine indeed.
(CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY)