Comparison Test: 1980 Chevrolet C10 vs. My 1981 Datsun 720D

Just like the bro-country song by Kip Moore goes, there’s somethin’ bout a truck.

And, just like country music, the North American love affair with the pickup truck is something that many people in the rest of the world struggle to understand. The North American pickup truck is inherently cool. It’s a symbol of pragmatism, machismo and toughness. The more expensive ones are even considered, as near as makes no difference, luxury cars. You’ll always look more down-to-earth if you roll up to a social gathering in an F-150 King Ranch rather than in a Jaguar.

The trucks of 30 years ago did not enjoy this privilege to the same extent, however. Sure, we had the Jeep Wagoneer, but pickups were very much seen as work vehicles. They were far more utilitarian back then. Just like Timberlands, there was a time when trucks were taken at face value as purely practical. Trucks were originally meant to haul cargo, believe it or not.

But even within the narrow scope of the humble work truck market, there was still a little bit of diversity in the 1980s. I’ve owned a old Datsun truck for a few months now, and I recently got a chance to drive a truck that was only similar in vintage. If the Datsun were a box of sushi, the 1980 Chevrolet C10 Scottsdale would be a good ol’ bucket of greasy Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is arguably nothing more ‘Murican than a Chevy squarebody truck, and the differences between the Chevy and the Datsun are more profound than the differences between Donald Trump and Lena Dunham.

And, yet, they were designed to do basically the same thing: work.

Now, obviously, you can’t compare the two trucks apples to apples. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the squarebody is far more capable than the Datsun; and a similar amount of intellect would determine that the Datsun is far cheaper to run. So I’m not going to waste your time by explaining all of the obvious differences in how these beasts of burden drive. Instead, I’m going to focus on what’s different between them once you get behind the wheel.

Let me start by saying that the Datsun, despite the massive horsepower handicap, is the more engaging of the two to drive. Yes, they both handle like oil tankers, but the Datsun feels inherently more responsive and planted. Hell, in relative terms, the Datsun could even be considered sporty.

Is part of the Datsun’s handling advantage due to its compact dimensions? Does a bear sh!t in the woods? Of course. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

You see, the Datsun has a much better driving position than does the Scottsdale. Part of this is due to the Z32 seats that I put in the Datsun, which would seem to give it an unfair advantage. However, even with the factory bench seat, I was definitely in a better position than I was in the Chevy. The original bench seat in that truck is more like a piece of living room furniture than a real seat. It offers about as much support as GMAC’s pension fund, and certainly doesn’t give you the confidence to whip the Positrac rear end out on a loose gravel road.

Another key difference lies in how these trucks steer. The Scottsdale has power steering, while the Datsun does not. And, while the difference in their behaviours is profound, it is also surprising. I expected the C10’s steering to resemble any other American vehicle of the 1960s: light, overassisted, overgeared, and as vague as a Q&A session with a corrupt politician’s lawyer. Yet there wasn’t an inch of play—it was direct and responsive, even though it took ¾ of a turn to round a corner.  This made the Datsun’s manual steering seem slow and imprecise on centre, although it feels much nicer once you start hitting some corners.  It’s heavy, and you can pretty much feel every pebble through the column. This is both a gift and a curse. While it’s awesome on paved roads in good shape, any bumps or washboard gravel bring forth the very real possibility of snapping your arms off.

The Datsun makes no reservations about its raw, unfiltered nature. The racket of the 2.2-litre normally-aspirated diesel is a constant reminder that you are driving a tool for a job. It’s rough, tough, and full of testosterone. No, it’s not all that strong. But, pound for pound, horsepower for horsepower, it’s a David in a world full of Goliaths. It makes the Chevy seem a little...cushy.

Not that the C10 is a weakling. Far from it, in fact. Huge loads don’t even make it flinch. It’s every bit as rough and tough as the hillbillies would have you believe. But, relative to the Datsun, it isolates you from all the nasty eventualities that a truck ought to be able to handle. The reason that it makes middle-aged men feel like a superhero is because their truck is a better butler than Alfred Pennyworth.

And therein lies the reason that we buy big American trucks that cost as much as Range Rovers. Even the most bog-standard ones that you could find in the 1980s had all the right genes to make a multipurpose, value-packed Leviathan that, in spite of its flaws, is very lovable and comfortable indeed. It’s a creature that has evolved to suit its environment. The feather-light steering would make it awful on a British B-road, but it works flawlessly on the wide-open highway. The suspension soaks up incredible amounts of abuse that would make even the most stoic BMW driver cringe.

OK, you can make yourself look like a brain-dead douchebag if you go over the top with modifications, and you run the risk of looking so much like a redneck that the dueling banjo scene from Deliverance gets stuck in your head. But in the Midwest, Southwest, Northwest and the Wild Wild West, a tasteful truck can get you a certain amount of street (or field) cred.  It’s all in how you carry it off.

But which one would I rather have? First of all, it’s clear to me that old trucks have a lot more character than their modern counterparts.  It’s not a false pretense behind which those who can only afford an old rust bucket choose to hide. It’s the truth.

But which one would I rather have? You would think that I would have a massive bias towards the Datsun, and perhaps I do. But even I find this question tough to answer. At the end of the day, it depends on whether or not you use your head or your heart to answer this question. Logically speaking, I’d take the Datsun. It’s a more engaging drive, it’s far more efficient to use, and it’s more than enough truck for most suburbanites. The squarebody Chev, on the other hand, beckons more to the heart and soul of those who have grown up around the noble half-ton pickup truck. Where the Datsun is a left-field wild card, the Chevy is a proper, all-American classic. The way I see it, if it didn’t make you feel good every time you drove it, it sure as hell wouldn’t  be the symbol of American pride that it is today.

Oh, truck yeah, bud.

FeatureKyle AshdownComment