GreatGarages- The ‘Z’ Hits 50, with Speed and Style
‘Love Cars, Love People, Love Life.’
A revelation, a huge hit, a company game changer, a winner out of the gate: Merging affordability, styling, driving dynamics, balance, reliability and lots of character, the Datsun 240Z enjoyed thumbs-up at its debut at the October 1969 New York Auto Show. In the first year, 40,000 were sold. And, during the first decade, a record-setting 520,000 units found welcoming garages.
Whether you loved ’Vettes, muscle cars or exotics, you knew immediately that the Z-car from Japan was special. And, in its 50-year run –– albeit with a six-year production hiatus –– the sports car from today’s Nissan has continued its appeal into a sixth generation. So much so that ZCON, held since 1987, annually unites marque lovers from more than 60 clubs through North America; in 2020, the Z soiree will be held in Nashville.
“The 240Z had the combination of styling, power and balance that we had seldom seen, and it had a fun quotient that was outside the box for Japanese manufacturers at the time,” says Steve Yeager, a recently retired communications associate with Nissan North America, based in Franklin, Tennessee. “We all remember our first drive in one.” Nissan’s global headquarters is in Yokohama, Japan.
He was 16 in 1970 when he first drove an early 240Z. “At the time, I was used to driving VW Beetles, a 1200-cc Toyota Corolla and a wide variety of ill-handling V-8 American cars. I had loved driving my sister’s boyfriend’s Triumph Spitfire and my friend’s sisters Chevelle SS 396/375,” he recalls. “Both were a blast, but neither approached the style and balance of the Z.
“While $3,626 wasn’t necessarily cheap in 1970, it was a real bargain for a car that looked fantastic and could blow away muscle cars on any curvy road,” he adds. “That so many first generation Zs are still out there and selling briskly to enthusiasts after half a century speaks well of both the car’s solid engineering and the great care so many owners took to love and maintain them.”
A Fairlady to the 370Z: Six Generations of Fun
The 240Z represents the inspiration of two innovators, Yoshihiko Matsuo (Matsuo-san), the president of Datsun/ Nissan in the U.S. in 1965, and Yutaka Katayama (Mr. ‘K’), the master of advertising and marketing. Three years of research and design modifications by their team resulted in the landmark two-seater six-cylinder coupe for the North American market.
Since the inaugural models of the Fairlady Z in Japan and the Datsun 240Z for the 1970 model year in the States, 40-plus examples have followed, including a variety of company and model anniversary editions up to the 2020 370Z®.
Significant examples of Z-Cars are in the Nissan Heritage Collection at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, although it is not open to the public. Nissan also curates a collection in Zama, Japan, with hundreds of examples of cars and automobilia beginning in the early 1900s.
The first 240Z (S30 chassis) had a 2.4-liter single-overhead-cam inline-6, producing 150 horses at 6,000 rpm, with 148 pound-feet at 4400 rpm –– not oodles of horsepower in today’s spec charts, but the curb weight was just 2,238 pounds, so the car put down a respectable quarter mile of 17.1 seconds at 84.5 mph. A 4-speed manual was standard, and a 3-speed automatic became optional in 1971.
They were competitive on the track, too, popularized by the Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) and Bob Sharp Racing (BSR) teams. One also took first in the 19th East-African Safari Rally in 1971, driven by Edgar Hermann and Hans Schüller. The car repeated two years later, piloted by Shektar Mehta and Lofty Drews.
Following the 260Z, produced only in 1974, the 280Z hatchback couple debuted for 1975 with a 2.8-liter 170-horse engine, larger bumpers, design updates, a grille-less front, race-inspired spoiler and interior upgrades. The additional power helped offset U.S. emissions requirements and the added size and weight.
Representing the second generation, the 280ZX (S130 chassis) continued from the 1979 through 1983 models. In the first year, a T-top was available. Top speed was a strong 130 mph.
The 280ZX was also the first generation of the Z car to offer a turbo-charged engine. A 2-seater and 2+2 version were available in normally aspirated and turbo models. Additionally, some models also had an optional digital gauge cluster.
In 1983 for the 1984 model year, the 300ZX (Z31 chassis) began the third generation as the first V-6 Z. The SOHC Z31 was also available as a turbo. Normally aspirated versions were 160 horsepower, and the turbos produced 200 horsepower. Special editions were issued for Nissan’s 50th Anniversary in 1984, and the Shiro appeared in 1988. Actor and BSR racer Paul Newman competed in them, and this was the winning car in the 1985 All Japan Rally Championships.
Various 300ZXs have also starred in in various films: Blind Date, with Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger, which featured a Z31 300zx; Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, a Z32 300zx; and the Fast and Furious movie series, which was written based on a 300ZX Z32.
The fourth-generation model, 300ZX (Z32 chassis) arrived in July 1989 for the 1990 model year and was in production until 1996 in the U.S.; it continued through 1999 abroad. With about either 222 horsepower (nonturbo) or 300 horsepower (twin-turbo models), the new car was wide and low with slanted headlights. It won Motor Trend’s “Import Car of the Year” and Automobile awarded it “Design of the Year” and called it one of the “25 Most Beautiful Cars in History.”
A six-year hiatus followed for U.S. cars. Says one enthusiast, “The market was changing, and sports cars were getting unaffordable. The units being sold were declining. Nissan Zs were no longer appealing to their customer base due to the price. They outpriced themselves along with the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX 7.”
Nissan also received capital from Renault, which helped with the new car, the 350Z (Z33 chassis), beginning the exciting fifth generation in 2003. The car featured 287 horses and 274 pound feet of torque tied to a 6-speed close-ratio manual.
Promoted as a bargain sports car with strong aftermarket support, the 350z was embraced by the public as well as race and drifting teams. The very first limited-edition NISMO (Nissan Motorsport) edition of a Z was offered for the 2007/ 2008 model years, with special ground-effects, chassis upgrades, braking, handles and other trim features.
Finally, the new 370Z in 2009 had updated styling, with 240z inspiration while advancing the styling and refinement from the 350z. The 370z was first available in coupe or a NISMO and later as a convertible. Today’s sixth-generation Z features a DOHC 24-valve V-6 aluminum alloy engine, producing 332 horsepower and 270 pound feet of torque. Improvements were also made in reduced weight and improved driving dynamics.
Love at First Z’ight
Hop in to join the 50th birthday cruise guided by five Z fans from throughout the United States sharing the joy with Highline Autos readers:
•Mark Lambert (Finksburg, Maryland) – He’s been a “Z fanatic” since 1980 when he purchased his first Z, a white-on-red 240Z, a 1972 edition, which he sold later in the early 1980s. He did his first ZCON in 1990 and has attended 29 out of 32. Many he has helped in implementing.
He owned about six Persimmon-liveried 240Zs before his current ones.
He has two 240zs, including a Persimmon-on-white “time capsule” 1972 with 4,400 miles and the original Bridgestone tires; he refers to this as “ORIG240.” He purchased the car in 1994 after seeing it at the 1993 ZCON in St. Louis. That year he also founded the Maryland ‘Z Club, of which he remains president.
That 240Z won the ZCCA Gold Medallion in 1997 and in 2010 the Nissan Choice Survivor Award at the 40th Anniversary of the Z at ZCON in Nashville, Tennessee. The car has been featured in numerous magazines.
“I’ve always loved the early 240Z styling, especially of the 1972 models, the long front and sleek rear design. The Z was an affordable sports car that looked expensive. Its smooth inline 6-cylinder engine and independent suspense made it a blast to drive.”
He also owns a 1996 300ZX, a 2006 350Z Touring and a 2013 NISMO 370Z. And, he is almost finished restoring his fifth car, a 1972 240Z, Persimmon on a black custom interior.
The Z interest has allowed him to travel in the country and take two trips to Japan. “The ZCONs are like one big family, of course, the common dominator being the Z. I call this activity my once-a-year Z-family/friends get-together.”
“To this day, every time I drive my 240 it makes me smile,” he says. “Now being able to own other models of the Z, it proves to you how advanced they’ve become but still in an affordable price range. I can’t imagine not ever owning a Z.”
•Diego Perri (Clifton, New Jersey) – An Argentinian by birth, Perri came to the United States when he was 14. Married, he lives in northern New Jersey and works in advertising and real estate and is known for automotive photography. He is vice president of the New Jersey Z Car Club.
He purchased his first Z in 1992, which he no longer has. “These cars are special to me because they are the very first Z car I ever saw as a kid growing up in Argentina,” he explains. “They are THE reason I fell in love with them and why I have my current collection.”
They were rare in Argentina. “Their styling was like nothing I had ever seen before, and they had very advanced features like a fully independent front and rear suspension, disk brakes all around, electronic fuel injection, optional turbo engines, advanced aerodynamics and many other things,” he says.
He has 10 Z-cars: a 1978 280Z (S30); 1983 280ZX Turbo (S130), the last year of production; a 1986 300ZX; 1988 Shiro; 1989 300ZX Turbo (Z31); two 1990 300ZXs; a JDM (right-hand-drive) 1991 300ZX (Z32); 2005 350Z (Z33); and a 2012 370Z (Z34).
“Z cars have the perfect combination of size, styling, performance and price for me,” he says. “I think Z cars combine just the right amount of cruising comfort but also performance for a street sports car, without being too soft or hardcore.”
•Alex Millward (Denver, Colorado) – The owner of four Z cars, three of these rare limited editions, Millward has had Zs in the family since he was a child. His mother had a 280ZX and a 300ZX Z31 and his great aunt a 260Z: “I was attached to them.”
At 16, he bought the 86 300zx from his mother and, young and reckless, wrecked the car in a ditch. A week later, he bought a 1989 300ZX which he still has today.
The earliest of his cars is a 1984 300ZX Turbo Nissan 50th Anniversary Edition (#368 of 5,148), with an automatic and other features, including a sound system with four subwoofers in the bottom of the seat cushion of both badged seats, wide front fenders and rear flares and two-tone paint.
His 1986 300ZX IMSA Widebody (# 1 of 2) is “full of mystery and lost history,” a car that was somehow released to the public. “It’s not known why or how this was done,” he says.
Rusted by East Coast weather and damaged by mishandling, the car is scheduled for restoration as a tribute to the original IMSA class 300ZX with a contemporary twist, including a VK56 motor with a twin turbo and all the supportive mods. “My plan is to have the car completed for next year’s ZCON event held at Nissan headquarters in Nashville,” he says.
Finally, his 1988 300zx Turbo Shiro Special (#250 of 1002), released in celebration of Nissan’s victory against Porsche at Le Mans, he calls “the most sought-after 300zx Z31” and “considered to be the best-looking Z31 from factory.” Features include custom three-stage pearlescent white paint and matching pearl-white wheels; Recaro seats; stiffer springs and shocks and a viscous limited slip differential.
The 300ZX cars were pivotal. “This was the Z car that started making drastic changes in design, comfort and also performance,” he says. This includes headlights, fender lines, improved brakes, wide wheels and aerodynamics changes as well as other features as refined as an optional digital compass and an accelerometer to measure g-force.
“The idea of all these comfort creatures were to produce a one-of-a-kind experience in this GT sports car that was designed for long distances,” he says.
An IT manager at an automotive group that owns several dealerships through Colorado and Utah, he and wife Trisha have been married for nine years and have had three children, although they lost their first-born, Alex Jr., in a home accident.
The cars have helped recovery. “Through battling depression and grief, the Zs that I own are what help keep my mind busy and occupied,” he says. “You can consider them being therapeutic for me.”
•Mad’ Mike Taylor (Grapevine, Texas) –– He’s monikered ‘Mad’ in Z circles because he organized several challenging road rallies in the early days of the Z Club of Texas.
Retired at 77 after serving as the CFO for a printing company near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, he was a founding member of the Texas Z Car Club in late 1986. He led the national ZCCA [Z Car Club Association] from 1992 to 2002, when Chris Karl succeeded him.
He owns a 1971 240Z with a 3.1-litre engine, which he bought in 1979. He also cherishes a 2008 350Z, whose body kit was gifted by the president of NISMO. Its driver’s side visor has been signed by John Morton, Peter Brock and Steve Millen, and the passenger-side visor mirror by Mr. ‘K,’ Randy Rodriguez (associated with the 370Z), Matsuo-san (240Z) and Yama-san (300ZX). The engine is signed by the designer, Motohiro Matsumura.
The 350Z is special for him because it continued the cars after Nissan announced the 300ZX was the end in 1996. “I was fortunate enough to visit Mr. K in 1995 and met with Nissan to plead the Z enthusiast’s cause. Happily, they listened, he recalls, noting that he was also involved in the development of the 350Z during several pleasure trips to Japan.
“Zs are fun to drive and affordable. They handle well on both the street and at the track –– even better at the track with modifications,” he says. “After meeting Mr. K in 1995 at the Atlanta ZCON and becoming good friends with him, it is easy to see his spirit is in every Z, and that alone makes them special for me.”
•Chris Karl (Chardon, Ohio) –– The executive director of ZCCA for 12-plus years and his wife, Karen, have two daughters, Alexia and Brice, who grew up around other Z’thusiasts and traveled to ZCONS and other community events in North America. “Every year is another adventure,” he says.
“The love for the Z is integrated into our household. We have two garages for all our Z cars,” he adds. “We’d have more but we’re running out of room.”
His first Z was a 1983 Datsun 280ZX, champagne on red: “It felt good; the ergonomics ‘fit’ me, and it had beautiful styling,” he recalls.
Today, the Karl-family collection includes nine Z cars, from the 240Z through 370Z. All are manuals, except for the 1987, which was originally purchased as an automatic for his mom and step-dad to enjoy.
First-generation Zs in his collection are a silver-on-black 1970 Datsun 240Z, HLS #201, a 1969 production vehicle, which is in restoration; 1971 Datsun 240Z, canary yellow on black, which will begin restoration this winter; and a 1977 Datsun 280Z, silver on black with 44,500 miles.
Five 300ZXs represent the third and fourth generations in the collection. These include a red-on-black 1987 Nissan 300ZX Turbo, which has been on road-trips throughout the country; 1991 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo, a 2003 ZCCA Gold Cup, which was used in the Nissan 350Z launch campaign from late 2002 through 2004, pumped to 800 bhp; 1993 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo convertible, which he restored 2011–2013 with an engine and 5-speed swap and a self-performed custom interior and paint.
A 1994 Nissan 300ZX convertible, “Black-Emerald” on “Bone” is one of two in the collection belonging to Karen. “Underhood, it’s updated with a variety of cosmetic updates from ZSPEC, a company my wife and I started six years ago, which she now runs full time to help enthusiasts dress up their cars,” he says.
From the next year, a T-top-equipped Nissan 300ZX Coupe has Artic White paint and a Charcoal leather interior with interior elements signed by Mr. K.
Finally, his sixth-generation 2009 Nissan 370Z is a NISMO edition, #196, with features such as Akebono brakes, NISMO forged wheels and others. “In 2008, I first ventured to Japan as part of the annual ‘Z CraZies’ enthusiasts trip and met the designers of the upcoming 370Z NISMO; after that, I had to have one.
“Yutaka Katayama’s vision for the original Z car was to create an affordable car for the regular driving enthusiast with thrilling performance, artful aesthetics and a unique driving feeling,” he says.
“Mr. K’s adage, ‘Love Cars, Love People, Love Life,’ rang true to me when I first attended a ZCON in 2001 and met him,” he recalls. “Each generation of Z emulates its time-period, but the ‘Z-ness’ (Hiroshi Tamura’s term) is unlike any other sports car feeling I’ve ever experienced.
“You feel connected with the car, and that feeling extends into your life and through the enthusiast community. Many of us consider our Z-friends as extended family –– and ZCON our annual ‘family reunion.’”
If you or someone you know has a GreatGarages and would like it to be considered for an upcoming issue, please e-mail us at [email protected]. The writer thanks all of those who helped in this story, in particular, Steve Yeager, formerly of Nissan North America, Kyle Torrens, Nissan North America, and Chris Karl.