You know them, you’ve seen them, you may have driven them… the iconic Japanese sports car that needs but one letter to describe: Z. Here’s a look at the evolution of the car that forever banished the notion of Japanese imports as only cheap, fuel-efficient econoboxes.
The Z began life in 1969 as the Nissan Fairlady Z. The Datsun name was used only on export models until 1986, in the Japanese home market they were always Nissans.
The Fairlady Z was a 2-seat sports car that had a 2-liter SOHC straight-six engine producing 130 HP. The US 240Z version got a 2.4 liter SOHC straight-six with twin Hitachi SU-type side-draft carbs producing 151 HP and a four-speed manual transmission, a 3-speed automatic was offered starting in September 1970. 151 HP was enough to propel the 2,300-lb 240Z to a top speed of 125 MPH and 0-60 MPH in 8 seconds.
With a body reminiscent of the still-produced at the time Jaguar E-type with its fastback-type hatchback body and scalloped, recessed headlight wells and low price it was an instant hit, selling over 45,000 cars through 1971. Early models had a chrome “240Z” emblem on the sail pillar, this was changed to a round emblem with a “Z” in the middle and the “240Z” emblem relocated to the front of the rocker panels. Rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front, rare in those days, gave it handling on par with some of the best that Europe had to offer and Datsun’s reliability couldn’t be matched by the costly, temperamental European sports cars of the day. Even though it was a sports car it was still Japanese, which meant fuel-efficient, returning an average 21 MPG at a time when the typical American car with a 6-cylinder engine could only manage 15 or so and less for even the most miserly V-8. It was a capable rally car as well, winning the 1973 East African Safari Rally. The 240Z also won the US SCCA C Production title in 1970 and 1971 on road courses.
The 260Z was only offered in the US for the 1974 model year but carried on in other countries until 1978. It had a 2.6 liter version of the straight-six with Hitachi non SU-type side draft carbs. US emissions regulations caused Nissan to reduce ignition timing and compression ratios, resulting in only 140 HP being produced despite the increase in displacement. Other countries without the strict US emissions regulations got a 165HP version of the engine, this wasn’t made available in US models until mid-year.
Other changes were made to the interior. The climate controls were easier to use and more carefully laid out, the dashboard was redesigned and the car got new door panels and seat trim. A rear sway bar was added and the frame rails were larger and extended further back, resulting in a stiffer chassis and better handling. US safety regulations resulted in heavier bumpers with rubber bumper guards.
A longer 2+2 option with 2 rear seats was offered for the first time on the 260Z.
My brother owned a silver 260Z with the 165 HP engine in the late ’70s when I was in high school. I got to drive it a few times including on a date with my then-girlfriend, a very pretty curly-haired redhead who was suitably impressed with my choice of ride that night. I was amazed at the handling since all I had driven at that point were American cars with rather dodgy suspension components and numb recirculating-ball steering, and an early-70s Fiat that handled a lot better but nothing like the tight, reactive suspension and steering of the Z. I was very enamored of the 260, so much so that it set me on a quest to buy my own Z some ten years later.
In 1975 the Z again got a .2 liter bump in displacement, becoming the 280Z. Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection replaced the carbureted 240 and 260Zs, thus the power was able to increase to 170HP despite increasing US emissions regulations. The 1975 and ’76 models had the black rubber bumper extensions as on the 260Z but not quite as obtrusive, ’77 and ’78 models had a redesigned, recessed bumper with black accordion pieces on the ends that met the US standard and was much more visually appealing. In 1978 the full-sized spare tire was replaced with a space-saving “donut” spare.
In 1977 Datsun offered the 1000-car limited “Zap” edition of the 280Z with “Sunshine Yellow” paint, black dual stripes down the center and sides of the car with yellow, red and orange chevrons at the front ends of the stripes. This car was also used as the pace car in the 1977 Long Beach Grand Prix. In 1978 they offered another limited edition: the Black Pearl with black pearlescent paint, dual racing mirrors and unique red and silver striping. The exact number of Black Pearl editions is unknown, it is estimated that anywhere between 750 and 1500 were produced. The 2+2 option was still offered on the 280Z.
The 280ZX was a complete redesign, the only thing left over from the 280Z was the 2.8 liter engine and drivetrain. This was a softer, heavier car than its predecessor with more focus on comfort than pure driving enjoyment; a grand touring car rather than the pure sports car 240-280Z models. The suspension was softer, the seats were more comfortable and more sound insulation was added for a quieter interior. Luxury items like power windows and a high-end audio system were also standard in the new ZX, as was a T-top starting in 1980.
That’s not to say that the Datsun/Nissan (as they were starting to call US models) 280ZX had gone completely soft, far from it. It still had the MacPherson strut front suspension with a new semi-trailing arm rear suspension and precise rack & pinion steering for great handling, and the same 170HP engine as the 280Z, with bumps in horsepower every model year culminating with the 214HP turbocharged 1983 model. The aerodynamics were better than the 280Z, thanks to the redesigned body that closed the open grill of the previous models and made other small improvements that lowered the drag coefficient from 0.467 to 0.385, enabling the 280ZX to get comparable speed despite the increased weight. A normally-aspirated 1982 280ZX achieved 0-60 times of 9.1 seconds. While this is slower than the 8-second 0-60 time of the 240Z, to put it in context that is only 1.2 seconds slower than a 1982 Corvette despite the Z having less than half the displacement. The 280ZX Turbo was only 1.2 seconds slower than a 1982 Ferrari 308 GTSi and 0.2 seconds slower than an Aston Martin Volante that was 7 times the price.
Such was the reception in the automotive press that Motor Trend Magazine named the 280ZX its Import Car Of The Year in its initial year of 1979.
I owned a 1983 normally-aspirated 280ZX in Regatta Red for six years, bought as a 5-year-old used car with a mere 40,000 miles. The only reason I sold it is because my stepson was turning 16 and I found out how much it would cost to insure it even if he never drove it…it would have more than doubled my premium, so I sadly bid farewell to my Z. It was a dream to drive, had power to spare and luxury features I had not enjoyed up to that point in my life. I could commute to work in it, carve up back roads for pleasure, get groceries thanks to the generous hatchback, and outrun everything short of a ‘Vette, a 5-liter Fox-body Mustang or an old-school late ’60s-early’70s muscle car while getting much better fuel mileage than any of those. It was so easy to drive and so quiet that if I didn’t pay attention I could find myself drifting up past 100 MPH on the Interstate without realizing it. It was much more of a refined driving experience than the 280Z it replaced. I miss a few of the cars I’ve owned, but I think I miss the 280ZX the most.
300ZX (first model) 1984-1989
The Z got a complete makeover in 1984. Gone was the swoopy E-Type body and straight-six powerplant, replaced by a droopy, wedge-shaped and more ’80s front end with pop-up headlights and a 3-liter V-6 that came in 3 flavors: a normally aspirated 160 HP SOHC model, a normally aspirated 190 HP DOHC model, and a 200 HP turbocharged model with a Garrett T3 turbocharger. The 1984 model was the last to wear the Datsun name, in 1985 all Datsuns were Nissans like in the home market although dealers were still Datsun dealers, at least for a time.
The new 300ZX handled and accelerated better than the 280ZX it replaced even though it essentially had the same suspension setup with the exception of the Turbo models which had 3-way electronically adjustable shock absorbers. It did not, however, have the same style and panache of the original model Zs or even the 280ZX, in my opinion.
300ZX (second model) 1990-1996
The second model 300ZX was evolution, not revolution. The body lines were more rounded than on the previous generation with most of the hard edges now smoothed over. The 3-liter V-6s were now all DOHC with variable valve timing, producing 222 HP in normally aspirated form and 300 HP in the twin-turbocharged, inter-cooled version. The turbo models also had adjustable 2-mode suspension and Nissan’s new Super-HICAS four-wheel steering system for improved handling.
Most models sported the T-tops that had been introduced in the 280ZX. A hardtop was available only with the normally aspirated engine but the convertible could be had with either power plant. A 2+2 model was also available.
After a six-year hiatus, Nissan brought back the Z. The 350Z looked much like the retro but updated 240Z Concept that graced the 1999 North American International Auto Show except that the retro headlight buckets that resembled the original Z cars on the Concept were flush-mounted, more modern and aerodynamic and the front end was more blunted than the Concept was.
The 350Z was initially available in five trim levels: Base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring and Track. These trim levels varied as the model got older. All were powered by a 3.5 liter 287 HP V-6 that got bumped to 300 HP in 2006 and 306 HP in the final model year. The car won numerous awards from the automotive journalism community, including a 2003 spot in Car & Driver Magazine’s 10 Best Cars and the 2003 Automobile Magazine Automobile Of The Year. It was also a fierce competitor in auto racing, including wins on the Grand Am, SCCA and Drifting circuits.
The Nissan in-house performance tuning division NISMO began producing modified 350Zs in 2007 for the US market after introducing their R-Tune kit that was sold directly to customers in 2004. NISMO production was Japan-only in 2005. NISMO models had higher-revving 300 HP engines as well as a Viscous Limited-Slip Differential, a traction control system, an aerodynamics package, tuned independent multi-link suspension, larger Brembo brakes and a NISMO-tuned exhaust.
The 370Z was again evolution, not revolution. It looked very similar to its 350Z predecessor with a bit more of a protruding nose than the 350. A 3.7 liter V-6 now powered the Z with a corresponding boost in HP, ranging from 328 to 350 (for the NISMO-modified cars) through the life of the model. A six-speed manual or 7-speed automatic with paddle shifters was available, and Nissan’s new SynchroRev Match technology automatically blipped the throttle to match engine and transmission speeds during downshifts with the manual, eliminating the need for enthusiast drivers to use the heel-and-toe technique to do so. The automatic was actually a tenth of a second quicker from 0-60 than the manual if the driver used the paddle shifters. The 370Z was already the quickest Z ever with a 4.7 second 0-60 time with the manual.
A convertible model was available starting in mid-year 2009.
NISMO modifications included a higher-revving 350 HP engine, stiffer springs and stabilizer bars, 19-inch alloy wheels with Yokahama high-performance tires, vented disc rotors with NISMO Sport Brakes and an integrated chin spoiler.
Various special editions were produced for the home market and several European markets. The only special edition to reach the US was the Black Edition built to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the original 240Z. The Black Edition was limited to 370 units and featured red leather and suede seats with 40th Anniversary embossed logos, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with red stitching, red stitching on the center console, center cluster and knee pads and a 40th Anniversary emblem on the rear hatch.
It’s Jeff Despicable Boofer