Coming to America (Part Two)

The Z-car evolves.

Image: vintagecarbrochures

The first significant change to the 240Z came in 1974 after five years on the market. The engine was enlarged to 2,565cc by lengthening its stroke. This increased its maximum power output to 165bhp (123kW). Unfortunately, US specification cars had to be fitted with new emissions control equipment that stifled the engine and actually reduced maximum power output to 139bhp (104kW) which was 12bhp (9kW) down on the original 240Z. Hence, the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time deteriorated to over 10 seconds.

The revised model was renamed 260Z. Its chassis was stiffened, and a rear anti-roll bar fitted. Other suspension tweaks improved both ride quality and high-speed stability, reducing the 240Z’s tendency to wander. Inside, it received a new dashboard and carpet (rather than quilted vinyl) on the centre tunnel, while the air-conditioning was now properly integrated, rather than being a US market add-on.

Demands for greater and more flexible passenger accommodation saw the introduction of a 2+2 version, with wheelbase and overall length extended by about 300mm (11¾”) to 2,605mm (102½”) and 4,445mm (175”) respectively. The rework of the styling was handled very skilfully, with longer doors, a larger and reprofiled rear side window and a longer, flatter roof that met the liftback rear at an angle, rather than flowing into it. This maintained the nicely balanced proportions of the two-seater model. Both variants received slightly larger bumpers and the indicators were relocated to beneath the front bumper.

Image: fontsinuse

Tightening US legislation meant that the 260Z would quickly be superseded in that market(1). 1975 saw the introduction of the 280Z with a further enlargement of the engine to 2,754cc, this time by increasing the cylinder bore size. The engine also received Bosch fuel injection. Maximum power output in US market form was increased to 149bhp (111kW) and torque to 163 lb ft (221Nm). This brought the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time down to 9.4 seconds, still shy of that achieved by the original 240Z, thanks to the newer car’s additional weight.

The kerb weight of the 280Z two-seater was quoted at 2,875 lbs (1,304kg), a substantial 573 lbs (260kg) greater than the original 240Z. Part of that additional weight was the mandatory 5mph bumpers(2) that added 160mm (6¼”) to the overall length of the car and disfigured its appearance. The front indicators were again relocated, this time to within the corners of the grille.

The US Road & Track magazine tested the 280Z two-seater in 1975. The increase in capacity and addition of fuel injection had significantly improved the car’s driveability compared to the later 240Z and 260Z models. There remained a problem of poor throttle response at low engine speeds and light throttle openings, but above 2,700rpm the engine pulled cleanly and strongly. The reviewer thought this was indicative of a “step in spark advance” at that rpm level, which was “a bit puzzling”. Notwithstanding this quirk, the improvement in performance was described as “heartening”.

The 280Z’s ride quality had been improved over earlier models, but there remained an intrusive degree of cabin noise from the rear axle. The extra weight and wider tyres made the unassisted steering noticeably heavier and low speed manoeuvring a chore: “effort has reached the point where the question of power steering comes up”. Stopping distances were improved noticeably over earlier cars, but brake fade was now excessive, suggesting that “not enough had been done to compensate for the weight increases”.

Image: datsunforum

The improved interior ambience made the 280Z “by far the most pleasant of the Z-series”. The cabin was exceptionally spacious but there was “a feeling of sitting quite low in the car and some of our drivers find this less than ideal” (which was an odd criticism of a sports car). The secondary controls were “easy to use” and “highly satisfactory”. The reviewer concluded that “The designers obviously took the driver seriously in laying out the Z-car’s controls”.

In conclusion, the reviewer described the 280Z as “the most refined Z-car to date, although there are still rough edges to mar the overall impression”. While no longer a bargain(3), the 280Z “offers an extraordinary combination of performance, comfort, and refinement in its price-class”.

After almost a decade on the market, the original Z-car was due for replacement, and this duly arrived in 1978 as the 280ZX. The subtle change in nomenclature disguised a major shift in priorities for the new model. Any remaining vestiges of sports car were discarded in favour of GT cruiser. The car featured greater sound insulation, more compliant suspension, deeply upholstered seats and a much-improved level of both standard and optional equipment. To emphasise the change in priorities, the 280ZX was also offered in a fully loaded Grand Luxury version.

Datsun 280 ZX 2+2 (top) and 2-seater (bottom) Image: storm.oldcarmanualproject

Despite appearances, the 280ZX, which was again produced in two-seater and 2+2 variants, actually shed some weight over its predecessor, 51lbs (23kg) in the case of the two-seater model.

The dimensions were also little different: the two-seater 280ZX was only 21mm longer than its predecessor, while the 2+2 model was actually 79mm shorter. It was the same story with the wheelbase; 15mm longer on the two-seater, 85mm shorter on the 2+2. The engine and drivetrain were largely carried over from the 280Z. Better management of airflow improved the Cd from the 280Z’s unimpressive 0.47 to 0.39, which improved both fuel economy and high-speed stability, previously a weakness with the Z-cars.

The styling of the 280ZX was, however, a major disappointment, at least to these eyes. Despite sporting similar front and rear ends to its predecessors, but with better integrated bumpers, it all went wrong in the middle: the DLO lost the attractive close coupled look of the Z-cars in favour of a much-enlarged glass area with a long triangular rear side window on the 2+2.

The overall look was a bit flaccid and over-bodied. This was a major surprise, and somewhat difficult to explain, given the closeness in dimensions to its predecessor. However, a 58mm (2¼”) increase in overall width, coupled with an increase in track of just 25mm (1”) might be the culprit. The 280ZX’s appearance was not helped by some garish two-tone optional paint schemes and, from 1980, an optional T-bar targa roof that made the design even fussier.

Nissan 280 ZX interior. Image: DTW

The US Car and Driver magazine published its road test of the 280ZX in November 1978. The change in emphasis was front and centre in the review. The 280ZX was now “calibrated for a mashed-potatoes ride underneath and just itching to be dolled up with all sorts of packages and gadgets, which the option list cheerfully offers. What was once an appealingly lean sportster has been transformed into a plush boulevardier”. The reviewer opined that the move upmarket was partly driven by increased competition in the sports car arena(4) and, in particular, the strength of the Yen, which was making Japanese cars considerably more expensive in the US.

The reviewer was unconvinced by the 280ZX’s styling: “side by side with the Z, the ZX does not make it look dowdy or obsolete. The short, truncated tail of the old car provided a highly functional appearance that is absent in the replacement”.

1978 Days in 280ZX 2+2 T-Bar. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

The addition of a catalytic converter and associated recalibration had reduced maximum power by 14bhp (10kW) to 135bhp (101kW). Disc brakes all round, ventilated at the front, were now standard, as was power steering on the 2+2 model(5). This “speeds up the steering ratio from 3.5 to 2.7 turns lock-to-lock, with only a small loss in road feel”. Dynamically, the change in emphasis was clear: “the ride quality is plush and underdamped, more along the lines of a luxury car than a sporting machine”. Moreover, the 280ZX predominant handling characteristic was understeer and it felt “rubbery at all times, and even experienced drivers can find themselves sideways at speeds that should be well below the cornering limits”.

In summary, the new 280ZX now made much more sense in 2+2 form as a luxury tourer, with its spacious interior, comfortable ride and much improved refinement. The reviewer found the longer wheelbase to offer better stability at speed and thought the 2+2 looked actually better proportioned than the two-seater. It was, however, emphatically no longer a sports car.

The story of the ZX will continue in Part Three.

(1) The 260Z continued in other markets until 1978.

(2) The 5mph bumpers were also fitted to the 260Z from September 1974 onwards.

(3) The two-seater now cost almost US $6,300 while the 2+2 cost almost US $6,800

(4) From the Porsche 924, Mazda RX-7, Triumph TR7 and forthcoming TR8.

(5) This remained optional on the two-seater variant.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

17 thoughts on “Coming to America (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I agree with your observations. The 260Z 2+2 styling was executed very well. The 280 ZX is where it all went wrong. My favorite of the bunch is probably the original 240Z.

    1. Good morning Freerk. The 240Z was indeed lovely, but the 260Z 2+2 was a really handsome evolution. When I was in my last year of secondary school, a classmate returned to repeat the year, so was a bit older than the rest of us. He used to drive to school in his dad’s weekend car, a metallic gold 260Z 2+2, which replaced a Lancia Beta Spider. (Dad clearly had a few bob to his name!) Needless to remark, I was beyond jealous!

  2. I was always fascinated by the fact that the 2+2 versions had a second set of inner door openers for rear seat passengers. Those for front seat occupants were at the lowest point of the door and those for rear seats were just below the window line.

  3. In the images shown here at least, the appearance of the 260Z 2+2 is enhanced by those really very attractive alloy wheels, a huge improvement on the 2-seater’s dreadful grey lampshades.

    1. “Grey lampshades” is not something I’d have thought of, but a perfect description for them! Nice work, Jonathan.🙂

  4. I was very fond of my Matchbox 260Z 2×2 – it had a nice colour but very inaccurate proportions that fall somewhere between a MK1 Ghibli and an AMC Matador coupé:

    The DLO of the 280ZX 2×2 reminds me a lot of the 2-door “Aeroback” Buick Century / Olds Cutlass, down to the decorated B-pillar:

    1. Your Matchbox 260Z looks to be in slightly better condition than my metallic blue one!
      Actually there are hours of fun to be had by watching Matchbox “restoration” videos on YouTube:

      https://www.youtube.com/c/PaulRestorer

      I particularly like this chap because there’s no voiceover – it’s oddly restful watching someone else doing this kind of work!

    2. That Matchbox photo isn’t my own – I haven’t thrown any of my old toys away but they all look like the “before” of the cars in the YouTube restoration channel (around 5-6 of these are also in my collection), they are stashed in a moving box in my home country and I haven’t looked at them in ages. At around the early ’90s I was quite appalled at their state and I’ve done a very rudimentary attempt to “restore” two or three of them with a permanent silver marker – it would be great if these videos were around back then!

  5. Daniel, I thoroughly recommend the ad for the Black Gold 10th anniversary limited edition:

    Truly, the past is a foreign country.

    1. Hi William. Just brilliant!!! Could the couple in the ad be any more 1980s? Thanks for posting.

  6. A car suffering from difficult 2nd album syndrome. I like how they pitched the car against a locomotive – rail power wins, for me. Said loco then pummels the later 280 using spare track for those horridly absurd 5mph bumpers. But I can see why these foreign imports began to hammer the home grown stuff.

    I’d stick with the original. And avoid the Matchbox version too (though I’ll give the videos a try later)

    And the Black Gold advert is so crass it’s wonderful. Was that the highlight of those actors careers? Or did they move into something more mainstream?

  7. I was hugely impressed by the lead photograph as well. Never mind that the Orient referenced by the train’s title was still an awful long way away from Japan, it’s nice to see a train and a car as complementary rather than in opposition.

    1. Hi Michael. I can take no credit for the selection of photographs in this series. That is the excellent work of editor Eóin, who has a good eye for that sort of thing!

  8. How could Nissan have prevented the successors of the 240Z from losing their way with each replacement? Would have also liked to have seen the pre-Z31 models reached 3-litres rather than 2.8-litres with the L engine.

    Did feel the Z drifted away too much by the time it evolved into the larger 300ZX and 350Z/370Z, when they could have evolved a lithe junior Z model from the Silvia platform to sit below the regular Z (similar to the link on the Silvia-based prototype below that like the S12 is available with both 4-cylinder and NA V6 engines).

    https://jalopnik.com/this-missing-link-1990s-nissan-z-prototype-is-cooler-th-1845181975

    1. In the comments of the above link, someone posted a picture of the 1999 240Z concept:

      I have to admit it passed me by at the time (or I’ve forgotten), but it’s very nice. A little Italian looking, Zagato to be exact:

      By which, to be clear, I don’t mean to invoke the old prejudice that Japanese manufacturers copy everything.

    2. Indeed this looks a lot like the Hyena (and there’s a bit of the Fulvia Sport around the rear windows) but there’s a lot of interesting work on the surfacing and details (anyway, in general I think that especially in the 80’s and 90’s the Japanese have incorporated influences from past designs in very intelligent and creative ways, and they also chose their references very well!). I remember that this concept was not very well received at the time and this is why they went clean-sheet for the 350z; but it has aged very well and seems to have influenced the all-new Z:

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