Memory Lane: Datsun 240Z

While perhaps best-known for the work he did on the stunning BMW 507 coupe of the mid-1950s, renowned German-born stylist Count Albrecht Goertz also deserves kudos for helping to midwife another, far more accessible beauty — the Datsun 240Z.

Conceived as an everyman’s E-type, the “Z-car,” as it became known, was targeted squarely at the U.S. market and was the first Japanese sports car to make serious inroads against established competitors, both homegrown and British.

Packing a 2.4-liter, 151-hp SOHC straight six fed by a pair of side-mounted SU carbs, the 240Z outperformed contemporaries like the Triumph TR6 and MGB. The icing on the cake was notably superior workmanship and better day-in, day-out reliability. The zippy little Datsun’s only real weakness was an unfortunate tendency to rust prematurely, a problem exacerbated by exposure to salty sea air during ship transport from Japan.

Still, the package was tempting enough to attract some 50,000 buyers during the first two years of production, exceptionally strong numbers for the time and for Datsun, specifically.

In 1969, Datsun (the name under which Nissan sold its cars in export markets like the U.S.) had at best a tenuous toe-hold in the North American market, which was still absolutely dominated by America’s Motor City–based Big Three. GM’s Chevrolet division alone accounted for some 25 percent of the entire U.S. new car market in 1970; Japanese cars of any sort were bit players, if that.

The fundamental goodness of the Z-car’s design is further testified to by the fact that it had extremely long legs — the basic shape and layout remaining in production, albeit with styling tweaks and various upgrades, for nearly 14 years (through 1983).

Goertz, who had achieved great fame for the BMW 507, was recruited by Datsun in the early 1960s to collaborate on a new sports car project being contemplated for the U.S. market. Datsun, even then, was thinking long-term. “Project Z” was not primarily about making money on a high-volume car; it was about establishing the bona fides of Datsun as a maker of serious, desirable automobiles, not just tinny little econoboxes bought by people lacking the means to afford something more substantial.

With the general themes of the E-Type Jaguar in mind, Goertz settled down to work. What he came up with was one of those very rare designs that was not improved upon in subsequent years by embellishments and “upgrades.” Indeed, the later 260 and 280Zs seem over-adorned, even heavy and overwrought (especially the 280ZX) compared to the tidy, proportionate cleanness of Goertz’s original.

The 240Z’s bodywork echoed the lines of the Jag in some respects, but the overall shape was its own thing and quite distinctive, not imitative. The car’s long hood/fastback shell was focused and dart-like compared to the E-Type’s curvy, erotic voluptuousness. It was also a much smaller car, with a bobbed tail and sharper nosecone, punctuated on either side by Jaguar-esque recessed headlight nacelles.

Goertz is said to have deliberately scaled down the overall dimensions of what became the 240Z to something closer to those of a Porsche 911 rather than the E-type. The Z was different from the E in another very crucial respect, too. It was an enclosed hardtop coupe, not a roadster. (A convertible version of the Z car would not appear until several generations later; the original 240 and subsequent 260, 280, and 280ZXs were all hardtop coupes, though some later models were available with T-roofs).

Though roadsters were very much “in” at the time, buyers didn’t seem to miss the wind in their hair. But they did appreciate the high (for a two-seater sports car) level of practicality offered by Goertz’s cargo-friendly hatchback design. The E-Type’s clown-car trunk may have looked great, but didn’t do much for the owner who needed to travel with much.

Originally, the car was to have been powered by a twin-cam six, another echo of the E-type. But this engine suffered a number of development problems and the Z-car project itself was put on hold for a couple of years. But the appearance in 1965 of Toyota’s snarky little 2000GT coupe, even though it never became a volume seller, provided the necessary impetus within Datsun to get things back on track. A new “heart” was quickly developed in the form of a dual-carburetor SOHC 2.4-liter straight six tuned for 151 hp. In the lightweight Z, it was capable of 8.0-second 0-60 times while returning 20-25 mpg.

Other elements of the car quickly came together, including a fully independent MacPherson strut/semi-wishbone-type suspension, a competent disc/drum brake setup, and a racy-looking fully equipped cockpit with deep-set speedo and tachometer set directly in the driver’s line of sight. There were also accessory gauges for oil/water/fuel/amps set off to the side in a centrally mounted triple cluster and a handsome three-spoke woodgrain steering wheel. Both manual and automatic transmission were available, though most buyers stuck with the stick. Only a few obvious cheap-outs were evident, most glaringly the presence of ugly plastic wheel covers hiding heavy steel wheels. But this was a relatively minor blemish — and easily forgotten when behind the wheel, your right foot hard to the floor, your right hand grabbing a handful of second gear.

Few cars of the era delivered more kicks, more reliably, for the same money.

Yutaka Katayama, founder of Nissan’s U.S. subsidiary and later known simply as “Mr. K” by his fans, was an early and ardent booster of the project; he was also specifically responsible for changing the car’s name (in the U.S. market) from the not-so-hip-sounding “Fairlady Z” to the much better “240Z.” It is said that Mr. K actually pried the goofy-sounding “Fairlady” nameplates off early-production examples and replaced them with the 240Z badges in defiance of upper management’s edicts.

In October of 1969, the first production examples arrived in the United States with a starting price of about $3500. Sales were so strong that used first-year Z-cars were as expensive to buy as brand-new ones, if you could lay your hands on one. The 1970 issue of the Kelly Blue Book placed the retail value of a secondhand Z at $4000.

The original 1969 design ran largely unmolested through the 1973 model year with total production of approximately 156,076 units. The next year saw the first major styling revisions, including a new (and some say ungainly-looking) 2+2 body as well as a larger but detuned for emissions control reasons 2.6-liter engine. This second-generation 260Z may have been dumpier-looking and slower, thanks to the loss of 12 horsepower (down to 139 from 151), but sales actually improved to 63,963 units, a single-year high water mark for Datsun.

The 260Z is also one of the more uncommon Z-cars to see today, in spite of the large numbers in which it was sold because it was produced for just one year. In 1975, the revised and updated 280Z appeared, with the biggest news being the new Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system. It replaced the dual carb setup for more precise fuel metering, deemed necessary to meet ever-tightening emissions regulations. Power was up to 149 hp — almost as much as the original car’s — and race-tuned examples claimed eight wins (and the series championship) in IMSA GTU racing, with Bob Sharp driving.

Sales continued strong through the late 1970s, a tough time for enthusiast cars of any description, climbing to 67,331 units in 1977. This was actually the highest single year total yet. Datsun continued to refine the car and began to add luxury touches in an effort to attract buyers looking for a high-line GT. In 1979, the 280ZX appeared and was quickly named Motor Trend’s “Import Car of the Year.”

Though some Z-car purists deride the later ’70s examples as overstuffed, tarted-up “disco machines,” performance was always excellent, even if the cars had become a bit glitzy. The 280ZX, like its forbears, did as well on the street as it did on the track, racking up SCCA (C-Production) and IMSA GTU wins.

Turbo power appeared in 1981 and sales remained solid through 1982, even though the original shape was by now almost 13 years old. More than half-a-million 240, 260, 280, and 280ZXs had been sold since ’69.

Still, it was clear a major update was in order — and in 1984, the new 300ZX made its debut. It carried some familiar themes, but was essentially a new car, with an all-new 3.0-liter V-6 engine replacing the long-serving straight six. This car was offered in normally aspirated (160-hp) and turbocharged (200-hp) forms and quickly became the best-selling Z-car ever, with 73,652 units sold.

The third generation Z-car ran through 1989, when it, in turn, was retired in favor of a completely new 300ZX that looked nothing like its predecessors. Though an even better performance car than any previous model — especially in twin-turbo form — the 300ZX did not enjoy the success of the earlier Z-cars. It was complex, expensive, and had the bad fortune to be born at a time when the sports car market was at a low ebb.

As a result, the 300ZX was cancelled after the 1996 run, much to the disappointment of hard-core fans. But enthusiasm for the Z-car did not die out, and Nissan (the Datsun name had been retired by now) decided to give it another go. An all-new 350Z appeared in 2003 to rave reviews. An aggressive two-seater with a price that undercut many competitors, it marked a return to the no-nonsense sports car purity of the original 240Z.

No doubt Mr. K and the Count would approve.



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