Feature: 1968 Datsun Roadster

Topless from Japan

Matt Thomas’ 1968 Datsun Roadster

Words: Mark Waterman
Photos: Ginash George

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1968.  A year that to automotive enthusiasts conjures up images of big block Chevys, fastback Mustang coupes, and Mopar muscle.  Short of a small group, one of the last cars that will quickly come to mind would be a tiny roadster, with, compared to the muscle cars, was a tiny motor, from the land of the rising sun.  This is the story of one of those roadsters that made the long trip across the Pacific.

As it is with most car lovers they can trace their love for a particular car to a particular time.  For some it was the first time they laid eyes the cars curves, or the first time they heard the sexy exhaust note.  For Matt Thomas, he can trace his attraction to Datsuns back to when he was a small boy riding in the back of his father’s green 1971 Datsun 1200 Coupe.  Unfortunately, as the car aged, the rust rapidly consumed the floorboards of the back seat until it was unsafe for a child to ride back there.  From there it became a backyard lawn ornament until put out of its misery by a falling tree, but the memories of the car lingered in his head.

Years later, in 2005, Matt was browsing e-bay with his cousin for a project car when he came across a 1969 Datsun Roadster.  Amazed that Datsun made such a sporty looking roadster, Matt quickly found himself intrigued by the idea of having a car that reminded him of his dad’s car.  He did not place the winning bid on this roadster, but he knew he had the idea for his project car.  A few months later Matt traveled to Sandwich, Illinois and left with not one, but two Roadsters.  One was a rust-free 1968 2000 roadster from California painted primer black, but in parts and missing parts, and the other was a not so rust-free 1969 2000 Roadster with boxes of parts, a motor and transmission and most of the interior.  His project had officially begun.

The first goal was to get a drive train into the 1968 and getting into running order.  Using the motor and transmission that came with the 69 Roadster, the 135 hp U20 inline four overhead cam was rebuilt, mated to the stock 5-speed transmission, and placed in its new home inside the 68.  The stock 3.73 rear end was replaced with a 3.93 rear end from a 1600 4-speed roadster for a bit of extra off the line acceleration.  One of the more difficult tasks for Matt was finding extra parts due to the fact that between the middle of 1967 and 1970, only about 14,500 roadsters with the 2.0L motor were produced, making spare parts few, far between, and pricey.  Luckily, the Internet came to the rescue in the form of Datsun.org as a resource to find the needed parts.  Even though, Matt was able to find most of the parts, others, such as the radiator, originals were unable to be found and custom parts needed to be made.

The main goal of this project was to restore the roadster, but Matt made a few modifications as he deemed needed.  The motor was rebuilt using stock spec cams, pistons, and carburetors.  Solex carbs and “B” cams were an option to bump the U20 motor up to 150 hp, but the parts are hard to find and expensive.  The stock exhaust manifold was replaced with an aftermarket part.  The stock AM radio was retained, including the single speaker under the dash.  Also, part of the original radio is the Toshiba locking antenna, which happens to be one of Matt’s favorite gadgets in the car.  In addition, a new AM/FM radio and CD player was added, but hidden out of sight, and they power two speakers in the back to kick some more modern tunes.  On the inside, the upholstery was made from scratch using water resistant vinyl with the help of his wife, Leanne.  The seats were recovered and new rubber spring webbing for the seats was woven in.  The dash was able to salvaged with a molded cap, and new carpeting was applied to the floor of the roadster.

In the handling department the car runs on stock springs mated with a set KYB shocks.  Contacting the road is a set of 195/60 R14 BF Goodrich Traction TA tires mounted on a set of vintage American Racing Libra Rims from a 1970 1600 roadster that Matt partially restored and sold.  After driving around looking like a rat rod with the primer black paint job, the car was painted Carbon Silver, keeping in the paint in the Fairlady family, in early 2008 so the car could be used in his wedding later that year.

For now the car is mostly complete, but there are a few minor changes Matt would like to make.  When possible he plans to swap his modified 1600 grill for an actual 2000 grill, get some new seat covers, and get some the tail lights rechromed or replaced and a new soft top for the car.  Until then though, there are few things Matt enjoys more than taking a cruise with the top down on a sunny day and entering it in the occasional car show.  Matt would like to extend his special thanks for helping with his project to Datsun.org, Don Morrell in Tennessee of Rising Sun, and of course his wife Leanne for helping get the car finished.

Next time you are remembering the time American muscle ruled the street, don’t forget about the Datsun Roadsters like Matt’s who may have been mostly ignored in their own time, but can now be traced as the decedents of today’s Japanese sports cars

-JDM Chicago

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15 comments to Feature: 1968 Datsun Roadster

  • Seriously loving this car!

  • D & J Deutmeyer

    Wow – what a beautiful car – great article!!!

  • Nice car Matt, I also have a 1968 Datsun Roadster. We should get together at a car show or cruise night this summer. It would be great to see two of these Datsun’s side by side.

  • don horn

    shes a beauty! Love the color. Normally i love it red, like my 68 sport 2000. But i love your color scheme. I have always admired my wifes 2008 Honda accord coupes color, which is similar to yours, but never thought of putting it on our 68 we are restoring until i saw yors. Inspirational!!!! Thank you.

    Do you know where i can get the seat covers for our roadster? The foam is ok, but i need new standard covers. Not sure where i can find quality ones?! Appreciate any help or info

    Have a great day

  • Matt

    Hi Don,
    Thanks for the comments.

    Hope that helps.

    I’d like to see your car some day!

  • Barry T.

    Great story Matt. Hi, I have a 1970 2000 Roadster and you have given me another possible option for a color scheme. That silver looks like it may have a little bluish tint to it, as it looks on my computer screen anyway. Do you have a paint number on that Carbon Silver. Is it a color that would effectively hide any minor imperfections on the body work do you think?

    You have a real beautiful looking car, very sharp…

    Cheers from Newfoundland, Canada.


  • Matt

    Hi Barry. It is 2008 Nissan 350Z Carbon Silver. I think the paint code is K15? I will check next time I look at the can. The paint probably would hide minor blemishes.

  • I think it would be great fun to have a Datsun meet for the entire country, I recently went to one in Denver CO and we had people from about 100 miles show up, totaling 24 roadsters, we then went to a nissan dealership and had ourselves a mini nissan-datsun car show, about 20 entered the chow, there were also 3 240’s, 3 350’s, and 2 300’s, a great time was had by all. owner of a 1966 1600

  • Jen

    have a 1968 roadster needing restoration, looking for parts, where is the best place to find these, need a soft top and or hard top.

  • Matt

    I have some parts for sale that are left over. What color soft top are you looking for?
    You can send me an email at mtsky76@gmail.com

    Otherwise for new or new oldstock the parts are mostly on the west coast.
    Check out the Link to parts at Datsun.org.

  • Tim

    I i was wondering if you could help me out. I have a 68 datsun 1600 and i am in need of carburetor floats and gaskets, can you tell me where i can get them. Thank you in advance Tim

  • james jones

    I own a roadster, in fact I’ve owned 4. A Datsun 2000 is a extremely quick car. 2000 cc overhead cam high compression engine in a car that weighs about as much as a volkswagon beetle will move. Roadsters beat Porsche at Road Atlanta 3 years in a row in the 80’s.

    I’ve shifted out of 2 into 3 at 100 mph. The car red lines at 6,000. (or is it 8,000?)

    And these cars are cheap, you can pick up a running 2-liter for $4,000. $15,000 will get you a nicely restored, rebuilt beauty. And you’ll have something no one else in town has. I rarely go out without someone coming up and me and asking me about my car.

    Parts are getting hard to find, but nearly anything is available. There’s alot of help online and some really good guys selling parts.

    Roadsters are a cult car, owners tend to be fanatics.

  • A Timeless Beauty. Beautifully done. Hopefully someday I can see it in person.

  • Mark

    Hey Matt,
    Kudos on your car from Downunder!!! I have a ’67 2000 (yes, genuine low screen 2-Ltr!) and a 69 2000 as well. I am a Datsun fanatic, owning 6 datos in all. We had an Australian National meet 12-mths ago in which we had 50 roadsters attend. It was something special!! Congrats on your car, and hope you enjoy getting yours out on a beautiful afternoon for a spin thrugh the hills as much as we do down here in Oz.

  • Matt

    Thanks for the comment on my Roadster!
    I haven’t checked jdmchicago in a while and I am surprised to see there are still comments.

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