Curbside Classic: The Revolutionary 1971 Datsun 240Z

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

The Datsun 240 was as a true revolutionary, smashing the long-stagnant sports car market of the sixties into smithereens. It was long overdue too; folks were getting cranky for the messiah: a truly modern sporty two seater with four-wheel independent suspension, a zippy OHC six engine, dazzling styling, all served up at a reasonable price; say $3500 (about $20k adjusted). The hole in the market for such a car was begging to be filled. And Datsun stepped up and delivered, with a grand-slam home run. But like most revolutionaries, the Z was anything but truly original. But then neither was Che nor Lenin; they studied Marx. And Datsun? They took their studies seriously too.

Prior to 1970, the sporty two-seater segment was over-ripe for change. The creaky and outdated British roadsters were rolling relics begging to be put out of their misery; the superb Porsche always was pricey and quickly getting more so; the attractive but none too cheap nor reliable Italians were barely hanging on by virtue of their pretty faces; and the Corvette wasn’t exactly budget-priced and was entering the long dark decade of the seventies. Nissan took note and sent its Z right at the bulls eye of that target market. And where did their inspiration come from? How about another famous Z?

GM’s John Z. DeLorean saw the same market hole: something below the ‘Vette in price and yet smashingly more attractive than the MG or Triumphs. And he saw it years earlier. The 1964 Pontiac Banshee concept had the formula nailed: Pontiac’s new OHC six wrapped in a delicious and highly advanced bod. It’s styling foreshadowed the ’68 Vette, but without the exaggerations. The nearly production-ready Banshee was nixed by the timid GM brass, fearing the market wasn’t big enough for it and the Corvette both.

An iffy speculation? Perhaps, but the story of the 240Z’s origins and paternity is endlessly intriguing and rife with rumor, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw another ingredient into it. In the early sixties, Nissan wanted an image-mobile to spicy up its stodgy rep. Albrecht Goertz, a protege of renowned stylist Raymond Loewy, went to Japan around that time to help Nissan develop their clay modeling expertise. Nissan and Yamaha entered into a development project for a sporty coupe using a Yamaha engine, and Goertz did the design. To be called the Nissan 2000GT, the project was still-born, and a restless and eager Yamaha took it to Toyota.

In need of some image polishing themselves, Toyota bit and the result is the stunning and legendary Toyota 2000GT. Toyota claims their own designer Satoru Nozaki did the final work, and that may well be. But Goertz’ influence on both the Toyota and the 240Z is undeniable. But the expensive production GT was much more of an image-mobile in the mold of today’s Lexus LFA than what the Banshee promised and the 240Z finally delivered.

The Z may have numerous claims on its parentage, but a few are too obvious to discount, in lieu of DNA tests. The Datsun 510, a revolutionary car in its own right, and the subject of a recent CC, was a key genetic donor, in that its new OHC four sprouted two more cylinders to make the Z’s six. And given that Yatuka Katayama (Mr. K) had helped shepherd that into its final form, and that he fought successfully for a renaming of the Z’s Japanese Fairlady moniker, he certainly can take a bow.

The Datsun 1800 donated its front suspension, and other pieces from the corporate bin were used wherever possible. The rear suspension was new, but so similar to the Lotus’ that it is rightfully called a Chapman strut. And then there is that body that wrapped it all. John DeLorean would have been proud; it’s decidedly un-GM-esque in detail, but the long flowing hood, the clear lines, the well set-back cockpit, the bulging hood, the delightfully resolved tail; there’s just not a bad angle, line or detail on this Z.

I mean that generally and specifically; this particular car was a nice find, because it’s hard to find one of the early Zs that is as clean, untampered with, and shows off its designer’s intent as well as this one. They tend to look too fussy, burdened with too much trim and emblems. But this one, having lost its hood ornament, looks as good as as any Z I’ve ever seen. It has almost a concept car’s purity, and every angle is a joy to behold. I’d forgotten just how terrific and timeless a design this car was until I stumbled unto this one.It was hard to stop shooting and walk on.

Of course, things went only down hill after the first few years of Zdom. It’s a depressing tale; I know there are fans of the later cars and its successors, but for me there will only ever be the early 240Z to speak its brilliant intent and execution. Light, lithe, with a motor that still had some genuine Zing in those last days of pre-smog choked dullness and crankiness. Yes, the 240Z was far from perfect, its handling exhibiting some of the same twitchiness at the limit like its 510 little brother. Nissan would soon take care of that all too well; it slowly morphed the Z from a poor-mans XK-E into a bloated Camaro wanna-be.

But the Z’s decline into plushly upholstered boulevard cruiserdom was soon exploited by Mazda with their gem, the RX-7. Taking the original Z formula (minus the IRS but with a rotary), and keeping it tight and light, the RX-7 carved out as nice a chunk of the market as it carved canyon curves. Of course, the RX-7 lost the way too eventually, until the Miata reclaimed it for good. It’s taken a while, but it was inevitable that someone would eventually find the sweet spot and stick to it as religiously as a warm tire on a hot back-road curve. Just imagine if the 240Z had been available as a roadster too, and stuck to its mission: revolution would have become orthodoxZy.

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Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Jeff Segan Jeff Segan on Feb 04, 2010

    Mr. Niedermeyer is obviously a talented writer, and weaves a good story. For the most part I enjoyed reading it. He just as obviously has a good eye for beauty. No question that the Datsun 240Z is of timeless beauty - aka a Classic or "Modern Classic" post 1946 if you like. The Datsun 240Z is one of main reason Mr. Katayama was inducted into the Automobile Hall Of Fame in Dearborn circa 1998. Mr. Niedermeyer also correctly points out that the true DNA of the Z Car is found in the Datsun PL510, the first car from Nissan to reflect the direct influence of Mr. Katayama's desire for cars more suited and thus sales in the USA. I have to voice my complete disagreement however with Mr. Niedermeyer's statement; "But Goertz influence on both the Toyota and the 240Z is undeniable." In fact Mr. Goertz had nothing to do with the design of neither the Datsun 240Z nor the Toyota 2000GT. The men responsible for the design and development of the Datsun 240Z, Nissan Fairlady Z-432 and Nissan Fairlady Z: Mr. Teiichi Hara, Manager Nissan Design and Development Mr. Kazumi Yotsurnoto, Manager, Passenger Car Styling Section Mr. Yoshihiko Matsuo, Chief of Design, Styling Studio #4 Mr. Akio Yoshida, Assistant Designer (Exterior Design) Mr. Tamura - Clay Modeler - Final Form / Detail Body Surface Styling Mr. Sue Chiba (Interior Design) Mr. Eiichi Oiwa and Mr. Kiichi Nishikawa (Styling Studio Assistants) Mr. Hidemi Kamahara and Mr. Tsuneo Benitani, Design Engineers (engineering everything under the skin). Production Engineering: Mr. Hitoshi Uemura, General Supervisor, Construction Plan Division Mr. Hirod Miyate, Vice Chief, Nissan Auto Body Construction Division

  • Raminduction Raminduction on Jun 04, 2014

    Very nice write-up, Paul. This one seems to be a early 1971 or very late 1970. It has the optional side protection strips, and the bumper stand-offs, but is missing the front and rear over-riders. I wanted to buy one when they first came out, but the knife-fights to just get on the waiting list to be ripped-off weren't worth it. So, in 1976, I bought a beautiful 1971 from the original owner. She had the foresight to order all the extras and the four speed, AND have the undercarriage completely undercoated, so there have been no rust problems. My charming wife insisted on driving the car exclusively for the first year. Unfortunately, she had two things going against her: very pretty and an enormous right lead foot. Instant ticket magnet. So, after a lot of wailing and tears, I took over care of the car. We still have it, but it isn't stock (or is that redundant?): L-28, 5-speed, R-200, Eibachs, Konis, shock tower braces, chassis stiffeners, roll bar, 4-wheel discs. But, sooooo much fun to drive. Yes, I agree that these cars were very flimsy compared to the new cars today that have nearly 100% torsional rigidity, however, I can give a updated comparo: I also own a '99 Boxster, and it rattles, pops, creaks and bounces just like the 240, but just it with a bit more "sophistication". The reality? Small, light, fast cars that handle like demons do not ride very well and will tend to loosen your fillings on any road other than mirror smooth. My take: sit back, heel & toe and enjoy the ride.

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.