Road test: Datsun 240Z

A Japanese invader

The World’s major Western motor manufacturers, for a number of reasons we will not go into here, have swung away from sports cars almost entirely over the past few years and their future plans do not, apparently, include any new models for the sports car enthusiasts. Therefore it seems we must look to the East for such vehicles as the Japanese manufacturers still feel there is a market and, judging by the results they are obtaining in the United States, they seem to be right. The Nissan Motor Company, with their Datsun cars, are making a tremendous impact at the moment with the 240Z model which competes directly in America with British cars like the MG-B GT.

The Datsun 240Z model was only introduced on to the British market at the October Motor Show but since then a good number have arrived in this country and we were recently able to try Datsun’s demonstrator over a considerable mileage, which proved to be a most interesting experience. Before we drove the car we had the distinct impression that a 240Z was a fairly rorty sports car and the rally people kept telling us that it had many of the characteristics of the old Healy 3000. Perhaps the rallying versions do, but the standard machine is a civilised GT carriage which shows qualities of sturdiness and longevity. In fact, it is far from a roaring monster and lacks the flair or handling of a Lotus. A drawback in Britain is the price, £2,389, within a few pounds of the Reliant Scimitar GTE which has two extra seats and very similar performance, but otherwise the 240Z has very few competitors.

However, we feel that there is a very big market for exactly this kind of car which would appeal to an MG-B GT owner who possibly wishes to spend a little more money for added performance and prestige. It is a gap in the market that the new Healey-Jensen may well fill but unfortunately we cannot tell you more of that as the embargo date has us beaten by just seven days. The Healey-Jensen, however, is an open sports car while the Datsun falls into the GT category with its excellent lines which remind us of the Ferrari GTOs of the early 1960s. It is still a very proud shape from all angles and this is possibly one of the best selling points of the car.

The actual specification is not one to get excited about for the 240Z has a conventional front-engined steel unitary chassis with all-independent suspension, albeit by the rather unusual arrangement of McPherson struts both front and rear. The engine is a straight six with a single overhead camshaft mounted in the aluminium head and drives to the rear wheels through a five-speed gearbox. The Datsun is a two-seater only, although one can perch on the front of the parcels shelf for very short journeys. With the Datsun you get quite a lot of motor car for it tips the scales at just around a ton, unladen.

The 240Z was actually introduced in Japan at the 1969 Tokyo Motor Show as the top of the Datsun range and the same engine was used for a luxury saloon, the 240C, which is also available in the UK but has yet to be imported in any numbers. The Japanese firm now export a complete range of cars to Britain through Datsun UK Ltd., who operate from a rather anonymous building known as Datsun House, Brighton Road, Worthing, Sussex, to which we returned the car. Unfortunately we were not able to look around as the firm’s Publicity Manager was apparently far too busy to see us!

It is interesting to note that during 1971 Datsun produced 1,730,000 passenger cars which puts them into fifth place in the World league overtaking Chrysler and Fiat in the process. For 1972 the firm expects to increase production to about 1.9 million of which 409,000 will be destined for North America and 100,000 for Europe. Datsun were only introduced into Britain in a small way at the end of 1968 through Nissan-Datsun Concessionaires of Shoreham and, over the next two years, sales hardly increased and the firm went into liquidation. This is when Datsun UK Ltd., which is a British owned and controlled company, took over with a factory site at Lancing and the offices already mentioned and became fully operational in March of last year. Since then 140 dealers have been appointed bringing up the strength to 170 and a further 25 are soon to be added. During 1971 a total of 8,000 vehicles were sold while, for the first full trading year, the figure should be up to 13,000 and a 12-15% increase is anticipated for the following 12 months. From all these figures one can see what a major company Datsun is by world terms, and also the aspirations of its new British off-shoot.

Back to the car itself and our test machine which was a very well used example in dark green which had been through a good few testers’ hands before ours. The two doors are amply large but the car is rather more difficult to climb into than one expects on the driver’s side due to the largish wooden steering wheel and the high-built-up sides of the seats. The interior was finished in a particularly nasty shade of light “cardboard” brown and generally exuded a plastic look which was far from in keeping with the high standard of manufacture of the rest of the car. Japanese cars have, in the past, come in for considerable criticism for their seating usually failing to provide for the needs of the over six-footers. The 240Z has plenty of adjustment and a great number of sizes of driver could make themselves comfortable. Provision is also made to raise the seat by almost an inch and this would definitely be necessary for smaller drivers. The high-backed seats do tend to obstruct rearward vision rather badly, making reversing rather tiresome.

We were immediately impressed by the design of the controls, both those operated by feet and hands. The pedals made heeling and toeing easy and there was a good footrest for the left shoe. A novel feature was the left-hand stalk on the steering column which was rigid and non-movable but put the windscreen washer/wiper controls and the lights right at the fingertips. In fact this is the best arrangement of such controls we have ever used for they were easy to operate with a minimum of fumbling. Likewise, the right-hand indicator stalk had a button on its end from which the lights could be flashed. This could be operated with one’s little finger without taking the rest of the hand from the steering wheel. The horn was in the centre of the steering wheel. Directly in front of the wheel were two matching dials for speedometer (with an optimistic 160 m.p.h. maximum) and a rev-counter, red-lined at 7,000 r.p.m. Ranged to the left, above a central console containing the heater controls, were three smaller dials, one a clock and the other two informing on fuel level, electricity charge, oil pressure and water temperature. The heating and ventilating system seemed to lack fine adjustment and we never did master the difficult combination of controls and the three-speed booster fan. Datsun had not seen fit to provide us with a handbook so that didn’t help. One would think that making sure there was a handbook was one of the first lessons in preparing road test cars but it is amazing how often one fails to find such information. The gear lever, with its five-speed gate, and the handbrake came easily to the left hand.

As we mentioned in the introduction paragraphs, the Datsun 240Z is definitely only a two-seater for if a third travels for short distances perched on the parcels shelf it is only with discomfort. However, there is plenty of space in the sloping rear compartment for a great deal of luggage. The back lifts up, station-wagon style, although during winter one is bound to get one’s hands dirty in the process as the rear fibreglass spoiler seems to attract road dirt.

Lifting the bonnet reveals the conventional-looking straight six engine with plenty of room around it. Housed either side with their own separate covers are the battery (on the offside) and the washer bottle (on the nearside). The engine compartment has a light which can be unclipped and moved around on a lead. The overhead camshaft engine is fed by two SU carburetters and the bore and stroke is 83 mm. x 73.7 mm. giving a cubic capacity of 2,393 c.c on a 9-to-1 compression ratio.

For our first run in the car we had the misfortune to choose one of the nastiest snowy nights of the year for we had an evening appointment in Birmingham. Fortunately the Datsun is one of those cars one can climb into and immediately feel completely at home. The ease of operation of the essential controls for such a night, windscreen wipers and lights, obviously helped but the overall road manners of the 240Z were the major factor. The steering is by rack and pinion, is light in operation and gives excellent feel. The high speed stability is also first class and a marked contrast from the Europa we had been driving the week before while the brakes also give tremendous confidence. All this enables one to settle down with the Datsun so very quickly.

The five-speed gear-change is laid out with fifth gear away and across from fourth and in line with reverse. However, reverse is well protected by spring loading and the change down from fifth to fourth very pleasant. The box is not finger-light and a little baulky and while getting used to it we were constantly changing from first to fourth instead of second and had to remember to hold the lever against the springing to the centre to perfect the change. For that matter the Datsun’s transmission did not seem to be very strong and if we were changing up at high revs a horrible noise came from the gearbox as we depressed the clutch. This so worried us that we phoned Datsun to ask if it was serious but the aforementioned Publicity Manager had no explanation, and could not understand it. We later learned that the two previous road testers had encompassed the same trouble and also complained about it and when our weekly contemporary had the car for test, some weeks later, it was still doing it, only worse. However, presumably this is a fault in this particular car, probably a damaged thrust race in the gearbox, which Datsun UK cannot be bothered to remedy.

Braking is provided by 10.67-in. discs at the front and 9-in. drums at the rear and they have quite a job to do with a ton of motor car needing to be stopped from speeds in excess of 100 m.p.h. They are servo-assisted, but fairly lightly, so feel is still retained and they live up to the job extremely well pulling the car up square and with reassurance.

The Datsun’s only chance of staying with something like an Elan 4+2S would be along the motorway where it will cruise happily at up to 120 m.p.h. and the top speed is generally considered to be 125 m.p.h. although our test model was panting hard to go very much faster than 115 m.p.h. and was vibrating fairly badly by then. On smooth surfaces the Datsun holds the road well, displaying fairly neutral characteristics, but on a run through Gloucestershire and in the Prescott hill-climb area we found it rather a handful on the bumpy back road and the all-McPherson strut system was having to work very hard for its living. The test car was fitted up with Dunlop SP Sport tyres on 4 1/2J rims which, on inspection, revealed that the rubber had been “made in Japan”. Wider wheels and British made tyres may help the handling although the Japanese Dunlops did not seem nearly so had in the wet as we had been led to believe.

Engine and wind noise is well silenced in the cockpit but the Datsun does seem to suffer very badly from road noise particularly at slowish speeds where driving over cats eyes or along a badly surfaced road makes far more din than any other car we can remember.

The engine is a willing worker, as would be expected from a unit of this type and delivers 151 b.h.p. (gross) at 5,600 r.p.m. which is a little less than the fuel-injected Triumph 2.5 engine. Starting, with use of the choke which is mounted alongside the handbrake, was never a problem and the engine had a pleasant subdued rasp which definitely marked it as a six. The engine performance was perhaps a little disappointing for it really needs to be revved above 4,000 r.p.m. to start giving you a kick in the back while over 6,000 r.p.m. the power drops off. It starts to pant then and at 6,500 r.p.m. there is an ignition cut-out to stop you over-revving. However, once one has got the hang of utilising this fairly narrow torque band one can accelerate from standstill to 60 m.p.h. in under 8.5 sec. and see 100 m.p.h. in under 25.0 sec. The fuel consumption varies dramatically on how hard the car is driven but over a varied selection of roads we averaged a shade over 23 m.p.g. and that was with some hard driving. The tank incidentally held 154 gallons but the fuel gauge showed empty with 5 gallons still to go.

Picking 6,000 r.p.m. as a change-up point, and with the previously described unpleasant noise as we made the changes, we found that 1st would take us to 37 m.p.h., 2nd to 60 m.p.h., 3rd to 84 m.p.h. and one could run right up to 110 m.p.h. in 4th before taking 5th. For this reason one tended to stay in 4th along the more twisty roads while normally one would change gear at around 4,000 r.p.m. or less for the engine has considerable torque and will actually pull in top from 40 m.p.h.

One has the feeling that the Datsun is strong and well built rather in the same way that Volvos are and the rally successes in Africa and elsewhere would certainly bear this out. Despite the rather restrictive price in Britain we are quite sure that the 240Z will find a ready sale in Britain somewhere upmarket of the MG-B GT set. March Engineering designer Robin Herd was one of the very first customers, having bought the actual Earls Court Show car and is delighted with it. The Datsun 240Z is what the MG-C GT should have been and wasn’t and it seems a great shame that the British industry cannot offer a similar type of vehicle. Meanwhile the Japanese are on to a good thing and the best of luck to them.—A. R. M.