Take a look at a Datsun 1600 today and you could be forgiven for walking straight by, assuming the fairly plain-looking sedan had nothing to crow about. There’s none of the ‘look at me’ styling cues such as brash colours, spoilers or big pipes. Nope, just a humble sedan. Or not.

The thing is, this car had an enormous impact not just on the local market when it emerged in 1968 but also on the world of motorsport. The medium car segment and its dominance by Brit-sourced models was altered forever by a ground-breaking design from Nissan.

The Datsun 1600 was a four-door sedan with bucket seats where most had a bench and through-flow ventilation like the market-leading Cortina. In place of overhead valves, the Datsun came with a grunty single overhead-camshaft engine delivering 71.5kW. Front disc front brakes and independent rear suspension, as fitted to upmarket Brit models like the Triumph 2000, were standard equipment.

Early 1600s had distinctive ‘clap hands’ windscreen wipers (the wiper pivots were towards the edges of the windscreen, not in the centre) and a tall final-drive ratio. Acceleration was ordinary but those Datsuns when revved past 6000rpm on long a downhill run – such as Conrod Straight on Bathurst’s Mt Panorama – easily hit speeds above 100mph (161km/h).

With a straight-line advantage over its Class B rivals, slick handling and exceptional reliability, Datsun scored a string of Bathurst 500 class wins until being forced to compete in a new category against Escort Twin Cams and Mazda’s RX-2 rotary.

Dirt rally roads allowed the light but strong 1600 to write itself into the annals of motor-sport. Only the arrival of Holden’s potent XU-1 Torana stopped it winning at Australian Rally Championship level, but in State events and at Club level the story was different.

Also helping build the legend was a dogged performance in the 1970 Ampol Trial that saw a lone 1600SSS finish level on points lost with a factory-backed Citroen and ahead of the more fancied Holden Monaro and Falcon GT teams.

Not bad for a mid-sized four-cylinder family sedan, and it helps to explain while they’re still so much in demand.

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