About halfway through last year, we were quietly sitting in our office when the phone rang. It was Azhar Bhamji at 4&Rotary on the other end, and after the usual shit-talking, he asked: “Oh hey, do you remember a car called ‘SQWRT’?”
“The blue Datsun from down south that used to win everything at shows?” the Ed. replied.
“That’s it,” said Azhar, “The owner is bringing it back out of retirement for the V 4&Rotary South Island Champs.”
To be honest, with so many cars coming and going in our scene over the years, it can be easy to let some of the less remarkable ones pass from memory, but in the five years since we last saw Kerry Martin’s 1969 Datsun 1600, we’ve never forgotten it. In fact, there’ve been a few times in the office we’ve asked, “Whatever happened to the SQWRT Datsun?” An inch-perfect, tastefully modified, early Datsun packing some pretty serious grunt and a bootful of show trophies isn’t something you forget all that quickly, especially considering we’d never actually managed to get it featured in the magazine.
So, whatever did happen to the SQWRT Datsun, and why has it suddenly reemerged? After travelling down to Nelson for the South Island Champs late last year, we were able to ask Kerry in person, and finally get the angry little blue machine nailed down for a shoot.
“I’ve just been driving the car, to be honest. It was built as a show car, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be on the road and driven regularly. When I heard that Azhar was bringing the V 4&Rotary South Island Champs to Nelson, I knew it was time to bring the car out of retirement,” Kerry tells us.
The Datsun has been with him for a long time. He says: “I bought this car in 2003, so — 11 years ago. The body was in good condition and it had a few mods, like RX-7 brakes, rims and tyres, plus a Z18ET engine conversion.” A good starting point for a young car enthusiast, but, as time drew on, Kerry — with help from friends like the seemingly expert-at-everything Jeremy Read and his brother Gavin, the main man behind Rodz Ridez and Restorationz Ltd in Nelson — began to get a little more serious, and a real show-quality build started to take shape.
“I drove [the Datsun] for three months and found a few issues, so I took it off the road to sort them out. From the very start, I just wanted to relocate the battery to the boot, make a nice exhaust manifold and paint the engine bay up, but, as we got into it, we were like, ‘while we’re here, let’s do this and do that’. Before I knew it, the car was completely in bits and getting everything done.” This included a full panel and paint in Ford Blueprint blue, a complete reworking of the interior in subtle grey, a detailed motor and engine bay, and plenty of attention paid to the boot. “I finally got it back on the road in March of 2005 for the 4&Rotary South Island Champs, where it took out Best Displayed Car, an Encouragement Award, and People’s Choice.”
For winning the People’s Choice award, Kerry and his Datsun, which was still Z18ET-powered at the time, got a free trip up to the 2006 4&Rotary Nationals in Auckland, where it took out Best Nissan. While he was in Auckland, Aaron Fitzpatrick’s bright orange SR20-powered Datsun 1600 cleaned up at the Summernats over in Australia, and it got Kerry thinking. “Over a few beers in the motel, we figured out all the things we didn’t like about the car, and how we could fix them. Once it was shipped back to Nelson, it was straight into the shed for round two.”
The messy twin-spark 1800cc turbo Z18ET was pulled from the engine bay and left for dead, while a replacement SR20DET 2000cc DOHC turbo was sourced from a good mate’s facelift S14 Silvia, which he had just bought. Unfortunately for his mate — but luckily for Kerry — the A’PEXi ECU in the Silvia wasn’t quite right, and, unknown to its owner, the car was free-boosting, which caused a catastrophic failure. Kerry picked up the busted motor for cheap and completely stripped it back, rebuilding it with Wiseco pistons and ARP fasteners throughout. But before it was bolted into the car, the entire engine bay received a serious going-over.
Though a lot of work had already been done to tidy things up, the Kerry and Gavin took things to the next level. Not one hole was left untouched and every little detail was perfectly smoothed out, resulting in an incredibly tidy look — even the wiper motor was relocated, and the bonnet bracing was changed for aesthetic reasons. The thing is, if you don’t know your 510s, you might not even notice half of what has been done, but that’s the point, according to Kerry: “We thought we may as well go the whole hog and do some different stuff that people wouldn’t even know had been done. If you know my brother, you know he is a perfectionist when it comes to car building, and that’s rubbed off on me. I quite like it that people go ‘wow look at that engine bay’, but don’t know exactly what’s been modified. It makes me feel we have done an awesome job in making it look like that’s how the factory built it.”
That same ethos is carried through the rest of the car, too. The exterior, the interior, the brakes — nothing is over the top, nothing screams out at you, but spend a few solid minutes with this car, and you’ll start noticing the little details that make SQWRT so good. It’s the perfect panel gaps, the flawless chrome, and the subtle-yet-immaculate reworked interior. Hell, you can even chuck this car on a hoist and struggle to find anything undetailed, not powder-coated or polished, despite the fact Kerry thrashes the car on the street as much as he can. “It’s like driving a new car with an old feel,” Kerry says. “There’s no power steering or air con, but it sticks to the road very well for a ’70s-style suspension package, and feels quick with it being such a light car.” Kerry has yet to dyno tune it properly (it can be a bit tricky when you’re based in Nelson), but the Link G3 has had a road tune, and we can attest to the fact the SR20DET and custom Holset turbo set-up absolutely screams. The accompanying whine from the custom Gilmer gears and bark from the cool, custom equal-length manifold and full stainless exhaust system doesn’t hurt, either!
The newly-rebuilt Datsun was finished just in time for the South Island Champs in 2007, where it picked up a bootful of awards and promptly retired from the show scene until it’s reemergence at the recent event in Nelson. There Kerry managed to pick up Best 4-cylinder, Best Pre-1969, Best Displayed Car, Tough Street Top Paint, and Tough Street Top Brakes. In a way, it confirmed that Kerry and everyone else involved with the car had done things exactly right.
“After the first build was completed, there was heaps of stuff I wasn’t happy with, but seven years after we completed the second build, I’m still perfectly happy with the car, there is nothing I would change. I always wanted to go for a timeless look, something that wouldn’t date and wasn’t too in-your-face, and I think that’s paid off. The fact that the car could come back to shows seven years later and still win awards speaks for itself.”
What next for Kerry and his Datsun? Not much, as it turns out … “I’m still planning to get it on a dyno and get it tuned properly, but otherwise I’m just going to continue to drive it and focus on my other projects.” That’s right, although Kerry throttled back on SQWRT many years ago, he and his brother never stopped building cars, moving onto the well-known and now-completed 1UZ-FE-powered Hilux mini truck ‘DFRENT’, and his new project, an old Mazda RX-2 coupé. The rotary build has only just begun, but you don’t have to have a crystal ball to know it’s going to be a damn nice car when it’s finished — just take a look at the quality of this perfect little Datsun 1600, and you’ll get the gist.