I never thought I’d use Billy Ray Cyrus as inspiration for anything in life, and yet here I am, laughing at what may be one of my most ridiculous titles yet. I can assure you, however, that this is where the country references end. There will be no Camaros, 8-tracks or fluffy dice from here on out.
What there will be is the story of how I ended up in a piss-soaked underpass in Milton Keynes, late at night with one of the wildest little Datsuns this side of Rocky Auto in Japan.
Tom Lingard’s 1981 Datsun Sunny Truck wasn’t a childhood dream or a long-time yearning. Simply, in 2018 Tom saw a Hakosuka-faced Datsun 1200 at a UK show. In his own words: “F**king hell, what the f**k is that? I really want that!”
Not a man to hang around, the next month Tom was the new owner of an Australian Datsun 1200 pickup… from Ireland. The owner had moved to the UK and brought the truck with him, but never registered it here.
Obviously, the sensible thing to do was to buy the truck sight unseen and endure a week of pure anxiety until – or even if – the truck arrived. Tom’s leap of faith pulled through and he immediately got to work on the Datsun.
The first port of call was to get the pickup MOT-worthy to register it. To his surprise, with only some cleaning of the rear brake drums it passed. “I span it on a wet roundabout on the way back, had a laugh and then took the engine out,” Tom added.
Soon into the strip-down, Tom realised things weren’t as good as he’d hoped. The paint job itself was poor, but the rear bed was the worst. There was a wooden floor, underneath which was a flat sheet of steel that had been welded in. The archaeological dig had revealed a base of pure rust after years of cover ups.
“I reckon the wood had just gotten soaked and trapped water underneath the floor,” says Tom of the unfortunate find. But truthfully, this wasn’t the end of the world for Tom – the Datsun was undergoing a full transformation anyway.
The previous owner must have been a car audio fan, as almost every square inch of flat metal behind the trims and doors was plastered in Dynamat insulation. Several nights of wire wheel action, angle grinding and dousing the entire cabin in petrol left Tom with a floor-less shell, shaved of all the rust and weird brackets that had been added for speakers and the like.
At the same time as the shell was being stripped, a K20A engine was liberated from Tom’s EP3 Honda Civic Type R donor car to mock up in the bay. Whilst the Datsun came with a small but mighty 1.2L on Dellorto 40s, it just didn’t cut the mustard.
The core idea of the build in the first place was a K-powered car; it just so happened to manifest itself in a mini truck. When asked why, Tom had this to say: “A K [K-series engine] is a pretty well defined recipe for success for an N/A platform, aside from the manifolds obviously, which have hours and hours of welding into them alone. The exhaust is fully pie-cut, and the intake manifold needed work for a RWD chassis.”
See, whilst in theory a Skunk2 K20 manifold can be flipped upside down to work, it would foul on the brackets and pulleys on Tom’s 2.4L K24/20 Frankenstein engine. A lot of cutting and welding made the intake a true one-off.
There are other custom touches including smoothed intake ducting for a cold air feed, the oil cooler position, the tanks and even the cleanliness of the engine bay itself.
Manifolds and the bay were not the hardest part of the install, however. “I bought a cheap RX-8 gearbox adapter on eBay, but that set the engine dead upright,” says Tom.
The K20 is designed to lean over at a 15º angle, and Tom was not prepared to run into the long-term issues a misaligned engine could cause. He had the adaptor plate scanned, then computer-designed a new one having it laser cut for his use. Not only that, but whereas most RX-8 gearbox adaptors require the use of a hefty flywheel, Tom was determined to use the lightweight Fidanza item he’d already purchased. Therefore, 25mm had to be machined off the front of the gearbox – no mean feat.
We’re not finished yet though folks, because the newly adapted gearbox had yet another issue: the OEM slave cylinder in its original location would simply not work around the packaging of the Datsun’s floor. As seems to be the theme in this build, Tom yet again used his engineering skillset to design a billet aluminium bracket for a Saab slave cylinder instead.
Even still, the final hurdle was reverse gear. The lift-up reverse lockout refused to work in the Datsun application, so Tom converted it to a push-through reverse gear instead. Don’t ask me how. There are still a lot of aspects to this conversion that would require a dissertation to explain.
Following the driveline back, an S13 rear subframe has been narrowed to work with the Datsun’s minuscule track width. A KAAZ 2-way LSD provides drive to the rear wheels while R33 GT-R callipers greatly improve their braking.
At the front, S13 HSD coilovers and top-mounts are mounted to the hubs, connected to the custom subframe with a mix of both custom and Hardrace arms. Every arm is, of course, adjustable. Front braking is courtesy of a pair of Wildwood Dynalite callipers that have been smoothed and re-branded with Nissan stickers. It’s details like this all over the truck that really tie the build together.
The steering setup is a hybrid of three systems. At the base is the original Datsun steering box. The steering column itself is from a Mazda MX-5 in order to use the column-mounted control switches. And for usability, Tom has implemented a Vauxhall Corsa electric power steering motor, hidden behind the dashboard to make driving a little easier on the arms.
Back at the rear, it only takes half a second to realise how much custom work has gone into the little truck. Tom has gone to the effort to design and hand-fabricate a bespoke pushrod suspension setup using AVO coilovers. Custom spring rates have been specified front and rear due to the new weight balance.
The engineering mindset even goes as far as to make the rear cage a stressed member of the rear suspension, providing bracing and stiffening for the S13 rear subframe.
When it comes to the wheels, Tom settled on the cheapest set of classic 8-spoke style wheels he could get his hands on. “I just couldn’t justify spending £2,000 on 14-inch wheels,” he laughed. Tom is the type of guy who would rather spend more on tyres, and seeing the way he drives, I’m guessing he goes through them quite quickly. Currently, there’s a set of Toyo Proxes R888R semi-slicks fitted up.
What the Datsun does have is a set of bespoke forged carbon centre caps as decoration. In a catch-22, if Tom had dropped £2K on wheels, he might not have ended up with the carbon accents the truck has. And when I say ‘carbon accents’, I mean the many bespoke forged carbon pieces around the build.
Whilst I will mention the ‘smooth option’ CarbonSignal Hakosuka front end conversion (whereas the truck Tom originally saw had the vented option), it’s the custom carbon fibre that needs describing. It all stemmed from the wing mirrors, which are genuine Skyline items. Instead of having them sand-blasted and painted black, Tom thought he may as well try to stand out. One kilogram of forged carbon fibre sheet and several litres of epoxy later, not only were the mirror caps forged carbon, but so too was the front lip, wheel arches, wheel covers and several trims around the interior. The front lip was only made as a precaution in case the first plastic one ever took a real beating, and clearly the carbon obsession has escalated.
The vivid yellow paintwork was originally going to be Datsun Safari Gold Metallic. ‘Safari Gold’ may as well have been named ‘Swamp Brown’ though, as it was far too dark for Tom’s vision. The paint you see is therefore a custom mix, both vibrant and warm in tone. Meanwhile the livery is the result of a lot of Googling, with Tom choosing the ideas he liked best and turning them all into one simple design that wouldn’t be too difficult to remove down the line.
Even the interior has a little trinket with a nice story behind it. Ignore the pedal box with custom routed fluid bottles and the AiM dash that’s hooked up to the K24 Frank via Hondata software. The Nardi steering wheel, custom shift knob and Sparco seats/Takata Racing harness combo are inconsequential to Tom, too.
A small model of ‘Pickle Rick’ from Rick & Morty sits proudly on the centre console. Why, you may ask? “When I had an MX-5, my then-girlfriend bought me a small K-9 model from Doctor Who, and I kept it in the car to make her happy.”
“She was more sad about me selling that car than I was, so she got me the Pickle Rick statue to keep until the Datsun was finished. I promised her it would go inside once it’s done.” Seeing as the pair are now engaged, Tom must have made the right choice.
It’s details like this that make the Datsun such a fantastic little truck. Whilst it’s all well and good having this much work and effort go into the Datsun, as well as all the incredible parts, they’re only as good as the fun that is had along the way.
A design engineer by trade, Tom taught himself how to fabricate as he went. His only previous experience in welding was from his first car – an old VW Beetle – and his experience in fibreglass from the previously mentioned MX-5. Even then, throw in small touches like the false passenger floor to hide all the wiring, or the self-made 3D-printed heater pipes to avoid the washer bottle placement and you have one hell of a build with some amazing details.
Add to that Tom just being an all round joker and nice guy, who was more than happy to make a trip out with two hours’ notice. A trip to an unfamiliar city no less, ending up in the sketchy part of town after we got kicked out of the nice clean car park that I’d originally organised.
The most shocking aspect of the build though, is that the day after I shot it, the Datsun was sold. I knew it was coming, hence the rush to shoot the truck, but I never really asked why until a few weeks after.
“Life’s too short and there are too many cars I want to build,” says Tom. “I haven’t won the lottery, so you have to keep selling to fund them. I liken the build to ‘Stockholm syndrome’, because there are times it was absolutely hell, but I escaped. I had a load of fun taking it to shows and that kind of thing; I smashed it down B-roads and had a blast – it was a really good car. It had a great reception from everyone. It was just time to let it go and build something else daft.”
I think without that attitude, the Datsun may never have been built in the first place, so I’m not going to disagree at all. I’m just grateful I got to shoot the awesome little thing and had a blast doing so.
Apparently, Tom’s next project will involve a PS13, another K-engine and a BMW gearbox, so I’ll be sure to keep tabs on that.