Datsun 240Z

Recognised as the world’s first credible Japanese sports car, the durable 240Z is still sought after, even if the period PVC trim is looking a little passé…

By any rational criteria it looked fabulous, but so what? Call it cultural imperiousness, call it what you want, but prior to the arrival of the Fairlady Z Export Model at the 1969 Tokyo Motor Show few Europeans took Japanese cars seriously. And, truth be told, the advent of this brutishly attractive GT did little to dissuade the doubters. There would surely be little substance below the surface sparkle, they suggested. After all, Japan made knock-offs of continental fare or zirconium Detroit iron. It was incapable of creating something genuinely worthwhile from scratch.

And then they drove one. In its own modest way, the 240Z – as we in the west came to know it – succeeded in rewriting history in the same breath as making it. Backtrack to the ’60s and, as the British automobile industry embarked on a ruinous merger-spree, the Japanese were busy making motorcycles that didn’t lose their liquids before, during and after each sortie. They then exported them in vast numbers, prompting complacent brands from Albion to curl up and die. The 240Z had much the same effect on the traditional British sports car.

Datsun – or rather Nissan’s – engineers fashioned a machine that sated North America’s susceptibility for a bargain (the first cars off the boat were artificially priced down), one that rendered British rivals obsolete at a stroke. Suddenly a cramped, leaky and woefully outdated ragtop didn’t seem quite so appealing. And, just to massage salt into the wounds, the ‘Zed’ proved handy in competition, too. And not just at home.

The 240Z broke the mould for Japanese sports cars. There had been earlier attempts, some quite appealing ones in fact. Nissan’s series of Fairlady roadsters had proved reasonably successful, Honda’s endearing S800 with its DOHC head and roller-bearing crank representing an intriguing mix of the innovative and the ordinary. Not forgetting the sophisticated Toyota 2000GT which sold in tragically small numbers. But the 240Z was the first truly credible Japanese sports car, if only in the eyes of uninformed Europeans.

Having discounted making another four-cylinder roadster, the decision to build a coupé with an extra pair of cylinders was made in 1966. History has it, and has it incorrectly, that the Z was styled by a German aristocrat. When the Z fi rst appeared on the show circuit, Count Albrecht von Goertz was a well-known and media-savvy fi gure in the design world. He had previously had a hand in the pretty Nissan Silvia 1600, if only on a peripheral level, and his attachment stuck. As to who did actually style the car, therein lies a very occidental question. Japanese decorum dictated that the company rather than any one particular employee should receive recognition – there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ – but latterly Yutaka Katayama has been credited with the work. But then the project was already underway when ‘Mr K’ (as he’s known to a legion of the marque faithful) was parachuted in, with much of the final outline being the work of unsung arty types Akio Yoshida and Kumeo Tamura.

And what an outline: crisp, clean and every inch the junior-league GT. And it didn’t stop there. Beneath the skin sat a gutsy straight-six (iron block and alloy ’head) with near 50:50 weight distribution – this was a neatly packaged machine. One that could house two six-footers in comfort within a footprint no bigger than a Porsche 911.

But strictly speaking, the whole 240Z tag is a bit of a misnomer as there were at least six clearly defi ned variations of the ‘S30 series’ theme when launched in 1969: the no-frills Fairlady Z, the deluxe Fairlady Z-L, the Fairlady Z432 homologation special, the ultra-hardcore Fairlady Z432-R, the North American market LHD 240Z and the UK/Australian/New Zealand market RHD edition. The 240Z tag is essentially a flag of convenience, with countless variations – not least in displacement and specification – between models.

Officially introduced Stateside in February 1970, the Z was less expensive than most mainstream British sports cars. Predictably sales went stratospheric, with eager punters paying a premium over list price to land one. Matters were a bit more subdued in Britain. Officially launched here at the 1970 Earls Court Motor Show, reaction was encouraging although Datsun UK was scuppered by protectionist tariffs against Japanese imports: the Z was viewed as a niche product at best, one that would take away tariff quota numbers from more bread-and-butter fare. At £2535 in 1973, there was a near £700 price premium over a 3-litre Capri, although for sheer performance (120mph-plus and 0-60mph in eight seconds) there was little to touch it for similar money.

And, as with all true classics, the Datsun covered itself in glory trackside. In the forests, too. The S30-series Z made its debut at the January 1970 All Japan Suzuka 300Kms meeting, factory driver Moto Kitano showing well in qualifying aboard his Fairlady 432-R only to be T-boned by another car come the race. Two months later when the Japanese race season started proper, Kitano came home second to Hiroshi Kazato’s Porsche 910 in the All Japan Stock Car Fuji 300Kms encounter. The third works outing resulted in a win at the ‘Race Ade Nippon’ event at Fuji Speedway in April 1970, Kitano and future Grand Prix occasional Masahiro Hasemi covering 959km and 159 laps over six hours.

Stateside, the Z made the SCCA’s C-production category its own, with the under-rated John Morton claiming 1970-71 titles for Brock Racing Enterprises, arch-rival Bob Sharp taking the 1972-73 crowns. Yet it was in endurance rallying that the car found its true metier, Edgar Herrmann and Hans Schuller winning the 1971 East African Safari Rally ahead of the sister car of Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty. Two years later it was Mehta’s turn. Not an overall triumph but still impressive was Rauno Aaltonen and Jean Todt’s third place overall on the 1972 Monte Carlo classic. Closer to home, Tony Fall claimed the ’71 Welsh Rally and was leading that year’s Scottish Rally when the gearbox failed.

Yet while the Z’s frontline rallying career was of the brief variety, it did in a roundabout way lead to one of Britain’s most fondly remembered race cars. An ex-Herrmann Z (as used on the 1970 RAC Rally) found its way into the hands of plucky privateer Rob Grant, who adapted it for track use. Operating on a shoestring budget under the Motor Racing Facilities banner, Grant campaigned it extensively in European GT events and the Springbok series before rolling the car into a ball in Angola following catastrophic brake failure. It was replaced with an ex-Aaltonen machine (another ’70 RAC car), in which Grant attempted to qualify for the 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours.

He never made it trackside, as Lola principal and former team-mate Martin Birrane explains: “I qualified but I was the only one. I recall getting in four laps but there was all manner of things wrong with the car. In fact they were still building it. It sounds like a tall story, but I swear somebody followed me down the pitlane each time I went out – the only time I went out – armed with a screwdriver. I remember a headlight falling out which didn’t exactly help our case. We couldn’t get in no matter how much I talked to the organisers. I spoke good French back then but I couldn’t persuade them to allow in a car in which only one of the drivers had actually done any laps. It was a sad end as a lot of work had already been put into the car, but I can understand their
reluctance to let us race.”

Grant made another aborted attempt in 1973 before selling the car to ex-Broadspeed man Spike Anderson, whose period Samuri [sic] conversions – and in particular the accompanying metallic coffee over orangey-red livery – entered into local Z legend. Anderson built as many as 74 hotted-up Datsuns, Grant’s highly-developed car forming the basis for the ModSports weapon Big Sam. Driven by then unknown West Countryman Win Percy, the cash-strapped team cleaned up despite a hefty shunt at Brands, which necessitated the purchase of another ex-works ’shell (this time from an ex-Mehta car). Percy beat Porsche man Nick Faure to that year’s BARC Modified Sports Car 3-litre class title by one point (see I Raced One). The following year they turned their attention to the British Saloon Car Championship with a Toyota Celica, with only occasional Z outings.

By which time the 240Z had been superseded by the larger-displacement (2393cc to 2565cc in UK spec) 260Z, later variations on the theme becoming exponentially lardier, uglier and less satisfying. As is so often the case, the first generation was the purest of the breed, save perhaps for some of the more exotic editions Japan kept for itself. Naturally the US took the lion’s share of the six-figure production and, despite the paltry numbers that made it to Blighty, a fair few have arrived subsequently as demand outstrips supply.

“I still say that they’re undervalued, but then I would,” laughs Z Farm principal Duncan Pearcey who has specialised in the model for more than 20 years. “Interest has shot up dramatically in the last three or four years. There is a lot of demand from the rally crowd, and we have built eight cars to full stage, marathon or rally/tour spec. The Z was never developed as much as it could have been, the works tending to focus on the more prestigious events such as the Monte, the RAC and the Safari rallies. It’s ideal for the Safari with its long, undulating straights: if ever you see aerial footage of them in action, they’re very stable and don’t porpoise like Escorts or Porsches on landings. Guys like Kevin Bristow kept the flag flying in the early days of historic rallying and we’ve seen a definite rise in popularity of late.”

Indeed, but that is to be expected of a car that latterly seems indemnified from criticism. The thing is, the 240Z is far from perfect: the PVC trim is a little low-rent and the ride quality is of the pelvis-pulping kind, but it’s an infinitely better car than many a period rival. Which isn’t really news. It’s not as if most British reviews were begrudging in period. The difference now is that positive ink isn’t immediately followed by missives from Aggrieved of Purley because you dared say something – anything – praiseworthy about Japanese cars. In so many ways, the sea change started here.