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For some folks, the gearhead life is essentially preordained.
“My dad is a big car guy,” quips Blake Tomlinson, a Mooresville, North Carolina-based product designer for Holley Performance. “So I’ve been around hot rods for pretty much my entire life.”
If the name Tomlinson looks familiar, it might be because Blake’s old man, Tom Tomlinson, is Holley’s current president and CEO. The elder Tomlinson’s car collection is the stuff of legend, so it comes as little surprise that Blake has some interesting rides of his own. While his latest project might be seen as a departure from the norm for someone who grew up in a world of big-block Chevys and flathead Fords, it also epitomizes the creative spirit of the hobby.
“You know, my heart has always been in the traditional hot rods that I was building early in my career, back when I lived in California,” he explains. “’32 Fords, stuff like that. Back then I considered a ’55 Chevy to be a late model vehicle. The muscle car guys that I work with these days kind of dismiss that stuff as ‘old junk,’ but the simplicity of that era made a big impression on me.”
Tomlinson wasn’t necessarily on the hunt for a truck to wrench on when he saw his first Datsun pickup in the parking lot of Kugel Komponents in La Habra, California back in 2010, but that soon changed. “I thought it was the raddest little truck ever,” he recalls. “There’s this muscle car vibe going on with the grille design, and I love the bullet-style doors. We didn’t really have those over on the East Coast where I grew up, so I was fascinated by this thing.”
The encounter sent Tomlinson on a search for a Datsun truck of his own. “I was checking Facebook Marketplace every day,” he says. “And I sort of cheated the system because I figured out a way to make to search all over the country instead of just in my region.” The effort would bear fruit in 2021 when he found a 1974 Datsun 620 out in Ashland, Oregon, and enlisted the help of a friend to go check out the truck. “Walt Anders is the owner of Classic Nova and Performance out there, and he’s just an awesome person. I gave him a call and asked him if he could go look at the car for me. He went out there, took some video of it, and I wired him money to buy the car. He drove it back to his shop and even loaded it up for me. I don’t think the sale would have been possible without him.”
Although it was technically a driver, the Datsun was in pretty rough shape when Tomlinson took delivery. “It basically had a house built onto it,” he says with a laugh. “It had this all-wood camper that must’ve weighed about 1500 pounds. But the truck was compete and seemed mechanically sound. Aside from some wear items, the seller had actually done a pretty decent job of keeping it in running order.” Tomlinson sold off the camper and soon set to work making the 620 a bit more road-worthy, replacing fuel lines, brake system components, and all the rubber seals that had gone bad throughout the vehicle.
Under the hood is a 2.0-liter L20B inline four-cylinder power plant, which is mated to a close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox from a Nissan 280Z. “That was the large Datsun motor,” he notes. “And it was actually swapped into this truck at some point in its life – it originally came with a 1.8. But here in the office we argue about whether or not it’s making more than a hundred horsepower.” Although it’s not dishing out hair-raising grunt by today’s standards, the Datsun only has about 2300 pounds of mass to lug around these days. It now also benefits from a modern fuel injection system thanks to a Sniper EFI 2GC Large Bore kit and a bit of ingenuity.
“The intake is almost hand-made,” he tells us. “I started with the Datsun factory intake – I welded it up, smoothed it out, got rid of all the extra passages on it, and opened up the inside for better flow. It also has this cool ram air-style insert in it, which I kind of added just for fun. When you’re working with this much power, it doesn’t really matter.” Tomlinson also added a finned top to spruce up the engine bay with a bit of flathead-style flair, and he installed a block-off plate where the mechanical fuel pump used to reside. An AEM external pump and lines from Earl’s Performance Plumbing round out the fuel system components.
The exhaust was in pretty rough shape when the truck showed up on Tomlinson’s doorstep, so he took the opportunity to do something interesting there as well. “When the truck got here, it had about three feet of mud in the tailpipe,” he says. “We were digging it out with a stick; it was kind of hilarious.” He decided to step up from the ratty 1.5-inch factory exhaust to a custom 1.75-inch stainless steel system from the header on back. “I like building exhausts, so that was also just sort of a fun project,” he says. “And instead of taking it all the way to the rear end of the truck, I built what is basically a little manifold with four exhaust exits on it, which comes out just in front of the driver’s side rear tire.”
Thanks to its factory torsion bar suspension, Tomlinson was able to lower the front end of the truck to his liking without much fuss, while three-inch blocks in the rear and a staggered set of tires give the 620 that classic muscle car rake. Meanwhile a set of Holley RetroBright LED headlights provide a big improvement in night time visibility without compromising the truck’s period-correct aesthetic.
The interior is currently gutted, but Tomlinson says a stock-style revamp with a few subtle revisions for the sake of modern convenience is next up on the project to-do list. Well, it was, at least.
“Last spring the clutch went out, and I took it off of the road for a few months to rebuild the transmission and install the Sniper system,” he says. “Once that was done, I drove it for about a month, and then the engine started knocking. We opened it up and discovered that the main bearings and rod bearings were toast. That’s not a common problem with these trucks, so I think that the weight of the camper probably had something to do with that.”
He’s is currently in the midst of an engine swap as result, but don’t get your hopes up for a twin-turbo LS. He’s got another 2.0-liter L20B ready to go in, and he expects to have the truck back on the road before spring. Logging as many miles as possible is Tomlinson’s goal for the project, and simplicity is a big part of that strategy.
“I’ve spent a big part of my life building very high-horsepower cars, and I’ve noticed that very high-horsepower cars tend to spend a lot of time on jack stands. We’ve all been through that. With this project, my desire is to have an old vehicle that I like and can drive every single day if I want to. And I think the route to that goal is to keep things simple.”
While eight-second quarter mile times might not be in this Datsun’s future, he does have some other upgrades in store. “As far as near-term plans go, I’d like to build a canvas cap for the back with some type of bed topper structure – sort of like an old military truck. That’s already on the docket. And when the technology gets to the point where I’m happy with it, I’d like to do an EV swap with it. I want to continue to daily it, so about 200 horsepower and 200 miles of range is the target for me. It really depends on the kits that come out over the next few years. With fewer moving parts there’s less to go wrong, so that would really play into my core directive of driving this thing as much as possible.”