Sunday, 19 June 2016

Flashbacks in Dattos

I've been hanging to get back in my car and do some khanas with the club again. Money, time and kids sport have been frustrating me, but the other day I got an offer I couldn't refuse. The chaplain of the club offered me a seat in his Datsun 1600 (510 for US readers) for a day on the skidpan.

Of course I said, "Yes please!"

The car in question is a pretty serious machine. It's nothing to look at, really kinda ugly, but it's got everything that needs to be there. The irony is, not that long ago, 510 shells like this went to the wreckers. However, as the price of these sky-rockets, more and more slightly bent shells are getting straightened and returned to use. Which is precisely what's happened here.

Pete, the owner told me, "it's been pulled completely straight". I smirked, but that's the truth for most of these old campaigners. Years of bingles and offroad exploits have made for tired, rusty shells. This car was mostly rust free, although it's recently had some surgery too. Along with all that, it's been plated, reinforced and stiffened up wherever possible. Underneath, it's as good as anything competing in the NSW and Australian rally championships across the 70's, 80's and 90's when Dattos reigned supreme. Added to that, it's got a completely adjustable rear end, proper springs and Bilstein shocks. The brakes are discs all round.

Pushing all that around is an L18 (1800cc SOHC, non-crossflow) engine with twin Italian Weber 45 sidedrafts and not a lot of exhaust. It's also got a HUGE 3 core radiator that will put up with anything (and a thermo fan). Pete told me it's a "Low compression, Southern Cross spec motor", "Don't be afraid to rev it, it'll sit on 6k all day", and "give it plenty of beans, you can't hurt it". Behind that was stage 2 racing clutch, a 5 speed gearbox of unknown origin and a 4:11 ratio, welded diff... I'll come back to that. Pete admits the 4:11 diff is a little tall for motorkhanas, but the car doesn't complain.

Amongst all the fun, we had the usual flat battery/running out of fuel/fan not working/didn't want to start dramas that go with a track car that isn't driven much. Sitting in dummy grids had the plugs starting to foul a bit, but a good thrashing fixed that quick.

It is bullet proof. 

At the beginning of the day, Pete took me out in the passenger's seat to get the feel of the car. We took off out of the start garage and on the first turn he reefed on the hydraulic handbrake. As the car threw me around in the seat, a childhood memory came flooding back...

It was nineteen hundred and eighty seven and I was at a scout jamboree. I was 13 years old and feeling mighty homesick. But there were plenty of cool things to do. One of them was a car club that was giving kids a ride in "rally cars". The weather was crazy hot, dry and to be honest, I found the car noisy, slightly violent and a bit frightening. I got thrown around in the racing seat and I couldn't see much. I don't know if I actually enjoyed it. For some reasons though, I went back for a second go. I don't remember if I got one, but I was smitten. I'd always liked cars, but now I was keen for a "rally car". Specifically, it was the beginning of a long love affair with Datsun 180B's (some people call them $1.80s). The car club was the same one I'm a member of now.

I found out, on telling Pete this story, that the car I rode in that fateful day back at the Jamboree, still exists! It's still in competition. In fact, last year it won the Alpine Classic Rally at the hands of Jack Monkhouse.

I'm sure it's had plenty of love since 1987, but I was pretty blown away to hear it's still so successful. Now back to the Datto at hand...

It is, a pretty agricultural piece of kit. The car has a control panel you can see to the left of the wheel. None, I repeat, none of the gauges work. If it's too hot, steam comes out of the bonnet. If there's no charge, the motor dies. If the fuel runs out, it stops. You get the point. It is however, pretty electrifying to drive. It doesn't idle that well and the timing chain tensioner is worn and rattles, so you can't let it sit on a low idle. The throttle is heavy and the clutch engages an inch from the top of it's travel. You have to push the brake a long way into the floor to get it to stop after using the hydraulic handbrake a few times.

But oh man! It's so fun. 

On a wet skid pan it's a hoot. I didn't get the hang of really drifting it, but it wants to and when it starts it's quite progressive. You think, "if I back off, it'll spin out", but it doesn't. It just looses a bit of drift angle. The steering is pretty darn heavy. It's got LOTS of caster and quick steer spindles, so it's only a few turns lock to lock. But you have to hold on, coz it kicks back. If you let go of the wheel it centres FAST! I stalled the car on the first test due to this, but by the end of the day I was used to it. It is a real arm workout at low speed, but it works well enough once you get going. I suspect it would be a lot easier to drive on the dirt where the rear end would do the steering.

My daughter and I had a tops time. She loved being thrown around in the passenger's seat. The motor is very loud in the car. Up near the top of it's rev range, the combo of induction and gears just screams. It bellowed like a mutant sewing machine trying rip it's way through the firewall. But it has nothing on the welded diff. I knew they were not great for the road, but man. At low speed even a gentle turn was met with a LOT of resistance, lurching, clanking and clunking. It felt like the car was twisting in the middle. I won't lie, it made me shudder every time (almost as much as the car did LOL). I raised this with Pete who told me, "yeah it always sounds like that". Again, once under power, both rear tyres lit up and it was in it's element. With more practice, the car easily dances around. Longer faster tests lead to big slip angles and lots of laughs.

There were a series of other interesting rides out at the track the same day. This Toyota 86 was hiding something sneaky. The owner was fighting under-bonnet heat.

At lunchtime in the pits, we came across this ancient Morgan 3 wheeler. Sensational stuff.

Check that steering wheel!

I've yet to receive the results from the day, but I just don't care. Getting out on the skidpan was rewarding enough. Being able to do it in the datto was a HUGE bonus. Thank's again Pete!

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