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The First Z

The story behind one of the world's favourite sports cars - the Datsun 240Z.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • One of the world's most important sports/GT cars
  • Japanese built to suit the US market
  • Independent suspension and rack and pinion steering
  • True sports car performance with good comfort
  • Affordable to the masses
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This article was first published in 2008.

The Datsun 240Z was one of the world’s most groundbreaking sports cars.

The 240Z wasn’t the fastest, the most sophisticated or the most innovatively styled vehicle of its type. But what it did achieve was a combination of sports car driving characteristics, interior comfort and a level of affordability that the US market had never before seen.

The Zed brought the thrill of sports car ownership to the masses.

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In the wake of World War II, Nissan Motor Company Limited concentrated on building relatively pedestrian vehicles for its home market; its export program was sporadic. The company knew it could continue building basic, cheap transportation, but to become really successful it needed to turn its attention to America – the most lucrative automotive market on Earth.

Mr Yutaka Katayama was employed by Nissan Motor Company Limited in 1960 and was charged with marketing in North America. (Incidentally, until the early ‘80s, all exported Nissan-manufactured vehicles were labelled as Datsuns.) Convinced that the best way into the US market was to introduce a line of sports-oriented vehicles, Mr Katayama pushed along the development of the convertible Datsun Fairlady 1500. It is said that the Fairlady 1500 was merely a copy of contemporary British sportscar designs, but as its engine capacity grew to 1600 and 2000cc it began to raise some interest in the US.

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The Fairlady platform was also used as the basis for the Silvia 1600 coupe, shown in 1964. Unfortunately, this vehicle did not receive much praise – it was seen as too cramped and having too small an engine. The Silvia 1600 never got a chance to sell in America, but it did appear in limited numbers in other countries such as Australia.

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The exterior design of the Silvia 1600 is largely credited to Dr. Albrecht Graf von Goertz – a gentleman with experience at Porsche, BMW and Studebaker. Following the Silvia 1600’s US market flop, Mr von Goertz and Katayama were teamed up to work on a sports/GT vehicle that was built from the ground up to satisfy the American market. Yamaha also assisted with the project but, when development delays arose, Yamaha took what they had to rival Toyota... The vehicle that appeared soon after was the Toyota 2000GT, as pictured here (see Japan's first supercar for full details).

Although this must have been extremely frustrating for Nissan Mo Co, the Toyota 2000GT proved that – yes – there was some real potential for breaking into the US market with a sports car. Fortunately, Nissan thought they could create a vehicle similar to the 2000GT at a much lower price.

The project was reborn – and this time there was a real urgency about it. Full-steam development began in late 1966 and Nissan Design Project Z had some very specific criteria that had to be met – it had to have a comfortable cabin capable of carrying two people over 6 feet tall, it had to be styled to appeal to the US market and it had to have a relatively large capacity engine. It was also essential that it meet foreseeable US safety and emission standards.

But the 240Z’d biggest selling point was its affordable price.

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One of the ways Nissan kept the Z’s price to a minimum was to employ an existing engine design and to use interchangeable parts wherever possible. As its name implies, the 240Z was powered by a 2.4 litre engine, which was a SOHC six-cylinder based on the existing L16 four-cylinder (as used in the popular Datsun 510). Even by today’s standards, the L-series six-cylinder is a remarkably smooth engine and, perhaps not surprisingly, its design wass apparently very similar to the Mercedes-Benz 220 of the early ‘60s. The 240Z’s L24 employed a cast iron block and SOHC alloy head, seven bearing crankshaft, 9.0:1 compression ratio and twin Hitachi carbs. An automatic or manual gearbox could be specified.

The new Z engine hit the market producing a creditable 151hp (113kW) at 5600 rpm and 146 ft-lb (199Nm) of torque at 4400 rpm. With a kerb weight of 1070kg, Nissan claimed 0 – 60 mph (96.6 km/h) performance in around 8.0 seconds. Top speed was 125 mph (201 km/h).

The Japanese Market Zed

Due to heavy taxes for vehicles over 2000cc, early versions of the 240Z were released in Japan with a S20 twin cam six-cylinder. This vehicle is known as the Fairlady Z 432.

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The '432' part of the vehicle’s name refers to its mechanical configuration – it employed 4 valves per cylinder, triple Solex carburettors and two overhead camshafts. With this level of engineering, the S20 engine was a technical tour de force in its day and produced 160ps at 7000 rpm. Driving through a close-ratio 5 speed manual and a 4.44:1 LSD, it covered the quarter mile in the high 15s.

Less than 500 examples of the Z 432 were produced and some were put to use by the Japanese police. A lightweight Fairlady Z 432-R was also available for racing purposes.

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A couple of years after the release of the Fairlady Z 432, the Fairlady 240Z-G appeared on the Japanese market. Equipped with spoilers and wheel arch flares, the 240Z-G employed the same L24 as fitted to export models and produced the same 151hp output. It is believed this model was also sold in certain counties outside of Japan.

Unlike its tubular framed 2000GT counterpart, the 240Z was built on a traditional pressed steel chassis. Nissan employed many of the design techniques applied in existing models to help reduce development time and to minimise cost.

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The suspension layout was seen as an important aspect to spend considerable time and money on, so Nissan gave the 240Z independent suspension for all four wheels. Struts were used at each corner and front and rear swaybars were factory fitted. Steel 14 inch wheels and 175mm width tyres came standard.

At a time when recirculating ball-type steering was common, the 240Z also employed a more sophisticated rack and pinion set-up with a very direct 2.7 turns lock-to-lock.

The front-end was fitted with 10.7 inch disc brakes and 9 inch drums at the rear. Servo assistance was used.

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Stylistically, the 240Z was a reflection of what the American market wanted; and for that reason it looked very ‘un-Japanese’. So who is the genius that designed it? Well, von Goertz is said to have pencilled the original shape but a team of Japanese Nissan designers were responsible for the final product. It shows strong influences from the Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 911 and Ferrari Daytona.

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Initially, the Chief of Design had wanted to Z to be a smaller vehicle powered by a 2 litre four-cylinder. There were numerous body designs around this concept, but when it was decided to go for a six-cylinder, the body had to be widened to accept the transmission tunnel and the bonnet level raised. In the later stages of design, the headlights were relocated and adopted their ‘sugar scoop’ appearance in accordance with US safety standards (which required the headlights to be at least 60cm above the ground).

Interestingly, Nissan also toyed with the idea of a convertible but such a design would have made it difficult to meet tightening safety standards.

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After about 3 years of development, the Datsun 240Z was released in the US-market in late 1969. And, yes, Nissan had managed to follow through with its plan to keep its cost to a minimum. The new 240Z was stickered at US$3526 – well under the price of a Corvette or Porsche.

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Contemporary magazine tests were overwhelming complimentary of the Z and, as intended, they caught the attention of the American public. The car was seen as “the first American sportscar built in Japan.” The initial batch of 1969 cars were quickly snapped up and in early 1970, Nissan Japan increased production capacity to meet demand. Up to 4000 units were being sold every month – well over Nissan’s expectations.

Note that production of right-hand-drive 240Zs – which were sold throughout other parts of the world - did not commence until 1970.

During the model run there were a few minor detail changes.

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In 1971, the air ventilation outlets were relocated, the door mechanisms were revised, seatbelts were reconfigured, the steering wheel was restyled, speedo and oil pressure gauge were changed and a few other minor changes occurred. In 1972, flip-forward seats were introduced to provide easier access to storage behind the seats, new hub caps and wider rims were fitted and a redesigned centre console went in. In its final year of production – 1973 – the 240Z was equipped with various safety and emissions equipment to meet tightening US standards.

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The 240Z also proved itself as a highly competitive race car, winning its class in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) racing from 1970 onward. The 240Z also enjoyed considerable success as a rally and long-distance enduro car. Unlike many other Japanese vehicles, the 240Z was quickly adopted by the aftermarket performance industry, which helped enhance its appeal.

The 240Z continued excellent sales into 1973 when it reputedly topped 116,712 units. The 240Z was then replaced by the longer-stroke 260Z model. The 260Z was available as a 2 + 2 and had put on substantially more weight – a trend that would unfortunately continue for many years...

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