COAL: 1978 Datsun 280Z – Baby Blue Rocket, Old School Driving.

280Z4

In early 1978 I was a regular customer of the local Avis in Manhattan and knew most of their fleet intimately. My partner Steve was still driving the Valiant he got while at Grumman, my partner Jack had his 1974 Impala, and my partner Jim had – well I don’t recall what Jim had – maybe a Mercury or something.

We had been in business about 18 months and by all measurements were doing well, but Jack, our finance and office manager made sure the quarterly accounting statements always showed a promising and growing business and that we had the finances to bring on new people and to weather any potential bad business periods.

There were no bad business periods.

One evening as we were meeting in the Ridgewood NJ office, Jack’s pre-printed agenda turned to “Other business”.

“I think we can all get company cars” Jack announced. “We can afford this and none of us are exactly driving around in nice cars.  Plaut doesn’t even have a car.”

Jack was called Jack, Jim was called Jim, Steve was called Steve, and I was called Plaut.

I was OK with that.

1978Caddy1

One week after that meeting Steve had a new 1978 Cadillac four door sedan. The disk braked 1971 Valiant from Grumman was gone. Steve’s wife still had my brown 1972 Impala from last week’s COAL.

1978Corvette

One week after the Cadillac arrived, Jack got a 1978 Corvette with automatic; Jack did not drive manual transmission, nor did Steve or Jim. Jack had always regretted selling his 1958 Corvette when he got married, so the silver Corvette in the office parking lot was not a surprise.

1978GMCVan

One week after the Corvette, Jim got a GMC van with second row captain’s chairs. He had two sons who were into soccer and Jim coached their team. The van had a lot of room for Jim, his wife and the kids, plus all the soccer equipment their team needed. Jim and the van were made for each other.

Once Jim heard Steve on the phone talking to someone about picking up some heavy office furniture saying “Jim will come by in the company truck and pick it up”. A bit mockingly and a bit red faced, Jim told Steve “why don’t you pick it up in the f*****g company Cadillac?” Steve, chastised, said nothing and lit another cigarette.

At that time my current assignment was Equitable Life Assurance Society in Rockefeller Center and I walked to work from my East 29th street rental apartment. I loved the cosmopolitan aspect of walking like a city gentleman (notice I said like, not as) to and from work and picking up dinner at the various cheese, bakery, fish, wine and green grocers shops as I walked home down Third Avenue.

There were also about 18 pizza shops, 14 Chinese restaurants, and 2 excellent Jewish delis on my walk down Third Avenue. Fresh bagels with paper thin nova with a schmear was a real treat, breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

At first blush I didn’t think I wanted a car.

On second thought, a car would make it easier to get to and from Long Island and I’m sure Chris would love riding in and maybe soon driving a nice car. But what to get; this is a rare opportunity and one that may only come around once.

A few weeks later, while visiting a friend in NJ, I went to a VW dealership on Route 22 in Bridgewater to look at the 1978 Scirocco.

volkswagen_scirocco

Driving the 1978 Scirocco was a revelation to a guy who only drove older model, mostly well used American cars. It was all pull and pleasant power from the front, not unlike a running dachshund hound. It was my first real experience with front wheel drive (not sure if any of the Avis rentals at that time were FWD but I think not) and it occurred to me that this lightweight FWD design was the future of all cars, foreign and probably domestic.  It just seemed so logical.

It handled very well and pulled itself through corners beautifully.

280ZAd

But, I remembered my ex roommate Bob’s 1970 240Z and thought it would be a good idea to take a look at Datsun’s current version, the 280Z. Rumors were that 1978 would be the last year for the original Z body style and that the next model would be bigger and more luxurious.

Bigger and more luxurious, yea right! Datsun was going to brougham-ize the Z.

And change their name to Nissan.  Isn’t Nissan a brand of a dried noodle soup mix?

I went down Route 22 to a Datsun dealer and said I’d like to test drive a manual shift 280Z. There was one sitting right by the main entrance of the small showroom.

The man who greeted me, looked me up and down, and said: “we only do test drives by appointment”.

OK.  Thanks anyway.

280ZAd2

A week or two later I went to Larry Peters Datsun on Route 17 a few miles north of our Ridgewood NJ office and told a salesman I’d like to test drive a manual 280Z. The salesman looked outside and around the lot, went to the key cabinet, gave me a key with the dealer’s label tag and said “the purple one all the way at the end of the line by the road. It’s a 5 speed; let me know what you think. It’s not really purple, but that’s what most people call it.”

280ZPurple

Wow. This car was all muscle in a good, old fashioned way; it went like a heavy rocket and the big straight six sounded great. Maybe its cornering was not as light and quick and as “new feeling” as the Scirocco, but when the rear end slid out around on a sandy curve and it immediately responded to my old school correction, I was in love.

The Scirocco may be the future, but this was 1978’s now, and back then it didn’t seem that now was going to last much longer.  I wanted old school, big straight six, and rear wheel drive before they disappeared altogether.  And a long nose, short tail.  Presence with a capital P.

“Do you have one in light blue with the 5 speed?”

He didn’t even have to check any paperwork. “We will have one in about a week. Want me to put it aside for you?”

“Yes. Please.”

280Z6

Paul wrote up a 1971 240Z at here. In his post Paul wrote: “there’s just not a bad angle, line or detail on this Z”. Subsequent to 1971 there were some minor changes to the bumpers to meet safety regulations but the 1978 model basically had the same body as the 1971 model, and I agree 100% with Paul’s assessment.  Every time I walked out to it with the key in my hand I smiled.

Tom Klockau wrote up the bigger and more luxurious 1983 Datsun 280ZX here and called it the “Cutlass Supreme Brougham Z”. Funny title, and Tom was right on.

280ZDash3

Specifications for the 1978 280Z vary on the internet. The 1978 Datsun 280Z had a straight six single overhead cam engine displacing 168.4 cu. in. (almost 2.8 liters). I believe the 1978 model developed 170 hp gross/149 hp net, at 5,600 rpm and 177 lb. ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm and weighed about 2,700 pounds. Some records say 0-60 came in 7.8 seconds, others in 8.4, and still others said 8.9.

All I can say is that it felt fast. Acceleration was a steady pour-on of thrust that did not weaken as it got near the 6,400 rpm red line.

The standard rear axle of the 1978 280Z was 3.545.

Thinking now about how the 1978 Z handled compared to my current 1999 NB Miata, I believe the Z was pure power and thrust with better straight line performance; the engine seemed un-endingly strong.  But the 2,300 pound Miata is a better balanced car with a lighter feeling that makes cornering a blissful go-cart-like experience.

The Miata pulls nicely for a 140 hp car but the thrust starts to fall off well before its 7,000 rpm red line.  There was no “fall-off” point in the Z, or if there was, I failed to notice it with all the auditory and physical happenings that occurred in it at high engine speeds.

The Z made a wonderful sound as it wound up.

Of course, the Miata has the benefit of 21 years of automotive development, and hopefully rust prevention, under its belt. I plan to keep the Miata as long as I can.

Note-1: There was no 1998 model year Miata. The second generation (NB) Miata came out in March of 1998 as a 1999 model. I bought mine in November 1998.

Note-2: I never felt intimidated by large trucks and SUVs on highways and interstates in the 280Z.  I do in the Miata.

I’d love to drive them side-by-side to see if my memory is correct.  Perhaps the Z wasn’t as fast as it seemed back in the day.

280ZDash1

The Z’s dashboard had four gauges and a clock in three round coves at the top of the center stack. Mine had an AM/FM radio and power antennae. The Z in the above photo is missing that radio and the center stack molding is not fully attached.

280ZDash2

It had a 160 mph speedometer on the left, tachometer on the right. I do not think that is the normal position for these gauges in most other cars.

280ZEngine

The engine hood was hinged at the front. There was a hard wired 12 volt mini-trouble light with a switch and a long cord neatly wrapped around it nestled near the engine for emergency use, and two little flip up rear fender doors on each side near the firewall for easy access to the windshield washer fluid and the battery.

The Z’s fuel injected engine was a much more complicated affair than my late but beloved single barrel Tempest OHC-6 and it generated about the same horsepower in a lighter, 5 speed car with a 3.545 rear axle. The heavier Pontiac had a two speed automatic and a 2.56 rear axle.

Totally different cars, each very good for what they were designed to do.

280Z3

This was the first car I experienced with electronic fuel injection. It was wonderful to feel and hear the motor controls doing their job with no input from me. It always started instantly in all weather with no accelerator pumping, steadily revved a bit high for a few seconds, and then slowly came down to idle. It had a loud cooling fan that initially engaged on startup and then spun down with a diminishing roar along with the engine’s rpm.

Also, this particular car still took leaded fuel; it had the big fuel filler neck that later in the same 1978 model year was replaced with the skinnier unleaded filler neck and flapper valve that was standard from that point on.

280ZInterior

One defining characteristic of the Z was the driver’s position just two or three inches ahead of the rear axle. Turning corners placed the driver just about at the center pivot point of the turn’s arc; the whole front end swung through turns with the driver close to the center of the arc’s circle.

CorvanGreenbrier

Quite a change from the old Corvan Greenbrier I used to drive where the driver sat on top of the front wheels. One had to anticipate the corners in the Z and go a bit past the corners in the Greenbrier. I don’t think anyone ever confused the driving dynamics of these two vehicles. At least not for long.

In late 1978 I moved from my 29th street Manhattan rental apartment to a new condominium complex in Bergen County NJ, just a few miles east of our Ridgewood NJ office.

Chris now had his own bedroom and a great neighborhood in which we could ride our bikes together. We had a pool on the property and two tennis courts. It was country club living.

I recall that Chris, seeing me swim past him in the pool with my head under water, would jump on my back sinking me to the bottom and yell “swim Dad swim”.  I could hear my neighbors laughing even though I was pinned to the bottom at the shallow end of the pool.  These were nice times for Chris and me.

MeandZ

Don’t laugh. Jorts and the emaciated homeless look were very much in style in the late seventies. Frankly, lots of weird things were stylish in the 1970s. Do you remember the high and wide lapel suits, the long collar shirts, the really wide ties that looked like they were made with a grandmother’s couch upholstery, and the long hair and facial hair that guys were wearing?

And cowboy boots.

I had all of that – and more.  Ever hear of blazer suits?

Just look at any of the Dirty Harry movies or rock bands with their 1970s clothing and hair styles. What were we thinking? Why didn’t anyone tell us we looked like ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) rejects?

That brougham T-Bird in the above photo is sitting in, and sticking out of, the same spot in my parent’s garage as my old 1953 Chrysler. The engine in the brougham Grand Prix next to it was just as hard to work on as the one in the T-Bird. My mother liked malaise era broughams; my father dealt with it.

When the above photo was taken by Chris, he and I were helping my parents clean out 34 years of accumulations from their attic so they could sell the house and move to Florida. It was probably 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit or more and very dusty and dirty in that attic.

For days after that weekend we were both coughing up black stuff.

ChrisInZ

Chris loved the Z. At first he was too young to drive, but he had fun riding in it. I put the bike rack from the Impala on it over the rear window so we could ride at my home or his.

Back at the office, the business never did any traditional advertising. We went to the semi-annual Mark IV IV-League (get it?) national conventions and gave presentations, workshops, and delivered technical papers. That way we got our name noticed and also allowed us to identify, and determine the technical capabilities of, potential employees.

We never hired anyone who worked for our customers; pirating employees was a good way to get a bad reputation fast.

I also wrote a series of one-day Mark IV technical classes on the use of the software’s special features and Steve, Jim, and I taught those classes in major cities throughout the country.

The IV-League work and the classes helped publicize our company and the one-day special features classes actually made a modest net profit on their own.

The four of us were also popular at IV-League conferences because we were each known for hosting dinners for customers and conference presentation attendees. In those days, business meals were 100% deductible from corporate income as business expenses. That is not necessarily the case today.

HarborIsland

This photo was taken at an IV-League held at the Harbor Island Sheraton in San Diego. Nice Place.

Jim and I had asked a customer of ours (actually she was my manager at a work site) if she would like to be part of a photo replicating a famous Beach Boys album cover, you know, the one with the surf board. She said yes. Then we swooped her up and had someone take the shot before she could get too angry or wiggle out of the frame.

She was a good sport and I think she asked for a copy of the photo.  Or asked me to destroy it, I can’t remember which.

Back row starting from left to right: me, partner Jim, and Mike (a customer).

Front row: Name withheld for security reasons.

Small companies are a bit like rock bands; they rarely last forever. Break ups are so common that it is unusual to see any that stay together for long.

I was happiest when the company was small enough that Steve, Jim, and I could oversee the technical aspects of all of our customer projects personally.   But I was the only one who felt that way. The three others wanted to grow as large as possible and then let a major corporation buy out the whole company for what could be a major pay day.

I understood their reasoning and respected it, but I was beginning to better understand where I was in my life’s adventure, who I was, and what I really wanted. Specifically, I wanted to live a more simple life than they did. I wanted to stay technical and be involved in programming computers and do in the future what I had been doing in the past.  I wasn’t big on change.

But, I also wanted to not be impoverished like I had been for a number of years after my divorce from Annie. The key to that and living a simpler life was to be careful and prudent with finances, and not fall victim to the trap that is the all-too-human desire for bigger, better, newer and nicer everything.

I wasn’t about to move to Walden Pond, or worse to Slab City in the California desert, but the constant rush of the rat-race wasn’t what I had in mind for the rest of my life.

I thought carefully about what I should do next.

Accordingly, in 1982 at the age of 38, I took a buyout from my three partners and retired from the company we had started in 1976. I spent a week at tennis camp hoping to improve my game so I could beat Chris; that never did work. I got a library card and started reading about world history, our own USA history, and every novel John Irving and Stephen King wrote up to that time. I also did a little Mark IV training for the UN Secretariat administrative staff. I felt free, unburdened, and happier than I had ever been in my adult life.

I was pleased to see that my ego and sense of self worth were not tied to my job and that I did not need a constant stream of business activities to be a fulfilled person. It was nice to know that I could psychologically handle periods of “voluntary unemployment”. And I was also very much aware that it was truly a blessing that I could financially afford some periods of “voluntary unemployment”.

The 280Z was still running well mechanically but it was starting to have rust problems, most likely caused by my regular wintertime trips over salt encrusted roads throughout the NYC metropolitan area and the rest of the Northeast. Rust was known to be the weakest part of the Datsun Z family.

If I was going to live a simpler life, I should get a simpler car.

1982AccordAd

When you know what you want, it’s best to hold on tight to your dreams.

Some 2007 Honda Accord ads featured this ELO song with voice over narration by Kevin Spacey.