Back in 1969 Datsun’s 240Z launched a sports-car revolution, (1972 model shown).
NEW YORK — Fifty years ago, the last letter in the alphabet became the first word in Japanese performance cars. On this side of the Pacific, at least.
The Nissan S30 — among the most successful lines of sports cars ever produced — rolled onto our shores in 1969. If you don’t recognize the designator, it’s because here, it was called the Datsun 240Z. (The GT-R, which also celebrates its 50th anniversary, is actually an earlier car, having been launched in 1968; however, it didn’t appear in North America until 2008.)
Designed to compete with the MGB, the 240Z did so, not only on price but also on technology. Its four-wheel independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering were superior to the MGB’s live rear axle and king-pin steering.
The car’s 2.4-litre (guess where the 240 came from...) produced 151 horsepower and 146 lb.-ft. of torque, which, in a car weighing only 1,400 kilograms, was good for zero-60 times of eight seconds. Respectable back in the day and hardly a slouch by today’s standards, either.
Reportedly, the launch of the car sent customers flying to Datsun dealers, with deep waiting lists. If Nissan didn’t invent the concept of a “halo” car, it certainly perfected it.
“The first-generation S30 Z-cars were what put Datsun, soon to be Nissan, on the map for North American car buyers,” said journalist and Z-car aficionado Benjamin Hunting, who has owned one for four years and races it regularly. “Here was a Japanese company building a sports car that could hang with the European exotica in both styling and handling, yet at a significantly lower price and with much better reliability.
“The car is still a blast to drive in a modern context because it shrinks around the driver in a way few other ’70s sports cars can claim.”
Road & Track magazine, writing its first-drive story in the April 1970 issue, declared the 240Z a bargain, with skidpad performance better than the Porsche 914.
“The Datsun can really be driven hard; flung enthusiastically into corners, its near-neutral handling (helped by the near 50/50 weight distribution) makes it very stable, with just a hint of oversteer allowing the tail to hang out but not come around,” reads the review, which ran without a byline.
“The basic list price of the 240Z is (US)$3,526 and at this price, it is a super-bargain, with a combination of styling, performance and handling far ahead of anything else under (US)$4,000.”
The Z line continued through the 260Z, 280Z and 300ZX, which, when cancelled in 1996, appeared to mark the end of Nissan’s sports-car legacy, and coincided with the start of years of bleeding by the Japanese carmaker. The return of the Z in 2002, as the 350Z, was hailed by fans. Today’s variant is called the 370Z, continuing the tradition of naming the car after engine size (2.4 litres to 3.7 litres).
The GT-R was launched in 1968 in Japan as the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a high-performance version of the Skyline, which was a name carried over from the old Prince Automobile Co., which merged with Nissan. The first version featured a 2.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine delivery, 160 horsepower and 130 lb.-ft. of torque. It was offered only with manual transmission (five-speed and later six-speed) until the most recent version, which comes only with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
To honour the legacy of both cars — the Z and the GT-R — Nissan launched 50th anniversary editions of each at the New York International Auto Show, but the changes are only skin-deep.
Each is built on the same cars sold as non-50th anniversary models. The major change is a paint and decal scheme that pays homage to Brock Racing Enterprises, led by renowned racer Peter Brock, which put the original Z on podium after podium. Brock previously had similar success with the 510. One version is red on white, with red on the hood, A-pillars, roof sills and rear deck. A similar scheme is offered in black on silver.
A press release appears to suggest new six- and seven-speed manual and automatic transmissions respectively, but research into other 370Z models shows they get the same transmissions.
The GT-R 50th anniversary edition offers a choice of three heritage colour schemes: blue with white racing stripes, pearl white with red stripes and silver with white stripes.
The exterior of Nissan’s 370Z 50th Anniversary Edition mimics the livery of the original BRE race car.
The 1975 Datsun 280Z, the third in a long line of Z cars.