Forgotten Forward-Opening Hoods: 1979 Ford Fiesta vs 1981 Datsun 310

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It’s time once again for Shitbox Showdown! Today’s choices are sure to generate a lot of “those are both awful, what’s wrong with you, you should feel bad for choosing those” responses, but I don’t care; I like ’em.

I admit that yesterday was just a blatant attempt to needle David about his little Tracker buddy. I kept expecting him to chime in, but I don’t think he posted at all yesterday. (In fact, should someone go do a quick wellness check?).

[Editor’s note: I was off-roading in northern Michigan yesterday. Also, all I read was “I’m willing to admit it when I’m wrong, and it turns out that David’s little Tracker was actually a hell of a score.” Also Also: I have plans to acquire a Willys Wagon, but not just any Willys Wagon. Stay tuned. -DT]

The results are no surprise…

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Of course it’s the Jeep. I mean, come on.

Now, I think we can all agree that the late 1970s-early 1980s was a miserable time for cars. But if, like me, you were a car-crazy kid at the time, there’s some undeniable nostalgia tied up in cars from that time. And it’s not always about the car; sometimes it’s just one tiny feature. In the case of these two, it’s the way the hood opens – hinged at the front, opening at the firewall. Nobody does that any more. I think the last cars sold in the US to have forward-opening hoods were BMWs, Saabs, and Buick LeSabres from the early ’90s. But it used to be common, and there’s something really appealing about it, at least to me. Maybe I’m just weird.

Hood hinge location aside, these are both cars that you just don’t see anymore. Both were simple, cheap economy cars, built to hit a gas mileage number and that’s about it. As such, nearly all of them were simply used up and thrown away decades ago. But somehow, in a wild and mystical place called California, these two managed to survive, and I’m presenting them here for your reading pleasure.

1979 Ford Fiesta – $1,979

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter inline 4, 4 speed manual, FWD

Location: Redwood City, CA

Odometer reading: 133,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does!

In the mid-late ’70s, Ford’s small cars were the Pinto, and… the Pinto. Sales for the little “barbecue that seats four” were tanking, and even without all the controversy, it was technologically outclassed by European and Japanese imports. Ford decided to fight fire with fire, and brought the Fiesta over from Europe for a few years as an alternative.

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This car is largely forgotten in the U.S., but across the pond it was a big success. Of course, they got cooler versions of it than we did, like the XR2. Here, it was just seen as a smaller, crappier Rabbit by most people.

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It’s definitely of a different era. There’s no way anyone would put up an interior this Spartan in a car today. Well, except maybe me. Where most people see a “penalty box,” I see a refreshing lack of bullshit. You can hear the tinny clank of the doors closing and feel the buzzy engine in these photos, true. But something about that simple dashboard, and that long gearshift coming right up out of the floor with nothing around it, makes me want to hop in and drive.

And look! The shift pattern is right on the instrument panel. How convenient!

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This car is being sold at a dealer, which means there are probably no records of anything. And there’s also apparently no key; you have to start the car with a screwdriver. [Editor’s note: Oh hell yeah. -DT]. But they say the car runs and drives well, though it hasn’t been registered in 19 years. Best get some new belts and hoses before you go too far.

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There’s some surface rust, commensurate with having been parked outside for a long time, but where the sun hasn’t beaten down, it looks clean. And it’s all there, and all stock.

1981 Datsun 310GX – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter inline 4, 4 speed manual, FWD

Location: Brentwood, CA

Odometer reading: 76,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep!

Somehow even more unlikely than a Ford Fiesta turning up for sale is this time-capsule Datsun 310. This car, sold as the Pulsar or Cherry in other parts of the world, was not a successful car in the US. But Nissan’s US lineup was a little muddled back then, with several models overlapping and hard to tell apart. The little 310 got lost in the shuffle, and was replaced with the Sentra around the time they told everyone that “The Name Is Nissan.”

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It’s a pretty forgettable car, really: just another little square front-wheel-drive hatchback from the early ’80s. But rarity and time have somehow made it – not cool, exactly, but intriguing.

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This car must have been parked in someone’s garage and forgotten about. That’s the only plausible explanation for it being so well preserved. It has a couple of dings, there’s some clearcoat missing from the paint, and some sun fading on the interior (I don’t think that door handle was supposed to be pink), but it’s got to be one of the nicest 310s left.

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It does have one cool feature I didn’t know about until I started researching it: not only do the rear quarter windows pop open (another long-gone feature that I really miss), they’re remotely-operated from the center console. See those black cables coming up behind the rear seat? Those are connected to little slidey-levers that let you pop open the vent windows from the front seats. And it’s all mechanical, because who needs a little motor to do everything for them?

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The real trouble with a car like this is: what do you do with it? It’s not really suitable for daily use in modern traffic, and if you tried, you’d just use it up and it wouldn’t be nice anymore. But it’s not valuable enough to bother keeping it in this condition. If I lived in a small town and never went above 40 mph, I could see having some valueless rarity like this to putter around in, I guess. Maybe this car will find such a home.

Neither one of these cars is anything special [Editor’s Note: Say what? That Datsun’s interior is great! -DT], other than having won a war of attrition against time, weather, and traffic. They’re automotive curios, fun to see but not really worth spending actual money on. But if you were to put one in your driveway, which would you choose?


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68 Responses

  1. Note : given the age of these cars, for the Fiesty, there’d be 3 things I’d carry normally.
    1) a spare ignition box (which are not particularly expensive)
    2) a spare throttle cable
    3) cooling hoses and possibly the cooling fan temp sensor (something I eventually swapped out with a manual switch for certain reasons)
    Otherwise, the issues with these simple cars are mechanical fixes. About the only weird thing on my Fiesty was the sad cheap little metal coolant pipe that ran from the pump to the intake manifold and head. On my car, that eventually rusted out with a tiny pinhole which only blew steam after the engine warmed up properly AND the pump achieved a certain pressure level. So it was virtually indetectable unless you got it right to the correct point and then popped the hood to check.

  2. “It’s got to be one of the nicest Datsun 310s left.” A bit like voting for “most congenial mass murderer”. I did vote for it because I once hired one in the Isle of Man and it was so dull, lifeless and boring I wanted to give up driving. It is therefore the ultimate environmental warrior vehicle.

    Fiestas (one of my mates races one a bit like that rat box in the pics) are actually quite nice/fun to drive. Almost like a refined BMC Mini. I wouldn’t want anybody to accidentally enjoy themselves.

  3. My first car was an ’81 310 GX. But mine had a lower roof line, smaller rear windows and a more rounded glass hatch. Mine was gold with black arch over the C-pillar. It was a 5-speed as well. I’m always a little confused by the multiple 310 variants. Mine was a good little car that was lost to an accident involving a drunk.

  4. Of all the cars I’ve had I miss my Fiesta the most along with my 79 Datsun pickup.

    The Fiesta was called the stick mobile. Once while working on it and a few other cars with my buddy, I grabbed a pickaxe and carefully punched a hole in the hood. My buddy stuck a broken, L-shaped stick in the hole where it remained for a couple years. The buffeting from the wind would make the stick swing back and forth while driving, eventually wearing through the oxidation in the red paint, down to some fresh stuff.

    The antenna became a collection of random bits of junk that were laying around; little bits of small rusty chain, carabiners etc. We were using silicone to make some gaskets and we stuck the silicone filled pointy cap on the end of the antenna. Somewhere along the we the antenna got bent backward into a nice gentle arc.

    And then came Paczki day. (Polish jelly donuts basically) We had an extra paczki and slid that down the antenna where all the jelly leaked out onto the rusty chain and junk on the antenna, and on down the side of the fender. After a few days the bread hardened up on it. Then one magical day I went out for a drive (and I swear this is 100% true), the wind caught the empty husk of the paczki and it slid up the gentle curve on the antenna, where it caught on the silicone filled pointy cap. The air made it oscillate around in a small circle about 5″ diameter. When I came to a stop the paczki slid back down to the bottom of the antenna. It did that for a couple of months, until one day the paczki didn’t stop when it hit the top of the antenna.

    Unspeakable joy from something so stupid. Even better than the foam filled rubber chicken on a spring hood ornament on my Datsun pickup.

    1. I registered just to say this is the most wonderful, silly thing I’ve read in a while. I’ve had little quirks in cars I mindlessly fiddled with (spinning shift knobs and the like) and silly dumb shit I did because it was silly dumb shit (putting an Escort GT spoiler on a bog-standard, powder blue four door 1987 Escort,, using fuzzy white tiger-stripe seat covers in three different cars, etc), and this is just a wonderful combination of those impulses taken to their logical (?!?) extreme. Pure wonder and joy.

    2. Ah, the stuff we did to our beaters….

      My first car was a $200 ’73 Dodge Dart Swinger ($543 today). By the time I was done with it, it was a ’73 frame with ’87 everything else. I spent so much time learning how to work on cars with this that we wired an old shoe to the hood (as a spare!) and called it the SneakerMobile.

      God, I miss that car. I miss it so much that I recently bought the old Chilton’s manual for it and then my son got me the die-cast model for Father’s Day!

    3. Thanks for vividly sharing that!
      I think the closest I came to that was when we would tie an inflatable alligator pool-float to the top of a 280ZX on our Friday night cruises as a conversation starter with aspiring Valley Girls. Actually worked-and I’ll leave it at that…

  5. Datsun. Admittedly I’m biased though. My dad and uncles had a couple of Datsuns (Datsii?) growing up in Cali. I believe the last one he had was a 810 wagon in powder blue. It got totaled when I was like 5 but I still remember it, almost as much as my uncles Celica with neon green louvres and wiper blades.

    1. I realise that for the US a 83HP 1.6l engine is tiny, but for Europe that would be a *huge* engine to put in such a tiny car. At school my friend had one of a similar era to this and it had a one litre engine (IIRC it was actually more like 990cc). There was enough room in the engine bay for an adult to stand on the ground without touching the engine.
      Still, could have been worse, his parents might have got him an Austin Metro.

  6. Datsun for me as the price bump is worth it for the condition.

    Also, regarding forward opening hoods, you completely overlooked the Corvette which has a forward opening hood all the way through until the current gen! Which means it’s probably the last mass produced car with one, last year of production was 2019. I’m not mad Mark, just disappointed.

  7. Corvettes had forward opening hoods until the C8 came out for 2020.

    I chose Datsun- so cool looking! And a nifty cruiser that wont break the bank these days to drive. I 69 chevelle is driven a lot less, at 8mpg.

  8. My vote goes to the Datsun since it’s in better condition and probably has better quality. I’m also not a fan of the rusty roof on the Fiesta and the pictures showed that there might be something funky going on with the steering column.

    1. I’d drive the fuckers. I voted Fiesta because they’re fun to drive and could possibly be upgraded later with parts from other early FWD Fords (Escort, Tempo). I’m sure it would scream with a 1.9L H.O. and a 5 speed from a ‘Scort GT. Make it a hot hatch, a rival to the GTI.

      The Datsun is basic transportation and nothing more, probably less depending on how it’s feeling. Every early 80s FWD Nissan/Datsun I’ve owned or had experience with was absolute garbage with a tendency for drivetrain problems. And that was 20+ years ago, I’m not sure age improved them. Even if it runs perfectly, it’s still an ill-handling pig with a sloppy transmission.

  9. “There’s no way anyone would put up an interior this Spartan in a car today. ”
    That Fiesta interior is still less Spartan than a Tesla Model 3.

    Gimme that Datsun! I can smell the 1980’s vinyl roasting in the sun by just looking at the photos. My first car was a 1976 Datsun pick-em up truck (King Cab!) in white with light and dark blue racing stripes down the side and blue vinyl interior. Man, I loved that little truck. Some douchebag stole it in 1980 and wrecked it. He got drunk and ran it off the road into a hog-wire fence and sat there with his foot on the accelerator (probably passed out) until the tank ran dry, burying the rear tires down into the farm-road dirt. Even though it had some minor damage from that escapade, it ran great for years and years after that, finally succumbing to the tin-worm (we lived in South Alabama at the time).

      1. Easy-peasy: I got my BS in Chemistry at the University of South Alabama, got a job with Calgon Industrial Water Management Corp in St Louis, MO, and rolled out of town in my burgundy 1982 Honda Accord (stick shift of course) and haven’t been back since. I’ve been all over the world since then and live in Colorado now, but I don’t miss LA (Lower Alabama) even a tiny bit.

  10. I’m sorry to the Datsun fans, but that 310 has no presence. I must have seen some before but I don’t remember it, and I will go back to not remembering that this car ever existed in 5 minutes

  11. This is a no brainer, Datsun all the way. I wish they had stayed Datsun, Nissan just isn’t the same, even though it is the same. The 310 is practically a luxury car compared to the Fiesta. That reminds me, I don’t think I want to go to a Ford party if that’s how they do it. I picture a warm keg of stale beer and having to share cups with the other party goers.

  12. Note : given the age of these cars, for the Fiesty, there’d be 2 things I’d carry normally.
    1) a spare ignition box (which are not particularly expensive)
    2) a spare throttle cable
    3) cooling hoses and possibly the cooling fan temp sensor (something I eventually swapped out with a manual switch for certain reasons)
    Otherwise, the issues with these simple cars are mechanical fixes. About the only weird thing on my Fiesty was the sad cheap little metal coolant pipe that ran from the pump to the intake manifold and head. On my car, that eventually rusted out with a tiny pinhole which only blew steam after the engine warmed up properly AND the pump achieved a certain pressure level. So it was virtually indetectable unless you got it right to the correct point and then popped the hood to check.

  13. Ford Fiesta, simply because it’s a better drivers car. Performance parts still available and you can get Ford Kent parts through BAT in Florida. The Datsun is nice since the interior is an upgrade from the all plastic on the Fiesty; but otherwise, it’s a mundane DD. The Fiesty is just so tossable.

  14. The 310 was one of the cars I learned to drive in, including the B210 and a 1973 Westfalia. The B210 was considered one of the best, if not the best bargain basement reliable cars around. The 310 was MILES nicer than the b210, and much faster.

  15. Whilst minimalist…. The EU Fiesta was a great small car. Definitely the best choice….

    However…. The 310…. While it was an obtuse model that never caught one…. You just can’t get velour like that anymore…

  16. It appears that I’m in the minority again voting Fiesta over Pulsar. I have driven a slightly newer UK spec Fiesta and it was underpowered but handled well. Not quite Austin Metro but still sharp. The US spec had a much larger engine in a shell that’s more VW Polo than Golf sized so they actually move OK

  17. Gotta go with the Datsun – there’s no way a person could throw $500 at the Fiesta and have it match either the condition or reliability of the 310. Plus, I could put the Datsun to work right away – my commute has a 4-lane modern traffic way to arrive at work, and a two-lane blacktop, meander through town way to arrive that only takes 5 to 10 minutes longer. Perfect for squeezing the last bit of life from an automotive oddity such as this.

  18. At these prices there needs to be a I choose both option damn it. Would be happy with either of these. The crappy interior in the Fiesta can be redone. The Datsun will run forever. I drove the crap out of dozens of both cars when they were new. When you have access to brand new dealer stock you learn fast how to see a good car, and how to test the limits. An invaluable educational tool. Both cars equal throw away money.

  19. sorry but got to be honest here. as a former mental health professional, I believe as long as Tracy is allowed to live outside of a group home he should be required to wear a tracker (see what I did here) so he can be monitored and located at any time…and A MANDATORY WELL BEING CHECK should be at least a daily requirement. it seems that he commits a LOT of his transgressions while on the road.

  20. Definitely the Datsun. I have s soft spot for the entire Datsun lineup from the early ’80s.

    As to the question of “What do you do with it?” You drive it around town blasting A Flock of Seagulls. You take it to Radwood or any of the other ’80s/’90s car & culture events that are starting to pop up. You enjoy listening to random people at gas stations regale you with excited stories about the one they / their parent / etc had back in the ’80s, and you enjoy their excitement over seeing a car they haven’t seen in years and never expected to see again, because it’s not a traditional classic.

  21. I like the Fiesta styling better, always thought they did the 70 hatch thing very well, looks light and airy. The Ford is probably more fun to drive too. However, of these two cars I would pick the Datsun, looks like it has lead a semi-sheltered life, the Ford not so much, rust coming up through the top of the rocker panel in the one pic not such a good sign.

  22. My dad won a 310 in a radio call-in contest back then and I totally just got deja-vu looking at these pics. He was and is a Volvo wagon driver (’94 240), though, so the Datsun was gifted to his nephew at the time and I never even rode in the thing. Probably favorably for the Datsun as I never got to experience what a shitbox it was, to color my memories… 🙁

  23. Datsun hands down. I am biased because my first car was a 1979 210 hatchback, and my best friend’s first car was a 79 Fiesta. That Fiesta was a piece of shit. However, that Datsun is not original. Nissan wasn’t using clear coat paint in 1981. So it’s had a respray at the very least.

  24. Fiesta for me, it’s the better driver’s car of the two and parts can still be sourced from Europe. Plus the Datsun’s main attraction is that plush burgundy velour interior but the condition of the front seats is unknown, presumably trashed, because it has seat covers in the photos.

  25. Ugh I guess I go with Datsun despite memories of a good buddy growing up whose father was literally DFENS (horn rim glasses, short sleeve button up, pocket protector, buzz cut). He bought the big brother of this Datsun x2 with NO RADIO (no distractions while driving, boys). His mom was made to learn to shift early in that marriage, it apparently didn’t take, and it often sounded like pieces fell out as she shuttled us around. Those seats, tho. Cringe then, cringe now.

  26. I once had an 84 Datsun-Nissan Sentra four door stick. It could do the highway speed limit….that was all that counted at the time. Datsun for me. It taught me how to pop the clutch and change starters due to a missing tooth on the flywheel.

  27. I have zero affection for either of these cars, having been born later than them. Other than nostalgia, I don’t see what value they have.

    I’m glad front-opening hoods are largely extinct, they seem like a pain in the ass. With a rear-opening hood you can access the engine bay from three sides. A front-opening hood only allows access from two sides. Seems like a clear disadvantage, and for what?

    1. Frankly I don’t see the nostalgia factor either. They were awful then and haven’t gotten better with age. I’d pick the Datsun if only because the Soviet-looking Fiesta is just so institutionally depressing to the eye.

          1. A rear hinged hood requires a secondary latch, a front hinged hood doesn’t. A rear hinge hood also won’t flip into the windshield – which my not be a huge problem for street cars but does sometimes occur with race cars. Hence, companies that made low production runs or expected their vehicles to be raced used to hinge from the rear.

  28. I had a 1980 Datsun 310 in black from 1992 to 1995. My parents bought it for $500 and gave it to me. I sold it back to them for $350 when I moved to another state and my brother drove it for his high school years.

    It was the best/worst car I have ever had. Very reliable, and easy to repair when it wasn’t. Did my first head gasket on it which cost $40 to fix. Also easily one of the top five ugliest and slowest things on the road.

    I also taught my wife to drive a stick in it. I miss my Ninja, and I voted for the 310, but that color/ interior combination is hideous.

  29. Fiesta for me, tough call though. My first car was a MkII Escort with the 1.6 Kent motor and a 4-speed so I’m a little biased but I also like the styling of the Ford a little better and I can keep telling myself it was cheaper.

  30. ::gasp:: Where in God’s name did you find an unmolested, running and driving Fiesta?!?
    My parent’s navy blue 1979 Fiesta S is the first car I can remember in my life. Unlike the vinyl in this one ours had black and gray check velour with black bolsters, If I remember right. I seem to recall I was fascinated by the shift pattern sort of pressed into the top of the shift knob, so that you could feel the numbers and gate pattern with your fingers.
    These cars don’t get the credit they deserve. Powered by the legendary Ford Kent 1.6 engine, and with an awful lot of SCCA Solo wins there is even arguably racing pedigree there.
    I’ve only seen one other running driving example in my adult life, it was in the grocery store parking lot and I was so excited I started taking pictures of it before I realized the owners were actively loading their groceries into the hatch… struck up a conversation, lovely folks. The guy had a soft spot for Fiestas and basically fixed them up for a hobby whenever he could find one. In central PA, there were not many that hadn’t been eaten by rust.

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