There were some really great things about the 1970s. People who weren’t there sometimes have a hard time believing that, but we had Linda Ronstadt, Primo beer from Hawaii and real mini-trucks, like the Datsun 620.
Lately, the market for vintage import trucks has taken off, with some people paying up to $50,000 or more (BAT Lot #130654 – December, 2023) for a clean example of a 1978-1983 Toyota 4X4.
If you were there in the heyday, you might recall that there was much more to the market than Toyota. Buyers could choose from the Plymouth Arrow/Dodge Ram 50, the Mazda REPU, Ford Courier/Mazda B2000 “Sundowner,” Chevy LUV and, of course, the Datsun 620. All of these trucks were shipped over from Japan regardless of the brand badge they wore, and each of them offered something special.
Some of these trucks had predecessors in the 1960s, such as the Toyota Stout and Datsun 320 and 520, but these never really caught on in their time, and that was because of one important reason: cheap gas. The 1973 energy crisis catapulted the mini-truck into the public consciousness for their frugality before we discovered their fun and utility.
So why is the Datsun 620 the best?
I’m old, so I either owned every one of those little trucks myself, or one of my close friends did. The first thing a young man of my generation did upon getting his first job was to go get a truck. I paid $4,200 for a brand-new Mazda B2000, while my friends chose different brands. Honestly, they were all far more alike than not, and they were all great to drive. But at one point in the late 1980s, I acquired a “very old” 1974 Datsun 620.
The Datsun 620 was different and better than the others because Datsun didn’t have a lot of money back in those days, so they re-used as much as possible between the brand’s sports cars and the pickup. Datsun is remembered as an economy brand, but in reality it was a racing brand. Drivers as notable as Paul Newman, who could have afforded a Ferrari if he wanted one, were racing Datsuns on the weekend.
Pop the hood on a 620, and you’ll find almost the same driveline that Datsun delivered on the successful 510 sport compact. In the early years of the 620 (1972-73) buyers got the 1.6-liter single overhead cam L16 engine, then the 1.8-liter L18 in 1974 and finally the 2.0-liter L20B, which yielded 97 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque, from 1975 to the end of the model in 1979 (and into the ’80s in the 720).
A real racing engine and chassis
The important thing about the L-Series engine is it’s easily upgraded. If you want a little more out of that engine, it’s easy to replace the single downdraft (based on the 32/36 Weber) carb with a sidedraft DCOE or even two DCOEs. You can also fit the British SU-style constant velocity sidedrafts if that’s your thing. Exhausts are similarly upgradeable, and after 1978, the Datsun came with electronic ignition. Racing cams and other racing parts are readily available, so how hot do you want to go?
With a curb weight of about 2,300 pounds, the Datsun moved very well on that amount of power, especially after 1977 when the 5-speed manual transmission was a high-take-rate option. The standard transmission in all years was a four-speed manual, though a three-speed automatic was available after 1972. Those automatics are unspeakably bad, don’t buy one.
In fact, the biggest difference between the Datsun 620 and the racing 510 was the solid rear axle on the truck, compared to the sedan/coupe’s independent rear suspension. In the realm of suspension, the 620 is a reverse mullet: business in the back, party in the front. That’s because the front suspension is a set of torsion bars with simple adjusters. Just loosen the jam nuts on either side and turn the adjusting bolts a few rotations either way. The front ride height on a 620 can be reset in 10 minutes. Truck shims then allow you to set the rear height almost as easily.
Innovative and convenient
Through the ’70s, Datsun was first to market with several innovations we take for granted now. Beginning in 1975, you could buy a long-bed version with a 7-foot bed instead of the standard 6 feet. Starting in 1977, Datsun offered the 5-speed transmission and the King Cab, with that extra foot devoted to cabin space rather than the bed. That was a boon to anyone over about 5-foot-8-inches tall. Though you can drive the standard cab, it’s a lot better with the King Cab. Then in 1978 more new features arrived including electronic ignition and best of all, front disc brakes.
The 1978-79 Datsun 620 really bridged the gap between a sport compact sedan and a mini-truck. One other thing you’ll notice is that the steel on the bed (which comes apart for easy repair) and on the body is thicker than the steel that came later. There are legends about why this is so, but it’s a fact. The Datsun resists rust better than other trucks of its generation.
Buying the Datsun 620
Here’s the closer: the Datsun 620 is still cheap. The nicest 620 in the world is barely a $14,000 truck today, and most sell for less than half that amount. A decent starting point for your build can be had for less than $5,000, and that’s running and driving – a truck you can enjoy today while you improve it for tomorrow. Our sales examples come from Bring-a-Trailer, but you won’t see much difference on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace — all are productive hunting grounds for a good example.
The main thing you want to look for in a Datsun 620 is the absence of crash damage. There are plenty of body panels out there, but why go through the hassle? Then, look for a strong runner that drives well. Don’t worry too much about the interior, because the dashboard will be cracked every time, and the rest is easy to fix or replace. The final bonus is that parts are generally inexpensive, and just about everything is easily available.
So that’s my pitch. Datsun made the best mini-trucks of the 1970s, and they’re still fun today. Full disclosure, I have two of them right now: both 1978s, both 5-speeds, one a King Cab. I paid about $5,000 each for them and I’m having a great time tinkering and improving them. One’s destined to be my Gambler 500 and HooptieX rig and the other (the King Cab) will be my shop truck. Be sure to wave when you see me on the road.
Datsun 620 Photo Gallery