1979 Datsun 210: A Grandpa Story

1979 Datsun 210
Not MY 210 but one like it.

I wrote 2-10-22 in my journal this morning and smiled. 210. My first car was a 1979 Datsun 210 much like the one pictured here. I loved that car.

When we were kids, probably 12 or 13 years old, my grandpa taught my brother and I how to drive. He drove a manual transmission 1979 Datsun 210. And one day he drove us out between the fields and stopped on the side of the road. Dairy cows watched us watch him get out and slip blocks he had made onto the pedals.

“What are you doing grandpa?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

Incredulous, as if we must be the dumbest kids he ever met.

“Did you build a machine to drive the car?” my brother asked.

I kept quiet.

Grandpa stood up and took a step back. Hands on his brown polyester slacked hips, balding head in shining in the sun, I saw his grin. I can still see it. He was usually pretty proud of his wild ideas.

“Hop in there and see if you reach the pedals.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, my younger brother jumped into the driver’s seat. This was a car, a machine. Grandpa MUST be talking to him. I hung back and watched, unsure of what the plan was. I never was one to go running toward anything I wasn’t completely sure of.

Grandpa moved the seat up as far as it would go and reached in to adjust the pedals.

“See if you can push the pedals all the way down.”

With effort he could.

“If he can reach, so can you.” He tossed the words back at me over his shoulder as if he could hear my mind wondering. A thrill rushed through me. I can’t say if it was excitement or fear.

My brother was beside himself with excitement. To us, back then, driving was the beginning of everything. It was a ticket to freedom and independence. Sure, we were still far too young to get a driver’s license in California. Years away, in fact. But we were trusted and getting to learn the ropes and that was one step closer.

“Now, listen close. Your right foot is for the gas and the brake. Your left foot is for the clutch. Got it?”

My brother gripping the steering wheel, pulling himself closer to the pedals, his eyes wandering all over the car in wonder. “Yeah.”

“You’re not paying attention. Look at me and listen.” My grandpa’s impatient voice, the one that warned you to shape up.

For a moment, my brother’s eyes were glued to grandpa’s face but as soon as he started to talk, they went back to the windshield and the panel. His hand moved to the stick shift. My grandpa’s hand moved quicker and cracked it away like a whip. Now he had my brother’s attention.

“If you can’t listen, you can’t drive. I mean it.”

All eyes are locked on grandpa now, mine included. He does not expect to repeat himself for those who were present when he said it the first time. When grandpa is talking, he is talking to the whole room.

The lesson moved on. My grandpa is in the passenger seat, my 12-year-old brother in the driver’s. I’m in the backseat watching carefully.

These lessons went on as you might expect with young kids first learning the finesse of a five-speed manual transmission, with lurches and stalls, curse words and gasps. Sure, this was California, but we lived in a mostly rural community back then surrounded by dairies, chicken farms, alfalfa, and corn fields. There was plenty of room on these roads for a couple of kids and their grandpa to learn to drive.

We had a blast every time we went out. And the blocks with bungie cords stapled to one end stayed in the back seat just in case we needed to take the wheel, at least that’s what we thought.

We took turns driving around the fields for several weekends in a row. Once we had the hang of driving on flat roads, coming to a stop, turning around, and parking, my grandpa graduated us to starting while the car was pointed uphill. In a manual transmission, this is the trickiest lesson other than parallel parking (which I have never mastered).

There was no warning that I remember. There I was, driving along the empty road as it started to incline, when my grandpa told me to stop the car. I did and then looked at him, one foot on the clutch the other on the brake.

“Why are we stopped?”

“What if the light turns red on a hill, you stop, and there are cars behind you? Can you get going again without rolling backwards?”

“Of course!” I take my foot off the brake and start for the gas, but the car rolls back. I slam my foot back on the brake and look at him wide eyed.

I can still see his sideways grin as he chuckles, “Yeah. You didn’t think of that, did you, smartass?”

My eyes narrow at him, and I grin in determination. My grandpa and I are peas in a pod, both stubborn, both inclined to be a bit explosive, both tend to be egged on by a challenge. I grip the steering wheel and pull myself upright to think.

Over and over again, I start to roll back and then stop, until I get the idea to sneak my heel over to the gas before letting my toes off the brake. Seemingly all at once, I let of the brake, give it gas, let out the clutch and away we go.


I stop. “What? Why?”

“Do it again.”

By the time we were done, my brother and I could hold the car at stop going uphill, the clutch and gas balanced for a moment before speeding off. We were both well-versed in driving years before we were allowed to take Driver’s Education in high school and then get our licenses.

I don’t know why it was so important to him that we learn to drive so early. I guess it didn’t seem early to him. Looking back, it’s still a wonderful memory, one of the proud ones I used to tell my kids when they were learning to drive our Baja Bug with their dad in the desert. They also were well-versed by the time they were old enough for a license.

My grandpa gave me that 1979 Datsun 210 when I turned 16 in 1988. I drove it nearly six months before I rear-ended someone getting off the freeway, a probably expected. The only one with a driver’s license at the time, several friends and I piled into my little car to take ourselves to Knott’s Scary Farm for Halloween.

1979 Datsun 210
I never thought to take a picture of my first car back then!
But, this is me dressed as Elvira…to go to school. Different times.

It wasn’t too bad of an accident, no physical injuries. Only my precious car didn’t make it, and my pride was badly bruised. My mom came to the rescue and had the car towed home. She dropped us off at Knott’s to enjoy the night despite the trouble getting there.

Funny, I’m thinking… How did I call her? There were no cell phones. I was on the freeway. The police were there. Maybe they called my mom? I can’t remember. It reminds me how awesome cell phones are though. My sons have been all over the world and I can always at least get a text message almost immediately.

Stopping in the drop off area in front of Knott’s Scary Farm, I lean over to my mom. “I’m sorry, mom.” I was pretty shaken up, not knowing what was going to happen next.

“Go play with your friends, baby. Don’t worry. We’ll figure out what to do tomorrow.” She kissed my head, and we ran off into the Halloween fog and screams.

Within a few days my grandpa found another 1979 Datsun 210 at the junk yard for $200. Over the next few weeks, I watched him and my brother switch the old engine into the new body in our driveway. I cleaned up the inside of the old car, vacuuming out the seats and floor, wiping down the dashboard and dials. My brother came running in to show me the dead mouse he found in an air-conditioning duct. It was a family project.

1979 Datsun 210
This was my first day working at Disneyland when I was 17 with my UPGRADED car!

And I loved the new 1979 Datsun 210 more than old one because it was orange and a coupe instead of a hatchback, way cooler. I drove it until my brother turned sixteen, then passed it on to him when I bought an ’86 Ford Ranger, but that’s another story.

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