Home » Inline Six Stickshift Wagons: 1978 Dodge Aspen vs 1977 Datsun 810

Inline Six Stickshift Wagons: 1978 Dodge Aspen vs 1977 Datsun 810

Sbsd 2 8 2024
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Welcome to another Shitbox Showdown! Continuing our theme of nice cars that should be dead by now, we have a pair of station wagons, both with six cylinders under the hood and three pedals on the floor. One of them was a reader suggestion; the other was my choice.

I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of yesterday’s voting. I expected the little blue Omni to lose, but it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of you, and took a decisive win over the Yellow Buick of Texas. From the sounds of it, it came down to the rarity of it: An old Riviera could easily be preserved as someone’s pride and joy, but a throwaway hatchback like a Dodge Omni? Now that’s not something you see every day.

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I actually like both of these cars quite a lot. This generation of Riviera/Toronado/Eldorado is just such a nice comfortable car that it’s hard to pass up. And I think I’d be happier behind the wheel of the Riviera on a long trip – but I also think I’d have a lot more fun owning the Omni, so it gets my vote.

And thanks to the many of you who filled in our younger readers on how to set presets on a mechanical radio: tune to the station you want, pull the button all the way out, then push it all the way in. Next time you push that button, the pointer on the dial will jump to that position. And yes, the button position was independent of the radio band, so you had to remember which buttons you set to an AM station and which were set to FM.

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Well, since everything worked out so well for that Omni, let’s see how another old blue-on-blue Dodge fares. The 1978 Aspen wagon we’re about to look at was a suggestion from reader David Pertuz, courtesy of our tip line, tips@theautopian.com. (I’m not to be trusted with my own email address, it seems, but suggestions sent to the tip line usually find their way to me.) David actually sent in two suggestions, but one of them didn’t have much in the way of usable photos. This Dodge, however, lined up nicely with a car I had already spotted in my searches earlier in the day. It was meant to be, so here they are.

1978 Dodge Aspen – $4,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 225 cubic inch overhead valve inline 6, three-speed manual, RWD

Location: Goshen, IN

Odometer reading: 147,000 miles

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Operational status: Runs and drives well

Sequels are always tough. It’s hard enough to come up with one great idea and see it through, but then everyone expects you to do it again. And you just can’t force lightning to strike a second time. I mean, it does happen, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Just ask Chrysler, who tried to follow up the beloved Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant with this… thing. The broad strokes are the same: unibody construction, torsion-bar front suspension and a live rear axle on leaf springs, and that legendary Slant Six engine, but the devil is, as always, in the details. The Aspen and Volaré were rushed to the market, and plagued with quality problems and recalls.

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The mighty Slant Six survived mostly unscathed, though strangled by emissions equipment. Most Aspens and Volarés were equipped with an optional three-speed Torqueflite automatic, but if you left the option sheet blank, you got that most standard of standard transmissions: a three-speed manual, with a floor-mounted shifter. This Aspen wagon is so equipped, which is not surprising; it doesn’t look like it has any options at all. That three-speed shifter bends over a plain vinyl bench seat, with no air conditioning to keep your thighs from sticking to it in the summer. There’s not even a luggage rack on the roof of this thing; that’s how stripped-down it is.

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It’s all in remarkably good shape for a badly-made base-model car from the Carter administration. We don’t get a lot of information about its history, but I get the feeling it has been in the same family for a long time. It looks like something inherited from someone’s parent or grandparent. The back bumper is covered in AAA stickers, and it has a trailer hitch; someone has put that old Slant Six to work.

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The seller notes that there is a little rust showing up here and there, but I don’t think there’s a single one of these that didn’t have some rust by the time Urban Cowboy hit theaters. The fact that the vinyl upholstery is all intact and it still has all four hubcaps is remarkable; we can forgive a little rust.

1977 Datsun 810 – $4,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter overhead cam inline 6, four-speed manual, RWD

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Location: San Diego, CA

Odometer reading: 135,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives well

Meanwhile, Japanese brands were seriously cutting into domestic sales. They had been around for years already, but in the 1970s, Toyota and Nissan started designing cars specifically with the American market in mind. The Datsun 810, based on the Japanese-market Nissan Bluebird, was one such car. In Japan, it was powered by a four-cylinder engine, but here in America, it had Nissan’s fuel-injected L24E inline six under the hood. Compared to the straight sixes in American cars at the time, it was high-tech, sophisticated, and powerful – putting 138 horsepower to the rear wheels through a four-speed stick.

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This 810 runs and drives well, and has had recent work on the fuel pump and injectors. It sounds like it’s due for a smog test – it’s two years too new to avoid it, until and unless the rules change – but it should pass easily. It also has new tires, always a welcome sign on a car for sale.

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It’s in good condition cosmetically too. The vinyl upholstery looks like it could use a good cleaning, and there are some cracks in the dash under that carpet toupee, but for a car that’s as old as Star Wars, it looks pretty good. The pale vinyl may show dirt easily, but boy, it does a nice job of brightening up the interior. I really wish cars were still this airy and inviting inside.

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It’s pretty clean outside too, except for a few spots, and I really like this shade of green. You can tell how hard Nissan was trying to make this car appealing to American buyers, with all the chrome trim, and the waterfall grille with a hood ornament above it. You could even get a Datsun wagon with woodgrain sides, though fortunately this one has been spared that foolishness. Yeah, I know; some people like the fake woodgrain treatment. I think it’s foolish.

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So there they are, two different ways of accomplishing the same thing, from opposite sides of the Pacific. They’re both holding up well; in fact, a determined enthusiast could probably daily-drive either of these without too much hassle. All that’s left for you to do is choose.

(Image credits: Aspen – Facebook Marketplace seller; Datsun – Craigslist seller)

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Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
14 days ago

It’s amazing that they managed to make the Aspen/Volaré unreliable considering the absolute dearth of daring, new technology, or any form of creativity.

It’s like me making oatmeal for the 1,000th time and somehow oversalting it, undercooking it, and burning it all at once.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
14 days ago

We had an Aspen almost identical to this one growing up, only ours had AC, roof rack, and the 4-speed OD manual trans. In spite of that (or maybe because of that?) I went with the Datsun.

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
14 days ago

Aspen all day long. Hear me out…

I was a kid in the 1970s in Metro Detroit, and the Datsun was the DEVIL!!

The 1960’s was an awesome time for American cars. Foreign cars were “adorable”, but not real cars. There was some real attitude at that time, and it carried over well into the 1970’s. My dad once went to buy a car in the early 1970’s, and pointed out a glaring defect on a car’s bumper – imagine a glob of weld about 2″ in diameter, that just got chromed over. The salesman said “Oh, someone will buy it…”

Think about how bad politically, socially, and economically things were in the US in early-mid 1970’s.

Reality had to rear its ugly head, and having 400 HP cars that were pollution machines and would guzzle gas to the point that you’d have to shut the car off if you were pumping gas because you’d outpace the pump, were no longer a realistic option.

Add to that the realization that the Japanese cars were not “adorable”, but really good cars that got good mileage during an oil embargo, and it was just humiliating.

Reality isn’t fun.

However, a little more reality here. It’s not that the Japanese cars of that era were universally so much better than the domestic product, it’s that they were not the disposable crap that our hubris made them out to be.

The Dodge is roomier and has more cargo space, the car is fixable and parts are available. It also is a relatively handsome car. If Hank Hill needed a station wagon, he’d buy this car.

Tom Herman
Tom Herman
14 days ago

Fun Fact: The Vaspen could be had with a 4 speed manual overdrive. They took third gear, geared it as an overdrive and flipped the linkage so 3-4 were reversed. The same 833 that went in everything including the 440. I had one in my hot rod ’57.

Is Travis
Is Travis
14 days ago

Turtle all the way

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
15 days ago

I was ready to pop for the Aspen, but if I was going to go malaise-era Chrysler wagon, I’d hold out for the ultimate version: the LeBaron Town and Country. Also, the price is ridiculous.

So it’s the Datsun, which would look sick with some ZX wheels.

MikuhlBrian
MikuhlBrian
15 days ago

Nostalgia has me on this one. Gimmie the Aspen, hands down. My parents bought a 1977 Dodge Aspen wagon new in 1977, with the Super 6 in it. That was our primary family car until 1991, then it became secondary car. It was my car to take to college for 4 years. Then was my dad’s take to the golf course car. In 2007, I got it back to start a restomod project on it. Financial situation forced me to get rid of it. When I got rid of it in 2011, it had 360K+ miles on it. Aspens and Volares always will have a place in my heart.

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