The Nissan Bluebird helped prove that the Japanese were able to build fun-to-drive and affordable alternatives to BMWs.
If it sometimes seems like JDM Nissans have some of the least intimidating names ever given to sports cars, it isn’t just you. Nissan model names have included: Sunny, Cherry, Gazelle, Gloria, Violet, Junior and the subjects of a couple parts of this series, Fairlady and Bluebird. But if you think this is a reason not to take them seriously, think again. In what is broadly considered to be its heyday, the Bluebird was a massive hit for Nissan, and a serious boost to its image.
The Bluebird is one of the oldest nameplates in the Japanese automotive world. Cars have been built in Japan for almost as long as there have been cars at all, but due to fairly regular interruptions by wars in the early years, Japanese manufacturers generally didn’t have much opportunity to develop a full line of civilian products. Even the original Bluebird, which first debuted in 1957, was actually a copy of the Austin A50 Cambridge manufactured under license. This was fairly typical of what was being built in Japan at the time, but also typical of the time, Nissan abandoned this in favor of a car of its own design as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, the first-gen Bluebird doubled Nissan’s sales, and was the first Nissan imported to the US, known here as the Datsun 1000. The first all-Nissan Bluebird debuted in 1960, with styling that resembled contemporary American cars, just scaled down. It wasn’t especially popular in America, although it did sell some, as a result of increased American interest in small cars from 1959 on. But competing as it was with the VW Beetle, it was never going to be a huge seller. Sold as the Datsun 312 overseas, this generation was a surprise hit in Finland, where Datsun briefly outsold both Triumph and Saab.
The third generation, introduced in 1963, is where the Bluebird starts to take on the identity which made it a legend. Styling of this generation was by Pininfarina, and took on a decidedly European flavor. A sport version, the Bluebird SS, debuted with this generation, as well as a JDM option package comically known as the "Fancy Deluxe". BMW had just begun selling its "New Class" compact sedans, and the Bluebird gave every appearance of being aimed at these. The fourth generation carried the ideas of the third-gen car a bit further with its debut in 1967 (for the 1968 model year), and this could be considered the definitive Bluebird.
This was the car that would be known in the US and Canada as the Datsun 510, and in other export markets as the Datsun 1600. Not an out-and-out sports car like the 240Z, which was to follow shortly, but not a boring economy car either; the 510 was a small car that was fun to drive. It was a car which changed a lot of minds overseas about what a Japanese car could be, and it was a huge hit in its home market as well. Debuting the year after BMW’s famous 2002, the 510 was seen a reasonable low-price alternative to the BMW. Its sporting credentials were further reinforced when it took home class wins for the under 2000cc class in the Trans Am Series for 1971 and 1972.
The fifth generation of the Bluebird, also known as the Bluebird-U, wasn’t as big a hit, but still had some serious hilarity connected to it. For Japan, a trim level called "STD" (standard) was offered, and the car was sold with the tagline "Bluebird-U - Up You!". How unfortunate that these features never made it to the US. The next really significant Bluebird was the seventh-gen car, which debuted in 1977. This retained the sporty characteristics of previous generations, sharing the engine from the Fairlady Z/240Z, a 2.0-lier I6 in Japan and a 2.4-liter I6 for the US. This sold first as the Datsun 810 in the US, but by the end of this generation would become the first Nissan Maxima.
The eleventh-gen Bluebird would become the Nissan Altima, although here production would move to the US and the cars would become separate models almost immediately. The Bluebird line would come to an end in 2001, shortly after the partnership with Renault in 1999. Production would actually continue until 2004, with all of these cars being badged as Maximas for export. The post-2004 Maxima is built in Tennessee. The Bluebird was a successful European-style sport compact sedan which managed to hang on to this identity for longer than most of the actual European offerings in this niche.