Though the Datsun Fairlady roadster was just reaching its stride in 1965, plans were already in motion to begin a new sports car project. Japan was growing in sophistication, and Nissan thought it had an opportunity to build a world-class grand tourer that would turn the automotive universe on its ear. The result has come to be known by many names—Fairlady Z, the Z-car, 240Z, or just plain Z— but no matter what you call it, it’s among the most beloved classics and the bestselling sports GT on Earth.
Naturally, a car with such a huge following has a certain mystique surrounding its origins. Many sources claim that the Z sprung from Nissan’s time collaborating with Yamaha under the guidance of Albrecht Goertz. There are actually two versions of this story, with one being that Goertz’s prototype was rejected by Nissan and sold to Toyota where it became the 1965 2000GT. The other version has Nissan ending its partnership with Yamaha and taking the design anyway.
Neither of these is true, and in recent years photos of the Goertz-influenced Yamaha prototype (called the Nissan 2000GT, but not to be confused with Toyota’s 2000GT) have surfaced, showing a clay model that looks more like an amalgam of the C3 Corvette Stingray and a Triumph GT6 rather than Nissan’s final product. That design study may have been Goertz’s, but the Z-car was actually styled by an internal Nissan design team led by Chief Designer Yoshihiko Matsuo.
One day, as the young Mr. Matsuo toiled away at the design center, he was paid a visit from afar. It was Yutaka Katayama from Nissan USA who had caught wind of Matsuo’s activities. Being the sports car enthusiast that he was, Katayama was incredibly excited at the prospect of a personal GT with four-wheel independent suspension and a six-cylinder engine. He could sell the car like hotcakes in America, and for its price point there was nothing similar to it on the market. Katayama returned to California and not long after, Matsuo received a package from America—a nautical flag for the letter Z, the last letter of the alphabet, representing “the ultimate.”
On October 24, 1969, the Nissan Fairlady Z was unveiled at the 16th Tokyo Motor Show. The name might have been a throwback to the Datsun Fairlady roadster, but make no mistake, the company wanted it to be known that this was a Nissan. Response to the car was overwhelming, even as the base model, equipped with a 130-ps (“pferdestärke,” the German equivalent to American “horsepower”) 2.0-liter SOHC inline-six with standard 4-speed transmission (a 5-speed was optional), rang in at ¥930,000 ($2,583), a price few Japanese could afford. The Fairlady Z-L (“L” for luxury), with a standard 5-speed and some extra options such as air-conditioning, stickered at ¥1,080,000 ($3,000) and was even further out of reach.
And if that wasn’t enough, there was the Fairlady Z-432, one of the most desirable cars in Japanese history. Its numerical designation stood for 4 valves per cylinder, 3 carburetors, and 2 cams, courtesy of the same 160-ps S20 from the Skyline GT-R. At ¥1,850,000 ($5,139), the Z432 cost double the price of a standard Fairlady Z, pure unobtainium for all but the wealthiest motorheads. Still, the sheer excitement generated from seeing such a car on the stand was enough for most. The legendary Tomei Expressway had opened just a few months earlier, and the S30 had arrived perfectly timed to a new era of high-speed driving in Japan.
Nissan then developed an even more insane version, the Fairlady Z-432R. A homologation special, it was visually differentiated by a black fiberglass-reinforced plastic hood and plexiglass windows. Its weight savings didn’t end there, though. The entire car was constructed of thinner-gauge sheet metal, so although replicas do exist, the original R cars are impossible to truly duplicate. No one knows exactly how many were built, but estimates range between 25 and 35, making it the absolute ultimate in collectible Nissans today.
Off to the side of Nissan’s main display, however, sat yet another Z model that proved to be the most important one of all, the Datsun 240Z. While not nearly as rare or race-ready as the Z-432, its labeling as an export model gave indication of why it was so groundbreaking. The S20 would have made the Z far too expensive to sell at the price point Nissan wanted, but Katayama knew his market well. Customers in America wanted power and were not beholden to the 2.0-liter tax, so the 240Z gained a 150-horsepower SOHC L24 while losing the Fairlady name. That power was put to the ground with a 4-speed transmission or a 3-speed automatic (although a 5-speed swap from the 1977-up 280Z is a common upgrade). The suspension shared the same basic MacPherson front and Chapman strut rear of the Fairlady Z, albeit in softer tune.
Sales exceeded Nissan’s wildest expectations. At $3,256, the 240Z had no competition in the marketplace. Anything in the same price range (MGBs, Opels, Alfa Romeo GTVs, Fiats) had either two fewer cylinders or a live axle. And anything with an independent rear or at least six pistons (Jaguars, Corvettes, Mercedes SLs) cost much more. Datsun dealerships were inundated with requests, selling cars as soon as they came off the truck and putting remaining buyers on a six-month waiting list. The roadster and the 510 may have laid the groundwork, but the 240Z cemented the reputations of both Nissan and Japan as sources for superb performance cars.
Driving demand further was the fact that the 240Z took to the racetrack like a duck to water. BRE had been racking up SCCA D/Production championships with Datsun 2000 roadsters and wanted to keep the momentum going. Katayama, eager to put money where the Z’s mouth was, immediately got BRE into the 240Z. Making a late-season debut at the national runoffs at Road Atlanta behind the wheel of the now-iconic number 46 BRE Z, John Morton handily won the Z’s inaugural race. He went on to clinch two consecutive championships, defeating long-established European sports cars such as the Triumph GT6 and Porsche 914/6. BRE followed the Z with the aforementioned Datsun 510s to take on the Trans-Am 2.5 Challenge, and made Datsun a name forever intertwined with the motorsports landscape of America.
On the world stage, the 240Z proved its mettle as a multifaceted race machine when it competed in the 1971 East African Safari Rally. Whereas the BRE 240Z showed itself to be adept on the smooth asphalt of road courses, the Safari Rally 240Z was racing where no paved roads existed at all. Yasaharu Namba, one of the drivers of the winning Datsun 1000 in the Mobilgas Trial of Australia twelve years before, headed the rally team. The driver and navigator, Edgar Herrmann and Hans Schüller, had won the previous year in a 510 Bluebird SSS.
Victory over the five-day romp through the bushes of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania was one of the most prized trophies in the world. It drew manufacturers such as Lancia, Ford, Mitsubishi, and even Land Rover, but it was known as a punishing car breaker. After 4,000 miles with an average of 60 mph on some very rough terrain, only 32 of the 107 entries finished. After a hard-fought battle with Porsche, a pair of red-and-black 240Zs took the top two slots, making Herrmann and Schüller the first team and Nissan the first manufacturer to win two consecutive victories. The 240Z went on to claim the 1973 Safari Rally championship as well, a last hurrah for the Z before Nissan pulled out of motorsports following the oil crisis.
Back at home, the Fairlady Z-432 was the obvious choice to take to the tracks. Unfortunately, Nissan was losing money on manufacturing the advanced S20. The company canceled the Z-432 and offered the 240Z for sale in Japan starting in 1971. Soon, the competition cars took on a new look called the G-nose, an elongated aerodynamic front end with clear covers over the headlight coves. The Fairlady 240ZG, as it came to be known, took its share of checkered flags in the Fuji Grand Champion series, and the extreme look of the road-going version made it an oftcopied inspiration to Zedheads around the world.
Midway through the S30’s life, the oil crisis reared its ugly head. Both in Japan and the United States, the emphasis shifted to economy (and comfort) over performance. New emissions standards choked engine performance even further, and the range-topper Fairlady 240Z was eliminated at the end of 1973.
As a sign of the times, in 1974, Nissan added a 2+2 body style to the Z-car lineup in all markets. A bump in displacement gave Americans the 260Z, but a new emissions-reducing induction system made the engine severely prone to mechanical issues. US safety standards also added a pair of dreaded safety bumpers, disrupting the Z’s svelte shape. As a result, the 260Z is considered the least desirable of the S30s among collectors, and those who end up with one rarely stick with the stock induction system for long.
Nissan quickly addressed the 260Z’s problems in 1975, implementing a new Hitachi-Bosch electronic fuel injection system. Displacement increased to 2.8 liters brought power to 150 horsepower (SAE net). The Z-car had become an indelible part of American car culture, and Nissan obliged with two US-only limited editions. The 1977 ZZZap featured a bright yellow appearance package with black, orange, and red décor and 1970s-vogue rear window louvers. It was followed in 1978 by the Black Pearl Edition, the first Z to be offered in black, with added racing mirrors and rear louvers. Both of these are notable because of their limited runs, but their collectibility has not yet risen above that of the early 240Zs.
In 1979, Nissan released the next-generation S130 Fairlady Z, known to Americans as the Datsun 280ZX. Although history and 240Z purists look at this model as a boulevard cruiser rather than a sporting machine, its weight was within a few pounds of the outgoing 280Z. The rear suspension was brought in line with the Bluebird family with trailing arms, and a highly popular T-top option was introduced in its sophomore year. Americans couldn’t wait to get their hands on the next coming of the now-famous Z-car, and the 280ZX was the sports car to have at the dawn of the Reagan decade.
Companies as varied as Midori Liqueur, Activision, and Fabergé called upon the Datsun 280ZX to enhance their image in advertising campaigns. The creators of the popular 1980s television show Knight Rider originally suggested a 280ZX as the star car, but a sponsorship deal with General Motors nixed the idea. Nearly every toy car line and the hugely popular Transformers cartoon featured a 280ZX, and Motor Trend named it its Import Car of the Year. It was impossible to escape them in American pop culture, and the same was true for Japan, where a modified S130 Fairlady Z replaced the C210 Skyline Turbo as the hero car on Seibu Keisatsu.
In 1979, nissan released the next-generation s130 Fair Lady Z, known to americans as the Datsun 23ozx.
The 280ZX also provided some of the most collectible Nissans, including the two-tone 1980 Black Gold edition in celebration of the Z-car’s tenth anniversary. Nissan only made 2,500 of them, but there was an even rarer Black Red anniversary edition sold at the same time, with only 500 built. A lesser-known limited edition is the 1979 ZXR, which featured a special decal package and a rear wing that was a result of homologation for Nissan’s continued racing efforts.
Although Peter Brock had disbanded BRE after the 1973 season, Bob Sharp continued in SCCA C/Production on the East Coast and grabbed the 1979 title, notably with Paul Newman behind the wheel. Former BRE team members went on to form Electramotive Racing, which captured several championships in IMSA GTU and GTO classes. By the end of its racing career, the 280ZX was running an L28ET, one of Nissan’s stoutest engines, turbocharged to a rumored 700 horsepower. Street-legal ZXs got turbos as well, albeit in the 180-horsepower range, and to this day L28s of various aspirations are considered the ultimate engine swap for old Nissans.
The next-generation Z31 grew in size and weight, breaking from tradition with the introduction of a 3.0-liter V-6. Japanese-market Fairlady Zs had the option of the turbocharged RB20DET inline-six, but Americans could only choose between a 160-horse-power V-6 with natural aspiration or a forced-induction 200-horsepower version. With the increase in displacement, the model name was changed to 300ZX. Styling evolved into full-blown 1980s high-tech geometric shapes, with the car’s signature sugar-scoop headlights replaced with parallel rising units that rested in squared-out nooks.
In racing, the Z31 claimed the 1985 All-Japan Touring Car Championship series title, as well as several SCCA GT-1 victories at the hands of Paul Newman. The king of the hill was undoubtedly Electramotive’s IMSA GTP Nissan ZX-Turbo, which became notable for being the first car to beat the Porsche 962, seizing the manufacturer championship in 1989 and 1990. Although the unique prototype body had nothing in common with the street-legal 300ZX, its engine was a heavily modified version of the production car’s VG30DET V-6, capable of 800 to 1,000 horsepower and 9,000 rpm.
By 1984, Nissan had been in business for half a century, and a silver-and-black fiftieth-anniversary edition was sold to commemorate the occasion. All were equipped with high-end options such as turbocharging, leather, and T-tops. Even rarer, however, is the 1988 Shiro Special, a pearl white (shiro is Japanese for “white”) 300ZX with Recaro seats and a stiffer suspension.
The next-generation Z32 300ZX debuted in 1989 for Japanese markets and in 1990 for the US market. It was a sea change for the Fairlady Z, with performance bringing it into a new league of sports GTs such as the Porsche 968. The VG-series V-6 from the Z31 carried over, but was reworked with a twin-cam design, variable valve timing, and twin turbos making a whopping 300 horsepower. With technologies such as Super-HICAS four-wheel steering derived from the Skyline GT-R, it was a technological tour de force and ushered in a renaissance in Japanese sports cars. The body was wrapped in sleek new lines that still look modern more than twenty years later, at once futuristic and subdued, and one of the best-looking designs to come out of Japan.
Its looks were backed by its competition prowess, as the Z32 racked up numerous victories and two championships in the IMSA GTO (and later GTS) classes with Steve Millen as pilot. The Z32’s greatest victory came in 1994, when it placed first overall at the 1994 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. That same year, it won the GTS-1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In fact, the car was so dominant that IMSA forced a rule change that disqualified the VG engine.
Still, by 1996, Nissan was in financial trouble and sports cars such as the 300ZX were languishing on the lots due to the SUV craze that had taken hold in America. Nissan killed off the mighty Z for the US market at the end of the year, though its Fairlady Z counterpart continued to sell in Japan until 2000.
Ironically, in 1996, Nissan USA was knee-deep in a marketing campaign that fully embraced its heritage. Datsun 510s, roadsters, and even diminutive 320 trucks appeared in heavily circulated print and television advertisements. The justeuthanized 300ZX even starred in a tremendously famous spot as a radiocontrolled car driven by an action figure. Best of all, Yutaka Katayama became a character, “Mr. K,” in television advertisements (played by an actor). Rarely had a corporate executive been so beloved; it proved that Katayama’s passion throughout the years had resulted in a real connection with enthusiasts.
Nissan then embarked on an ambitious program to restore 1970–1973 240Zs and sell them as new from the dealer. They would be fully restored to stringent standards sold exactly the way they came off dealer lots 25 years earlier. Unfortunately, Nissan didn’t quite appreciate the size of this undertaking, and lost money on each one. Fewer than 40 cars were sold under this program, making them highly collectible today.
Incredibly, there are probably just as many, if not more, original, complete cars not requiring any restoration. Many owners recognized the Z’s inherent value when new and preserved them well. Low-mileage 240Zs occasionally pop up for sale, and a mint early example can fetch as much as $30,000. In Japan, a top-condition Fairlady Z-432 is worth well over $85,000.