By on May 16, 2017

1999 Nissan Z Concept, Image: Nissan

I fell in love for the first time as a 10-year-old boy in tiny Pella, Iowa. She passed me and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her until she turned the corner and ran away.

That babe was the 1970 Datsun 240Z, and it was driven by one of the coolest cats in town.

Little did I know then that I’d have a hand in bringing the Z back from the dead some 28 years later.

Nissan Motor Corporation created and built the Z in Japan, where it introduced the sports car in 1969 as the Nissan Fairlady Z.

A year later, thanks to Automotive Hall of Famer Mr. K, who first brought Nissan to the U.S. shores years before, the Z arrived in the United States as the Datsun 240Z.

It was an immediate hit for two reasons: the car was beautiful (sure, Nissan ripped off Jag for many of its design cues), but — more importantly — the Z was affordable. So affordable, in fact, that a high school junior or senior with a decent after-school job could afford the monthly payment.

A decade later, in 1980, Z sales had soared to 71,000 units in the United States before plateauing in the 50,000 to 60,000 range for most of the decade.

Then sales began their free fall thanks in most part to a bad strategy from leaders in Japan.

With the 1990 birth of the Nissan 300ZX and the later 300ZX Twin Turbo, the car lost its affordability moniker overnight and engaged in a “super car” market battle with Toyota and a few others selling sports cars in the mid-$30,000s.

Nissan lost that battle and sold barely 1,000 units in 1997. A legendary car that had helped establish Datsun (later Nissan) as a legitimate player in the U.S. market was sent off to the graveyard.

Two weeks after I joined Nissan as its new PR chief for North America in Gardena, California, in March 1998, one of my PR colleagues, Tim “Sparky” Gallagher, arranged for a tour of Nissan’s design studio down the road in La Jolla.

Jerry Hirshberg, the North American design chief, greeted us at the front door, standing about 5-foot-6 but built like a brick sh-thouse. He looked nothing like the typical automotive designers I worked with at Chrysler, my previous employer.

We walked around the lobby. He showed me some past work created by his studio before we made our way to the working area of the facility. On the table was a one-quarter-scale clay model of a concept Jerry was ready to show: the Nissan SUT. It was an SUV on the inside and shortened pickup truck on the outside. (It never went to market, though Ford did produce an SUT.)

As we continued through the studio, meeting Jerry’s staff, I finally stopped him and asked, “Where’s the Z, Jerry?”

Jerry, with an impish smile, pointed to his head. “It’s in here,” he answered.

“Well,” I said, “Get it the hell out.”

Jerry confessed he proposed a replacement for the now-dead Z, going back to its “affordability roots,” but Japan had balked and refused to fund the project. I asked him how much he needed for full-size concepts of both the SUT and a Z. He asked for a day to come up with the figures from the folks that build the actual concepts.

The next day, Jerry came back with a staggering figure: $2 million. That may not have been staggering for Chrysler, Ford, GM or Toyota at the time, but it was staggering for Nissan, which was on the brink of bankruptcy.

I went to my new best friend at Nissan, Mike Seergy, the smash mouth sales guy from Jersey who Nissan picked to lead all North American sales after he’d made Nissan the number one import brand in the Northeast.

“Seerg,” I said, “We need to get Jerry Hirshberg money to build the new Z concept.”

“What Z concept?” he asked. “I was just down there last week and didn’t see any Z.”

“I was there two days ago,” I answered. “It’s in his head. We can make two concepts — a Z and the SUT — for two million.”

Seergy gulped. “OK, I’ll take it out of my sales budget — but you only get one million.”

Seergy and I got the buy-in from the head of Nissan North America, Minoru Nakamura, but he instructed us to keep the project absolutely quiet. If Nissan’s execs in Japan got word of it, they’d surely kill it. Nakamura’s warning foreshadowed what was to come as Nissan sunk into a deeper and deeper financial hole.

Jerry Hirshberg’s team went to work, even bringing an original 240Z into the studio and piping in late ’60s and early ’70s tunes to set the mood. It quickly became distracting. Jerry’s team needed the original Z in their minds, not smacking them in the eyes. Jerry ordered the car be removed and the music turned back to Sugar Ray and Lenny Kravitz.

We built the Z concept and made it the focal point of a road show during the summer of 1998, which allowed Nissan’s dealers, financial analysts and the media to “peek under the kimono.” We showed our dealers first, as their family businesses were on the line. The dealers were understandably scared due to Nissan’s current financial state. We showed them the new version of the Maxima, the flag ship of the brand, the SUT concept — and then the Z concept. When we took the cover off the Z, the dealers cheered. After the meeting, several dealers said seeing the new Z meant we hadn’t lost our DNA after all.

Was the concept any good? It was, Hirshberg said, “Just OK.” But it didn’t matter at the time. It was just a concept at this stage. Nissan contemplating a production Z that went back to its roots was all that was necessary. Our message was clear: Nissan is not dead yet.

Nissan unveiled the Z concept at the 1999 North American International Auto Show, which almost didn’t happen. A killer blizzard that shut down Detroit’s Metro Airport for days kept half of the international media away from Detroit. The media reviews were solid, but not overwhelming.

What was overwhelming was the pending doom for Nissan as a whole as it was near flat-lining financially. DaimlerChrysler contemplated buying Nissan, but the Germans left the Japanese automaker at the altar — pregnant with a looming bankruptcy baby — after performing its due diligence. Luckily, Nissan Chairman Hanawa was so pre-occupied with Nissan’s pending demise and his growing health issues that he paid little attention to the boys and girls in the U.S. operation.

As we neared the New York International Auto Show, we decided to announce the Z was a “go program.” We had a glorious unveiling planned: the Z would be hidden on stage by a field of thousands of green, imitation corn stalks. Minoru Nakamura, our CEO and my boss, would sit on a park bench in front of the corn field while reading an enlarged copy of Road and Track magazine. Months earlier, the mag’s Sam Mitani had embedded himself with the Z design team and wrote a wonderful story about his experience. He ended his piece, stealing a line from the film Field of Dreams: “If you build it; they will come.” Nakamura would read that line and then stand up and shout, “We will build it!”

But the evening before our press conference, after a couple of hours of practice in the Jacob Javitts Center in Gotham City, I received a call in my hotel room from Nakamura. He informed me he’d received an angry phone call from Chairman Hanawa telling my boss that he, the Chairman, had not approved the Z for production.

I didn’t know what to say. My team and I, Jerry Hirshberg and his team, and Mike Seergy poured our hearts into making a new Z a reality as we tried to revamp Nissan’s tattered image.

But I did know one thing: I was pissed.

“Mr. Nakamura,” I said, “You tell Mr. Hanawa we announce this a ‘go program’ tomorrow or I’ll go on a hunger strike.”

There was a pause.

“Jason,” he said coolly, “No one care if you go on hunger strike.” He started to laugh. “I will handle this. Meet me outside for a smoke.”

At 1 a.m., Nakamura was back on the phone. “We are OK. Mr. Hanawa has approved the Z. But, he is still angry.”

“Mr. Nakamura,” I said, “I’m sorry I painted you into a corner.”

“Jason, don’t give yourself too much credit. We both painted us into this corner. See you in the morning.”

Renault would take over Nissan and keep it from death’s door. Once in production, the new 350Z was a solid performer right out of the gate sales-wise, topping 30,000 units in 2003. Its creation spawned the Infiniti G models, which gave Nissan’s luxury brand some of its best sales results.

However, since the high water mark of 2003, Z sales have declined year-after-year, with a couple of exceptions, and it garnered 6,000 sales in 2016 despite it, for the most part, retaining its original “affordability” DNA. Starting prices still remain around $30,000.

Will Nissan get its Z magic back? Maybe, but it might just take a 10-year-old American boy falling in love all over again to make it happen.

[Image: Nissan]

Jason Vines is a former automotive industry PR professional who’s worked for Chrysler (twice), Nissan, and Ford — during the Firestone tire crisis. He went on to work for Compuware in Detroit, before diving into the complex world of Bible publishing. He’s the author of “What Did Jesus Drive?: Crisis PR in Cars, Computers, and Christianity” and co-author of “The Last American CEO,” a behind-the-scenes account of Chrysler’s purchase of American Motors. He currently resides in North Carolina.

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33 Comments on “That’s Off-The-Record: The Almost Stillborn Nissan Z...”

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    I congratulate Nissan for coming up with the design of the Fiat 124 over a decade in advance.

  • avatar

    Cool story. Test drove a 350z back in ’05 when I was shopping. Decided I needed a more all-around car – it just felt too small! Bought an ’05 Legacy GT wagon. More recently, if the G37s didn’t have a (worse, from what I hear) 7-speed version of the same 5-speed auto in my GT, and the 3.7s didn’t have a problem overheating on the track (from reading, I’d probably already own a ’13-15 G37/Q50 (is that the the right one? Or is it a Q40? Or Q60? Or Q70??) as a general all-around car right now, probably the X version.

    These days, definitely need room for the family, and would love an auto that had a SHIFT-RIGHT-NOW sport mode. And that didn’t run north of $50k for the fun version. When you’re over $50k, there are a lot of other cars to pick from..

    If you’re still “in” with Nissan.. I’d love a better auto. The 3.7 is fine, although I guess it’s dead now. Make the 400hp version of the 3.0tt affordable/priced appropriately – low 40s out the door – and I’d consider it.

    But above all – FIX THE STUPID NAMING. We all knew G37 sedan/coupe, M37/56 sedan, G37 convertible and the not-so-popular G25 (a friend in Canada has/had one). I still can’t keep Q40/Q50/Q60/Q70 straight. So QXnn is an SUV, while QnnX is an AWD version of a sedan? Are they doing this in Japan? Are they selling more cars here due to the (*&@#$ naming?? Thought not..

  • avatar

    Great article. Thank you.

  • avatar

    Just a quick heads up, there is a typo in the first line. I assume you meant that you fell in love instead of feel.

  • avatar

    I was an early Nissan fanatic. Growing up in a GM town, where import cars were rare, made one defensive for the little ’84 Nissan truck my dad bought for hauling wood. He was so impressed with the reliability, that he bought a ’87 Nissan Stanza to replace the Oldsmobile Diesel 98 with the blown engine.

    That Stanza seemed so tightly built and had some great seats. Sure it was only 99hp, but the fit and finish seemed so upscale compared to the GM Cutlasses that littered the suburban streets. My dad drove 40k+ miles a year for his job and he liked the car so much that he bought a total of three of them(!) – all 1987 model years.

    When I turned 16 I was given the truck to drive to school and work. I dreamt of Nissan 300ZXs, Maximas, and their 4X4 trucks with the 3.0L V6s. When the 1990 Nissan was released, I lusted after it A few yeas later I was driving a hand me down Stanza with over 200k miles on the clock but it still ran great with no dependability issues.

    After college, I bought my first car – a used 1994 Nissan hardbody with a 5-speed manual. For my wife, I bought a 3yo 1997 Altima. The Altima seemed so cheaply made compared to the Stanza I had – the seats were thinner, the road noise was worse, and the 2.4L engine, making a whopping 150hp, wasn’t the most thrilling thing, even with a 5-speed. Add in the issues I had with the Nissan dealership for fixing my truck and… I haven’t bought a Nissan since.

    But I am going to check out a used Infiniti G37x since I liked the M35 I recently drove.

  • avatar

    Couple of thoughts:

    The price hike from the Japanese in the mid 90s wasn’t a strategy; it was the product of the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble and corresponding collapse of the yen. A similarish event happened in Germany (though not as extreme)- you’ll recall the late 90s were the era of Toyota’s sludgy V6s, Honda’s disintegrating V6 5ATs, MKIV Volkswagens *shudder* and other general quality maladies from across the pond. Manufacturers were forced to cut costs in a hurry, after decades of being flush with cash and never really having to worry about cost. Sad times for all.

    Despite my screen name car wise I have owned more Nissans than Hondas (though only just- 4 to 3). My first car was a ’95 Maxima SE, handed down from my dad and specced to impeccable taste. Black on black and loaded aside from the 5 speed manual. In retrospect, it was definitely the product of some serious cost cutting; most shamefully the abysmal rear beam suspension not fit for an economy car let alone a FLAGSHIP. But aside from that, the engine was impeccable, and the interior was high quality for its time. They spent money in the right places.

    Nissan/Infiniti was definitely in a bad way by ~99 though… there were really 3 things that saved them:

    – punching out the VQ to 3.5 liters (to hell with refinement!)
    – the Nissan FF-L platform (which spawned the 2002 Altima; possibly the most important car in Nissan’s history in terms of survival)
    – the Nissan FM platform, which turned Infiniti from a joke to a BMW beater overnight

    It was a really fun time. I had just entered college age with my buddies right at the peak of Nissan’s renaissance, and we basked in it. I was stuck with my 93 Accord, but all my friends got VQ35 powered FF-L and FM cars. A LOT of power without being a lot of money- perfect for testosterone + gasoline blood type early 20 something year olds. Nissan really kicked off the arms race in mainstream HP- nobody was really looking at V6 mainstream sedans for fun, but man that Altima 3.5 SE was a riot. And in the luxury realm they really offered a nice alternative to BMW. Yes finesse and feedback are fun, but so is brute HP (and Japanese reliability).

    I’m on my 4th VQ equipped car (G37S 7AT- first auto ever)… every time I drive it I wonder why I ever left. OK, the transmissions- auto AND manual, more so manual, are not the best. Nissan manual transmissions are actually quite awful. But at any point in the rev range, any gear, you punch that pedal, you get rewarded. And the rest of the car isn’t bad either.

    I’m looking to close the loop and get my wife a Murano. Long live Nissan!

    • 0 avatar
      Corey Lewis

      I did not like the prior generation Murano, but I think they stepped up quite a few levels with the current one. The interior on lower trims isn’t brilliant, but the fuel economy is good, the ride is very nice, and the standard VQ has plenty o’ power.

      Cargo and people space is just okay, limited by the styling.

      • 0 avatar

        What didn’t you like about it? I love the current one, as I love the current Maxima and know the Murano is just a Maxima on stilts. Some of the bottom trim current gen ones are coming into my price range, but I’d rather get a fully loaded last gen one. I don’t mind the styling and the infotainment is the same as what I have in the G37S, which will make things very simple.

        • 0 avatar
          Corey Lewis

          RE: Gen 2 Murano

          I found the interior very cheaply made, and the ride quality choppy. The earlier version of the CVT was not all that responsive when you wanted power.

    • 0 avatar

      Good info on the transmissions – the G37 is on my want list.

    • 0 avatar

      You mean collapse in the dollar – a collapse in the yen would make Japanese exports cheaper.

    • 0 avatar

      You are right that the foreign exchange rate significantly impacted the prices of Japan-built cars in the US. However, you have the mechanism backwards. In 1995, the *US dollar* is the currency that took a nose-dive. The cost of building a Toyota stayed about the same in yen, but the number of USD it took to cover that cost jumped almost 40%. That’s why the USD price went up.

      Reference page 52 of the book “Understanding Globalization” (available on Google books). Or see the paper “Japanese exchange rates, export
      restraints, and auto prices in the 1980s” from the BLS (different time frame, same point).

  • avatar
    Compaq Deskpro

    Awesome story, sticking your neck out, especially in a multinational corporation and actually having your position work out for the better is great.

  • avatar

    I bought 2 350z’s when they were new (a 2003, at launch, and a 2007). They were the king of the “Bang for your Buck” sports car at the time, good all-around performance and style for $30K. Once Ford came back with their 5.0 Coyote in the Mustang in 2011 (also bought that), the Z lost its luster and Nissan has yet to step up and make a competitive car. Shame.

    Great story on the 350z birth!

  • avatar

    Used 350/370Z’s are still a lot of bang-for-buck to this day. I just considered both very recently (before ultimately buying a 987 Boxster base).

  • avatar

    Learned to drive manual on the old man’s 95 Z when I was 16. Not the twin turbo but that car was so slick – black on tan, t-tops, stupid sexy – and it handled so well I still attribute my love of cars in general to that thing. The styling pictured in the article’s main photo is a damn shame imo and a complete disservice to the original and second gen 300.

  • avatar

    Curious, do you know why they picked La Jolla for that design center? I grew up in that town but most of the car design offices are in LA/OC. I also remember reading the Xterra came from that specific design center.

  • avatar

    Is it me, or anyone else also thinks it looks like a clone of a Porsche 928 from the mid 1980’s?

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    I just bought a ’71 for peanuts. I really hate the thought that in order to drive a new car, I’ll soon be stuck with only automatic options.

    That said, a G35/37 with trans from a Z couldn’t be that hard to swap.

  • avatar

    Fun story. One of the reasons I come to TTAC is the insider perspectives. Because at TTAC we can’t leave anything un-snarked I will say that Mr. Vines sounds like he is straight out of central casting.

    Director “Bring me a PR flak type”
    Casting director “I know just the guy”

  • avatar

    Correction, 1969 240Z, 1970 was the second year. I have a 71’….
    Oh and can we put a powerful straight 6 in the Z next time Nissan?

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