Curbside Classic: 1983 Datsun 280ZX – The Cutlass Supreme Brougham Z?

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Datsun started a gold mine for itself when they introduced the 240Z in 1970. All through the ’70s, it and its 260Z and 280Z successors were consistently popular. But at the same time, the Z car began to move from its sporty image to more of a cruiser. But the real “Brougham Z” didn’t really come into its ultimate personal luxury-sport form until the 280ZX appeared for the 1979 model year.

front viewphoto by PN

This process had begun well before the ZX, however. Big, fat federally-mandated bumpers starting in mid-1974 didn’t help (they added 130 lb. to the curb weight), and further emissions equipment curbed some of the coupe’s zippiness. At the same time, buyers were seeking more creature comforts, and Datsun obliged with flossier interiors, power assists and even a longer-wheelbase 2+2 model.

8image: lov2xlr8.no

But after nine model years, it was time to finally retire the original. The new ’79 was still very familiar-looking, though, with long nose, sugar-scoop headlight buckets, and Kamm-tail. It was all new except for the L28 straight six engine–there would be no 260ZX model–and boasted superior aerodynamics compared to the outgoing model, with a Cd of 0.385 (the 1970-77 model was 0.467).

3image: lov2xlr8.no

The ZX was a bit bigger than the 260/280Z, with a 174-inch overall length and 91.3-inch wheelbase. Unlike the 1975-77 Zs, the bumpers of the ZX were not quite so tacked on. In addition, both the ZX and ZX 2+2 had near 50/50 weight distribution. The net result of all these changes were better fuel efficiency and much more stable handling.

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The “Brougham Z” or “fat Z” was somewhat lamented by the press, as it was no longer a sprightly little sports car like the beautiful 1970 original. While it could still get up and go, it was now much softer and cushier, with plush upholstery, thick carpets, and lots of sound insulation. Indeed, it was kind of like having a Cutlass Supreme Brougham in a Z car suit! But buyers didn’t care, and the ZX was a big money maker for Nissan.

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The 2+2 was even Broughamier, especially when the right options were ticked, like the whitewalls, mud flaps (always a Midwestern favorite) and two-tone paint on this example. If the two-seater was a Cutlass Supreme, perhaps you could think of the 2+2 as a Ninety-Eight Regency coupe.

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When coupled with the digital dash and velour upholstery, it was perhaps the sportiest “Brougham-esque” vehicle of the ’80s. It’s also worth mentioning that that late-’70s to mid-’80s favorite, the T-top, was added to the option list for 1980, available on both the ZX and ZX 2+2.

1983-Datsun-280ZX-Turbo-Jade-Gray-04image: japanesenostalgiccar.com

This is not to say they were slugs; far from it. During its run, the first ZXs had 135 hp (bumped to 145 in ’81), and the new-for-’81 Turbo produced 180 hp @ 5600 rpm and 203 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm. That was good enough for a 0-60 of 7.4 seconds, not bad at all for the early ’80s. Unfortunately, it was automatic-only as the five-speed stick was deemed not tough enough for the boosted L28ET engine.

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In fact, the ’81 280ZX Turbo was the fastest Japanese car available in the U.S. at the time, capable of a 16.6-second quarter mile. In addition to the engine, Turbos also got a revised rear suspension, as the standard setup was rather floaty and very Detroit-like.

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Vintage Japanese cars are few and far between in my part of the country, so I was delighted to find not one, but TWO of these ZXs last fall. While the ZX is a little weathered, the 2+2 appeared to be in showroom condition.

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If you compare this shot with the rear-quarter shot of the 2+2, you can see there was a big difference in proportions between the ZX and the ZX 2+2. Even the rear quarter windows are shaped differently, with the two-seater retaining just a bit of the reverse-curve C-pillar of the ’70 original.

11rgjz8image: viczcar.com

For the ultimate in late-’70s/early ’80s Sport Brougham luxury, you just had to be the first on your block with the 10th Anniversary ZX–the perfect cruiser for you and your giant mustache! Available in two-tone gold-and-black or red-and-black, these Zs got color-keyed alloys, whitewalls, and a special numbered plaque inside, plus pretty much power everything.

red and black 10th Anniversary ZXimage: maclaymotors.org

These were the top of the heap in ’80 Datsun showrooms. Only 3000 were built, and as you might expect for the era, the gold-and-black version was the most popular, with 2500 made. Only 500 cars received the red-and-black treatment, and were the more attractive version, in your author’s opinion.

1978 Oldsmobile Mid-size and Compact-06-07

Here’s the genuine CS Brougham, for comparison’s sake. Yes, they were still two very different cars, but the two had a lot more similarities compared to, say, a 1970 Cutlass Supreme and ’70 240Z. The CSB, freshly downsized for ’78, even came in a sportier buckets-and-console model, the Cutlass Calais. And here’s another parallel: Both the ZX and Cutlass were available with a T-top!

1978 Oldsmobile Ad-03

And is it me, or does the available two-toning on Cutlasses look suspiciously like the ’80 10th Anniversary ZX? Who was following who? The biggest difference was perhaps each car’s image: The CS said luxury, even in the standard model; the ZX suggested sportiness-and did back that up some, particularly in the Turbo model, but NVH and a cushy ride were clearly passing by the sporty features of earlier Z-cars.

DSC00010image: viczcar.com

Don’t believe me? Just check out this red interior, in velour, no less! The steering wheel matches the shift boot, which matches the handbrake lever, which matches the defroster vents, which matches the dash, the ashtray, the carpet… It reminds me of the Westmoreland, PA-built VW Rabbits, when they were getting a similar interior treatment–a stark contrast to the all-business German-built version. Apparently, both Datsun and VW were most interested in cranking out mini-Oldsmobiles, or at least a reasonable facsimile.

red '83 280ZX

I had a pretty strong connection with one of these in my formative years. The neighbors right across the street from our house had a bright cherry red ZX with a beige interior, nearly identical to this one posted on hooniverse.com (worth a look, as this car has an interesting story). This was probably around 1985-89 or so and I immediately bonded with that car! To a young car nut like me, this ZX really caught my interest. It was RED! It was a SPORTS CAR! It was COOL! That car was always sparkling; it was clearly the husband’s toy.

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Of course, I knew nothing about the ZX’s Broughamification at the time; it was not discussed by Miss Nelson, my second grade teacher, for some reason. All I knew was that I liked it. They had the car into the ’90s, and might have still owned it when we moved across town in 1995.

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In 1982, the ZX was facelifted, with an updated NACA hood duct, alloy wheels, taillights, more integrated bumpers, and other minor trim changes. ’82s were also bestowed with the infamous voice warning system, shared with the Maxima sedan. Among other things, it would inform you that your door was in fact, really a jar. I imagine it was a feature that was neat for the first two weeks, after which point it would slowly drive the owner insane.

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Both of our featured ZXs are most likely ’83s, the last model year, as they both carry the “Datsun 280ZX by Nissan” nameplates on their hatch lids. This was during a transitional period when the Datsun name, used only in the North American market, was being slowly phased out in favor of Nissan.

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I believe this wonky badging occurred between 1982-84. By 1985, the transition was complete, but for a couple of years, they were badged with both names. Gee, that won’t be confusing, right? It must have been fun for both the DMV and the car owners, determining if it was a Datsun or a Nissan when they went to register it.

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The car sold well throughout its run, despite only minor changes, with production of approximately 86K in inaugural ’79 and 55K in final-year ’83; production never dipped below 53,000 units during that time–not bad for a sporty specialty car.

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1983 was the swan-song for the 280ZX, as a new angular, folded-paper 300ZX was waiting in the wings to replace the 280’s soft curves. The 300ZX would remain rather plush, but would look and perform with more authority, leaving much of the ’70s disco-era options behind. But the 1983 280ZX was the last model with a strong familial resemblance to the ’70 original, and for that I salute it.

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The 280ZX was a lot Broughamier than the 1970 240Z, but it was still a pretty nice car, with plenty of personality. Despite a lull in 2000-01 between the last 300ZX and the first 350Z (the 300ZX disappeared a little earlier in the U.S., with the ’96 being the final model), the sporty Nissan is still with us as the current 370Z. It’s been a huge part of Nissan’s sporting personality for over 40 years, with hopefully many more to come.

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