Coming to America (Part One)

The Datsun 240Z transformed Nissan’s image – especially in the US.

Image: motor-stars

By the late 1960’s Datsun had been exporting to the US market for around a decade and had gained a reputation for offering cars that were meticulously built, well equipped and reliable, but were singularly unexciting, with slightly ersatz styling. Yakuta Katayama, who was president of Datsun’s US import company(1), was an ambitious and capable manager with a penchant for motorsport. It was Katayama who decided that the best way to change the US perception of Datsun was to produce a car that espoused the marque’s traditional virtues but was also fun to drive.

Katayama’s first such offering was the 1967 Datsun 510. Beneath its sober saloon styling was a 1.6 litre SOHC four-cylinder(2) engine producing 96bhp (72kW) and fully independent suspension employing MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear. The car weighed just 2,072 lbs (940kg) and was good for a 100mph (161km/h) top speed. It also handled sweetly and quickly became regarded as a ‘poor man’s BMW’ because of its similarity to Munich’s saloons.

This was a good first step, but Katayama knew that what he needed was a proper sports car as a halo model to reinforce Datsun’s appeal, both to keen drivers and the style conscious. That car arrived in 1969 as the Datsun Fairlady(3) 240Z, a two-seat fastback sports coupé, powered by a 2,393cc six-cylinder SOHC engine with a cast-iron block and alloy cylinder head, which produced maximum power of 151bhp (113kW) and 146 lb ft (198Nm) of torque. This was essentially the engine that had been cut down to create the 510’s four-cylinder unit. The transmission was initially a four-speed manual gearbox(4), with a three-speed automatic option added in 1971.

The 240Z’s claimed 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was 8.0 seconds and top speed was 125mph (202km/h). The car had independent suspension all round, with rack and pinion steering and 270mm (10¾”) front disc and 230mm (9”) rear drum brakes. The kerb weight was quoted as 2,302 lbs (1,044kg).

The styling was commendably smooth and elegant with minimal ornamentation. Some have described the 240Z as a copy of the Jaguar E-Type coupé but, if so, it was a considerably refined and better resolved(5) copy, if lacking much of the E-type’s unique visceral impact.

More importantly, here was a proper sports car that not only drove nicely but was well built and reliable too. For American driving enthusiasts brought up on a diet of charming but sometimes temperamental and unreliable British models like the E-Type, Austin-Healey and MGB, it was a revelation. It was also excellent value at $3,500 (around £1,400 at that time) which was roughly the same price as the MGB GT, Opel GT and Fiat 124 Coupé.

Image: mycarquest

The US Car and Driver magazine road-tested the 240Z and published its findings in the June 1970 issue. The introduction to the piece set the tone: “Datsun didn’t invent the overhead cam engine, or disc brakes, or independent suspension, but it has a habit of incorporating these sophisticated systems into brilliantly conceived and easily affordable cars.” The reviewer noted that Datsun was careful to describe the 240Z, not as a sports car, but as a personal GT. They understood this to mean that the 240Z was not afflicted with the usability limitations of traditional sports cars. Instead, it was “as much for coast-to-coast journeys as it is for playing around on idyllic summer days.”

The engine felt strong, with maximum power delivered at 5,600rpm and a torque curve that was “as flat as Nebraska”. Hence, there was little incentive to explore the top of the rev range, particularly as the engine became excessively noisy and harsh above 6,500rpm. At lower revolutions, the engine was quiet, and the cabin well insulated from it. A noticeable delay in throttle response was attributed to the emissions control equipment fitted.

The 240Z was still a nice drive, with moderately weighted steering, a light and precise gearchange and excellent driving position. The only serious criticism was of the brakes. The spongy pedal lacked feel and required great effort for an emergency stop. Worse, water ingress onto the brake surfaces caused their performance to deteriorate markedly in wet weather. In this respect, the brakes were simply “not satisfactory”. The handling was safe, with moderate understeer when pushed hard. There was a slight (and self-correcting) tendency to wander on straight roads at speed and the standard-fit Bridgestone tyres caused a disappointing amount of road noise.

Image: silodrome

The cockpit was comprehensively equipped with full instrumentation; a speedometer and tachometer directly in front and three supplementary instruments in the centre of the dashboard, angled towards the driver. The lights and wiper controls were on a column stalk to the right of the steering wheel. The dashboard cowling was typical of its maker, a one-piece moulding in plastic foam. The exterior styling is smooth and appropriately GT-like, eliciting remarks such as “That’s not a Datsun, is it?” and “Man, how much did that thing cost ya?” according to the reviewer.

Although it looked very much like a sports car, the 240Z did not have the limitations usually associated with such models. Not only was it “comfortable and quiet, but it also has a generous luggage area [where] loading is easy because of the huge tailgate”.

For all the 240Z’s strengths, and its excellent value for money, the reviewer felt that it would benefit from further development, to eliminate some vibration in the driveline and address the underperforming brakes and other more minor issues. A debrief with Datsun personnel revealed that they were already aware of these issues and were working to rectify them.

While the US was the major export market for the 240Z, it would also make it to Europe. It was shown at the British Earls Court Motor Show in October 1971 and tested by Car Magazine the following March. The vagaries of exchange rate movements and import taxes meant that it was priced at £2,389, putting it against more exalted competition such as the Alfa-Romeo 2000GTV and was not that far off the list price of the 4.2-litre E-Type(6) at £2,882.

The higher price might explain, but only partly, why the 240Z was given such a mauling by the magazine. It was described as “harsh and hairy” and “downright crude” with “nasty plastic interior bits”. The “standards of design and finish are those of a £1,200 car” with “multitudes of squeaks, groans, rattles and clonks”. While driving the 240Z, the reviewer began to regret the panning the magazine had given the MGC(7) because it was “better made than this Datsun and certainly handled little if any worse”. This was an extraordinary and outrageous statement in a supposedly reputable and impartial motoring journal.

Image: mycarquest

One really has to wonder what was going on at Car Magazine to produce such a scathing review, which was unattributed. Perhaps the test car was an exceptionally poor example, riddled with faults? That seems pretty unlikely, given Datsun’s consistency in manufacturing and the fact that the 240Z had already been on the market for over two years, so this was no used and abused pre-production example.

It seems more likely that this was simply the product of misplaced patriotism, fear and xenophobia. By this time, it was already clear that the 240Z was highly successful in the US and was mauling sales of UK sports cars in that market.

The story of the Datsun/Nissan Z-cars will continue shortly.

Author’s Note: This series does not cover the Japanese domestic market variants and concentrates on the US, the car’s biggest export market.

(1) The importing company, incorporated in California in 1960, was called Nissan Motor Corporation USA and serious consideration was given to branding the cars as Nissan from the off. However, that name was still associated with Japanese armaments manufacturing in the Second World War, so Datsun was chosen instead.

(2) This was actually based on an earlier in-line six-cylinder design, but with two cylinders removed.

(3) After almost a decade living in California, Katayama well understood the cultural differences between Japan and the West. He recognised that this rather effete name would be a major handicap in selling the car in the US. It is alleged that he personally removed the ‘Fairlady’ badging from the first shipment of cars he received.

(4) Export cars to other markets had a five-speed manual gearbox as standard.

(5) In the opinion of this scribe, at least.

(6) Jaguar was not at that time building any six-cylinder E-Types, concentrating instead on the 5.3-litre V12 model that had debuted a year earlier on the Series III.

(7) A version of the MGB sports car fitted with a heavy and underpowered six-cylinder engine, which had a ruinous impact on its handling.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

19 thoughts on “Coming to America (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Thank you for your insight of this lovely motor. I think that I only need the fingers of one hand to count how many times I saw one in real life. The 240Z didn’t sell in big numbers in the Netherlands. There are a few for sale now.

    I had a 240Z matchbox car together with a Volvo 245 as a child. Not sure where it went, but here’s a pic of it.

    Close to where I live there is a white 300ZX, a distant relative of the original and again one of those cars I never see, apart from the local example. It has a really nice exhaust burble. I’m sure it’s nice to drive, but it lacks to my eyes it lacks the qualities that made the original such a success.

  2. In the early Eighties my sister had a partner with a car.
    He took it to Prodrive to have it heavily modified. The engine was bored to three litres and fitted with triple Dell’Orto twin-choke carbs, a large bore exhaust and many more tuning parts resulting in 260 PS at the rear wheels.
    Of course he had it only for a week before he crashed it, nearly killing him and me. He missed a corner on an Alpine road and if it hadn’t been for the large pile of gravel deliberately placed there we would have fallen down a couple of hundred metres. This way he simply slipped the car up the gravel pile, losing speed and bending the chassis rails.
    His next car was a 205 diesel…

  3. A neighbour/friend here in Western Canada has one, along with a heavily modified 510. I drove the 240Z a couple of months back, which he restored perhaps 15 years ago and is entirely standard. It is raw by modern standards though I believe his was reassembled with less than the requisite amount of sound deadening. In terms of other cars I’ve driven recently the experience most reminded me of a base 996 Carrera – it is light and quick and that flat torque curve you write of really is evident in the way it surges up the road in a very linear manner. Compared to European contemporaries the dashboard is a little tacky but no worse than anything America was churning out at the time.

    1. Fascinating! I find the “1967 The First Prototype, still a little narrow” more attractive than the final car though.

  4. Good Morning!
    Once again a nice article to start the day. I first came across one of these as a 10 year old wandering around the showroom of our local Datsun dealer Jacksons of Altrincham in about 1975. I remember being well impressed with the cool shape and deeply sunk instruments, such a long way from our new Datsun 120Y and light years beyond our previous Austin 1300.
    I still like the concept of a two seater with decent performance and a big boot (for my bike or snowboard). For many years I had a Porsche 924 followed by a 944 but the latest generation Z-Car has 400hp which is just stupidly over the top, especially given the state of the roads and traffic these days.

    Keep up the good work DTW!

  5. Good morning all and thanks for your comments. Charles, thanks for posting that link. Some of those styling models are really lovely. I wonder how differently things might have turned out if the had gone with the ‘Plan B’ model, which is more Austin Healey than Jaguar E-Type?

    Dave, that accident must have scared you witless! It sounds like a scene straight out of an early Bond movie. Just as well for the gravel trap.

    1. The gravel trap looked as if we hadn’t been the first ones getting into trouble in that corner.
      The gravel trap was about seven metres long, three metres wide and one metre high (just big enough to stuff your car in) with concrete walls at three sides. We were fast enough to completely plough through the gravel and up the wall towards the backdrop far enough that the wall sat beneath the footwell with the front of the car pointing in fresh air. Because we feared we might tip the car over the wall when we got out through the doors we smashed the rear window and climbed out.
      It was my job to walk to the next village to call a rescue truck – the eyes of its driver became very wide when he saw the car!

  6. IMHO Nissan (whether at the urging of Katayama or not) should have also pressed for a Sunny-derived sub-Silvia smaller 2-seater sportscar along the lines of the Spridget as well as the original Lotus Elan (prior to the latter serving as inspiration at Mazda for the MX-5).

    The closest Nissan itself came to such an idea was with the Cherry F10-derived mid-engined Nissan AD-1 in terms of styling (if in need of more refining with elements carried over from Katayama’s Plan A proposal when it was based on the Datsun Sports 1600/2000 – now downscaled) though not in layout, along with indirectly with the Nissan CA18ET powered Reliant Scimitar SS1 (and later models).

  7. Here are some short videos of Yutaka Katayama, speaking when he was aged 105, a few years ago. They are produced by Nissan, who have a fascinating YouTube channel (giant rabbit hole ahoy!).

    I find him very interesting to listen to – his history with Nissan goes all the way back to its foundation – indeed, he’s related to the founder. In the videos, he likens cars to living things and says that part of the enjoyment we get from driving is being in absolute control, regardless of the vehicle and that his goal was for people simply to enjoy driving cars. The last video in the series features the 240Z. I’ve seen other videos featuring him, and he’s always a very honest and engaging speaker.

    1. Really interesting stuff, Charles. Thanks for posting.

    2. Katayama’s simple words sound naive at first but they cut to the chase of the real essence of “driving experience”.
      It doesn’t really matter what kind of car you drive as long as you engage with it heart and soul.
      I guess that answers many of our youth thrilling driving experiences most of which involved cars not up to any task having to do with racing or sport driving.
      Perhaps some other simple words would address the issues of aesthetics regarding car design. Why every second modern movie has the main character drive a classic? In our times and days? And the streets are “decorated” with nice old cars too, mixed with the thousands of nameless “full of design” cars of our times?
      Well, I hope I will find the answer in the next 50 years or so!!!
      Thanks Charles for the link, and Daniel for the nice article!

  8. Daniel,

    Great piece. I’m sure in future installments you’ll track the Z’s descent into Japanese thunderbird territory.

    Fifty (50!!!) years on, the Z-car is due its time on DTW (and elsewhere). I was a very envious 17 year old when I drove a friend’s green 240Z in 1973, and the halo of that drive has stuck with me. Here in Canada, these cars (and in fact pretty much all Japanese cars of the era) dissolved into piles of rust in pretty short order, and when you do see one on the road here, it’s likely to be an import from a southern US state, where they’re still pretty common. One thing I noted in UK tests at the time was that the Euro 240Z received a 5-speed transmission and, as I recall from a more complimentary Autocar comparison test from the time, slightly more buttoned-up suspension tuning. The NA version was great, but also the target of myriad third-party vendors seeking to get rid of the slightly flabby driving characteristics. In fact, so prevalent was the tuner aftermarket for these that dead stock ones are hugely valued now.

    By the way, as much as I adored Car Magazine in the 70s, it was prone to the most jingoistic biases on occasion, and not just against the 240Z. I’m sure you’d find that the announcement of certain new British cars at the time proclaimed each to be the saviour of the British industry and the best in its class (XJ6, Metro, SD1 etc etc). And Car was not very good at its mea culpas either.

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the piece. Yes, we will be following the Z car’s descent into corpulent middle age and self-parody, and its subsequent recovery. Stay tuned!

  9. Excellent piece as always Daniel!

    I’ve yet to drive an original 240Z in order to compare road manners and NVH with its period Italian equivalent, the 1750GTV, which I own and currently restore. Car Magazine, as well as other contemporary European publications were either indifferent or racist against Japanese imports, trying to bury any attempt on sales. Luckily, the public found out, and forced all manufacturers to update their construction and QC methods in order to compete.
    As far as quality from the late ’60s goes, the ALFA’s interior is a quality joke. Single piece dashboard and main console rattle and squeak, are held by just 6 bolts, 2 of each are wingnuts, and crack just by staring at them. It is very difficult to line up anything, and the plastic moldings turn to sand under the sun. I seriously doubt that Nissan did a worse job than ALFA (or FIAT, or MG for that matter).

  10. Thanks for shining the light on a car that deserves to be seen more often. I often regret not buying one, the last time I purchased an old thing the Alfa 105 coupe got into my heart and in to my garage. The other cars on the shortlist were a slightly tired Porsche 912 (first gen) and a BMW 2002. This was eight years ago and they were ALL cheaper than today. The interiors of all except the BMW were such obvious afterthoughts regarding quality that they bordered on the cynical. Indeed, quality in interiors came late to the party with an exception provided by Lancia. That they cared enough to spend put them into the hands of Fiat… The 240Z was the junior in the group but didn’t escape the malaise. The Alfa 2000 had been modernised on a shoestring in its final unificato guise, carried out by Piero Stroppa at Bertone. Alfa had long been supported by the Italian government of course…
    Interiors are what you get inside the car. It is rarely the interior that prompts purple prose, journos prefer to wax lyrical about the styling, the engine, the handling.. old school bloke stuff. Its only recently that interiors count for anything and often they remain vectors for complaint rather than choice. A recent Dacia survey suggests that half the tech inside is redundant, and sound isolation has got so good that fake engine noises get piped into cabins and dump valves release engine gases prematurely to make these well built cabins sound like the old ones. The fit and finish lasts until the first electrickery malaise and post-op the creaks are akin to those of the student beds of their owners youth! Just like my Alfa, or your Datsun. An immersive, visceral experience. Savour it.

    1. Hi Rob. That’s a good point you make about modern car interiors. With no visible fixings and lots of hidden ‘push-fit’ plastic clips, they are clearly not designed with dismantling in mind. I dread to think of the damage that might be inflicted on the interior trim if either of our cars required a repair that involved removal of the dashboard, for example.

    2. A long time ago I had to take out the dashboard of a girlfriend’s 2002 to get at the heater. Lots of swearing and bruised knuckles but the dashboard didn’t look worse after it was back in the car.
      A couple of years ago some idiots broke into the Polo of our neighbour’s daughter. Because they could not find anything valuable they caused as much damage as possible, breaking the main dashboard into several parts and making a mess of the wiring loom by cutting it into pieces. It took more than 5,000 EUR to repair the damage and the poor Polo never was the same again with unwanted noises everywhere.

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