The Way We Were
Datsun's 240Z shook the US (and a few other countries) in 1970. Twenty-six years later, it faded away in relative silence, hardly a fitting end to the car that put Nissan/Datsun on the automotive map. Now, with no new sports car to sell, Nissan is getting into the restoration business.
When the first Datsun 240Zs rolled down American streets and made American eyes dangle from their sockets, the automotive equivalent of spontaneous generation erupted. What was a Datsun? And where did this shapely sports car come from? Whatever Americans thought of Datsuns up to that point, it became freshly redefined by the new sports car.
English sportsters (and their attendant oil puddles) still dotted our roads, along with a select few other European machines. Japanese automakers had just penetrated the California market and both GM and Ford were about to shove the underwhelming Vega and Pinto in front of the buying public. Britain's sports car industry had already begun its painful slide into the muck with other underfunded but loved car companies. The Asian manufacturers, with excellent monetary backing, technical know-how and patience for the market to turn to their strengths, were ready. There was no better example than Nissan.
In Los Angeles, Yutaka Katayama made friends quickly in the US as head of Nissan North America. This was hardly the case with his superiors in Japan. They viewed him as a bit of a rogue because of his open love of sports cars, racing and a willingness to adopt new ways of thinking. Meanwhile, Mr. K (as he was quickly nicknamed) enjoyed an unheard-of personal relationship with Nissan's engineering and design staff. Always making suggestions and relating the American market to the studio design staff in Japan, he propelled them along in realizing what would become the 240Z. But, as the saying goes, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.
In 1964, Albrecht Goertz designed Nissan's CSP311 Silvia sports coupe, unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show. Its mix of influences included Goertz's own BMW 507, but it didn't rewrite design textbooks. Toyota then picked up Goertz for the creation of their 2000 GT. It was a masterpiece, but few knew due to its astronomical price and rarity.
Goertz then went back to Nissan, advising and working on the 240Z project, but only for a short period. In later years, Nissan completely disavowed any involvement with Goertz on the Z, but later recanted. Whether or not Goertz' imprint exists on each 240Z's fender, one look at the 2000GT and Z side by side reflects a similar heritage, if not the same artist's pen.
The designers of record at Nissan are Yoshihiko Matsuo, chief designer; Akio Yoshoda, exterior designer; Sue Chiba, interior design; Eiichi Oiwa and Kiichi Nishikawa, design assistants. Hidemi Kamahara and Tsuneo Benitani engineered the car and Teiichi Hara oversaw the whole process. But because Katayama was in on the entire project from the concept stage, talking about future cars with the designers before they knew about the 240Z project, he is credited as much as anyone else.
The Name of the Game
When introduced in Japan, the 240Z wore the name "Fairlady," a name also assigned to the1600 and 2000 Roadsters. Katayama knew American buyers would flock to that name like vegetarians to prime rib, but the first batch of cars arrived at US docks with Fairlady emblems on their flanks and hatches anyway. Katayama himself ordered 240Z badging and only released cars when the emblems were replaced. Nissan Japan quickly gave in, using the new 240Z badging.
Katayama drove the first cars to come in the LA harbor port of San Pedro. He also immediately sent one to a racing team (see page 74). Having founded the Sports Car Club of Japan in 1951, he felt performance and racing success would lay the groundwork for a quality-driven image, especially in America. Datsun Zs would win every SCCA C-Production Championship from 1970 through 1979, with Pete Brock's BRE cars and Bob Sharp's cars setting the tone with four titles in a row from 1970-74.
Those first 240Zs were powered by 2.4-liter engines making 151 bhp at 5600 rpm, and 146 lbs-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. Rods, pistons, cam drive and block architecture were borrowed from the company's 1.6-liter Four, already used in the 510 sedan. The Six used seven main bearings in the deeply-skirted block and had slightly more cam timing than the Four. It was also canted five degrees to the right in the engine bay. British flavor spilled over to the Hitachi-built SU carburetors.
Part of the Z's allure came from its well-designed independent rear suspension. Few of its market competitors enjoyed an IRS, and it employed a simple MacPherson strut and lower control arms at either side. On paper, the Z looked quite sophisticated, but there was definite room for improvement. The factory used actual fish oil in the shocks, which did little to dampen suspension or body movement. The fluid was also retained by failure-prone rubber seals.
Inside, a wood-rimmed steering wheel and shift knob warmed things up visually, though a chintzy crisscross pattern on the transmission tunnel and rear strut tower trim cried "cheesy." The standard hubcaps won no beauty contests either. On the plus side, many American dealers dumped the wheels and mounted slotted alloy wheels from a variety of suppliers.
Datsun 240Zs bound for America differed from those that arrived for the European debut in 1971. Where American-spec cars used softer, higher-riding springs, a wide-ratio 4-speed and tall 3.36:1 gearing, Europeans received a close-ratio 5-speed transmission, more lively 3.90:1 rear gearing, ugly but functional lift-reducing spoilers and an electric fuel pump mounted in the rear of the car. While these differences may seem small, they brought the car up a couple of notches on the performance ladder.
The $3526 list price went up a few notches, too, thanks to dealer markup. Dealers also added stripe kits, air conditioning, and other knicknacks that would help bulk up the asking price. And people bought 'em. A six-month wait for cars sprouted. Once the cars were delivered, some people turned immediately around to resell them at an even higher price. In an age when the Jaguar E-Type cost $5800, some Zs changed hands for damn close to that when the craze peaked.
The constant push upmarket
Nissan certainly isn't the only manufacturer to push a car up a few market segments, as they did every time the Z car was updated. When the 240Z, RX-7 and second-generation Supra were introduced to the American market, they were all hits. Each offered very good or excellent performance, good quality and sound engineering for a modest price. And Nissan, Mazda and Toyota constantly moved their cars upmarket until they strayed from their mandate. By 1996, when Nissan sold only a handful of Z cars, they pulled the plug.
Why? Why kill the flagship? Why creep upmarket? Why, over the course of 26 years, turn an affordable, well-engineered, elemental, lightweight and sympathetic sports car into a highly complex, luxurious, heavy, extremely fast GT, in so doing causing sales to plummet? A dead market was the reason provided for the Z car's dismissal, but there was never a steady demand for $50,000 sports cars, even ones made in Stuttgart or Maranello.
One could make a convincing argument (here we go) that fun behind the wheel of a sports car has nothing to do with specific engine output, skidpad numbers, the quickest possible 0-60 mph time, or sheer horsepower. The intangibles-feedback, character and accuracy-are paramount. It could take a car with the finest of these attributes all of ten seconds to reach 60 mph from a standstill, but character and feedback would still give its driver a smile a jackhammer couldn't pry off. Mr. K echoed this.
"The latest 300ZX became too big and fat. The fat should have been shaved off," he blurted.
In euthanizing the 300ZX, Nissan wiped away the strongest product, image and character the company had in North America. Their reputation on this side of the Pacific was built on a foundation of several hundred thousand 240Zs. But Nissan is fully aware of its history and has embarked on something no other manufacturer has ever done; restoring and selling a dead model.
Out of the blue, longtime Z specialist Pierre Perrot got a call from someone at Nissan asking if they could come down to see his restoration shop.
"I was kind of cool about the whole thing at first," remembers Pierre. They asked for a proposal on what it would take to restore a Z from scratch. He noted everything needed down to the last circlip and cotter pin. Suitably impressed with his proposal, Nissan's Dave Elchert took the next step.
Elchert and crew wanted to restore a total of 10 cars per month, coming from three locations; one in the East, one in Texas and one in California. Pierre argued that consistency from car to car couldn't be maintained by having the restorations done in three different locations. And if Nissan were sanctioning a venture like this, consistency would be critical. He then offered to shut his shop down to his customers for an extended period and concentrate solely on restoring cars for Nissan.
"I then realized that the whole thing was on my shoulders," recalls Pierre. "I'd even have to find all the cars for the basis of all the jobs. Every Nissan employee working on the program-from Engineering, Parts, and Warranty-was a volunteer. I could do no such thing."
In early December of '96, Nissan wanted the first completed car ready for review by January 15th. Engineering wanted the cars as close to their original specifications as possible, but Pierre argued against this.
"Those first production cars in 1970 had poorly-hung doors and bad-quality paint. In addition, sources for accurate replacement door panels, interior vinyl trim, center consoles and dashboards were dry. And I wasn't about to do half-assed or even quarter-assed work." So what he couldn't find he had fabricated. Private customer restorations could reuse old, refurbished parts, but with Nissan's corporate stamp on each of the Vintage Zs, new pieces would have to be found, especially dashboards, as they all had a tendency to crack.
"When they did inspect it, the Nissan people were happy with the car," Pierre sighs.
But would we be?
The Real Thing
This 1971 model shows exactly why the 240Z was so successful. Despite the fish oil shocks and skinny stock steel wheels, it's full of promise with a few very important tweaks. And nothing's more true to the original Z than an example that needs a few tweaks.
A restrictive and ill-sounding "whistler" exhaust (OEM-style) made this first preproduction Vintage Z sound like a bigger, badder VW Beetle with its throat half-cleared. Power from the 2.4-liter Six was good and torque was plentiful, but steam seemed to trail off before the old rated hp peak of 5600 rpm. In fact, there wasn't much point in spinning it past 5000 rpm. This car desperately needed a less restrictive exhaust, and not just because of the lowbrow soundtrack.
The first version of the Z's 4-speed gearbox is known as the "A" box. It extends the exhaust's German theme, mimicking a 0-mile, early-'70s vintage Porsche 911 shifter assembled on a bad day, with a little more grit thrown in. Upshifts must actually be hurried in order to catch the engine on its descent to idle. But this is the way they were, so full points for accuracy. Surprisingly, you get used to it after a while and anticipate the lethargy. Later "B" boxes (used from mid '71 on) were far crisper.
Once up to speed, the 4-speed car tried desperately not to go where it was pointed. Cause? More accuracy (in specification; not steering.) This first example of the whole Vintage Z experiment wore original-spec bushings in the suspension, steering rack and steering coupler. Combine this with tall sidewalls on the 195/70HR14 tires and narrow wheels, and it ensures the reflexes of Gerald Ford.
Sound bad? It was, but there's a rescue effort underway.
All of these shortcomings were improved by the time we drove a second car with revised bushings, shocks, and other minor improvements. Just as with a new car, Nissan officials went through a short development phase, if you will, in order to decide how to finalize specifications.
They wisely decided (after meetings with Pierre and others) to use slightly harder bushings, KYB strut inserts and a few other minor upgrades, even though these unseen parts are not strictly OEM. In fact, the second and third cars we drove were saddled with automatic transmissions, but the overall improvement was so meaningful, we didn't mind not having the four-speed to play with.
Because of the stock spring rates, stock front antiroll bar and lack of rear bar, the restored 240Z leans appreciably in corners. By maintaining a steady throttle at the car's low cornering limit, you can saw away at the steering wheel with little effect in direction, transforming the pretty, thin wood-rimmed wheel into a volume knob for the front tires at their limit. But this is the way it was in 1970....
Until the aftermarket picked up the business. By 1972, you could buy go-fast goodies direct from BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises), Bob Sharp, Datsun Competition, or any number of other parts purveyors. Bolt-on parts cleaned up the slop just about anywhere in the car.
And here marks the American angle of the 240Z. Never before could you so easily buy such a vast array of speed parts for an imported car. Camaro, Mustang and other American musclecar owners knew full well the joy of beefing up their cars. In no time, all manner of high-performance Z parts could have you driving a Porsche-eater on the street or a C-Production race car of your own. (Or-more likely-thinking so, which was half the fun.)
Second-time-around Vintage Zs prove visually accurate, with minor but meaningful mechanical updates no one will see. The only question is, are they worth $24,950 per copy? You could restore one (or have one restored) for less, certainly, but you wouldn't have some of the out-of-production parts that Nissan can supply to its own operation. You'd also be hard-pressed to find someone more experienced in Z car restoration and prep work than Pierre Perrot. And there's the all-important bit-a 12,000 mile/12-month factory warranty.
So if you want a Z car, and you don't wish to spend $25,000 on a new/old one, try waiting. There could be an all-new one in the pipeline.
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