Side Winder

By Scott Lear
Jan 6, 2009 | Datsun | Posted in Shop Work | From the Feb. 2004 issue | Never miss an article

If most people found both a derelict Datsun 510 as well as an orphaned Oldsmobile 215 V8 lying around their parents’ house, they would probably wonder if Goodwill takes engines and what kind of tax deduction a 510 could earn them. These people have space in their garages, and probably get their taxes filed before the last minute.

To Southern California’s Jeff Hixson and Minh Duong, competitors at last year’s Kumho Tires Grassroots Motorsports $2004 Challenge presented by CRC Industries, a car that’s been sitting under a tree for 12 years is a chassis waiting to be used, and a V8 without a home sitting just a few yards away, why, that’s almost providence.

Who wouldn’t want to put an Olds V8 in the passenger seat of a 510 and race it, spending less than $2003 on the buildup? Taxes? I thought I paid those last year.

Family Car

In 1969, back when he was 15 years old, Jeff Hixson’s parents purchased a brand-new Datsun 510 sedan. He recalls being opposed to the purchase: “I couldn’t talk my parents into a 340 Duster,” he says.

Hixson learned to drive in the 510 and grew to like the car. In 1983, the car was sold to Hixson’s girlfriend, who later became his wife. “After she became my ex-wife, she gave the car back to me with a lot more dents in it,” he recalls.

While almost worthless to the real world, the car still had sentimental value to Hixson, who had wanted for some time to make a hotrod out of the car. Strict smog laws in California made this an unrealistic dream at the time.

After driving it around in its beat-up form for a few months, the now-single Hixson decided he would need to get a classier set of wheels if he was ever going to get a second date. He decided to park the car under a tree, where it sat for 12 years. The original vinyl top was partially maimed by his dogs, and the car was ravaged by time and the elements.

When a friend and co-worker, Duong, heard about the Challenge, he mentioned it to Hixson, who was the more car-savvy one among the pair. The rules of the GRM-hosted event were simple, as entrants had to buy, build and prepare a car for $2003 or less. The competition would include a quarter-mile drag race, autocross and concours judging. Hixson, who had a Porsche 914 and the 510 to choose from, decided the Datsun would fit the bill, allowing him the opportunity to fulfill his dream of hopping up the car.

Starting With Zero

Jeff Hixson and Minh Duong started building the V8-powered Datsun 510 for the $2002 Challenge, not the magazine’s 2003 event. The head start gave them plenty of time to detail the car.

The 510 was not an ideal starting place, but at zero dollars, the price was right. There was lots of rust, no straight panels, and a plethora of dings, including one on the roof from a tree-cutting accident after the 510 had been parked. The interior was destroyed, save the door panels, and 12 years is sufficient time for all manner of life to make a car its home.

As Challenge entrants are required to submit an expense report for their entry—thus proving it comes in under the limit—making a budget is step one. The preliminary budget for the 510 included a couple of interesting items: First was a shovel, needed to dig the car out from the place it had sat for more than a decade. As moving dirt around wasn’t at the top of their fun list, Hixson decided to first try the key, and to his great surprise, the 510 fired up and moved under its own power. The shovel money made it back into the budget, and allowed for step two: bug bombs.

“The car had been sitting under a tree for 12 years, and we weren’t going to stick our hands in anywhere until we had set off bug bombs,” Hixson explains. With the creepy-crawlies adequately neutralized, work began in earnest on the car itself. While the engine ran, it wasn’t exactly what Hixson had in mind, so out came the 510’s powerplant. An all-aluminum Oldsmobile 215-cubic-inch V8 would replace it, but not exactly take its place.

The aluminum Olds block was originally used between 1961 and 1963 before being sold to British Leyland for use in their Triumph TR8s and Rovers. The small, lightweight V8 is not huge on power, but Hixson has an affinity for them, having once owned a dune buggy powered by one. Several years before the Challenge, Hixson came across a complete engine for $100 and decided to purchase it, just in case he ever needed one.

Swap Time

The aluminum box covers the V8.

With the two-barrel V8 sitting around, and the 510 destined to be a Challenge car, combining the two was the natural route for Hixson and Duong to take.

Being of the anything-worth-doing-is-worth-doing-right school of thought, they decided that the two-barrel carb might not breathe deeply enough. They tried machining the two-barrel manifold to accommodate a four-barrel carburetor, but kept running into water jackets and other cross passages.

They came across a local auto parts trader who was selling three engines, one of which was said to run but had piston slap. Another had been reassembled and then left outside, and the last was in pieces. The package also included shorty headers, a magneto and four-barrel intakes. Just $760 purchased the whole lot of engines and parts, and Hixson hooked up the one reported to have piston-slap to an old AFB carburetor he had lying around. The engine started up and idled smoothly, making no unwanted noises.

Hixson then sent a friend to a parts swap with the spare headers and magneto, hoping to take advantage of the Challenge budget recuperation rules, but fully expecting to get his parts back. The friend returned with an envelope filled with $260, which was recouped into the budget.

Internet research had revealed some V8/510 swaps, but Hixson and Duong were unsatisfied with the front-heavy position of the engines in those projects. They debated putting the engine as far back as possible in the bay and driving from the rear seat, but that would have required a great deal of fabrication to accommodate pedals and the like.

In the end, the passenger seat was chosen to be the home for the V8 for three primary reasons: less work to get the pedals and steering in order, superior weight balance, and the Challenge rule suggestion that “radical engine swaps are encouraged.”

“We figured that if we put it in the passenger footwell, but kicked it off to the side, there’d be just enough room to leave most things completely stock, and use a short, angled driveshaft,” Hixon explains.

The radical placement was not without its problems. “One of the biggest amounts of work was fabricating the exhaust system. The motor is so close to where your legs are, I had to do the whole system,” he says. The end result has headers that hug the left side of the block, with a thin aluminum heat shield protecting the driver. (GRM’s own J.G. Pasterjak found out the hard way, while wearing shorts, that one of the header tubes was making contact with the shield and had heated it to leg-searing temperatures.)

Another problem was the transmission. Hixson decided that the 510’s tranny would not be up to the task, so he opted for an inexpensive, easy-to-find T5 setup from a mid-1980s 5.0-liter Mustang. “Our best bet was to take the flywheel, starter, transmission and bellhousing from a Mustang,” says Hixson. After acquiring the parts from a junkyard, they fabricated a mount and tested the whole assembly. “It ran rough,” says Hixson, as the engine bounced a full inch on the mounts when revved.

After checking everything he could think of, Hixson spoke to a friend at work, one with extensive Mustang experience. Turns out that the Olds V8 is internally balanced, while the Mustang’s 5.0 was externally balanced, meaning the flywheel had a lump of unnecessary mass spoiling everything. Hixson machined away the offending lump, after which the engine ran fine.

One of the challenges that Hixson and Duong overcame more easily than expected was securing wheels and tires for the 510. Three wheels came for free off a Miata, while a stand-in was found at Pep Boys for minimal cost. A local Datsun 510 autocrosser donated 12 used tires to their cause.

Ergonomics also received some attention. Since the shifter comes off the transmission, a two-foot lever was needed to make the car drivable, but this didn’t do much for the shift action. “The shift from first to second took a good one and a half feet of throw,” says Hixson. So they built a means to space the whole shifter assembly in an effort to keep the throw lengths within reason. This helped the throws, but made distinguishing the first-second row from the third-fourth row particularly difficult.

Resto Rod

With the engine in place and the car moving under its own power, Hixson and Duong took to cleaning up the whole package. At the time of the first start-up, the car had “no front doors, no cover on the engine…it was as ratty as ever,” Hixson says. Fortunately, they had some extra time to sweat the aesthetic details.

“This was supposed to be a $2002 Challenge car,” Hixson admits. “Originally there were three people involved, and we probably started in November of 2001. The test drive up the driveway happened one month after the 2002 competition.” The car was, at that point, functionally complete but visually still a wreck. The third partner moved to New York, and work did not resume on the car until November 2002, when they decided to do a ground-up restoration on the 510.

“Only the rear suspension was untouched,” says Hixson. Everything was either sandblasted and repainted or replated with an Eastwood do-it-yourself zinc-plating kit. New panels were fabricated until the entire vehicle was straight. “When you open the hood, there’s the big, gaping hole, but everything was completely restored.” Their hard work was not without reward, as the V8-powered 510 earned top honors in the concours judging part of the competition.

The cleaning process had a domino effect. Given Hixson’s propensity for getting something right, once one part had been cleaned, the rest had to follow suit. The duo found many helpers along the way: “Anybody that heard about the project and made the mistake of saying ‘cool!’” Duong says.

“At one point, we had to cut ourselves off and just quit,” Hixson says, so less than a month before the event, the restoration work was halted and the car was deemed sufficiently clean.

“Looking back, I definitely am happy we did the 510 instead of the 914,” Hixson says. “Probably one of the coolest things about the whole experience, no matter where we were, [was] just hearing the number of sentences that start with ‘What the?’ I always like to do things slightly different than most people would. This gave me a chance to just do something that, maybe didn’t perform that well, but people will talk about for years.”

Florida Bound

The V8-powered Datsun 510 claimed two prizes at last spring’s Kumho Tires Grassroots Motorsports $2003 Challenge.

On the drive from California to Florida for the event, an important decision was made: Hixson had purchased a nitrous system for the car that never made it into competition. The 150-shot was untested, and as they made the long drive in 54 hours, they decided that grenading the engine on the first day of competition would be a sour start to the event. “We took the nitrous system completely out of the car,” Hixson says, and even without it the car healthily spun the tires in first gear.

At the event itself, held April 4-5, 2003, at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway, the $1805.09 Datsun 510 ran well, crossing the quarter mile in 15.868 seconds. The concours judges were impressed with the build and handed the car a first-place trophy, and the team finished 23rd overall out of 66 entrants. They also nabbed the Best Engineered trophy.

One problem that went undiscovered until the event was the nature of the throttle, which was “just about digital,” according to Hixson. The on/off nature was not a problem during the drag race, but led to a spin on the first autocross outing on the second day, where the quick snap-off throttle was the equivalent of yanking a hand brake.

The other major hiccup was kind enough to rear its head only after the event had been completed. The teammates were eager to show the car to some friends who hadn’t seen it, and Duong was given the duty of bringing the car out of the trailer. The carburetor was a bit hesitant to start when cold, but Hixson had found a way to gently pump the throttle just after start-up to keep things moving.

Duong hadn’t yet mastered the feather touch and gave the car a healthy dose of fuel to keep it idling after start-up. A giant puddle of oil formed under the car.

Since Hixson had never seen one of the V8s make much oil pressure, he decided not to use a regulator during the buildup. Cold, the engine made more than 100 psi of oil pressure, and blew off the top of the filter can. “We have since redone that to include a pressure regulator,” Hixson says dryly.

Hixson’s memories of the buildup are fond. “It was a chance to be 18 again,” he says. “You’ve got no money, and you’ve got some time. Duong probably spent at least two solid weekends machining a remote oil filter adapter that we could have probably bought for 12 bucks. It was a chance to use ingenuity and creativity, because you couldn’t use money.”

Setting such a strict limitation on budget won’t necessarily become a part of his future plans, however. “I will be happy to get back to a project where money isn’t the issue,” he says.

On a personal note, neither Duong nor Hixson were married when they started building the car, but by coincidence they each got married on June 21 of this past year. They claim that their new wives know full well the level of their car-fanaticism, and wishfully expect no complaints in that department. Their building days are not over, and they’re hoping to return to a future Challenge event. “We came back saying, we were just going to do this once, but it was such a great event we can’t wait to get back,” Hixon says. “Don’t know if it will be next year, but we would like to give it another chance.”

And they’ve got some ideas in the works. They’re confident they’ll secure another win in the engineering and appearance departments, along with dramatic improvements in the performance categories. Hixson says, “We’ve got some diabolical plans for our next appearance. The jaws that dropped the first time will drop even farther.”

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