Blog: Behind the wheel of a Japanese icon — the Datsun 240Z
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A 50-year-old advert for the Datsun 240Z paints a picture of a new breed of sports car: “So pretty and so potent you don’t know whether to frame it or floor it” – a phrase that applies as much today to a car that still looks and sounds sensational.
Powered by a straight-six engine that put the grunt into 1970s hairy-chested, the iconic 240Z was the first of a tsunami of Japanese performance models that would eventually overwhelm long-running British rivals.
Low-slung, daring and very desirable, this was a Datsun that made the leather, wood and chrome of home-grown sports cars appear positively ancient by comparison.
Equivalent cars such as the MGC GT and Triumph GT6 were suddenly outclassed by the performance and relative sophistication of a sleek two-seater. And the Datsun had another welcome ace up its sleeve – it was reliable, too.
Fifty years on I’m ripping across the Peak District in a Sunshine Yellow 240Z, listening to the burble of a straight-six engine, pitch perfect through a single exhaust pipe. The sound is impossible to ignore, while a reclined driving position feels as though I’m almost sitting on the back axle.
A beautifully sculpted, one-piece dashboard is short on buttons but there are big dials with needles that flicker gently each time I stretch the accelerator. The five-speed manual gearstick falls easily to hand, a willing temptress up to 125mph.
The cabin may be swathed in vinyl but 50 years ago this was the height of modernity, with tinted glass and carpets adding to the appeal. A hatchback boot lid opened to reveal a large luggage area.
The sense of fun filtering through the upright steering wheel is palpable. The 240Z was quick for its day, at its best on the open road and hurtling towards a fast bend. Any modern hot hatchback would leave the Datsun standing but feel sanitised in comparison.
The 240Z strips driving pleasure down to the bare essentials again – although this being a Datsun, even in such an old car there is an AM/FM radio, heated rear window and a cigarette lighter.
If that sounds basic by modern standards, back in the 1970s nobody in my family knew what to do with the lighter in our Datsun 120Y. My father eventually worked it out, placing his index finger on the end of the glowing stick.
Datsun designer Yoshihiko Matsuo’s pen helped ensure Project Z looked seriously cool on the outside – the long, low bonnet suggested a cut-price Ferrari Daytona. Underneath, the two-seater used as many off-the-shelf Datsun parts as possible.
That included suspension and brakes from the unfortunately-named Datsun Cedric and a tweaked engine from the Bluebird. Nobody cared. The sporty driving position, rorty performance and capacious load area ensured the 240Z was an instant hit.
The car was so popular in the US, buyers paid a premium for a used example. In Britain, import taxes crippled sales but, crucially, the 240Z encouraged people in to Datsun showrooms for the first time.
Today, 240Z prices are on the up. Cheap ones will change hands for less than £10,000 but expect major issues with rust. A quality example will cost at least four times as much – some exceptional cars are in excess of £60,000.
The 240Z went on to spawn a series of ‘Z’ cars – a lineage that has survived to this day with the current, equally red-blooded 370Z coupé. All have featured a simple, three-spoke steering wheel and three circular gauges on top of the dashboard, all are as old school fun as the first.
As for the future, Nissan is reluctant to confirm what will happen to its most famous model. A hybrid Nissan sport cars just wouldn’t be the same but, for now at least, the Z car is determined not to go quietly.
Price new: £2,000
Price now: £40,000-plus (good condition, NZD$75,000)
Engine: 2,393cc straight-six-cylinder
Top speed: 201km/h
Acceleration: 0-100km/h in 8sec
Fuel economy: 12L/100km