Stopping passers-by in their tracks was surely never a consideration for the designers who penned the 1600 wagon, but, with a build process as measured as this, mere sedans are left begging for this level of style
The humble wagon is something of an enigma when you plonk it smack-bang in the middle of the modified-car sphere. I mean, hell, these vehicles were meant for utilitarian purposes. Straight-line performance, razor-sharp handling, and even svelte good looks were surely never really at the top of the brief when the designers considered a model variant packing a tailgate and a D-pillar. Wagons were designed and marketed as child-haulers for the nuclear family, mobile inventories for the travelling salesman, or workshops-on-wheels for the tradesman-about-town.
But then you modify one. The result is almost undeniable instant cool, whether we’re talking the early 2000s and a dropped BF Mazda Familia wagon on 17-inch G-Zeros roaming Queen Street with a boot-load of bass, or a ’58 Chevy Brookwood with a nice patina, draped over wide Astro Supremes and soaking up some Beach Hop sun: modified wagons are just cooler, period!
That’s why, every year, when we return to Sydney for the World Time Attack Challenge (WTAC), we’re captivated by this little Datsun 1600 wagon, which kept appearing in various states of build. The first year we caught a glimpse of it, the car was poking out of a pit garage, devoid of interior, packing a partly finished engine bay but arrow-straight panels and a ride height borrowed from a hovercraft. The following year, it had edged closer to completion and was on display in Trader Alley, with the beginnings of an interior fit-out and a functioning engine bay, though it was still not quite there. Finally, in 2016, the Datsun hit the event in a finished state, and we managed to catch up with owner John Healey, manager of V-Sport Australia’s motorsport operation in Sydney, to arrange some time to get the wagon acquainted with our camera.
When he acquired it, John had another reasonably rare Datsun wagon, the B110 chassis 1200. By his own admission, the 1200 was showing its age, and the bodywork was deteriorating, so the car was in a period of stasis while its fate was being decided. Then, when a mate of his ran out of space to store his 1600 wagon project, the 1200’s fate was sealed. The small wagon was sold, and John duly purchased its bigger brother, fully knowing that he had a real project on his hands. Why? Because the 1600 had spent the past decade neglected, with just a carport for shelter and no driver’s window, which meant that the interior was shot. Even so, John describes the bodywork as being in decent shape for the car’s vintage. And, better yet, his involvement in one of Australia’s automotive aftermarket industry leaders meant that John had the necessary skillset; knowledge; and, importantly, connections to transform the wagon into a creation overflowing with the best kind of coolness — subtle but not too understated yet unique to the point that absolutely everyone who strolls past the car has to stop and examine it in depth.
The key to the undeniably timeless aesthetic is retention of the stock body lines, coated in a custom metallic grey hue based on an R35 GT-R colour
Of course, there’s that ride height to talk about. John revealed that the decision to use airbags in the Datsun came about after the panel work had been completed. Not that this is a bad thing, by any stretch; the simplicity of those stock lines dribbled liberally over a set of eye-catching rolling stock while quite literally scraping terra firma with its undercarriage is a winning recipe, no matter what flavour you favour. However, this did present a challenging set of restrictions that had to be faced before he could achieve the ideal ride height, while keeping geometry acceptable for usability.
Again tackling the job himself, John embarked on a process of trial and error, figuring out exactly how the Air Lift Performance bags needed to function on all four corners. Unlike the independently sprung rear of the 1600 sedan, the wagons use a coil-sprung live axle, and John’s now sports a shortened R31 Skyline diff, four-linked with custom rose-jointed arms that nestle into a modified floorpan — the only deviation from stock metalwork — to allow maximum lowness. Up the front, CXRacing rose-jointed lower arms support a pair of Air Lift universal struts, with the whole shooting match overseen by Accuair’s much-lauded e-Level Controller.
The aforementioned eye-catching wheels are none other than 15-inch Work CR01 three-piece examples, with eight-inch-wide variants at the back and seven-inch at the front, all tucked neatly into the arches. Couple those with a cheeky chin spoiler, gleaming restored brightwork, a rare 1600 SSS ‘Supersonic’ grille, and those oh-so-Australian rear venetian blinds, and the overall aesthetic presented by John’s wagon is sublime — if a picture speaks a thousand words, experiencing the 1600 in the metal writes the book on just why a modded wagon is cool.
But beauty, as they, say isn’t merely skin deep. Popping the bonnet on John’s Datsun reveals an engine choice that is as comprehensive as the exterior and suspension treatment yet is possibly not what the casual observer’s guess would put between the struts. It’d be all too easy to assume that John would have taken the retro-tech route and dropped an SR20 in the hole — but, as a nod to the car’s period and a key retention of the 1970s character, the 1600 now sports a moderate upgrade in the form of an 1800cc L18 four-cylinder. While the mild-built long block may be a period power plant, the supporting cast is most definitely bang up to date.
Echoing the simplicity of the exterior, the engine-bay loom appears almost non-existent to the untrained eye, as it’s tucked away neatly to leave the metallic grey engine-bay real estate to speak for itself
These engines are of a non-crossflow design, and, hanging from the passenger’s side, is a set of twisting stainless headers, topped with a quartet of EFI Hardware throttle bodies with associated fuelling components. The driver’s side features a bespoke coil-on-plug arrangement, and, to ensure the updated fuel and spark set-up behaves as it should, John’s chosen ECU is an Emtron SL8. This, in effect, means that, although the L18 is an older engine, it now runs with the kind of smoothness and ease associated with modern hardware, an alternative take on the retro-tech concept, and one that John couldn’t be happier with.
With exterior, suspension, and engine-bay specifications all ticked off the list, John’s attention needed to switch to the interior, or, more accurately, what remained of the original cabin.
Starting from essentially nothing, the formerly workmanlike Datsun 1600’s insides have been transformed with the deployment of red leather throughout. The 1970s vibe has been retained through the careful choice of textured patterns and embossing, but, in keeping with the theme of subtle upgrades, a pair of modern — but not too modern — Recaro fishnet recliners flank a custom centre console housing the e-Level Controller and Nismo-topped shifter. Other items of note include the SSS six-dial dash cluster and the retro-essential Nardi Deep Corn steering wheel, while the audio has been brought into the 21st century courtesy of a custom install featuring JL audio splits front and rear, with a symmetrical boot installation housing a JL sub and amp and integration of the air tank into the cargo area.
With such a comprehensive level of modification inside and out, completed to such a meticulous standard, you might assume that the 1600 is reserved for stopping shows and the occasional cruise. John’s not one to dwell on the odd stone chip, though, and the wagon has been enlisted as a daily-driver every now and then, not to mention into use as a family-hauler on the weekend.
You shouldn’t need further proof that modified wagons are cool — when they possess as much character, effortless style, and usability as John’s Datsun 1600 load-lugger, it’s tough to think of an argument to refute the fact!
Location: Arndell Park, New South Wales, Australia
Thanks: Todd, Greg, Brett, Scott, Darren, V-Sport, Emtron Australia, Scott’s Prestige Panel and Paint, Insight Motorsport, King Trim
1971 Datsun 1600 (WP510)
ENGINE: Datsun L18, 1800cc, four-cylinder
BLOCK: Forged flat-top pistons, factory crank, factory rods
HEAD: Mild porting, custom-ground 272 degree cam, larger valves
INTAKE: EFI Hardware ITB
EXHAUST: Stainless four-into-one headers, custom 2.5-inch exhaust
FUEL: Custom EFI fuel tank, Turbosmart fuel-pressure regulator, Goodridge hoses and fittings
IGNITION: Modified VT distributor, coil-on-plug on custom mount plate
ECU: Emtron SL8, lambda and knock control
COOLING: PWR radiator
EXTRA: Custom catch-can, full rewire and de-loom
GEARBOX: SR20 five-speed
CLUTCH: Exedy heavy-duty sprung-centre
DIFF: Shortened R31 Skyline LSD
STRUTS: Air Lift universal front struts with 280ZX hubs, Air Lift airbags
BRAKES: (F) Endless four-pot calipers, 296mm DBA slotted rotors; (R) Endless two-pot calipers, 290mm DBA slotted rotors
EXTRA: Custom four-link, CXRacing rose-jointed front arms, rose-jointed rear four-link, Accuair e-Level airbag-control system
WHEELS: (F) 15x7 (+7) Work CR01, (R) 15x8-inch (-7) Work CR01
TYRES: (F) 155/50R15 Achilles, (R) 185/50R15 Achilles
PAINT: Custom metallic grey based on R35 GT-R
ENHANCEMENTS: Datsun Bluebird Supersonic grille, chin spoiler, halogen headlight conversion, yellow high beams
SEATS: (F) Red leather–trimmed Recaro reclinable
STEERING WHEEL: Nardi Deep Corn
INSTRUMENTATION: Datsun 1600 SSS tacho instrument cluster
ICE: JL audio two-way 6.5-inch splits, JL Audio 10-inch sub, JL Audio five-channel amp, Pioneer head unit
EXTRA: Accuair e-Level Controller, full trim in red leather, red loop-pile carpet throughout, rear screen and side window venetian blinds, Dynamat throughout, custom centre console, modified transmission tunnel, Nismo Duracon gear knob, custom boot install with Datsun ‘Supersonic’ logo, custom speaker pods in kick panels