New Zealanders have long had a love affair with the humble Datsun automobile. For many years, and certainly ever since we staffers can remember, we’ve seen all manner of 1200s, 1600s and the odd 240Z rolling round our fair shores. While it’s true that most of them were clapped-out shitters back in the day — they were many people’s first cars, after all — fortunes have changed for the humble Datsun in recent years. That’s thanks to an increasing scarcity of healthy examples, an explosion of old-school Kiwi car culture, and perhaps a new general worldwide appreciation of all things relating to nostalgic Japanese tin.
At 28, army officer Leighton Hamlin is far from what you would call a new appreciator. He’s been into old Datsuns since his early teenage years, and for him it was the scarce, though not impossibly rare, C110 that had always held his attention. Known as the 240K GT in Datsun-speak and the Nissan Skyline when talking JDM, the C110 coupé has always been one of the more radical Datsuns floating around, with its surprisingly big body, sharp swage lines cutting through it, and Mustang-like features. As for its position within the Nissan/Datsun line-up at the time, if the modern V35 Skyline 350GT (aka Infiniti G35) coupé is essentially a more luxurious, bigger and more refined Z33 350Z, then the C110 240K holds the same relationship to its much better-known contemporary brothers, the S30 240, 260 and 280Zs.
After plenty of looking around almost a decade ago, Leighton eventually found his own C110, a 1974 240K GT located in Tauranga. He tells us: “The car wasn’t too bad! It was originally white, and someone had attempted to paint it black but it was a bit rough, it also had rust in the sills, boot, bonnet and floorpan as well as the paint starting to crack from poor paint matching.” We’re loving a Datsun owner’s definition of ‘not too bad’!
“Mechanically, it was average with oil leaks, and an alternator that didn’t even make it home — I had to leave it in Waiouru for a week and come back with four charged batteries, and keep changing them out as I made my way back to Wellington. I wanted a challenge though, something I could put my hand to, so it was fine.” With the Datsun’s sun-damaged interior, a stock L24 motor and a three-speed automatic, there certainly wasn’t an easy road ahead …
“I was lucky enough to find a similar 240K at the back of a garage in Petone among other wrecks,” Leighton tells us. “It wasn’t pretty and rust had virtually killed it. I bought it off the guy for $600 as he had no real idea what it was, and I did! So I used parts out of this to get mine up to good order.” Though the body looked like Swiss cheese, the donor car had some great bits which, although most are no longer in use, did get Leighton on the road sooner than expected. The far superior 2800cc L28 motor and five-speed driveline was transferred over, along with all sorts of very hard to source interior and exterior trim. “The L28 I stripped and rebuilt, and had the head modified to run a turbo set-up to get a few extra horses out of it. I had big plans to run with that, but the further I read into these engines the harder and more costly it was going to be if I wanted more power. The thought at the time was to look into an RB set-up when I could afford to do it.”
That RB dream didn’t actually come to fruition until quite a few years later, and the time in-between was spent creating the one-off exterior look. Though you might not notice it at first, the body of the car has changed dramatically — Leighton explains: “I wasn’t completely happy with how it was when I first purchased it. I wanted to give it a better stance and appearance without taking too much away from what it originally was. I went for a similar look to the Nissan C110 GT-R, which is essentially the same car except for a few subtle differences. I didn’t want to make it into a rebadged GT-R, as that isn’t what the car is or was, but I still wanted it to have that famous Kenmeri GT-R aggression.”
For help with this, Leighton took the car to Richard at Middleton Panelbeaters in Palmerston North. Richard is a bit of a metalworking master, and instead of firing on the usual fibreglass spoilers and flares, he painstakingly created them from scratch in steel to create a custom, unique look. Afterwards, the car was coated in Ford Midnight Black (it’s the best colour for a classic car, so says Leighton), while the front grille, rear light panel and other details were coated in charcoal to nicely complement the newly smooth, black body.
To finish off the look Leighton needed the right set of wheels, and although these days Rota wheels can be seen on every third car at a show, back when Leighton was on the hunt, they were non-existent. “I have always liked the classic Japanese Watanabe wheels, but they cost a fortune, and I wanted the look but in a bigger diameter,” he says. “At the time Rota RBX wheels had not long come out overseas, and they have a very similar look — the only catch was that no one in New Zealand could supply them, so about three months and 20 emails to different companies later I finally got them shipped from San Francisco in the US.”
It was only just over a year ago that Leighton’s 240K went from super-nice classic streeter to the monster you see today, and that all came about thanks to someone else giving up on their own monster. Leighton explains: “I found the RB30 set-up for sale one day. The guy had an R32 GT-R replica that he was putting together, but had given up. So I purchased everything off him including the car itself. I didn’t really want [the R32 shell], but it was too good a price considering what it was worth to build, so I picked the whole thing up and set about making this somehow all work in the C110. Luckily enough, virtually everything was there to make it run and fit into my car. I did need the ECU and a bunch of fuel lines and bits and pieces, but it was a good deal that saved me literally thousands.”
After wiring in a Link G4 computer, Leighton took the car to Drury to see Grady and Bob Homewood at Hi-Tech Motorsports, who were able to massage a very safe and conservative 340 kilowatts at the rear wheels out of the forged RB30 and Garrett T72 turbo set-up, on only 15psi. “This is just a basic tune,” Leighton says. “The engine is capable of much more — at least 600 horsepower [447kW], but at the moment it’s limited by the axles — I’ve already broken one — I have a pair of much stronger ones coming from the States at the moment, so once those go in, we will be able to put more power into it.”
Even at its current lower power levels, as you could imagine, the old Kenmeri is an absolute weapon on the roads. “Given that the car weighs around 1200kg soaking wet and has 450-odd horsepower [about 336kW], it makes for some speed that deserves respect,” Leighton says. “Traction is an issue through to third gear, but when it does find enough grip, you’re fairly well stuck in the back of your seat! Around tight stuff the car feels really good, and the suspension comes into its own. The bigger brakes definitely help a lot too, the original ones were terrible, but I haven’t experienced brake fade once with the new stoppers!”
With the car now completed and hitting the streets, Leighton has had time to get used to his newly re-powered road weapon — which begs the question, with a car that oozes so much cool-factor, what is his favourite thing about it? Leighton says, “It’s got to be the look. I wanted to change it from the moment I first bought it. The lines of the car from factory are awesome, but I wanted to enhance them and give it more of a stance and something that almost resembled Japanese muscle, if there was such a thing. The engine is a close second, though!”
After going for a quick roll down Ponsonby Road in the C110, we can tell you it seems Leighton isn’t the only one who’s into the car’s good looks, with people in other cars and walking down the street either staring, or doing that whole, ‘I don’t want to give you a big head so I’m not going to look directly at your car’ thing. Universal admiration isn’t affecting Leighton, however, and he is certainly not too precious about the car — he plans to hit the track this coming summer. “Once the axles arrive, I’ll be able to up the power and hopefully get it out and do some track days, though it will always remain street-legal,” he says.
With all that custom steelwork and perfect paint on a considerably rare vehicle, it’s going to take nuts of steel to give the monster RB30DET plenty of boot around the racetrack with unforgiving Armco in every direction — but hey, if it was your car, don’t think for a second you wouldn’t be keen to take the risk and do the exact same thing