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A move west allowed Brian Zana to achieve his childhood dream of owning a Datsun roadster

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I discovered Datsuns through family circumstances. I come from a family of six kids; my Dad was a school teacher and we needed to make extra money and a good friend of his taught him how to do bodywork and paint.

Back where we lived in Western Pennsylvania, American cars were it. At the old steel mills, we bought American. Japanese cars were frowned upon, so we could get them cheap.

My Dad started buying old Datsuns and we were able to fix them and turn a little profit. My brother, Mark, and I fell in love with them because of the styling.

They weren’t big and bulky like American muscle cars. They were sleek; the early Z-cars had sexy lines.

I saw my first roadster when I was probably 13 years old. I didn’t know what it was at first but I fell in love. After that, I always said I wanted to get a roadster – it was only a matter of finding one that wasn’t a rust bucket.

Being from Western Pennsylvania, everything was rusted out. The frames were mush; there was nothing good to work with at all, so I didn’t find one until we came out to Nevada.

This is the first car I found that was not a complete and utter basket case (although it was almost a basket case). It actually ran.

There isn’t a part of this car that hasn’t been touched, except for the transmission because it is tough to remove. Absolutely everything else has been overhauled; the brakes and clutch – all of it.

I have done everything myself, except for the initial wiring of the aftermarket gauges but I had to rewire them and fit the proper senders.

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The only other thing I didn’t do was set up the SU carbs. Keith Williams did that; he is a magician with them. I didn’t wire the electric fan and I didn’t rebuild the front brakes because I wasn’t familiar with that style of caliper.

Of course I did more work than I thought I would. It was ‘while you are here’ syndrome. Every time I turned around it was like, ”Oh I’ve got this out, I might as well do this too while I am at it”. It just sort of snowballed and the $8,000 project quickly turned into a $12,000 project.

It also consumed a lot more time, though I didn’t mind; it was nice. People would go to bed and I would go out to the garage for a couple of hours.

I didn’t make it a frame-off restoration but I replaced the bushings – the sway bar and leaf spring bushings, and all of the rubbers. I also took care of the suspension pieces that needed replacing – spindles, coil springs and shocks.

There is a lot of brand new hardware. Every nut, bolt and screw I took off the car I replaced with stainless steel items where I could and I re-chromed everything that needed it, including the windshield frame.

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When I got the roadster it was covered in primer grey. I hand-stripped the body of all the old layers of paint and primer down to bare metal. When I finally got down to the final level of paint you could see that the car was originally painted Spanish Red.

I hammer and dollied out the majority of dents and dings but you can still see a lot of the waves in the doors and fenders.

The front of the car was hit in a light accident. There was no damage to the suspension or the radiator support panel but someone had put an awful lot of Bondo where the headlight scoops go and on the front of the hood, so I sourced replacement parts locally from a guy who had a ’67 parts car.

The back-end needed quite a lot of work and I wasn’t able to get it perfect – you can still see some of the ripples that resulted from panel damage. Other than that there was no rust, the doors were solid and the floors were absolutely rock solid.

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I wanted a kind of restomod look – a more modern look without moving away from the roadster’s beautiful lines, so I removed the side trim.

The trim holes in the doors and fenders were welded but for the quarter panel grooves I used an aluminium-based body filler. It’s a modern version of leading. I put that in because if you use Bondo in Las Vegas, it’s going to shrink and crack. I then used a final coat of fibreglass filler over the top.

People suggested putting ridiculous flares on the back end but I said, “There is no rust, there is no reason to cut good metal out of that car”.

A lot of hand-sanding followed, then I applied etching primer and built it up from there. I wanted to paint the car Aztec Red, which is the colour of my twin turbo Z car and my wife Heather said, “Absolutely not, you’re not having two red sports cars”.

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Heather’s favourite colour is blue and we started looking online, pulling up blue cars. We finally found this Lexus Spectra mica blue and she loved it.

The guy I bought the paint from said he had a buddy who could let me shoot the car in his paint booth. This gave me the best chance of achieving a professional finish.

I painted my first car back in Pennsylvania when I was 15, and believe it or not, there was not one run in the clear coat – beginners luck perhaps; call it whatever you want. It was a beautiful paint job right off the bat and I just found I had a feel for it. The speed, the angle, the distance and how the gun works, I always had a feeling for it.

I hadn’t painted a full car in probably two and a half years before this one, so it was my first run at it for a while.

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Mechanically, everything was good. The engine just needed a tune-up, though I fitted a Gary Boone electronic distributor and updated everything – good spark plug wires and things of that nature.

My original radiator was well and truly shot – there were holes all through it, so I replaced it with an aluminium radiator from Champion Cooling. It is the roadster prototype (which explains why these radiators are sold without filler necks – Ed).

A replacement original was going to cost me damn near what a custom aluminium one was going to cost, but no one in town wanted to do a custom aluminium one because it for was a car that they didn’t feel they could make any money from. It’s not a Camaro, it’s not a Corvette. It’s a 44-year-old Japanese car.

I found Champion Cooling through eBay and they were happy to do it. Champion had been already been doing aluminium radiators for the early Z cars. I thought, ‘Well, they took a chance on a Datsun once, maybe they will do it again’, and they did.

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The first attempt wasn’t successful; they put the shroud mounting brackets on the wrong side of the radiator. They put them on the front instead of the back.

Champion was really nice about it and a month later they sent me out the radiator that is currently in the car. They didn’t even ask for the other radiator back. Now they sell them all over the place and to other companies.

The shocks are from KYB. I wanted Konis but they are so hard to find. I am hoping to locate a set for the race car I am building now. I love the KYBs – they are just stiff enough to improve the handling but don’t rattle your teeth.

I again used the restomod idea with the wheels, fitting Roto RBs in 15in instead of 14in. Roto is a Philippines based company that has been making wheels for many years. They make a lot of ‘knock offs’; these are basically a Panasport knock off.

I don’t know what they weigh but I picked up a set of Panasports with a set of tyres on them and these are heavier without tyres, so they are quite a bit heavier but they look great and I am not racing this car.

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The wheels barely sneak underneath the back of the car because they don’t come in a +15 offset; the best they had was a +12. The driver’s side wheel well had to be adjusted. The +15 would have been a perfect fit in the rear. The tyres are Kuhmo Exactors (195/50).

Comp springs sourced from Dean Apsotal of Datsun Parts are fitted up front, while the rear end has the original leaf springs. I was going to have them re-arched but they were so good I just let them be.

The interior was a total loss. It had a set of high-windshield seats without headrests. I put Mazda Miata (MX5) seats in but they sat so high I was looking over the windshield.

I removed the spacers but then I couldn’t move the seats forward or backward, they were stuck on the rug. And even then, dropping them as low as I could, I was still looking at maybe the top inch and a half of windshield, so I was peeking over the top or looking under the bottom of the frame.

It also changed the look of the car; it looked too modern. Those seats just didn’t work, so I sourced a set of low windshield seats and had them recovered, and sold the Miata seats to a guy who was doing up a Triumph TR3.

The Autometer gauges were a great idea and continued the restomod theme but they consumed a lot of time and expense. If I had my time over, I wouldn’t do it again.

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I had a custom speedo cable made from a company in California. It was very inexpensive, quickly done and it worked great but everything else has been difficult, such as changing English threads to American threads for the temperature and oil sending units.

My tach is not working properly, it only revs to 2000rpm and then it stops.

I fitted a little 13.5in steering wheel out of necessity. I had re-strung the original 15.5in wheel and it looked beautiful.

I just loved it but I couldn’t get into and out of the car, so I have just sold it.

I ordered a new top from Datsun Parts, which you have to fit to the frame yourself. I had a really straight frame. It had a little surface rust so I sanded it all down and spread some rust inhibitor and primer, painted it and it turned out beautifully. The only thing I haven’t done yet is glue the seal on.

The fitting instructions on the 311s.org website tech section say to put the back bar in, slide it into the teardrops, stretch the top as tight as you can and then screw it to the bow.

(But) I wish I hadn’t followed those instructions and left it a little looser because it would make it a lot easier to put the top up.

The top is really so tight right now that I don’t like putting it up because it hurts my thumbs trying to get all the posties and twisties together. It is made from stayfast material and it won’t stretch as much as a vinyl one does but I am hoping over time it will stretch and be a lot easier to put up.

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You also have to make holes for the twisties and posties because every car is just a little bit different. We were using a knife and a soldering iron and I said, “This is killing us”; I was so tired of it.

There is a tool you can buy for the posties that will punch out the four little holes for the tabs to go through and then the big hole in the middle, so I bought it and holy moly, what a difference. The tool is listed on an MG websitsite and it was a life saver.

But they don’t make a tool for the twisties and it’s ridiculous how hard it is to get those holes cut and to get the fit right so that the tabs would go through.

People love the car. It is a conversation piece. First of all, it is small. We don’t make cars that small anymore, unless it’s a Smart car, but they aren’t all that cute. Women more than men say, “Oh look how cute it is”.

The guys like it because it is unique, you just don’t see them. There are only about five people in Las Vegas who own road-worthy roadsters right now.

We have a cars and coffee car show probably three miles from my house. I‘ll run over there on Sunday mornings and I am usually the only ‘foreign’ guy over there. Everyone else has American muscle but my Datsun gets a lot of looks and a lot of questions… “Hey, nice MG” or “Nice Austin Healey” and of course I tell them, “Look at the (registration) plate, and look at the letters on the front of the hood”. They are usually pretty nice to me; not too many are snobs when it comes to cars.

British car owners hate it. I have run into a couple of guys with MGs and they say, “Oh that’s a copy” and I say, “Yes, yours is”. And they go, “What?” I reply, “These were created long before yours existed; yours is a copy of the Datsun roadster” and of course they want to argue the point. I say, “If ours was a copy of yours, we would have copied the bad wiring as well”.

The car is so much better than I imagined as a 12-year-old. I love driving it, the purr of the engine. If I had a 5-speed in it I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much because you have the overdrive and you wouldn’t have that little 4-speed hum going down the road. I really enjoy it more than driving my Z car. It is just a pleasure to drive that little car.

I try to get out at least once a week because I don’t want it sitting in the garage with the battery going bad, though I put a battery tender on it. I don’t take it to work; I don’t trust anyone not to door ding it in the lot.

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One of my favourite drives is the 13-mile scenic loop at Red Rock Canyon, which is a state park out towards my house. I occasionally put my daughter’s booster seat in and take her for a run up there. She just loves it with the wind blowing in her hair, so she is addicted to the car as well.

Driving at night is a blast. There are not many cars on the road; you are not worried about traffic. In a car this size I worry about getting hit, so driving at night allows me to give it a little blast here and there. It is a very quick car for a 96hp engine.

The weather gets a bit hot in Vegas. I can’t drive it in July and August. June is okay at night but in July and August, even at night it is so hot you feel like you have a hair dryer blowing in your face when you are driving down the road. It is just no fun at all.

Heather would like me to fit Vintage Air. At Solvang this year, I saw a car that had an air con unit sitting on the parcel shelf behind the seats. I might remove the centre console – I took the heater core out because it leaked and being here in Vegas you don’t need a heater – so maybe I will put a little Vintage Air back there instead.

As for other modifications, I will just update the suspension as I go and enjoy the car. I don’t want to tear it all down again.

Everyone was so helpful on the 311s.org forum and Dean Apostal was great. It never ceases to amaze me how tight-knit the Datsun family is, not just roadster people but Datsun people in general.

Everyone is so willing to help you and it makes you love the cars that much more because you have that support group around you. We all have the same addiction.

Words: Brian Zana.

 

Photos: Darren House.

PHOTOS: Darren House