From heads to Zeds

A little-known cylinder head modifier became the king of tuning 240Z coupés after being impressed by their engineering. Spike Anderson went on a string of race successes under his Samuri banner 

Brands Hatch, September 25, 1977. A biblically wet Rivet Supply Six Hours, round seven of the World Championship for Makes. Rising star Win Percy is working miracles in a near-stock Datsun 240Z. The crowd edges forward as this former autocrosser squeezes past Manfred Winkelhock’s Group 5 BMW 320i, then pulls away at over 4sec per lap. After an hour and 15 minutes of racing, and already well ahead in the GT class, he catches and passes three turbo Porsches in one
swoop at Paddock Hill Bend to move up to seventh overall. He’s lapping faster than everyone bar Jacky Ickx, the greatest wet-weather driver of his era, in the pole-sitting, race-leading works Porsche 935/77. Might a road-going car prepared by a small Warwickshire outfit beat the might of Stuttgart? 

No. The race is declared null and void – and restarted later, in the dry. The Z, with little more than 200bhp, stands no chance, even with Percy at the wheel. Misery turns to disaster when second driver Clive Richardson spins on oil and flattens ‘LAL’ – known, like most Samuri (sic) ‘works’ cars, by its registration letters – against the tyre wall at Clearways.

LAL had unlikely beginnings, built at frantic speed from a much-neglected car bought from outside a London chip shop, but not only did it prove the basic strength of the Z package, it was the car that made Spike Anderson’s name.

He’d cut his teeth as Broadspeed’s cylinder head man, then started his own Race Head Services at Harbury in 1973 and was casting about for something to replace his beloved Big Healeys, of which he’d owned a dozen, some crammed with small-block Chevy engines. He’d also owned a Datsun 1200 and had been impressed by the engineering in its motor.

 “The first Samuri Z, ‘FFA’, was the only car I ever bought new,” Spike says from his home in Spain, where he exiled himself in 1993 after one too many near-bankruptcies. “It was just a Japanese Healey. I’ve always believed that had the Healey range continued, it would have been very similar to the 240Z. Even Donald Healey thought that.

“I’d already modded the engine in my 1971 Sunny Coupé and called it a Samuri. It revved its nuts off and was quicker than a Cooper S, but remained remarkably economical. Its basic engine was far superior to what we were used to in the UK. I drove it for a year and then part-exchanged it for FFA.”

It wasn’t long before he gave FFA a head job, simply to amuse himself and provide an interesting road car. Although its head could be improved, he didn’t need to touch the bottom end: even the crank and rods of some of his racing engines were standard.

“We found the same high level of engineering as we had in the Sunny. Manufacturing tolerances were very tight and, as time showed us, the motors were just about bombproof. The 240Z, with its big straight-six, rear-wheel drive, long bonnet and two seats, was great fun. With all-independent strut suspension and near-perfect weight distribution, its handling was very neutral. You could chuck them about with abandon.”

There were, eventually, three flavours of Samuri Z. The most numerous – 67 in all – was the original Super Samuri. This incorporated a modified cylinder head, six-branch GDS exhaust manifold and system, a trio of 40 DCOE Weber or Dell’Orto carburettors, alloy wheels, lowered and uprated suspension and special Samuri paint job. Later, four-pot calipers, vented discs and a front airdam were added.

Only six Super Samuri Road Racers were made: big valves, bigger-bore exhaust manifold and system, three 48 DCOE carbs, works rally camshaft, wider alloy wheels, uprated springs, gas shock absorbers, modified arches and steel front airdam, four-pot calipers and vented discs, limited-slip diff with higher ratio, double-core radiator and electric fan, oil cooler, sump baffle, roll-cage and seat harness.

Only one Super Samuri G was made, for Ron Collins, using the same spec as the Road Racers, but with a long “G-nose”, as originally fitted to the early Fairlady Zs.

Coming up with a distinctive identity for his cars posed a problem. Spike wanted something to call his own, but nothing too flash. A popular colour for Zs was a bright, deep orange. “That Nissan red, 110 they called it… We’d tried every colour under the sun against it, and nothing looked right. I was getting despondent. My wife looked at the colour chart and said, ‘Here’s a nice dark bronze colour. Why don’t we put it on the bonnet and see what it looks like?’ It looked great – until the next morning, by which time it looked dreadful. Bob [the painter] said, ‘I think the colours merge into each other. We can pick it out in white. If we put it just inside the bronze it’ll be quite subtle.’ I was delighted. But having done that, the standard wheels looked awful, so I bought some alloy wheels: Midland Metallics. That finished the job. That’s really all there was to it. I’d created an image, but hadn’t realised it. In my mind, all I had was a seriously fast car. 

“But I reckon everything in life starts by accident, and who should drive into my yard one afternoon, when I’m in the middle of some Chevys, covered in shit from head to foot, but my friend Clive Richardson. He was the assistant editor of Motor Sport at the time. He said, ‘What’s that thing outside?’ 

“A 240Z,” I replied.

“‘Bloody hell! So it is. Do they normally sit at that height? And does it go as well as it looks?’” 

“I handed him the keys and suggested he find out for himself. He went off for about 20 minutes, and when he came back everything was smoking. He’d given it a right braining. 

“He said, ‘Spike, you don’t know what you’ve done here. I’ve got to feature this. This is startling.’ He had it for about five days and reckoned it was faster than any BMW he had driven, as quick as any Porsche on the market. And said as much in articles in Motor Sport and Motoring News. At which point the phone started ringing: ‘I’ve just bought a new 240Z… could you do the same for me?’ From October 1973 we called the company Samuri Conversions, by which time I’d done about eight ‘Sams’.”

“I knew that a Japanese radio company was marketing a range of products called Samurai, and I remember saying I wanted to call it that,” says Spike. “And that’s when ‘Basil Brush’ [Barry Jones, the signwriter] asked, ‘How do you spell it anyway?’ I said, ‘Buggered if I know!’ So we played safe and left the ‘A’ out. So it was partly ignorance and partly that there was another company with Samurai as a registered trademark.

“The first car I did was for Bill Squires, then someone else wanted one almost immediately. Arthur Carlisle was doing all the spanner-work while I did the cylinder heads. And then I got a phone call from this fella called Winston Percy.”

The Dorset garage owner had bought a 240Z, read what Spike was up to and fancied some of it. Later, Spike went to see Win hillclimbing. “The first time I saw him was at Gurston Down. After watching his first practice run, I decided he was either a huge accident waiting to happen or bloody quick.”

In 1974, when Samuri went a step further and built the charismatic Modsports Z, ‘Big Sam’, Win drove it and won his class in 16 of 17 races, with one outright win. In 1981, the Year of the Disabled, Big Sam returned with ex-bike racer Martin Sharp at the helm, using hand controls, in the British Modsport Championship. He finished second in class.

Although historic racing was good to Samuri in the late 1980s, with multiple class and overall wins, the company had see-sawed between feast and famine since the fuel crisis of 1973. Spike was the business on heads but, by his own admission, he never had a head for business. He packed up
for good in 1993.

“We were very aware of the opportunities that Datsun had let slip through its fingers with the 240Z,” he says. “We thought it must be obvious to them that what we had done, and what Bob Sharp had achieved in the USA, making the 240Z a great long-distance racer in the up-to-3-litre GT class, and that all the car needed was more power. We came up with our own 2.6-litre short-stroke engine, made up of standard bits and pieces homologated at the time. It was a great basis for a race engine: increased capacity with the revving ability of the original 240. It was crying out for a four-valve head – and Datsun had raced an admittedly disastrous 2-litre four-valve 240Z in 1970. 

“It could have been developed quickly to produce a reliable 300bhp, and that would have had the beating of anything else in the class. We could never understand why Datsun didn’t twig this. Big Sam at Le Mans would have done them nothing but good. But in all the time that Samuri was developing and competing with Zs, we never received a penny from Datsun. 

“Despite everything, our race record is the envy of much larger teams and, with most of the 74 Super Samuris produced still running, we have a legacy any small company can be proud of. Therefore, after 20 years, I turned my back on what I suppose was my life’s work with the feeling that in our small way we had really achieved something.”