Datsun 240Z

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While the British sports car industry limped on in the early 1970s, Nissan rewrote the rules with a newcomer that blended power, looks and balanced handling

Time was when Japanese cars were rubbish. A generalisation perhaps, but until you’ve experienced the full horror of an Isuzu Bellet in the wet, or a Datsun Cherry 100A in the dry for that matter, then you’re frankly in no position to argue. Think of the miserable knock-offs that China produces right now that lack the stimulation, flair and excitement that European players so effortlessly embrace. For now at least, because all the signs suggest it won’t take the Chinese long to catch up. Then we’ll see who’s laughing.

History has a tendency to repeat itself. Backtrack to the 1960s and, as the British automobile industry embarked on an orgiastic merger spree, the much-mocked Japanese were busy studying, copying and improving Blighty’s motorbikes. They then sold them in vast numbers, which caused the source of inspiration to wither and die. This car — the Datsun 240Z — had pretty much the same effect on the British sports car. By looking, listening and cherry-picking, Datsun — or rather Nissan — engineers fashioned a car that sated North America’s unflagging susceptibility to a good deal and rendered traditional British fare obsolete at a stroke. A cramped, leaky and not especially quick ragtop suddenly seemed less appealing. And just to rub salt into the wounds, the 240Z proved handy in competition on a global scale.

Designed specifically to earn lucrative US dollars, the 240Z broke the mould for Japanese sports cars. There had been earlier attempts — Nissan’s own string of Fairlady roadsters were reasonably successful, even if they did crib Abingdon products. Honda’s S800 was an intriguing curio, with its DOHC head and roller-bearing crank, as was the barking Wankel rotary-powered Mazda Cosmo. Then there was the sublime, Yamaha-devised Toyota 2000GT which sold in tragically small numbers. The distantly related 240Z was, however, the first truly credible Japanese sports car.

Having hitherto toyed with producing another four-cylinder roadster, the decision to build a coupe with an extra pair of cylinders was made in 1966. And, contrary to popular belief, the 240Z wasn’t penned by a German aristocrat. The late Count Albrecht Goertz, former affiliate of design god Raymond Loewy and architect behind the BMW 507, is often cited as the man responsible for the car’s perfect proportions. When the Z first did its trotting on the show circuit, Goertz — then on a Nissan retainer — was a well known and erudite figure in the design community and his attachment stuck. Japanese decorum insisted that the company received credit, rather than an employee, but Yutaka Katayama is now widely considered to be the man behind the outline. Goertz, having previously styled the attractive Nissan Sylvia 1600, did indeed come up with the concept, but that’s about it, according to the factory. Some years later he had his day in court and there the Count was acknowledged as having, at least, envisaged the 240Z.

Certainly Goertz was astute enough to realise that, with the US in mind, the new strain had to be roomy enough to house two six-footers in comfort — and all within a package that aped the layout of the Jaguar E-type within a Porsche 911’s footprint. And it did both: the monocoque construction, in-line six-cylinder power and all-round independent suspension echoed Coventry’s finest, while the dimensions almost mirrored those of the compact Weissach masterpiece.

The 240Z caused a furore upon its introduction at the 1969 Tokyo Motor Show — and an even bigger one in the US when it was released that September. Cheaper than mainstream British sports cars, cheaper even than a Corvette, sales went stratospheric with eager punters paying a premium over the list price to land one. The 240Z instantly left its mark on the track, too, when John Morton won the 1970 SCCA C-production title in a Brock Racing Enterprises entry: he would repeat the feat one year later while Bob Sharp lifted the 1972 and 1973 titles.

In Europe it was all a bit more subdued. The 240Z was officially launched at the 1970 Earls Court Motor Show and reaction was encouraging, although Datsun UK stopped short of bringing many over, due in part to protectionist tariffs levied against Japanese imports. And none of the 2-litre Z and ZL models, or the sexy, fat-arched Z432 and Z432R editions made it this far, more’s the pity. Of the 150,076 Datsun 240Zs made to the end of 1973, a whopping 146,000 went to the US: rather fewer made it to these shores. Import taxes meant it wasn’t such a bargain. At £2535 (in 1973) when a 3-litre Capri could have been yours for almost £700 less, it was always going to be on a loser. Nonetheless, the 240Z soon attracted a small if select retinue in Great Britain, with even the legendary Donald Healey reputedly being a fan.

All of which is understandable, because the 240Z always was like a Healey 3000 in spirit: tough, hirsute of chest and rather vocal (engine and transmission). As Autocar put it: “There is a tendency to describe the 240Z as the natural successor to the Big Healey. Perhaps it is, but it’s so much more comfortable, so much roomier and so much betterhandling that comparisons are difficult. There is no denying, however, that the character is there.”

The simile took on extra emphasis following the model’s success in rallying. For a marque that made its first, faltering steps into the rough and tumble stuff in 1958, it was with the 240Z that Datsun really took on the elite. Edgar Hermann and Hans Schuller won the 1971 East African Safari (admittedly only after Bjorn Waldegird’s Porsche and Hannu Mikkola’s Escort had retired), leading home the sister car of Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty. Two years later it was Mehta’s turn (second place going to the Datsun 1800SSS saloon of Harry Kallstrom), while a bit closer to home Tony Fall won the 1971 Welsh Rally. Rauno Aaltonen and Jean Todt finished third on the 1972 Monte Carlo — not an outright success, but impressive nonetheless.

So if the constituents of a true classic are good looks, a competition pedigree and historical importance, the 240Z has every base covered. The thing is, its lifespan was short. It lasted only until late 1973, when it was replaced by the larger displacement (2565cc, up from 2393cc) 260Z. With the subsequent arrival of the longer wheelbase 2+2, and the heinous but bafflingly popular 280ZX boulevardier, it was all downhill for the Z concept: an uncomplicated driver’s car made way for a series of corpulent old tuggers where power-assisted steering, air-con and an auto ‘box became increasingly central, at least until the gutsy and, mercifully, vastly more compelling 350Z reaffirmed our faith in the breed from midway through 2002. 

Of the few 240Zs that made it here, the ones that staved off V8 engine conversions and crass faux-Ferrari 250GTO makeover kits are now highly prized, not least by the historic rallying community. This example, Nissan UK’s own, looks delicious, especially on Minilites in place of the original domed wheel trims (the only exterior feature that ever really gave away the car’s national origin). Up close, Jaguar E-type leaps more readily to mind than Big Healey, that long, priapic snout and tapering fastback being more Browns Lane than Miller Road. It’s only when you step — sorry, stoop — inside that it all begins to unravel.

Positives first: there’s plenty of room, no elbow crowding or random pedal placing. The well shaped buckets are comfortable enough and nothing is a reach away. The instruments are easy to read, despite the hooded cowlings, with the three minor dials — clock, fuel gauge/ammeter and oil pressure/water temperature — being placed in the centre of the fascia and angled towards the driver. Ventilation is acceptable, while only the blind spot in the chunky C-pillars mars all-round visibility. There’s also useful carrying capacity, even if MacPherson struts eat into the luggage area. A pity, then, that the overall effect is one of abject poverty. The extensive use of coarse-grained plastics and shiny vinyl (prone to splitting, incidentally) serves only to short-change the 240Z; it’s a mite unpleasant.

On the move the straight six (iron block and alloy head) sounds fab, all snarl and bluster, pulling vigorously from low revs and even more so past 4000rpm. You would never know that the unit was supposedly, erm, inspired by Mercedes-Benz: it’s playful and spins eagerly up to the 6500rpm red line. The sonorous backbeat encourages you to work hard, and maybe change down when the torque spread would carry you, just to hear it change tempo. The change itself is well defined, but hardly delicate. That said, there’s enough torque to pull cleanly from just 20mph in top.

With near 50:50 weight distribution the Z is predictably well balanced with a touch of understeer when cornering gently. The rack-and-pinion steering loads up swiftly: attack a challenging sequence with a bit more vigour and the handling is neutral rather than tail-out heroic, at least in the dry. The ride quality, however, is unforgiving to the point where you wonder if shock absorbers were optional.

Thing is, the Z is critic-proof and has been ever since the first reviews came in. And it’s not as if the initial British reports were in the least begrudging. This was obviously the future. Think about it. When the 240Z was announced, its closest British challenger, if only in ethos, was the MGC. Or, to put it another way, an MGB with a higher centre of gravity and an extra 2001b of nose baggage. And then the UK specialist press got a roasting for having the temerity to praise a Japanese car. Less how the West was won, more how the West stuck its head in the sand. And then lost.

Thanks to Terry Steeden and Wayne Bruce of Nissan UK