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?

QuizMaker

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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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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… 🙁

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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…

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

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