$500 Cross-Country Project Battle: 1980 Triumph Spitfire vs 1979 Datsun 620

Sbsd 10 27

Good morning! Today we’re going to really scrape the bottom of the used-car barrel, and look at a pair of projects offered for five crisp Benjamins each.

But before we get to that, let’s see how yesterday ended up:

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And the green Manta takes a comfortable win. Honestly, I don’t think there is a bad choice between these two; it comes down to preference. I might be tempted to choose the Renault just for the rear-engined novelty, but I’d happily wrench on either.

One of today’s picks comes to us courtesy of my pen-pal and fellow contributor Stephen Walter Gossin. He found a viable-looking Triumph Spitfire being offered at only $500, a price that used to be a sort of default “get this thing out of my garage” price. I was curious to see if I could find another likely-looking project on this side of the country for the same money. Pickings were slim, but I did find a few, and chose the one most interesting to me.

So here they are: Two project cars, one on the east coast and one on the west, for only $500 each. Let’s take a look at them.

1980 Triumph Spitfire – $500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter OHV inline 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: outside Richmond, VA

Odometer reading: 59,000 miles

Runs/drives? Unknown

“So when are you picking it up?” I asked S.W. when he showed me the listing for this little yellow Triumph. I was only half-kidding. Spitfires are fun little cars, easy to work on, and if this one is as clean as it looks in the two small photos in the ad, it’s the steal of the decade.

But only if it’s complete and broadly functional. It’s a simple car, and parts aren’t hard to come by, but those Moss Motors invoices can add up quickly, if you don’t watch it. Trust me; I know.

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The ad doesn’t give us much to go on, either. The seller says it is “partially restored,” whatever that means. It looks rust-free in the photos, and that yellow is an original color, but there’s no way to know if the paint is original without looking at the car in person, and with a magnet. It could be 80% Bondo by weight and still shine up nicely, with a fresh coat of paint.

The seller does note some deterioration of some vinyl parts in the interior, but again, we’d have to see it in person to see how bad it is. And I really wish there was at least one photo of the engine, so we could see what we’re dealing with. It’s a basic 1500cc pushrod four, with one Zenith-Stromberg carb feeding it in 1980, and a tangle of smog controls. Of course, you can ditch all that and install twin SU carbs, like a proper British sports car should have, but only if you don’t need to pass an emissions test with it.

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Fortunately, it includes the most important bit of any classic sports car project – the repair manuals. Both the classic Haynes manual and a still-shrink-wrapped Robert Bentley manual are included, and both will serve the new owner well. These two books, in my experience, fill in each other’s holes when it comes to repair and service. Use the Haynes book for troubleshooting, and the Bentley book for the exact repair procedures.


1979 Datsun 620 pickup – $500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter SOHC inline 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Moses Lake, WA

Odometer reading: 148,000 miles

Runs/drives? Will start, but not drivable

Over on this end of the country, the best-looking $500 project I could find is this Datsun pickup. Hey, it’s kinda similar: two-seater, with a small inline four and a manual transmission driving the rear wheels. It’s practically a small sports car itself!

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OK, maybe not. But you can haul a lot more stuff in it than the Spitfire.

This is the final year of the 620 series Datsun truck, before the more squared-off 720 took over. It uses Nissan’s L-series overhead cam engine, here with four cylinders and two liters of displacement. It’s a handsome little truck, and has been a popular choice with the mini-truck crowd since it was new.

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This 620 looks like it has been someone’s, or possibly several someones’s, project for a while. It’s in primer-gray, the universal color code for incomplete rust repair, but looks mercifully stock, right down to the two-spoke 1970s Chevy-looking steering wheel. It is rusty underneath, in the floors and sills, but it looks like it will hold together for a while longer.

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According to the seller, this truck starts and runs, but idles badly, and the rest of the vehicle isn’t ready for prime-time either. It hasn’t been on the road in 15 years, so some rubber parts will want replacing, not least of which the tires.

This thing is probably not worth doing the rust repair on, but some mechanical fixes to get it roadworthy again, while leaving it ratty-looking, could make it a good weekend yardwork tool. And these little trucks are fun to drive. Not as fun as a bona-fide British roadster, but still fun.

So that’s that. You’ve got $500 to spend and an empty garage spot to fill. Which one gets your money?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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45 Responses

  1. Spitfire for me. The bed on that Datsun looks like it’s more bondo than metal… and I know why… they were complete rust buckets.

    My dad owned the King Cab successor model to this (the 720) and it also was a complete rust bucket.

  2. Another day of “yes, please” to both. In fact, if that Spitty was close to me I’d have to give it some very serious thought as a project car for me and my son to work on as an electric conversion. That’s the only way it would work as 1980 puts me into smog requirements in California and I don’t want to deal with the wheezy emissions mess under the hood. I’d also have to see if I could retrofit metal bumbers from an older model.

    My vote went to the Spitfire as my best friend had one in high school and college. I’ll always treasure the times of my friend driving with a girl in my lap and another girl behind the seats, or driving up the route of the Duryea Hill Climb to the Pagoda in Reading, PA. That car was a major pain to keep running, requiring about an hour of garage work per hour of driving. It was also dog slow with two people in the car, much less the occasional four mentioned above. But none of that mattered because it was so much fun and had so much character.

    That said, total respect for anyone who voted the other way. The Datsun is also an excellent choice.

    I hope good people buy both vehicles and do something worthwhile with them.

  3. The Triumph is close enough to me for me to think about it (not that I’ll actually do it, mind), so I KNOW it’s close enough to JT that he can pick it up for DT. At least DT would have one decent LOOKING vehicle in his junkyard. 😉

  4. I clicked Datsun. Then I looked at the listing pics. I choose poorly. Voting regert! I learned my lesson on british sporty cars with a ’64 TR4. That Spit is in much nicer condition than the TR was! But it would run with the 6 cyl Camaros & Mustangs (circa 1980) and wipe them out on the curvy bits.

  5. Had both when I was a kid… first car was a 79 Spitfire that I got when I was 14 and spent the next two years learning electrical, body, and engine work. Loved it until I eventually killed it due to a major overheating incident.

    Growing up, my dad would pick up old Datsuns with the L16/20 motors that had blown a head gasket for quite cheap. We always seemed to have either an old 620 truck or 510 in our driveway. One of the first vehicles I ever drive was a green 620 truck. What an incredibly capable little truck that was!

    Between the two, I’d pick the Spitfire. Even more so if it has the overdrive transmission.

  6. Spitfire, although I’d try to find an Oregon car. Regardless rust is the expensive thing and a desert climate car is ideal.
    I was low key tempted by a $400 Beetle a couple of weeks ago. Unlikely to be rusty out here and dead simple mechanicals.

  7. As much as I’d love to have a Spitfire, I’m choosing the Datsun, if for no other reason than I feel it a duty to put as many small trucks on the road as possible to prove to those who drive bro-dozers, they don’t need to. The 620 was a sharp looker, probably my favorite of all the mini trucks, with the Mazda REPU second and the Dodge D50/Plymouth Arrow pickup a close third. It would be great fun to return it to stock appearance, while upgrading the drivetrain to something more modern- at least adding EFI and better engine management.

  8. I really love that Spitfire but I’m afraid of it. Before I bought my Midget I looked at a Spitfire outside of Reno. Brand new paint on it. Guy wanted 6,500 bucks for it. He hadn’t even bothered to fill in the rust along the leading edge of the trunk with Bondo he just painted over the holes. The Bondo wasn’t even completely dry in the rockers I put my thumb through them. The guy got pissed off when I didn’t buy it. Told me I’d driven such a long ways it would be a waste if I didn’t. I told him I had a fun road trip with my buddy and spent about 600 bucks and I felt like I was money ahead. I still see that car advertised from time to time. I would be very very afraid of the $500 Spitfire.

  9. Spitfire in a heartbeat.

    Friend had one in that exactly color in high school. I so coveted it.

    You can’t see from the pics, but the seats have wonderful houndstooth fabrics and there’s an income-level-appropriate (as in, not walnut) wood dash.

    I’d just need add the missing offset “Spitfire 1500” black outline decal to the hood pronto.

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