Curbside Classic: Datsun 280Z – Seduction of Forms.

(280Z photos from the Cohort, by Tim Finn).

My uncle had come to pick me up at LAX after my 8 hour flight from Puerto Rico, as we had agreed I was to spend a few days at his place before my 3rd college semester started. It would be good to spend some time with him before heading back to the surreal world of arts education in Southern California. My college had been founded in the early 70’s and was built under the conflicting spirit of the times, on one side the curricula was way too free, and class attendance was almost optional. On the other hand, the campus had all the charm of a ward hospital, designed to avoid ‘gatherings,’ and so -it was the idea- prevent student protests (no more Kent State revolutionary babies!). The building was a windowless concrete behemoth with dark, long, depressing corridors, and the occasional naked student doing some performance art. After a couple of visits, my uncle had referred to the place as a ‘prison’ and ‘madhouse,’ and wished to host me at his place instead. I wasn’t about to dissuade him.

As we walked in the parking area in search of his car I almost stopped on my tracks as he approached the doors of… a black and gold Datsun 280Z? When had he acquired it? I kept staring, bewildered, as he opened the boot and loaded my luggage.

  • I’ve had it since new, ordered it from the factory! There’s no other alike!

This he said, as he boarded and lighted another one of his fine smelling king size cigarettes. As I sat, he pointed to a plaque on the console with his name engraved. So it was true, the car had been always his! Where had he been hiding it all this time? Some secret mistress’ place?

It wasn’t the first time I had visited my uncle and if he wasn’t quite larger than life, it was true he was quite a character. He went on about his life as if a Hollywood producer had created his profile: opinionated, yet soft spoken, with words delivered calmly, somehow showing unyielding foundations. As most Puerto Ricans, he was a snazzy dresser, with an ever-present king size perfumed cigarette between his fingers; he looked always ready to sprint to the country club if need be.

Him and mother had endured the most abject poverty in the slums of Puerto Rico, and in his case, success came by leaving to California in his early twenties. He was a hard driven individual, moving quite quickly up the ladder to managerial duties in a South Central enterprise, eventually purchasing a home in Carson City during America’s exceptional age. Memories of his about California in the 60’s sounded like science fiction to me, as LA was going through quite some upheaval by the early 90’s. Drive by shootings and gang violence had become the norm in Carson City and South Central in general.

  • There was a time, I tell you Ric… you could walk to downtown from here, at night. No problem.

My uncle wasn’t the only one dazzled by the promises of a squeaky clean, burgeoning early 60’s South Central. In this visit, as in previous ones, on the way to his home we passed Nissan’s American Headquarters, located in none other than no-longer-pristine Carson City, at 190th and Figueroa. The company had established itself in the US before any other Japanese carmaker, first in neighboring Gardena in 1960, and moving to the glass-walled 10 story building in 1972, not far from my uncle’s neighborhood. Must have caused an impression on him, and left me wondering if he had walked to the company’s lobby to order his 280Z. I could see him doing it.

Much of Nissan’s early fortunes in the US are attributed to none other than Yutaka Katayama, alias Mr. K. It’s quite well known that his personality was a bit too colorful for Japanese mores, and there’s some speculation that he was sent abroad more as punishment than reward. However, it’s also true that Japan’s manufacturers were actively sending agents abroad to set up sales networks and provide feedback on their products. From Nissan to Sony, Japanese salesmen were sent to endure ignominous growing pains, with US and European customers beta testing the not-quite-ready products, and said salesmen working as links to unfulfilled expectations. While I am pretty certain their feedback made for some edgy meetings, their parent companies were aware their products were lacking, and -probably begrudgingly- took action on improving product to meet market expectations.

My uncle was one of many a happy customer, as he loved his 280Z. Often criticized for slowly becoming a boulevardier, the car fitted my uncle to a T; fast, yet sedate and stylish. A way to pose and look good while driving at a quick pace inhaling a tasty king size. The model didn’t have the purity of the original 240Z, but still had enough seduction in its forms, and it was the kind of seduction my uncle was more than ok with. My uncle’s 280Z, it was true, didn’t look new anymore; it had the faded look of usage, although no major aesthetic damage had been inflicted. Being southern California, a good detailing could have brought the car back pretty close to showroom condition.

Talking about shapely forms and their seduction, in perfect sitcom manner, on that visit I discovered my uncle had acquired a new hobby. As I entered the house the living room was filled with cameras, flashes, tripods and lights. In what used to be the garage, a photo studio had been set up. Never having any kids, my uncle could indulge into these excesses, much to his wife’s -quiet- displeasure.

  • I’m going into glamour photography. I’ve been taking the community college’s photo classes and a mailing course… I have just placed an ad on the paper. Some girls have called. It’s doing pretty good!

His wife stared ahead, blankly, not quite daring to shake her head. I looked around, thousands of dollars had been spent. Glamour photography? Made sense, after all, it was one aspect of Southern California life he hadn’t actually tried. Not that Peter Gowland’s career was at any risk, but my uncle was indeed taking the whole matter very seriously. As the evening progressed, he brought his emerging portfolio with about 4-5 pages filled with shots of local beauties in seductive outfits. The photos, while no artistic masterpieces, attested to the hard working qualities that were his core; nicely lit, professional looking, ellegantly put together.

Nicely lit and seductive, that had been so far my only relationship to Nissan’s Fairlady. Having spent my childhood in Central America, Datsun’s presence in those lands had always catered to family and utilitarian transport, with no interest in offering real sporty options. Instead, the car remained a mythical beast in my mind, of which I knew from glimpses in magazines during doctor visits; unnatainable and exotic, my childhood mind was enthralled whenever I got a peep of it (no easy to do in those pre-internet days).

The original 240Z and its relevance to Japanese industry was explored in an episode of Project X: Challengers, an NHK Japan TV production I saw years ago; of said episode I only remember a quote from the car’s stylist, Yoshihiko Matsuo. Japanese designers are in general rather cagey about their inspirations, and speak only in ethereal terms. On the 240Z, Mr. Matsuo mainly referred to wanting to “capture with the car’s shape the swiftness of a samurai blade.” He certainly accomplished that, with said blade piercing through my heart and marking me for life. Don’t you worry, it was all sweet pain.

The whole glamour photo wouldn’t last of course, even in a “man’s house” with a servile wife. Don’t know what machinations took place behind the scenes; could have been too many morning of coldly served coffee, could have been too many evening of undercooked chicken legs, but the whole matter somehow came to pass. Instead, and staying in the Japanese realm, Koi fish became my uncle’s new fixation.

  • It’s an investment. Some of those sell for thousands!

Yes, the kind of investment we non-tycoon-inclined men tend to get into; like ‘collectors edition’ super hero comics, the recent cripto fever, or that rusted out ’72 Grand Ville that is sure to go sky high in value any moment now.

Once again, the house was filled with the trinkets of his acquired interest: aquariums, filters, feeding boxes; the works. Thousands were spent. Once again, wifey just stared blankly ahead, though this time admitting:

  • Well, it’s better than his previous hobby…

Not long after, the Koi fish died under misterious circumstances (“Poisoned by someone,” my uncle claimed). In regards of his 280Z, I rarely saw again, but did stay under his possession for years to come.

This post’s sample comes courtesy of the Cohort, and is as close as I could find to fit memory, though his was not a 2+2 (hey, he knew better!). I have no illusions of ever coming accross an early Z in Central America as the model, never being imported, doesn’t have a following. It will take a future Fast and The Furious movie with Vin Diesel driving one prominently to place it in the hearts of locals. Until then, this land will remain uninitiated to its charms.

As for Nissan, no wife nor misterious poisoning got involved, but we all know it developed a toxic relationship with the Z/Fairlady; losing interest on its beauty throughout the years. It treated it, rather often, more as a burden than anything else. Why do the pretty ones must always suffer? In time, Nissan also left behind my uncle’s Carson City, moving to Tenessee in 2005. Oh Nissan, you and your fickle heart!

And talking about distances and breakups, Nissan has done all it could to allienate my old love for the marque. That said, in regards of the Z/Fairlady I still long for its seductive forms. Who knows? Maybe one of my stored comics from the 90’s will eventually shoot to the moon in value and bring me enough riches to import an old 240Z into these lands. After all, there are many a heart to be seduced, and better in person than in glamour shots.

More on the Z/Fairlady:

Vintage R&T Review: 1975 Datsun 280Z

COAL: 1978 Datsun 280Z

CC Capsule: 1982 Nissan Fairlady Z Turbo