Curbside Classic: 1971 Datsun 240Z – Revolutions Don’t Come Often

(first posted 9/19/2011)   The Datsun 240 Z was as a true revolutionary, smashing the long-stagnant sports car market of the sixties into smithereens. It was long overdue too; folks were getting cranky for the messiah: a truly modern, sporty two-seater with four-wheel independent suspension, a zippy OHC six engine, dazzling styling, all served up at a reasonable price; say $3500 (about $23k in 2020 dollars). The hole in the market for such a car was begging to be filled. And Datsun stepped up and delivered, with a grand-slam home run. But like most revolutionaries, the Z was anything but truly original. But then neither was Che nor Lenin; they studied Marx. And Datsun? They took their studies seriously too.

Prior to 1970, the sporty two-seater segment was over-ripe for change. The creaky and outdated British roadsters were rolling relics begging to be put out of their misery; the superb Porsche always was pricey and quickly getting more so; the attractive but none too cheap nor reliable Italians were barely hanging on by virtue of their pretty faces; and the Corvette wasn’t exactly budget-priced and was entering the long dark decade of the seventies.  Nissan took note and sent its Z right at the bulls eye of that target market. And where did their inspiration come from? How about another famous Z?

GM’s John Z. DeLorean saw the same market hole: something below the ‘Vette in price and yet smashingly more attractive than the MG or Triumphs. And he saw it years earlier. The 1964 Pontiac Banshee concept had the formula nailed: Pontiac’s new OHC six wrapped in a delicious and highly advanced bod. It’s styling foreshadowed the ’68 Vette, but without the exaggerations. The nearly production-ready Banshee was nixed by the timid GM brass, fearing the market wasn’t big enough for it and the Corvette both.

An iffy speculation? Perhaps, but the story of the 240Z’s origins and paternity is endlessly intriguing and rife with rumor, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw another ingredient into it. In the early sixties, Nissan wanted an image-mobile to spicy up its stodgy rep. Albrecht Goertz, a protege of renowned stylist Raymond Loewy, went to Japan around that time to help Nissan develop their clay modeling expertise. Nissan and Yamaha entered into a development project for a sporty coupe using a Yamaha engine, and Goertz did the design. To be called the Nissan 2000GT, the project was still-born, and a restless and eager Yamaha took it to Toyota.

In need of some image polishing themselves, Toyota bit and the result is the stunning and legendary Toyota 2000GT. Toyota claims their own designer Satoru Nozaki did the final work, and that may well be. But Goertz’ influence on both the Toyota and the 240Z is undeniable. But the expensive production GT was much more of an image-mobile in the mold of today’s Lexus LFA than what the Banshee promised and the 240Z finally delivered.

The Z may have numerous claims on its parentage, but a few are too obvious to discount, in lieu of DNA tests. The Datsun 510, a revolutionary car in its own right, and the subject of a recent CC, was a key genetic donor, in that its new OHC four sprouted two more cylinders to make the Z’s six. And given that Yatuka Katayama (Mr. K) had helped shepherd that into its final form, and that he fought successfully for a renaming of the Z’s Japanese Fairlady moniker, he certainly can take a bow.

The Datsun 1800 donated its front suspension, and other pieces from the corporate bin were used wherever possible. The rear suspension was new, but so similar to the Lotus’ that it is rightfully called a Chapman strut. And then there is that body that wrapped it all. John DeLorean would have been proud; it’s decidedly un-GM-esque in detail, but the long flowing hood, the clear lines, the well set-back cockpit, the bulging  hood, the delightfully resolved tail; there’s just not a bad angle, line or detail on this Z.

I mean that generally and specifically; this particular car was a nice find, because it’s hard to find one of the early Zs that is as clean, untampered with, and shows off its designer’s intent as well as this one. They tend to look too fussy, burdened with too much trim and emblems. But this one, having lost its hood ornament, looks as good as as any Z I’ve ever seen. It has almost a concept car’s purity, and every angle is a joy to behold. I’d forgotten just how terrific and timeless a design this car was until I stumbled unto this one. It was hard to stop shooting and walk on. And it’s obviously hard to stop talking about it.

Of course, things went only down hill after the first few years of Zdom. It’s a depressing tale; I know there are fans of the later cars and its successors, but for me there will only ever be the early 240Z  to speak its brilliant intent and execution. Light, lithe, with a motor that still had some genuine Zing in those last days of pre-smog choked dullness and crankiness. Yes, the 240Z was far from perfect, its handling exhibiting some of the same twitchiness at the limit like its 510 little brother. Nissan would soon take care of that all too well; it slowly morphed the Z from a poor-mans XK-E into a bloated Camaro wanna-be.

But the Z’s decline into plushly upholstered boulevard cruiserdom was soon exploited by Mazda with their gem, the RX-7. Taking the original Z formula (minus the IRS but with a rotary), and keeping it tight and light, the RX-7 carved out as nice a chunk of the market as it carved canyon curves. Of course, the RX-7 lost the way too eventually, until the Miata reclaimed it for good. It’s taken a while, but it was inevitable that someone would eventually find the sweet spot and stick to it as religiously as a warm tire on a hot back-road curve.

Just imagine if the 240Z had been available as a roadster too, and stuck to its mission: revolution would have become orthodoxZy.