JOHNSON’S FIRST RACECAR BEING RESTORED

The Datsun as it sits in Jerry Strauberg's garage mid-restoration. Pic: Supplied / Jerry Strauberg

THE Datsun that served as Steven Johnson’s first racecar is on its way towards a return to the racetrack with its original creator as a Group U Historic Sports Sedan.

Jerry Strauberg built the lightweight Datsun 1600 as a Sports Sedan in the late 1970s and campaigned it for several seasons, passing through the hands of multiple owners – including future Supercars race-winner Johnson – before he repurchased the car several years ago.

“I used to race Minis,” Strauberg told V8 Sleuth. “Most of the guys were doing Toranas and I thought I really didn’t want to follow that path, and at the time the 510 Datsuns in America were going pretty hard. I thought I’d do something different.”

Strauberg aboard the Datsun in its original guise at Oran Park. Pic: Supplied / Jerry Strauberg

The car was initially equipped with a two litre Nissan U20 motor but, inspired by a few close dices with Mike Griffin’s rotary-powered Datsun 120Y, Strauberg soon replaced it with a Mazda 13B peripheral port rotary.

“I probably outsmarted myself a bit too much there because I then also got a Hewland and tried to marry the two together, but I just didn’t have the experience or the know-how,” he said.

Strauberg got out of racing in the late 1980s and sold the Datsun as a roller, and the car was later campaigned by Rod Darling – who fitted a 13B fettled by rotary guru Barry Jones – Barry Campbell and David Attard.

Soon after, the little Datsun headed north to Queensland.

Steven Johnson began his racing career in this Datsun 1600 Sports Sedan. Pic: autopics.com.au

Johnson had been the innocent victim of an accident that had written off his first road car – a brand-new Suzuki Vitara – and father Dick gave him a pair of options for what they could do with the insurance payout.

“He said we can get another Vitara for the same money (around $20,000), or we can buy you a little bush-basher and spend the rest on a racecar,” Johnson told the V8 Sleuth Podcast.

“He said: ‘I’ll give you a week to think about it’ – I didn’t need a week!”

Johnson campaigned the car – now equipped with a 12A rotary bought from Allan Moffat from his days running Group C RX-7s! – for a couple of seasons at circuits like Lakeside and Amaroo Park before graduating to Supercars.

Johnson waits in Amaroo Park’s pit lane while his rather famous mechanic works under the bonnet. Pic: autopics.com.au

The Datsun had passed through a few more owners when Strauberg got the itch to track it back down.

“I’d retired and I’m not really keen on gardening, I’m not keen on bowls, I don’t really like golf, so I thought I wouldn’t mind getting back into racing!” Strauberg told V8 Sleuth.

He spotted a photo of the car on Facebook that led him to Ballina, NSW and Tim Pettitt, the car’s last of eight owners since Strauberg; in a twist of fate, the pair had lived “about two doors” away from each other in Wollongong back in the day!

Strauberg has been steadily working on the car over the past five years and expects to get a bit more time to put effort into the restoration at his Phillip Island home during the current COVID-19 lockdown.

The Datsun as it sits in Strauberg’s garage mid-restoration. Pic: Supplied / Jerry Strauberg

“It’s on a jig now,” he said. “It’s been in so many accidents! Body-wise it looked reasonable, but the chassis was twisted, one side was shorter than the other.

“We used to build them very light and some of the tubes I found you could squeeze with your fingers… cutting that stuff out and replacing it is fairly important. I’ve chopped a lot of that stuff out and started rebuilding the frame.

“It’s a total rebuild from basically the ground up, but essentially the body still has the battle scars on it that I’m going to leave on there. Tim Pettitt said ‘Steve Johnson put it over at Lakeside – you can see the marks on the roof there!’”

The car’s rotary was replaced by a two-litre piston engine by a subsequent owner, but the Datsun will receive a 13B rotary like it ran in period to fit with Group U’s pre-1986 eligibility cutoff.

“It won’t be flogged around in normal Sports Sedan events, it’ll be mainly in the historic-type events,” Strauberg said. “It’ll go with the owner who’s historic as well!”

Will Dale began his media career as a breakfast radio newsreader before joining SPEED TV Australia and FOX SPORTS Australia in 2012 as its Digital Editorial Lead - Motorsport for the next six years, covering all forms of motorsport both in Australia and internationally. He became part of the V8 Sleuth team in 2018.