Chris Mull’s Pint-Sized ’63 Datsun NL320 Pickup Stuffs Big-Time Cool into a Compact Package
Post-World War II Japan was a bleak place. From the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese people not only began rebuilding their war-torn country but started laying the foundation of an automotive juggernaut that would forever shift the pecking order of the global car industry. Japan’s embryonic car industry fielded fuel-efficient, crudely built machines that borrowed design cues from the mighty American automotive design studios on the other side of the Pacific.
By the ’70s, Japan Inc. hit its stride and flooded the U.S. with not only with higher quality cars but a tidal wave of mini-trucks that ignited a boom across North America. The genesis of that mini-truck phenomenon, and the Tundras and Tacomas we see today, lies here in Chris “Billy Bob” Mull’s ’63 Datsun NL320 pickup.
Mull has been building custom cars and trucks for 35 years, starting at the tender age of 15 with a ’54 Chevy truck his grandfather gave him. Since then, he has built many personal vehicles ranging from imports and muscle cars, to mini-trucks, hot rods, and VWs.
The NL320 was a top-of-the-line model with a unibody design and, if you squint, you can see Chevrolet Cameo styling cues in the bed, rear wheel openings, and angled taillights. Especially popular in Australia and New Zealand, Americans were shipped a limited number of left-hand-drive NL320s. Just 1,000 were produced between 1963 and 1965. Mull’s diminutive hauler was built from two trucks, took nearly a decade to source and build, and was a labor of love for Mull and his cadre of craftsmen friends.
The body had a bad case of the tin-worm, which is where the second truck came in to donate needed metal. Mull had to fabricate parts, too, like the rockers and lower jambs, though he left the body mostly stock except for a shaved antenna, gas filler door, tubbed rear wheel wells and smoothed fender seams. He enlisted help from friends Jeff Reed, Jose Ortiz, Jason Lekvold, and Danny Strain to assist with the bodywork before laying down the two-tone black and gray PPG paint with red accents. Mull scoured the earth to find the exterior trim and the finished product is testament to the effort – check out the yellow fender badge declaring a whopping “60hp!”
Mull modified the frame with a custom front crossmember and A-arms holding late-model Nissan spindles and brakes, plus a custom triangulated four-link rear suspension. All four corners feature Air Lift Performance bags controlled by an Air Lift 3P system with two air compressors. All this goodness rolls on Centerline smoothie 18- and 20-inch wheels wrapped in Hankook tires. The crowning touch was a set of never-installed Datsun hubcaps Mull found in Peru, made by an aftermarket company out of Brazil in the early-’70s.
While one might expect an LS swap, this little Datsun is Nissan through and through. It runs a 180hp, 1989 Nissan Ka24e engine and five-speed transmission. Mull had to massage many elements of the detailed engine for it to nestle inside the narrow frame, but it’s all nicely tucked in and looks like it belongs.
A factory NL320 came with a bare-bones interior, but Mull wanted to create “what a luxury trim interior might have looked like from the factory.” The crimson guts were stitched by Charley Rowell of Holcomb’s Upholstery in Aberdeen, Washington and consist of groovy ’60s cloth material inserts, and red and black Corvette “Tuxedo” carpet. The steering wheel is from a 312 deluxe sedan. The dash has a bluetooth Retrosound radio and Speedhut gauges with an Asian inspired font.
Mull says he and his wife Michelle are happy with the finished truck, and we can attest that it draws attention wherever it goes. Mull is especially thankful to all his buddies who helped with the build along the way.
Photos by Damon Lee