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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

March 06, 1998

If you're old enough to remember, think back to 1969. Richard Nixon was our president, Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon, the Woodstock rock concert drew a half-million spectators and I was working for a Datsun dealership in San Leandro, CA.

Maybe that last historical event isn't in your memory banks but it definitely is in mine because that was the year that Datsun (now Nissan) introduced its now-classic 240Z sports car. Datsun had made sports cars in the past but they were archaic copies of British four cylinder, two- seater roadsters; fun, but nothing really special.

It therefore came as a shock to us sports car enthusiasts when the very "Italian" Datsun 240Z GT (Grand Touring) coupe appeared with its long nose, short "fastback" tail section and modern chassis adapted from Datsun's then-famous 510 sedan. The 2.4 liter engine had six cylinders, an overhead cam cylinder head, twin carburetors and 150 horsepower, more than enough to pull its 2400 pounds along at a good clip.

When the 240Z was introduced to the US, Yutaka Katayama was president of Nissan USA and exercised a kind of "guiding father" leadership over the company. You can see a characterization of Katayama in Nissan TV commercials as the elderly oriental fellow carrying the small dog and pontificating on life in the automotive fast lane.

When the first 240Zs equipped with automatic transmissions were offered to the public, the dealership where I worked was putting one on the showroom floor when the sales manager got a hurried call from Kayatama's own office in Southern California.

"Mr. Katayama has just driven the 240Z with the automatic," said the distressed voice on the other end, "and he doesn't like the way it vibrates under acceleration. Don't sell any until we find out what's wrong." We didn't and the company found a cure within a week. "Father" Katayama saw to that.

Katayama was also a racing enthusiast and had been instrumental in getting Datsun cars involved in American racing as soon as suitable cars were built. The 240Z was obviously "suitable." With its aerodynamic shape, all-independent suspension and modern 2.4 liter engine, the car was a natural and its debut in racing wasn't long in coming.

Bob Sharp, an Eastern competition driver, ran his specially-prepared 240Z in SCCA Class C production car races, winning almost everything in sight with the car until he switched to the up-dated version in 1974.

While Sharp was winning on the East Coast, John Morton, driving for Pete Brock's BRE team in the West, was taking most of the C Production trophies at races west of the Rockies. The 240Z did indeed turn out to be as fast as it looked.

Since its inception almost 30 years ago, the Datsun 240Z has attracted an almost fanatical following and is a perfect collectible car for the average owner/driver. It is rugged and reliable, parts are readily available and there are even independent shops around the country that work only on Datsun Z cars. Good examples are available for between $5,000 and $6,000 depending on condition. Is that a reasonable price range? It depends on how you look at it. For the buyer, it's fine: he or she gets reliable transportation and great fun for a modest investment.

But if you missed out on buying a factory-fresh Datsun 240Z between 1970 and 1973, don't despair: you have a rare opportunity to experience those halcyon days (at least the automotive part of them) without having to enter a time warp. A couple of years ago, Nissan (the Datsun name was dropped by the parent company in 1982) stopped making its then-current 300ZX sports coupe and went out of the sports car business, a decision make at top corporate marketing levels, I'm sure.

But the fire hasn't go out of the sports car furnace at Nissan of America headquarters in Gardena, California and in an unprecedented move, the company has gone into the "retro" car business. It has commissioned the complete restoration of several hundred 1970 to 1973 Datsun 240Z coupes to the same condition they were in when they sat on showroom floors as factory-fresh cars. Three museum-grade restoration shops in the Southern California area have been commissioned to perform ground-up restorations on the cars and to bring them to better-than-new condition. The engines, four-speed transmissions and differentials are remanufactured by specialty shops using new Nissan parts while such items as suspension and other ancillary parts are also as-original but upgraded with more modern materials and technology. Since the cars are literally like new, they carry the same factory guarantee as modern Nissan products. The one drawback is that the demand is so great for these hand-crafted cars that there's a 30-day wait on delivery through the 10 Nissan dealerships that are franchised to sell them.

But don't expect to roll out in a "new" 1970 240Z for the original $3500 sticker price: the renovated cars sell for $28,000 or eight times what they cost 28 years ago. That geriatric Japanese gentleman in the Nissan TV commercials says that "Life's a journey. Enjoy the ride." But what he doesn't say is that if the ride goes clear back to the early '70s, it isn't necessarily going to be cheap.