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