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02/13/2006 Archived Entry: "The Datsun Project: Report #1 (Why a Datsun)"


Blogispondent Ian here, with the first installment of my truck project.

As I mentioned in my introduction, this project is the restoration of a 1983 Datsun 720 half-ton pickup. You may be wondering why I'm starting with that - as a friend of mine comments, "they just look wimpy." And, of course, the classic survivalist vehicle is the good old beefy American 1970s truck. Those old Chevys, Fords, and Dodges are big, tough, loud, cheap, and can be kept running with spit and baling wire. What's not to like?

Well, let's look at what a gulch vehicle needs to do. Since I'm not exactly wealthy, I will start with one limiting factor - having a second vehicle just for emergencies is a luxury I can't afford right now. A gulchmobile for me must be a do-it-all workhorse. Let's consider what characteristics would be ideal for each of this vehicle's basic tasks:

* Daily commuting - Driver comfort, fuel efficiency, driver safety, mechanical reliability

* Hauling various heavy/bulky materials - Cargo capacity (for bulk and weight), towing capacity

* Traversing roads in poor condition - Ground clearance, traction

* Offroading ability

Now, let's see how Japanese and American pickups compare:

Driver comfort: As long as both have bucket seats, I see no advantage either way. A larger person would have more space in an American truck, but a bench seat (more common in American trucks) makes for a sore ass after a couple hours.

Fuel efficiency: Japanese win here hands-down. A Nissan or Toyota 2.2 should get 20 to 25 mpg or better, while a Chevy or Ford V8 will get 8 to 15 mpg. If you're scraping by financially living out in the boonies, an extra 10mpg can really help out.

Driver safety: Depends on the model. Japanese trucks almost always have shoulder belts (since they're generally newer vehicles), while older American trucks don't always (my 76 Chevy didn't). American trucks have more mass to protect the driver, but Japanese ones are lighter and thus, I expect, brake better.

Mechanical reliability: This is one of the most important points to me. Old Fords and Chevys can be kept working with simple work, but Nissans and Toyotas don't need the work in the first place - they'll keep running when completely ignored. For example, this Datsun I bought had sat completely ignored for two years in a guy's farmyard. When he decided to sell it, he turned the key, pumped the gas a couple times, and it started right up. My Chevy was reluctant to start in the winter no matter how much I'd been driving it even the previous day.

If you doubt the superior reliability of old Japanese trucks, just start listening to mechanics. Even the ones who love old American trucks will often privately admit that they've seen fewer problems in the Japanese trucks.

Or, pick up a Truck Trader magazine and look at what's being sold. I have one right here. In the Chevy section, nearly all the pre-1985 vehicles have new or rebuilt engines. In fact, I don't see any that are running with more than 87k miles on an original engine. The Ford section is the same. In the Toyota section, though, I see 70s and 80s trucks with 195k, 227k, and even 265k miles on original engines, and still going strong. I think that says plenty right there.

Hauling capacity: Here the American trucks definitely have an advantage. Even on trucks with equal weight ratings, the American trucks are bigger, allowing more stuff to be carried. When cleaning up trash, for example, space is more important than weight rating.

Towing capacity: Another advantage to the American trucks, if for no other reason than their greater weight allows them to have more control when towing heavy loads.

Ground clearance: A draw. Larger tires on some American trucks help, but their correspondingly larger differentials nullify that advantage. I was surprised to find that my new Datsun came stock with 28" tires - only 2" smaller than what the factory put on that old 3/4 ton Chevy.

Traction: Another draw, assuming both vehicles are 4wd (I wouldn't consider a 2wd for a gulchmobile). Some situations will favor the heavy truck, and some the light truck.

Offroading ability: I'm not a diehard rockcrawler, but I think a gulching vehicle ought to be able to travel off-road should the situation reuqire it. I'm not interested in changing gear ratios or nitpicking the best differentials or transfer cases. So it seems to me that both American and Japanese 4wd trucks are quite capable of meeting my dexires. The one difference I do see is that the Japanese trucks have smaller all-around dimensions, which allow them to navigate in tighter areas (between trees, for example). I was a bit surprised to discover that the power-to-weight ratios in the two types of truck are roughly the same.

So, the gist of all this is that a Datsun 720 can do very nearly everything a big Chevy can, with half the gas and much less maintenance.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The Datsun Project, which will be an assessment of what needs to be done to the truck.

Posted by Ian @ 09:50 AM CST

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