In 1934, Nissan Motor Corporation began producing Datsun cars, sporty offerings that gave the company a whole new look and feel. Beginning with the Datsun 1500 Sports, this article will take you through a history of Datsun cars, from its early promise to the eventual disappointment.
The Datsun 1500 Sports (or “Fairlady,” as the model is often called) made a name for itself as a solid performer with plenty of features and diminutive price tag. Later iterations, named 1600 and 2000, would improve performance without changing much else.
The real head-turner was the Datsun 240Z. It could hold its own with the Jaguar E-Type (no small feat) at a fraction of the price. This winning combination found favor with consumers, and Nissan found itself struggling to keep up with demand.
Interest flagged by the time the next Datsun arrived, the more-of-the-same Datsun 280ZX. There was nothing wrong with the machine, and it actually delivered quite well compared to other sports cars of the day. There just wasn’t enough to set it apart, and sales slowed to a crawl.
Get the whole story on the Datsun marque, with picture-packed profiles and history of this solid Japanese automaker. We'll get started on the next page with the car that started it all -- the 1500 Sports.
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Datsun 1500 Sports/1600/2000
Remember the cars the Japanese used to build? Even if you do, it’s helpful to recall them now and then, for there’s no better way to appreciate how far the Japanese industry has come -- or how quickly. Nissan’s first sports cars, such as the Datsun 1500 Sports are a case in point.
Nissan Motor Corporation wasn’t officially organized until 1934, though its origins go all the way back to 1911. Its earliest car, the 1914 DAT, eventually led to the Datson and, in 1934, the name Datsun. The firm’s late-Thirties models were mostly scaled-down British and American designs (including a true “joint-venture” car patterned on the American Graham Crusader), while reworked British Austin A40s, built under license, led a halting recovery in the early postwar years. Amazingly, Nissan didn’t get around to a new postwar design of its own until 1958, the Datsun Bluebird sedan.
But bigger and better things weren’t long in coming. The very next year brought a new open two-seater, catering to a traditional Japanese fondness for such cars. Designated S211, it replaced the original Datsun Sports that had been built in small numbers for domestic sale since 1952.
It was also the first Datsun to bear the poetic Fairlady name that’s still in use today, though the car itself was nothing to write sonnets about. Carrying a 60-horsepower 1189-cc four, it was sized like an Austin-Healey Sprite yet wasn’t as peppy or agile. Worse, it tried to look like a big Healey. Somehow, production continued through 1963.
Meantime, the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show brought a surprise: an all-new Datsun roadster, the Fairlady 1500. More grown up and civilized than the S211, it offered better performance and more “international” styling in a conventional but well-equipped package that would remain popular through the end of the Sixties. Today, we recognize this generation as significant in paving the sports-car path that ultimately led Nissan to the history-making 240Z.
Designated SP310, the new Fairlady roadster looked rather like the MGB it predated by a full year, with the same neat, squarish, slab-sided body lines and scooped headlamp nacelles. At first it was a three-seater, with a single sideways-facing rear bucket, though that feature was dropped by 1963.
Specifications were resolutely orthodox. The separate box-section frame with cruciform center bracing employed coil-and-wishbone front suspension, a live rear axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs, and drum brakes all-round. The drivetrain was just as ordinary, though new: a 71-bhp inline four mated to a 4-speed gearbox.
As was Japanese custom even in those long-ago days, the Fairlady 1500 was fully equipped and priced to sell. Standard amenities like wind-up windows, radio, heater, and snap-on tonneau put it way ahead of most European contemporaries in value for money, and workmanship was at least their equal, if not better. Still, with only 95 mph maximum, the 1500 wasn’t a true performance rival for established British and Italian sports cars.
Nissan wasted little time in making it one. Twin SU carburetors (license-built by Hitachi) arrived in 1963, adding 10 horses. Then in September 1964, the 1500 gave way to an uprated 1600 model (CSP311) with 1595 cc and 96 bhp, plus all-synchro gearbox, a more modern diaphragm-spring clutch, and front disc brakes.
Smoother, quieter, and faster (top speed was a genuine 100 mph), the 1600 sold like hotcakes, especially in the U.S. May 1965 brought a five-main-bearing crankshaft for a refined edition (SP311). Sold in the U.S. as the Datsun 1600, it had the same engine but was an inch shorter, a half-inch narrower and about two inches higher.
By this time, American emissions regulations were in sight, and Nissan’s product line was not only expanding but moving up the size and displacement scale. These factors prompted a final evolution of the British-inspired roadster, the 2000 (SR311). Introduced in 1967, it logically carried a 2.0-liter engine, the new Type U20 overhead-cam four with no less than 135 bhp, mated to a new 5-speed gearbox.
Weighing little more than the 1600, it could reach an easy 110 mph. (There was also a limited-production 145-bhp competition version capable of over 125 mph.) At under $3000, it was a whale of a buy and surprisingly able on the track. Like the 1600s, modified 2000s quickly found their way into SCCA racing, and a young Hannu Mikkola even drove one in the Monte Carlo Rally.
All things considered, these simple sporting Datsuns were a big success, one reason you still see them running around today. Like most Japanese cars of the Sixties, they weren’t original in design, but they were definitely good value, built to last, and just plain fun. Perhaps things haven’t changed so much after all.
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The Datsun Z series announced the automaker as a presence in the sports-car arena. Having dramatically expanded both model offerings and sales in the 1960s, Nissan turned to innovation in the Seventies. Its small front-wheel-drive Cherry (which would come to America as the F-10) showed that the company could field competitive (if ungainly) mass-market cars. But it was the Datsun 240Z that showed what this Japanese firm could really do, solidly establishing Nissan as what we now call a "world-class" automaker.
The Datsun 240Z was carefully conceived, progressing from good idea to production reality over five years. It was called Fairlady Z when launched in Japan in early 1969. The 240 designation was chosen for other markets, corresponding to engine displacement (in liters, multipled by 10), though some say it was the car's project number. Unlike the 1600/2000 roadsters it replaced, the Z was a sleek and sexy fastback coupe, more technically advanced, and designed very much with an eye to export sale, particularly in North America.
Designated Model S30, the original Z-car was shaped at least in part by industrial designer Count Albrecht Goertz, who'd been associated with Raymond Loewy and had styled the two-seat 507 and four-seat 503 for BMW. Strangely, Nissan later tried to shrug off Goertz's involvement until the threat of legal action forced it to "come clean."
In any case, the Datsun 240Z was a sensation, not least because of its price. Smooth, civilized, capable, and fully equipped, it was a truly modern sports car, worthy of comparison with Jaguar's E-Type yet much cheaper. In fact, at just $3526 when it landed on U.S. shores in 1970, the Datsun 240Z was simply astonishing value-for-money, and it was this as much as its obvious abilities that sent auto writers into gales of praise and buyers streaming into Datsun showrooms.
Except for its engine and standard 5-speed overdrive manual transmission (the latter inherited from the 2000 roadster) the Datsun 240Z was all-new -- altogether beefier, faster, and more long-legged than previous Nissan sports cars. If not exactly original, the styling was adroit, blending elements of the curvaceous E-Type with overtones of Toyota's abortive 2000GT. Journalists picked at details (mostly a profusion of badges and rather tacky wheel covers), but most everything else was just right.
The long nose was dictated partly by the powerplant, a 2.4-liter single-overhead-cam inline six borrowed from a domestic-market Datsun sedan, tuned to produce 151 horsepower in U.S. trim. Chassis specifications were bang up-to-date: all-independent suspension via MacPherson struts, wishbones, and coil springs; rack-and-pinion steering; front-disc/rear-drum brakes. Cockpit design was rather American, especially the Corvette-style dashboard, though that hardly hurt U.S. sales.
Neither did equipment, which set a new standard for this price class. From the first, air conditioning and automatic transmission were optional -- items BMC and Triumph hadn't even attempted with the big Healeys and TRs -- while full instrumentation, wall-to-wall carpeting, reclining bucket seats, radio, and a proper climate system were all standard.
Of course, none of this would have mattered had performance not matched the styling, but the Datsun 240Z delivered. Many compared it with the late, lamented Healey 3000 in overall character, while others merely raved about the 125-mph top speed, nimble handling, secure roadholding, comfortable ride, and refinement unheard of in a sports car of this price.
In fact, a major reason for the Datsun 240Z's instant success was that it was more GT than traditional sports car (reinforced by the absence of a soft-top version), a sort of poor man's E-Type. That was no bad thing, of course, and Nissan soon found it couldn't build Zs fast enough. High reliability, a trait never associated with the Jaguar, turned the sales clamor into a stampede.
Demand would remain mostly strong through the end of this design in 1978. Some Americans and Europeans were aware of, but never got a chance to buy, the interesting, Japan-only 2.0-liter and twincam derivatives. What they did get were minor year-to-year improvements, a second body choice, and two displacement increases.
The original Datsun 240, which eventually sold in the U.S. at the phenomenal rate of 50,000 units a year, continued into 1973, when the engine was enlarged to 2.6 liters to offset power losses from tightening U.S. emissions limits. Unfortunately, it didn't. Appropriately called 260Z (officially, Type GLS30 in U.S. him), it had slightly less horsepower and torque. Federal regulations also dictated bigger, heavier bumpers that added unwanted weight, particularly up front, thus further diminishing go and making the optional power steering almost mandatory for easy handling.
The Datsun 260 also marked the start of the Z's slow but inexorable transformation from sports car to GT. As if to signal this trend, Nissan introduced a stretched-wheelbase version with a pair of tiny " + 2" rear seats. Styling inevitably suffered (as it did on Jaguar's E-Type 2 + 2), though sales were initially good.
Displacement rose to 2.8 liters for the final variations on this theme, the U.S.-only Datsun 280Z and Datsun 280Z 2 + 2, released in 1975. (The Datsun 260 continued in both Europe and Japan'.) With 150 bhp (SAE net), the larger engine brought performance back to near 240 levels, and Nissan responded to complaints of poor Datsun 260 engine driveability by junking carburetors in favor of Bosch electronic fuel injection.
After eight years and more than 540,000 units, the original Z-car came to an end in late 1978. More than any other, this was the car that proved Nissan could build not just transportation but interesting, even exciting cars. Now it was time for a change, though it wouldn't necessarily be for the better.
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The original Datsun Z-car sold so well that a successor was never in doubt. Christened Datsun 280ZX, it didn’t last as long -- five years instead of seven -- but sold relatively better. In 1979-80, Nissan moved over 140,000 in the U.S. alone. The ZX was also much more popular in Europe than the 260Z it replaced there and in Japan. It only goes to show that the public recognizes an attractive package more than the motoring press, which wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic about the second-generation design.
Like the 260/280Z, the Datsun 280ZX was offered as a two-seater (designated Type HSL 130 in U.S. trim) and 2 + 2 (Type HGLS130). Japanese introduction took place in the summer of 1978. U.S. sales began the following November for the 1979 model year.
Because styling continuity was deemed important for sales, the Datsun 280ZX looked much like its predecessor -- so much so that some wondered whether it wasn’t merely the old car with a new skin. It wasn’t. The styling, an in-house job this time, was beefier and busier, while the all-steel unit body/chassis structure was not just completely different but more spacious and practical. In U.S. form, the only carry over components were engine and driveline, but the 2.8-liter powerplant was now extended to all markets. The American version arrived with 135 horsepower (SAE net) compared to 140 bhp for European models; the former was boosted to 145 bhp for 1981.
The Datsun 280ZX marked Nissan’s first use of wind-tunnel testing during design development. It didn’t look any slipperier than previous Zs (quite the contrary to some eyes) but it was. It also weighed about the same despite meeting all the latest U.S. “crash” standards, though it was still a bit overweight, all things considered. Nissan tacitly admitted as much by fitting a larger fuel tank and a secondary fuel gauge that measured just the final fourth of it. Dimensionally, wheelbase lengthened by 0.6-inch on the two-seater and shriveled by 3.4 inches on the 2 + 2. There were similar changes in overall length, while width increased but fractionally.
Production economics dictated more component sharing than on the original Z, so Datsun 280ZX suspension was borrowed from Nissan’s upmarket 810 sedans. MacPherson struts, lower lateral arms, and coil springs returned up front with compliance rather than tension struts. The big change was at the rear, where simpler BMW-style semi-trailing arms substituted for Chapman struts and lower A-arms, and the entire assembly was newly mounted on a separate subframe.
All-round coil springs continued. In response to road-test criticisms, rear brakes were switched from drums to discs, and there were now two types of steering: manual rack-and-pinion or power-assisted recirculating-ball (licensed by ZF). As before, it was generally agreed that the latter should have been standard for proper handling, but U.S. customers got it without paying extra only if they bought a 2 + 2.
Nissan fought hard to maintain Z-car performance in the face of ever-tightening emissions requirements, and mostly succeeded. Road & Track magazine, for example, recorded a top speed of 121 mph for the debut-year two-seater and 9.2 seconds in the 0-60 mph run. Alas, the Datsun 280ZX was definitely softer on the road than even the last of the original Zs, if still sporty enough to win wide favor. Said R&T: “Today’s Z-car is not yesterday’s Z-car, and though purists will mourn the passing of the sports car Z, enthusiasts will rejoice for the GT Z.”
Indeed, the Datsun 280ZX was downright luxurious for a sporting car, available right from the start with power windows, four-speaker stereo system with “joystick” balance control, electrically remote-adjustable door mirrors, plush velour upholstery, even cruise control. Consumer Guide® magazine’s auto editors accurately termed it “the Ford LTD of sports cars.”
The Datsun 280ZX also became something of a Japanese Corvette. First came a Vette-style T-bar roof option for 1980 two-seaters, extended to the 2 + 2 for 1981. Within a year, it was accounting for some 50 percent of all U.S. ZX sales. Even closer to America’s sports car for performance was the Datsun 280ZX Turbo, introduced in two-seat automatic form at mid-model year ’81 and also offered as a 2 + 2 for 1982-83, along with manual transmission.
With 180 bhp in U.S. trim -- a 25 percent gain -- it could outdrag a Porsche 924 Turbo, leaping from rest to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds (versus 9.2) and bounding on to a 129-mph maximum (127 for the Porsche). If not the ultimate rocketship, the blown Datsun 280ZX was certainly fast enough for 55-mph America.
But by this time, the enthusiastic press had come around to Consumer Guide®’s point of view. “Fundamentally,” said a 1981 R&T comparison test, “the Datsun has less ’soul if that matters, than the pur sang Alfa [GTV-6] and Porsche and also what felt like about 800 lbs more weight (actually 150)...Meet the world’s best boulevard sports car, one that can just about hold its end up with the real racers.”
Damning with faint praise? Yes, but there was no denying that the Datsun 280ZX was just about unbeatable as a GT. And despite price escalation over the years, it offered the same high value, relatively speaking, as the pioneering 240Z.
In the end, though, the Datsun 280ZX was really too conservative and it aged with disarming speed. By 1984, enthusiasts were hoping not just for another new Z but one with “soul.” What they got was another cautious evolution, the Nissan 300ZX -- so they’re still wishin’ and a-hopin.’