By on March 1, 2012

After a couple of 1970s Italian sports cars for our last two Junkyard Finds, it’s time to look at the Japanese competition. Malaise Era Z Cars are not uncommon in California junkyards, and I spotted this fairly rough example in an Oakland yard last month.
Judging by the extremely weathered paint, I’m guessing this car spent at least a decade in outdoor storage, getting fried by the Northern California summer sun and picking up body rust during the rainy Northern California winters.
The old-school Raiders sticker, from the era before the team went to Los Angeles, indicates that this car is an East Bay native.
The L28 engine in the ’77 280Z made 149 horsepower in a 2,628-pound car, pretty decent numbers for the time. The ’77 Corvette weighed 3,448 pounds and had 210 horses (if you got the optional L82 engine), which gave the Chevy a slight power-to-weight advantage… and a price tag of $9,143 versus the Z’s $6,999.
The Camaro is probably a fairer comparison to the 280Z, however, given the similar demographics of the two cars’ purchasers. A ’77 Z28 with the optional 170-horse 350 sold for $5,380 and weighed 3,529 pounds. Which would you have bought? This debate could go on and on.
Early catalytic converters tended to run very, very hot, and cars not initially designed for them sometimes had less-than-optimal cat locations. If the floor above the cat got too hot, this warning light would come on, probably after the carpeting started to smolder. Fiat’s approach to the same problem was a “SLOW DOWN” light.
There’s no telling the significance of this 70s-vintage vanity plate.
Though this car doesn’t seem to suffer from rust-through problems, you can still get much nicer 280Z project cars in California for reasonable prices. Some of this car’s parts will live on in one of those cars.

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34 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1977 Datsun 280Z...”

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Whoever penned those lines was a genius. Just an awesome design, executed very well. This car put “Datsun”, or Nissan, as we now know it, on the radar screen. Prior to this vehicle, Datsun was to Toyota a poor little brother.

    As the nursing child said to his mother, “Thanks for the mammaries!”

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      Or was it, as the Adult bar patron said to the pole dancer, “Thanks for the mammaries.”? I get those two confused all the time….

    • 0 avatar
      Darth Lefty

      The 240Z was basically an updated ripoff of the E-Type.

      Styling was evolutionary until the second 300, which was a very modern thing and has only recently started to look dated in the “flame surfacing” era.

      • 0 avatar

        No, it was a rip-off of the Ferrari Daytona.

      • 0 avatar

        The 300ZX had bits of Saturn in it, but that was when they started looking original. Interestingly, the C5 Vette took bits from the 300ZX.

      • 0 avatar
        PJ McCombs

        It certainly piggybacked on the popular long-hood, short-deck theme of the day, but to my eye the actual shapes of the Z’s bodywork share virtually nothing with the E.

        Most reviewers called the Z a copycat design when it was new, too, but it was a native design (loosely based on a Toyota concept by Goetz) and probably Japan’s first genuine styling home run.

  • avatar

    Although not as pure as the 240’s the ’77 280’s were still nice cars as long as it wasn’t a goofy 2+2. When I was in high school back in the early 80’s A friends dad had one, we took it out for a top speed run, somewhere around 135 mph the hood started to vibrate so bad we thought was going to fly off.

  • avatar

    Come on Phil, stop this right now. I’ve already got two potential Lemons cars in the Que. The wife will oust me quicker than a mexican divorce if I bring home yet another candidate.

    I love these old first gen Z cars. I’ve owned every year except for a 1973 240z and I always felt that the 77’s were the best years. The 70 and 71 240Zs were great cars to keep in your garage for future collectors, but the 77 was “the” car to drive. Of course, the first thing to go would be those huge 5mph bumpers. Those things easily weighed 30 lbs. a piece. Of course, they were also a major structural element in any Datsun that had lived through a mid-west winter (read: salt).

    My Dad always warned me of my “first” 77 280Z that I would wake up one morning to find a pair of bucket sets, four wheels, and a engine all surrounded by a pile of rust. He wasn’t far from the truth.

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely. I would go further and say that the ZXs were even better as daily drivers. This, from someone who has owned a 240Z. Sure, the 240 was lighter and more direct, but it was also tinnier and less refined. The straight six made a wonderful sound — when you could hear it over the road noise and gear whine — the 240s had thin vinyl (not carpet) with very little soundproofing over the transmission tunnel. And those fiddly SU carbs…

      “I’ve owned every year except for a 1973 240z and I always felt that the 77′s were the best years. The 70 and 71 240Zs were great cars to keep in your garage for future collectors, but the 77 was “the” car to drive.”

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, “Te femme” in french translates to “You woman”.

  • avatar

    I loved the purity of the original 240Z and never liked the 280Z as well, although I concede that removing the bumpers would go a long way towards redeeming the looks. Still they were bigger and the Z-cars just kept on getting bigger through the years. I call it Mustang syndrome. It’s amazing how small a 66 fastback Mustang is compared to the 1970. * I only drove a 240Z a couple of times – a friend had one in college- and he LIKED to drive so I didn’t often get the chance, but I loved the torque of that engine and the good shifter. Hard for me to say how well it handled since I had nothing to compare it to but ordinary American iron, an early Civic (my school car) and a friend’s Celica. We thought it was pretty good but although it damn near killed us a couple of times in the West Virginia mountains. That, however, could also be written off to Kerry’s driving ‘skills’.

    So anyhow when I see the 280 I tend to think of it as an 80’s Discomobile poseur in comparison to the ‘true sports car’ 240Z.

    * Don’t even talk to me about the Mustang II.

  • avatar

    I absolutely love your junkyard finds, because it’s often a trip down memory lane for me of the cars I drove back then. Sometimes it’s sweet summer memories, sometimes, not so much…

    I was lucky/unlucky enough to have owned not one but two of these in the early and mid 1980’s. Both of them were the silly 2+2 designs (back then they were cheaper than the prettier coupes, and, as a recent graduate, it’s what I could afford). The first one didn’t exorcise the yearnings out of me, I had to go for a second one.

    They were both wonderful to drive, especially by the standards of the malaise era. They just felt so “special”, particularly compared to many of the Detroit lumps of the time (though the weight distribution of the 2+2 probably wasn’t as sharp as the coupe). Even strangled by the primitive emissions controls of the time, the sweet straight 6 engine sang a smooth, seductive tune. One of mine was the “exotic” 5-speed (my first!), it felt like a poor man’s Ferrari (yeah, I know, a major stretch, but considering my budget…).

    The Achilles heel, probably of any Japanese car of the time, was the dreaded tinworm. I lived in the northeast, and the cars were daily transportation, for me and their previous owners. Winter salt did unspeakable horrors to the undersides. It was a major traumatic experience trying to get through New York state inspection. A common ploy was using “patches” of thin aluminum sheet (or even layers of aluminum foil) glued on with silicone, and then sprayed over with undercoating, to give the appearance of solid floor and frame. A friend of mine had an old Mercedes whose underside was all nothing more than Reynolds wrap sprayed over with undercoating. It ‘looked’ good and sometimes the inspectors were fooled, but when they pulled out the long screwdriver and started poking around, it was time to visit a welding shop. I won’t even begin to talk about the bondo in the bodies… after a few years of daily use, in my area they were all mostly filler in every panel up to about knee high.

    It’s fun to troll e-bay and craigslist, looking for a low-mileage, rust-free example from a dry western state. The coupe, especially the original 240Z, is a beautiful work of art that is still fun to drive. Even your junkward example looks a lot more solid than the ones I drove 30 years ago.

  • avatar

    That “FLOOR TEMP” light is a new one on me – a real sign of the times.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    These cars were the answer to the question… “What if the Japanese built a Corvette?”

  • avatar

    These cars were everywhere, you were just too cool in a Z back then. This was THE car of the disco era. I’m rather surprised it ended up here instead of craigslist.

  • avatar

    Nice factoid about the catalytic converters and the temp light.

  • avatar

    I think the 280Z was the last legit Z-Car that reflected the original spirit of the 240Z–the disco Z was the 280ZX, especially the 2+2 version. That was a Z in a fat suit.

    The 240Z is a car I’ve lusted over since I was in high school (when they were already old), though at this point I will probably never own one.

    • 0 avatar

      A “fat suit” is a bit unfair. My GF back in the day drove a 5 speed 280ZX. It was fast for it’s day, and handled really well. It was OHC, sported fuel injection, 4 wheel disc brakes, and a fully independent suspension…pretty cutting edge for 1981. Alas, these cars were even more prone to rust than your average Japanese car of the day. Her car began to have floor rot thru…after awhile puddles would send spray into the car. I went to change the front brakes and the jack crushed the underbody instead of raising up the car. Eventually the rust became so bad the doors started to bind in their jambs…too bad as the car was a blast to drive.

  • avatar

    Another dreamer’s project meets its usual end. I’d like to see some stats on how many of these projects are actually completed…I’m guessing less than 10%.

    I’ll bet that while this thing was moldered away, for what looks like two decades, the owner refused numerous offers to sell it.

  • avatar

    A ’77 Z/28 made 185 hp and weighs like 3700 lbs.

  • avatar

    The nice thing about my ’03 350Z is all the styling and throw-back cues to the original: the basic shape, the triple console gauges, the hatchback. I wonder why the hood louvers didn’t make a comeback appearance too? The Z is Japan’s take on the pony-car idea. I’m happy to own a modern example of it despite the fact that many will point out that my ’03 is a pig (but aren’t all modern cars?) it still looks good (I think), goes quick (enough) and handles well. Long live the Z :)

    • 0 avatar

      I’d say the Z was more in the mode of a Japanese Corvette, particularly since it was conceived primarily as a two-seater (at various points they had 2+2s, but they seemed like afterthoughts) and tended to be more expensive than the Mustang/Camaro/Firebird. The Toyota Celica, on the other hand, was very much a Japanese pony car, as was the subsequent Nissan Silvia 200SX/240SX.

  • avatar

    Actually the ’77 Z28 had 185 net HP, minor difference from the standard, published 170. It wasn’t advertised but the Z28 version of the LM1 motor had a slightly different camshaft. In ’78 Chevrolet changed the advertised rating to reflect the actual rating.

    1977 Z28’s are pretty rare as they were only made for half of the year (February to August) and are sometimes referred to as ’77 1/2’s. I ordered one in March of ’77 and took delivery in May. It was a great handling and maneuvering car with exceptional braking capability but was definitely lax in the power department. Even with 3.73 rear gears and a Super T-10 B/W gearbox it just didn’t cut it. The workmanship has horrific; that coupled with the cheap quality of materials deadened my enthusiasm for the car pretty quickly. The run-up in fuel prices in ’79 due to somebody’s embargo, Iran maybe, and the miserable 10-12 MPG achieved in normal driving, caused me to dump it in early ’80. I believe the out the door price was $5,249.

  • avatar

    As Murilee states, finding a 280z in a California junkyard is not all that hard. However, finding a 240z in a California junkyard can take a bit of searching.

    The 280z got heavier with good cause: safety. Side impact beams in the doors and more internal bracing added to its rigidity. A 240z is a tin can…..this coming from someone who owns a 240z.

    I own a 1972 240z though the only thing stock about the car is the shell. Sajeev would be proud, the car sports an LS1 and is an abolute terror on the streets and track.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    Reminds me of one of my disappointments. A friend , who had graduated college a bit before me and had gotten his first real job was planning to head to the Datsun dealership and was all set to get a new 1976 Z-car ( don’t remember if that year was a 260-Z or a 280-Z ) then the plan was that we would take it on a shakedown trip to Colorado. Don’t remember what happened but I still remember the letdown when the friend drove up in a new puke green metallic 1976 Datsun F-10.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Looking at pic #11, I can guess what Murilee scavenged out of this car… ;-)

  • avatar

    The 77 Z28 may have only had 185 hp from the factory, but a simple carb/manifold and cam swap along with a set of headers and dual exhausts would have pushed it well over 300 with no other mods.

  • avatar

    The 280 Z ran from ’75-’78. Cosmetically, the ’77 & ’78 received “cleaner looking” bumpers, louvered hoods, and some minor interior changes including the seats. No sure of any major mechanical changes between the ’75/’76 models vs. the ’77/’78, but all ran much better than earlier Z’s due to the switch to Bosch multi-port fuel injection, which was a relative novelty in 1975 and only found on higher-end brands.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    My BIL has a 78 in his garage.

  • avatar

    You all missed it on saying the Z car was a copy cat of this and that.
    The original 240Z would have been the next generation of the Austin Healy 3000 if Nader’s Raiders hadn’t of propagandised the dangers of powerful sports cars and scared Austin Healy out of biulding it. AH sold the specs to Nissan and the rest is history.

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