Bring Back the Datsun B210

800px-Datsun210Remember back in the summer before the economic meltdown when gas prices were at 4.00 per gallon?  I sure do.  This summer I spent a fortune on gasoline driving my daughter around to visit college campuses in the Northeast.  And I drive a fuel efficient car, the Nissan Sentra – about 35 MPG highway.  Hit rewind and let’s go back twenty seven years.  My sister’s first car was a 1981 Datsun/Nissan 210 that got 47 MPG highway; a car more fuel efficient than a 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid!

I was surprised to learn that a gallon of gas in 1981 cost on the average 1.378.  By the way, there is an excellent data set from the Energy Information Administration on historical gas prices dating back to January of 1980.  So, 1.378 sounds cheap, right?  Not so.  Adjusted for inflation this is equivalent to 3.143 per gallon.  By comparison the cost of a gallon of gas is a bargain today at 2.505, 1.960 if you happen to live in Kansas City.   I don’t.

So why were cars so fuel efficient back in the 70’s and early 80’s?  To understand, we have to examine a bit of history.  In the 70’s, OPEC oil production and exports to the US fell sharply.  The Oil Embargo of 1973 caused gasoline rationing, long lines at the pump and severe price spikes.  In late 1973 through 1974, the stock market crashed.  The Dow Jones declined 45% in one of the worst bear markets in history.  Sound familiar?  The 1979 energy crisis hit the U.S. after the Shah of Iran was deposed during the Iranian Revolution.  Iranian oil production dramatically decreased as did exports to the US.  And the following year, war broke out between Iran and Iraq further interrupting the flow of oil to the West.

Then as now, our leaders warned that we were too dependent on foreign oil.  As a result, in 1974 Congress passed the 55 mph federal speed limit, which also yielded some environmental benefits.  This law was amended in 1987 to permit higher limits on rural roads and in 1996 repealed altogether.  Prior to 1974, most states had maximum speed limits between 70-75 miles per hour.

In 1975, Congress enacted legislation that required the big automakers to conform to fuel efficiency standards.  During this period, Japanese cars flooded the U.S. market with small, affordable fuel efficient offerings like my sister’s Datsun by Nissan 210.  She bought the manual version without even knowing how to drive a stick because it was $500 cheaper.   Other notable subcompact cars included the venerable VW Beetle (which had been around since the 60’s) the once omnipresent (and explosive) Ford Pinto, the Dodge Colt, the Honda Civic, The Toyota Corolla, and The VW Rabbit.

So is it time to go back to a federally mandated 55 mph speed limit?  According to one website,, during the period the 55 mph speed limit was in effect from 1974-1986, our dependence on foreign declined sharply to 28%.  Today, according to the same source, our dependence on foreign oil is up to 60%.   Obviously there are other factors involved including failed energy polices, increased consumer demand, relatively stable gasoline prices over a period of time and the SUV craze.

So why can’t automakers engineer fuel efficient cars like those of the 70’s and early 80’s?  One reason suggested by several posters on the web log Metafilter is that today’s cars are heavier.  Cars weigh more because of safety standards like airbags, fortified frames, anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control systems, and other optional equipment.   Another reason is that until recently, there hadn’t been much demand for fuel efficient cars.  The SUV reigned supreme.  Now, as we move toward a greener future, hybrid vehicles are starting to catch on but still represent only a tiny fraction of total automobile sales.

In conclusion, I have this to say to our next President: 55 MPH; 50 MPG.

And Nissan, enough with the Sentra and Versa – bring back the Datsun B210!