Exploring a secret Free State Datsun collection

Exploring a secret Free State Datsun collection
 

Nothing really happens in Bothaville. No, that’s a lie. Each year in May this dusty Free State locale plays host to the Nampo trade show: a four-day spectacular designed to tempt local farmers with the latest and greatest in agricultural wizardry.

It attracts hundreds of thousands of people. Most will drive to its gates but many will fly, their helicopters rising and falling like frenzied bumblebees. These visitors gaze in rapture at wondrous new contraptions that people like me will never understand. Groups of burly men admire a machine that transforms tree trunks into wood chips in milliseconds; others seem more enamored with the tractor as tall as a single-story house.

Elsewhere, enormous horned beasts lie hot and silent in pens lined with sawdust. The John Deere merchandise tent is packed and every 30m there is a kiosk selling coffee, biltong and vetkoek. Clearly this is the place to be.

Except it isn’t. If you like cars then you’re better off taking a drive down to Stasiestraat where a man named Freek (I’m not allowed to tell you his surname) owns a nondescript building that is home to what is apparently the largest collection of Datsun and Nissan vehicles in the Southern Hemisphere. Freek, a prosperous wood merchant by trade, could easily have collected the more glamorous marques like Porsche or Ferrari or Lamborghini.

But no. “I’ve loved Datsun and Nissan cars from an early age,” he tells me. “So about 10 years ago I started collecting them.”

This collection grew to such an extent that Freek had to build a special garage-cum-warehouse. And it’s bloody impressive to say the least.

Back in the day, before the crapbox GO came along, Datsun was blessing the world with some seriously cool and innovative machinery — like the beautiful 240Z crouching in front of me. Launched in 1969 and now jealously sought after by those in classic car circles, this perfectly proportioned sports coupé became an instant classic thanks to its sporty handling and sharkish aesthetics.

It was surprisingly affordable too and, thanks to that six-cylinder motor, certainly no slouch in the speed stakes either.

Freek also has a 1600 SSS. Well, a number of them actually. Also known as the Bluebird or the 510, this boxy little sedan not only rivalled the BMW 2002 for driving finesse but was also responsible for launching the racing career of one Paul Leonard Newman.

Next to it sits perhaps the coolest car in this eclectic collection — an original Nissan Skyline GT-R. Less than 2000 were produced between 1969 and 1972, which today makes them about as rare as rocking-horse dung. This, combined with the fact that their race-winning performance basically birthed the GT-R dynasty, means that a good example is worth a mint.

“If it has the correct engine in it like this one,” Freek explains, “you’re looking at R4.8-million.” Yep, it’s safe to say that we won’t be driving this.

We do, however, get to take a spin in a third-generation Nissan Skyline — the R32. Nicknamed Godzilla by the Australian motoring press, this thing blew the doors of the performance-car establishment when it was released in 1989. And even today you can see why. A sophisticated all-wheel-drive system still provides impressive traction through corners, while a twin-turbocharged engine serves up proper old-school thrills. Wait for the lag to dissipate and the R32 pops and whistles down Stasiestraat at a rate of knots. The only thing showing this car’s age is the braking system: it simply doesn’t have the bite that new anchors offer.

Next up is the comparably teeny 140Z coupé that was only marketed and sold in South Africa in the mid-1970s. It makes a big noise for such a small thing (aren’t side-draft carburettors wonderful?) and is a stark reminder that a car doesn’t necessarily need a zillion horsepower to be fun.

My favourite whip of the day, however, is a machine that I had long written off as bloated and irrelevant: a cankerous wart on the face of the marque’s lineage.

But look past the Boogie Nights styling cues (is there anything more porno than a T-bar roof?) and you’ll uncover in the 280ZX an unflustered Gran Turismo that rides as smoothly as a new Lexus. The large velour seats smell a bit musty but they’re comfortable and hold your body in all the right places.

Although the five-speed gearbox is uncharacteristically ungainly for a Japanese vehicle, the engine is a six-cylinder helping of double-thick cream. It sounds amazing too: this crisp, dry bark that sharpens as the revs rise.

And all the time you’re surrounded by rad old-school dials: voltmeters and oil-pressure gauges and an original Hitachi tape deck that has a separate EQ in the passenger footwell. I dig this car. In fact I want to drive it all the way back to Johannesburg.

Yeah, outside the month of May nothing ever happens down here in Bothaville. But if you do choose to visit, and are able to track down a man named Freek, then I guarantee you won’t be bored. Hey, you might even have some prejudices demolished too. – Thomas Falkiner