Jump to content

Hemmings: A game-changer marks its golden anniversary

Recommended Posts


A game-changer marks its golden anniversary: Datsun’s Z celebrates 50 years

Kurt Ernst on Mar 6th, 2019 at 8am


1971 Datsun 240Z. Photography by Jeff Koch, unless otherwise noted.

By the end of the 1960s, Japanese automakers struggled to overcome the perception among U.S. buyers that their wares were little more than transportation appliances. In October 1969, Datsun debuted a GT coupe at the Tokyo Motor Show, designed with American consumers in mind, and in short order the 240Z rewrote the book on what an affordable sports car could be. In 2019, the Datsun Z will mark its 50th anniversary, an achievement that will be recognized with a dedicated Z Car class at the 2019 Hemmings Motor News Concours d’Elegance.


The Datsun Z wasn’t the first aspirational sport coupe produced by a Japanese carmaker, an honor that would instead go to the 1967 Toyota 2000GT. Built under contract by Yamaha, which also handled much of the 2000GT’s design, the Toyota was a halo car meant to help the automaker shed its conservative image. It worked, with American magazines of the day heaping praise on the coupe, which carried an aluminum body and came powered by a Yamaha-tuned, double overhead-camshaft  2.0-liter inline six, rated at 148 hp.


It also carried a hefty price tag of $7,150, considerably more than a new Corvette coupe ($4,353), a Porsche 911 ($5,990), or a Jaguar E-type ($5,580). Combined with its diminutive size (including an overall height of just 45.7 inches), the 2000GT proved a tough sell globally, but particularly in the U.S. market where just 62 were imported out of 351 produced.


The Toyota 2000GT and the later Datsun 240Z have more in common than a country of origin. What would eventually become the Toyota coupe began life as a potential Yamaha sports car project for Nissan, styled with input from Count Albrecht Goertz, the designer responsible for the BMW 507. When Nissan changed its mind on the project, Yamaha shopped it to Toyota, which revised the design with feedback from its own styling department, notably Satoru Nozaki. The Goertz concept, which Nissan referred to as project A550X, clearly influenced the overall shape of the 240Z, but Yutaka Katayama — known to American fans as “Mr. K” — long insisted that Goertz was not the designer of the 240Z. Instead, that honor belongs to Nissan’s Yoshihiko Matsuo.


Mr. K with a Datsun 240Z. Photo courtesy Nissan Motor Corporation.

Katayama was president of Nissan Motor Corporation USA when the Z was under development, and lobbied the car’s designers and engineers in Japan to consider the needs and wants of prospective U.S. buyers. Long before Mazda used Jinba Ittai (essentially, “a horse and rider as one”) as a marketing slogan for the Miata, Katayama lobbied Nissan’s engineers to adopt a similar philosophy with the 240Z. He coached the development team that the car must be light, be equipped with sufficient power, and have exceptional handling, yet still be affordable within its market segment.


The Datsun 240Z was a potent road racer, as demonstrated by Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE). Photo by Chris Brewer.

The car was introduced in its home market as the Fairlady Z, a name that Mr. K knew would not help sales in the United States. Instead, he adopted “240” in deference to the car’s 2.4-liter displacement, adding the “Z” suffix reportedly because it was easy to pronounce in multiple languages, and could denote many things. Internally, the car had been referred to as the Type Z during development, another factor than may have influenced Katayama’s naming convention.


The 240Z even proved itself in rally competition. Photo courtesy Nissan Motor Corporation.

The Datsun 240Z arrived on these shores in late 1969, as a 1970 model. Power came from a single overhead-camshaft, 2,394-cc inline-six with seven main bearings rated at 151 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, mated to a four-speed manual transmission. In a June 1970 test, Car and Driver found the 2,330-pound car capable of running from 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds, on the way to an observed top speed of 109 mph. A fully independent suspension and 51/49 front-to-rear weight distribution ensured the handling balance Katayama sought, while power-assisted front disc and finned rear drum brakes ensured fade-free stops. Perhaps the biggest selling point, however, was the sticker price of $3,526, which positioned the Datsun in between the MGB GT ($3,260) and the Porsche 914 ($3,595).


Introduced in 1974, the Datsun 260Z also came in a 2+2 variant. This example once belonged to Mr. K. Photo by Chris Brewer.

Even before they had a chance to drive it, Road & Track declared the 240Z, “… a bargain, too. Who else offers a GT coupe with a 2.4-liter SOHC 6-cyl engine and all-independent suspension for $3500?” Despite this praise, engineering editor Ron Wakefield cautioned readers, “Our experience with other Datsuns to date tells us it won’t be assembled with the precision of a German car nor will it have the fine edge of “feel” found in the Italians — but the same package produced in either of those countries would undoubtedly cost $1,000 to $2,000 more. We think Datsun has a real winner.”


The Datsun 280Z debuted in 1975.

Wakefield’s prediction, and Mr. K’s intuition, proved correct. The Datsun 240Z was sold from 1970-’73, and during this time U.S. buyers snapped up 148,115 examples (of 168,584 built in total). By way of comparison, Datsun’s prior sports car offering in the U.S. market, the Roadster, sold 44,152 examples over the course of 10 years, from 1960-’70.


1976 Datsun 280Z brochure image. Scan from the collection of Mark J. McCourt.

To counter the car’s growing weight and declining horsepower due to increasing emissions controls, Datsun upped the displacement in 1974 by increasing the stroke from 73 mm to 79 mm. The revised engine now measured 2,565 cc, and hence the car was renamed as the 260Z. Though sold for just 18 months, the 260Z debuted a 2+2 variant and gained improvements such as a rear anti-roll bar, firmer springs, a stronger steering rack, electronic ignition, a supplemental electric fuel pump, and an improved shifter mechanism. Output (now measured in net horsepower instead of gross) was 139 hp.  and for the first time, U.S. buyers could opt for an automatic transmission.


The 280ZX debuted in 1978. Shown here is a Japanese market 2+2. Photo courtesy Nissan Motor Corporation.

In 1975, displacement grew again, this time by increasing the cylinder bore from 83.0 mm to 86.1 mm to yield 2,754 cc and the 280Z name. Fuel injection replaced carburetion, improving driveability and upping output to 149 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque, and U.S. buyers could opt for a five-speed manual transmission in addition to the four-speed manual and three-speed automatic. The car grew more luxurious during this period, too, with several special editions that foretold the car’s next evolution, as the S130 280ZX in 1978.


Introduced in 1984, the 300ZX emphasized luxury over sport. Photo courtesy Nissan Motor Corporation.

Nissan stayed the course with the Z car in the United States through 1996, when falling demand and a strengthening yen prompted the discontinuation of the Z32 300ZX. After teasing a new 240Z concept in 1998 and revising it for the 1999 auto show season, Nissan even kicked off a program selling refurbished 240Zs through selected dealers (with limited success), but in 2002, after a six-year absence, the Z returned to the showroom, this time as the 350Z.


The Z32 platform 300ZX was sold in the U.S. market from 1990 to ’96. Photo courtesy Nissan Motor Corporation.

Today, a 370Z remains in Nissan’s lineup, though falling sports car sales may once again doom the model to extinction. Even Mr. K, who died in 2015 at the age of 105, could not have predicted just how successful the model he guided through production was to become.

The 2019 Hemmings Motor News Concours d’Elegance, taking place September 13-15 in Lake George, New York, will feature a class dedicated to the 1970-’73 240Z, 1974 260Z, 1975-’78 280Z, and 1979-’83 280ZX. We’re still actively seeking entries in the Datsun Z class, so if you’ve got a stock, concours-quality example and can attend, please contact either Kurt Ernst (kernst@hemmings.com) or Matthew Litwin (mlitwin@hemmings.com).

Related calendar event - 


This article has been republished on https://www.classiczcars.com with permission from Kurt Ernst from Hemmings Daily, a publication of Hemmings Motor News - Original article = https://www.hemmings.com/blog/?p=1049177

  • Like 2

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.