Every single vintage car and motorcycle I’ve ever owned has had something which attracted me to it. It might have been styling or engineering or performance but there was something that was outstanding about that vehicle. However, I almost never started out with the vehicle in the kind of condition that attracted me to it in the first place. For example, the lines may have been perfect but the engine was blown. Or, you couldn’t really experience the stellar handling of the vehicle because the frame was cracked or the suspension was shot. Then there are the cars and bikes that only look good to you in one particular color or configuration. The color that you can’t find no matter how hard you look. Or, the configuration you can’t afford. So you settle for a substitute, or the base model, or the real thing in worse condition than you would like. You compromise.

So for me, every car and motorcycle has involved the laying on of hands. Whether it has been weeks, months or years, there has always been some level of effort (in most cases significant) that went into transforming what was able to be obtained, into what was envisioned. During that process you bond. And bonding causes you to approach things like you’ll be together forever in bliss. The shortcuts and cost savings of the rational business person are traded for doing it right, which almost always costs more in time, effort, or money. Such journeys are hardly ever cost effective, and some are downright painful, but there it is. If you enjoy a daring rescue mission, but you flunked out of the Navy Seals, and already volunteer at the animal shelter, then this is just the thing. So here is Case Study #1 in the series on compromise. The Substitute.

I wanted a BMW 2002. I couldn’t find one in my price range (no one could). If it did happen, I couldn’t afford the parts. This was pre-Internet (remember that ?), and you had to surf want ads and magazines and newsletters or know someone to find anything. After months, my $500 was in danger of going to some practical need like new work shirts or food. I had to act quickly. Then, emerging from the mist, came the answer. A Datsun 510. It was boxy like the 2002, it went racing like the 2002, it seated 4 like the 2002, why it was practically identical. While $500 would not get you any 2002 that moved under its’ own power, it would get you a 510 driver with a Symphonic am/fm cassette player, and some shag carpeting on the dash and rear parcel shelf. Yeah baby!

It turns out that this impressive list of features cannot overcome a bad heater core in the winter. It also cannot overcome a band of rust along the lower edges that had body panels swaying in the breeze like a metallic hula skirt. The transformation of this vehicle into a Bob Sharp Racing 510 was going to take some work. The minilite wheels and the weber carbs were no cheaper than those for the 2002. Rotted metal was rotted metal, and bodywork was just as tedious. There was so much work in fact, that you could probably buy a decent driver 2002 by the time you were done. You could certainly buy a much better 510. But I had bonded with the bondo, found the answer to the Ansa, and had looked into the soul of the car through the hole in the rocker panel. I could not turn back now.

And so it was that winter turned to spring, and then summer and fall. I did some do-it-yourself metal patches and straightened a door panel and the rear valance. A carb rebuild kit worked wonders, and an Earl Scheib $99 paint job actually looked pretty good (in relative terms). Shag carpeting was replaced by felt in the back, and by nothing in the front (which exposed a few dash cracks, but was far better to me). Turns out the heater core was ok and the correct thermostat fixed the problem once the radiator was properly flushed. A tune up had the car running like a dream. It took down many a Celica GT and dismissed Camaros and Trans-Ams in the New York twisties.

Then one day, a bronze 2002tii squarelight kicked my butt on Southern State Parkway on Long Island. I went back to the classified, and an inka (orange) 2002 turned up about 50 miles away for $750. I went to look and it was rough, had a missing kidney grill, and wouldn’t stay running for more than 15 seconds, but it was a 2002. Game over. The 510 went to my best friend for $500 down and $50 a week for 6 weeks. He only paid me for 4.

4 Replies to “The Substitute”

  1. The 510 was a great car, and very under-rated. Hard to find now, since people have "discovered" the early japanese cars. Nice blog.

  2. Dear Phil,

    Thanks for your comment. My brother owned several 510s, and is probably out somewhere looking for one right now…


  3. If u can find a decent 510 or 710 today, buy it. These are going to be big bucks in 10 years. IMHO

  4. Dear Bill,

    No argument. The BRE stuff has already skyrocketed aind a few collectors like Adam Corolla are snapping them up. Thanks for your comment.


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