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.