It’s little wonder we see so many old school Datsun pickup trucks from South Africa on Speedhunters. These vehicles, locally known as bakkie – the Afrikaans word for a small bowl or tub (as a reference to a truck’s open load area) – play a huge part in SA’s automotive culture. Everyone has a bakkie memory, and when those memories come flooding back later in life, the only sensible thing to do is relive them again, but this time with a custom twist.
Stuffing these little pickups with powerful engines – the Nissan SR20DET being an obvious favourite – has become commonplace in South African modified car culture, and we’ve seen them built for everything – the street, the strip and even the circuit.
Ruan Esterhuizen’s 1969 Datsun 521 bakkie is a street machine through and through, but given what’s lurking under the hood, I’m sure it could hold its own in a competitive environment too.
The history of this particular bakkie isn’t clear, although we can assume that, for the most part, it lived a similar farm life to others of its vintage. According to Ruan, it had just one owner between 1981 and when he purchased it, so it’s entirely possible that he is the truck’s third custodian in 53 years.
Ruan bought the 521 home in completely stock condition, 1,300cc J13 engine and 4-speed column shift transmission still intact. Importantly for the direction he wanted to take the build, its exterior bodywork was still original too, just tarnished by decades of exposure to the harsh South African sun. In other words, patina perfect.
So perfect in fact, that all Ruan has done to the exterior panels is clear-coat them, bringing out what was left of the original blue paint and enhancing the surface rust. For contrast, everything chrome – think front bumper and grill, door handles and side mirror – were painted satin black.
Look close and you’ll see that the 521’s quad headlights have been stealthily replaced with a couple of modern projector units.
The rear LED tailights are a little more obvious, but they’re not where your eyes fall when viewing the truck from behind.
That’s because the bed is now home to couple of its most unique features – a fuel cell fashioned from a Castle Lager 50L beer keg and a battery box made from a wooden crate. What’s not to love?!
At 18×9.5-inch all round, the six-spoke wheels of unknown origin are huge for the Datsun, and therefore will likely divide opinion. But love them or hate them and wrongly or rightly, big rims on small old school Japanese vehicles is a style not uncommon in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and here they do give the truck a Hot Wheels diecast sort of look, which is cool.
The interior has seen some more modern touches too – namely a pair of Avcon seats, a suede-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, and a 7-inch tablet that relays information from the Ecumaster EMU Black engine management system. Ruan built the bolt-in roll cage himself and worked with MRP Motorsport to fabricate the custom aluminium dashboard.
MRP Motorsport also lent their fabricating touch under the hood, where the internally-stock Nissan SR20DET that’s now swapped in features an MRP custom manifold, down-pipe, fuel rail and radiator. The engine setup was pieced together, installed and tuned by ICE Motorsport, and on a conservative setting is good for 225whp. That’s not a huge number, but it’s plenty for this lightweight little Datsun on the street.
Highlights include a Mr Turbo GT30 T4 turbocharger, Turbosmart UltraGate 38mm wastegate, front-mount intercooler, GReddy blow-off valve, 90mm throttle body, 1,000cc/min Bosch injectors and the custom rear-side-exit exhaust.
Getting the power to the 255-section rear rubber is a Nissan SR20DET 5-speed gearbox running a four-puck button clutch and an adapted BorgWarner/Dana M75 rear end.
Four-link rear suspension arrangements are common in builds like this one, but Ruan has stuck with the original leaf spring rear setup and torsion bars in the front. During the body-off restoration, everything was given a refresh though. The brakes are a real mishmash of parts – Hyundai H-1 van discs and Mk7 VW Golf GTI callipers up front, Toyota Land Cruiser discs and VW Polo 1.9 TDi callipers out back, along with a Mk6 VW Golf GTI booster.
Building a truck like this was a long-time dream for Ruan, and the best part for him was having both his father and grandfather heavily involved in the build, making it a real family affair. Ruan says he’s so grateful for his grandfather’s hard work and patience, and his father supported him throughout the entire build, offering up plenty of wisdom along the way as the project came to life in the back of their electrical workshop.
Having a bakkie memory is great, but this is much better.