COAL: 1978 Nissan Fairlady Z – The One I Wish I’d Kept

In 1983 I was enjoying driving my 1976 Mazda Cosmo around Tokyo, though not the frequent trips to the gas pumps, when an acquaintance who I was taking night courses with said he was selling his 1978 Nissan Fairlady Z.

Fairlady Z from web almost exactly like mine

Fairlady Z from web almost exactly like mine


After class, we went out to take a look.  It was beautiful – while five years old at that point it was in perfect condition.  It was white, and the only upgrades he had done was to add a set of BBS gold-center alloy wheels and a pair of enclosed headlight covers.  You could tell it was his pride and joy, but he was returning to the states, and shipping it back was not an option as it was too costly to federalize.  He asked $2300 – and we shook hands.

I’m sure CC readers know that Fairlady was the JDM model name for the 1969 – 78 Datsun 240/260/280 Z – it was also used on the earlier Datsun 1600 and 2000 roadsters, and some later models.  Nissan built half a model year of S30 Fairladies in 1978 before switching over to the larger S130 ZX, and this was one of them.  It came with a 2.0 liter (1998 cc) version of the L-series inline six cylinder.  You may wonder why Nissan went to the trouble of building a 2-litre version of this engine – this was typical of all the JDM manufacturers as engines below 2000 cc paid significantly less annual road tax and were therefore popular with Japanese consumers.

Impressions and memories:

While later Z’s were more grand touring models, this original Z was a true sports car.  Step in and the cockpit was low to the ground, small, but not restrictive.  The speedo and tach sat right in front of you, with gauges for oil pressure, temperature, charging, fuel, and a clock canted towards you to the left.  The ride was firm, and the steering tight, quick, and communicative.  I had driven a TR6 for several months while in college, and the sensations were very similar – though I’d say the Z was more powerful, faster, and more responsive.

US model 240Z


I mentioned in a previous COAL that my 1976 Mazda Cosmo felt very light.  The Fairlady was the exact opposite – it felt heavy; heavy as in solid.  I’m sure some of that was due to the manual steering, but the controls also all felt the same way.  The five-speed gear box was firm and precise – but not Honda snick-snick. It required a firm hand – as if you were stirring stout mechanicals below.

I loved the 2.0 liter L20A inline SOHC fuel-injected engine.  While it was only 2-liters, it acted and sounded much larger.  It had a deep, husky engine note – even with the stock exhaust.  And with fuel injection, it had a flat, strong pull from off-idle all the way up to around 5K.  It wasn’t a high revver, but had great torque all the way through that rev range.  Again, it felt “solid”…

I thought the clear headlight covers really made a dramatic difference – and contributed to the XKE comparison.

I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person that ascribes personalities to the cars I’ve owned – but what this Z said to me was – “I’m ready”.  Want to take a nice, relaxing freeway drive – I’m ready.  Want to do a little rallying up a mountain road – I’m ready.  Want to do a few hot laps around a track – I’m ready.  To me, that’s the definition of a sports car.

Ome and Okutama area of Tokyo


And I did get to exercise it on some small, curvy mountain roads.  While it’s hard to imagine, in western Tokyo, out beyond the major metro area, are hills, streams and winding roads that remind one of southern Ohio/northern Kentucky.  Most weekends I’d take the Z there and put it through its paces in the bends.  True to its word – it was always ready – unlike some other sports cars of note.  It never faltered – I didn’t have one problem in two years of ownership.

I’m sure CC readers have seen the new Nissan Z concept – foreshadowing the new model to be introduced in 2022.  I have to say I’m underwhelmed.  It looks like it’s trying to hit all the First Gen styling cues, but misses the mark.

As I’ve mentioned before, as you get older, you tend to reflect more, and I find myself frequently ranking all the cars I’ve owned over almost fifty years.  The one at the bottom is easy – if I ever see another 1980 Buick Skylark again I’m likely to toss a match at it.  But the top of the list is much more difficult.  This ’78 Fairlady ranks up in the Top Three.