Z Trip: The Original Datsun Z-Car

In 1965, the words “Japanese sports car” would have elicited unsympathetic laughter from most America consumers. Five years later, many of those same scoffers were lining up to buy a racy little GT car wearing a Datsun badge. The Datsun Z car soon became one of the most popular two-seat sports cars of all time, inspiring many generations of sporty Japanese coupes. However, for all its eventual popularity, the Z was a car for which its own manufacturer never had much enthusiasm and the fact that the car was built at all — let alone that it became such a success — is a testimony to the dedication of Yutaka Katayama, the head of Nissan’s U.S. operation, who fought a long and bitter battle to show the world what Japanese automakers were capable of. This week, the history of the Datsun 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z.

1978 Datsun 280Z Z-badge

THE EXILE ASCENDANT

When Nissan sent executive Yutaka Katayama to America in March 1960, he was something of a corporate exile. Less than two years earlier, he had persuaded his superiors to led him enter the company’s diminutive Datsun 210 in Australia’s grueling, 10,000-mile (16,100-km) Mobilgas Rally, seeking to boost Datsun’s international reputation. To everyone’s surprise, he led his tiny team to a class victory and considerable publicity. The adulation accorded Katayama, however, did not sit well with his superiors, who considered Katayama a troublesome malcontent. Among other things, he had a fondness for sports cars, which, paradoxically, was considered an unseemly pastime for a Nissan executive. After his victory, firing him would have been embarrassing, but Katayama’s superiors were also reluctant to reward him too richly. Katayama was sent to America on a vaguely defined market-research assignment, with the implicit hope that he fade from view.

Instead, Katayama took to America like a fish to water. He almost single-handedly built Nissan’s U.S. dealer network and in the fall of 1960 became West Coast VP of the fledgling Nissan Motors Corporation USA (NMC USA).

1978 Datsun 280Z Datsun-badge
The first DAT automobile — an acronym derived from the names of the financial backers of the car’s creator — appeared in 1914. The first Dat-son debuted in 1930 and was renamed Datsun in 1932, shortly before DAT Automobile Manufacturing Company was purchased by Nihon Sangyo — later known as Nissan. Nissan phased out the Datsun nameplate in the U.S. in the early 1980s.

By 1965, Katayama had begun to put Datsun on the map in the American market. As a reward, he was named president of NMC USA. He was still in a tenuous position with his superiors in Japan — he was successful enough to keep them from sacking him, but not so wildly successful as to prompt them to replace him with a more tractable and compliant executive. He had also acquired a powerful ally in Keiichi Matsumura, who had recently joined Nissan from Japan’s powerful MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry). With Matsumura on his side, Katayama had finally gotten the home office to listen to him, albeit sometimes grudgingly.

By 1967, Datsun was fourth among U.S. imports. Moreover, after years of begging the home office for products more suited to the American market, Katayama now had the highly competitive Datsun 510, a sporty little sedan modeled loosely on the BMW 1600. Thanks to the 510, by 1969, Datsun was selling nearly 60,000 cars a year in America.

Katayama was extremely enthusiastic about the 510, but he had a greater dream that was still unfulfilled. Katayama had, after all, been the first chairman of the Sports Car Club of Japan and he still wanted a real Datsun sports car.

HIS FAIR LADY

Nissan had actually built a modest number of sporty cars before. The company fielded its first postwar roadster in 1952, although it sold in tiny numbers and was not exported. In 1959, Nissan introduced a new roadster based on the Bluebird sedan, the Datsun SP211 Sports Roadster. In its home market, it was called the Datsun Fairlady, a name selected by Nissan president Katsuji Kawamata, who had been very taken with a performance of the musical My Fair Lady on a visit to the U.S. in 1958. Katayama, fearing that effete-sounding names like Bluebird and Fairlady would be ridiculed in America, insisted on more prosaic alphanumeric designations for the U.S. market.

The Datsun Fairlady evolved in parallel with the Bluebird on which it was based, becoming the SP310 in 1963 (Datsun Sports Roadster 1500 in America), and the 1,595 cc (97 cu. in.) SP311 in 1965. (Export models were known as SPL, indicating left-hand drive.) The final iteration was the 1968 Datsun 2000 Sports Roadster, with a new 1,982 cc (121 cu. in.) engine inherited from the Prince Motor Company, which Nissan acquired in 1966.

The Fairlady drew clear inspiration from the inexpensive British sports cars of its era, particularly the MGB and Triumph TR4. Contemporary reviewers criticized the Datsun’s haphazard styling and badly sorted suspension, but were pleased by the robust construction and build quality, which put Datsun’s British counterparts to shame. By the late sixties, the Fairlady benefited further from strong brakes (with discs in front) and one of the most powerful engines in its class. In the right hands, it became a viable sports racer, campaigned with some success.

1968 Datsun 2000 front3q
The final Datsun Fairlady roadster, known in the U.S. as simply “Datsun 2000,” had a 1,982 cc (121 cu. in.) U20 engine, rated at 135 hp (101 kW) and mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. Its ride and handling left much to be desired, but it was capable of 0-60 mph in 9.3 seconds and a top speed of 111 mph (179 km/h) — good performance for a sports car of this era. Production of these cars ended in 1970.

Still, the Fairlady was not enough to satisfy Katayama. It had promise, but it still felt like a half effort and it was not well suited to American tastes.

THE COUNT

Nissan’s first glimmer of serious effort on the sports car front was the A550X project, a proposed 2.0-liter (122 cu. in.) GT intended as a joint venture with Yamaha. To design it, Nissan hired freelance stylist Albrecht Goertz, an Austrian nobleman who had previously designed BMW’s lovely but commercially unsuccessful 507 sports car.

The A550X project soon collapsed, but in later years, Goertz frequently intimated that he designed the original Z-car during his consultancy. When Nissan denied that Goertz had anything to do with the Z, he threatened to sue the company for libel (although contrary to many accounts, he never actually did so).

Finally, in November 1980, Nissan’s head of legal affairs sent Goertz a letter acknowledging that that the designers of the Z were influenced by Goertz’s designs, but nothing more. That was the end of the legal battle, but the idea that Goertz designed the Z persists even after Goertz’s death in 2006. (Yamaha, incidentally, eventually took its 2-liter sports car concept to Toyota, where it became the Toyota 2000GT; that car was not styled by Goertz either.)

THE HOME TEAM

In October 1965, Teiichi Hara, head of Nissan’s Engineering Design and Development department, assigned a young designer named Yoshihiko Matsuo as the head of the Sports Car Design Studio, with Akio Yoshida as his assistant. Matsuo was excited about his new assignment, but he quickly discovered that his new job was, like Katayama’s American assignment, a form of exile. Like Katayama, Matsuo was an enthusiast, something that his superiors viewed with exasperation, and his little studio seemed to be little more than a way of shutting him up.

Nissan management was still very skeptical about the commercial viability of sports cars, which they saw as frivolous, with little profit potential. The failure of the Nissan Silvia coupe undoubtedly didn’t help, but the response of the U.S. dealers did suggest that there might be some interest in America if Nissan could come up with something more suitable. Matsuo and Yoshida were allowed to continue working on sports car designs, although with little serious support.

1978 Datsun 280Z engine
The Datsun Z car used Nissan’s L-series six, which was very similar to the Mercedes-Benz M180 six. The L-series was offered in both four- and six-cylinder forms. The Datsun 280Z’s engine was bored and stroked to 2,753 cc (168 cu. in.), giving 149 net horsepower (111 kW), probably a little more than the 151 gross horsepower advertised for the original 240Z. Unfortunately, it was pulling a much heavier car, so performance was little improved. The owner of this car has substituted the flat-topped pistons from the eighties version of this engine for the original dished pistons, giving a slight improvement in power and efficiency.

MEETING OF THE MINDS

After becoming president of NMC USA, Katayama had written to the home office to request the development of a sporty car tailored for American tastes, a plan that dovetailed with Matsuo and Yoshida’s efforts. On a trip back to Tokyo in 1967, Katayama paid a visit to the Sports Car Design Studio to see Matsuo’s work, which was then at the clay model stage. The two men quickly realized they shared a common goal. Not only was the proposed sports car the sort of thing they both loved. Katayama also saw it as a matter of corporate — and indeed national — pride.

A year or two earlier, Katayama’s support wouldn’t have been worth much, but with his new position and the backing of Matsumura, the sports car idea, now called Maru-Zetto (Circle) Z, began to gain momentum. Matsuo also found an ally in engineer Hisashi Uemura, head of Nissan’s Section Three production division. The Section One and Two divisions, responsible for regular cars and trucks, were reluctant to spare personnel for what they (understandably) saw as a marginal project, but Uemura, whose section normally focused on specialty vehicles like police cars and garbage trucks, agreed to help turn Project Z into a production car.

1978 Datsun 280Z front wheel
Optional alloy wheels are a considerable improvement on the Datsun Z car’s standard wheel covers, which were frequently quite ugly. A weak point of the Z was its brakes, which were only adequate for the original Datsun 240Z and never really improved for the heavier 260Z and 280Z. The owner of this car has substituted the heavier front brakes of a Toyota 4X4 truck, with slotted rotors for better cooling.

THE DATSUN Z CAR TAKES SHAPE

Other than the ill-fated Silvia, most of Datsun’s sporty-car projects had been roadsters, following the English tradition. Katayama, however, felt the market was shifting away from open cars; indeed, convertible sales in the U.S. dropped precipitously in the late sixties. He insisted that Project Z should be a closed, two-seat GT, like the Jaguar E-Type, a car he particularly loved. He also wanted a six-cylinder engine rather than a four.

The design of Project Z went through many iterations. The earliest sketches look a great deal like the later Opel GT, while an abandoned variation developed by Yoshida resembled a Maserati Ghibli. The eventual production design bore a striking resemblance to the contemporary Ferrari 275 GTB/4, styled by Pininfarina, which, interestingly, had also been commissioned to do the Datsun 410 Bluebird. Since the Ferrari cost more than four times as much as the Datsun Z car eventually did, however, that resemblance was not necessarily a bad thing.

The Z car’s monocoque structure was basically new, but to keep costs at a manageable level, many components were sourced from other Datsuns, including its suspension (MacPherson struts all around), brakes (discs in front, drums in back), and engine. The Z’s 2,393 cc (146 cu. in.) SOHC inline-six was essentially the 510′s 1,595 cc (97 cu. in.) four with two extra cylinders. In the Japanese market, there was also a 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) version to take advantage of lower tax rates for smaller engines.

Nissan management approved the Z for production in November 1967, and Uemura set about the complicated task of turning the completed design into a producible car. He clashed with Matsuo early on over the height of the car, which Matsuo had set at 1,200 millimeters (47.2 inches). Uemura argued that it was too low for American buyers, and ultimately persuaded Matsuo to raise it to 1,260 mm (49.6 inches); the production car ended up at 1,283 mm (50.5 inches), but headroom was still less than generous for lanky gaijin.

Running prototypes were completed by 1968 and in early 1969, test crews did extensive road testing in the U.S. The evaluation revealed a number of problems, principally a high-speed rear-end vibration that required an extensive redesign of the differential and half-shaft geometry. Because the new differential required a smaller fuel tank to fit in the Z car’s tightly packed tail, Uemura’s engineers went on a frantic, last-minute weight-reduction campaign, hoping to improve fuel economy enough to compensate for the smaller tank. They ultimately saved about 50 kg (110 lb), allowing the U.S. version a reasonably low curb weight of 1,057 kg (2,330 lb).

1978 Datsun 280Z side
The first Datsun Z-car was 4,135 mm (162.8 in) long on a 2,300mm (90.7-inch) wheelbase. Bigger bumpers made the subsequent 260Z and 280Z significantly longer: The Datsun 280Z was up to 4,404 mm (173.4 in), while the 2+2 was a sizable 4,707 mm (185.3 in) and weighed a hefty 1,415 kg (3,120 lb).

Z CAR TRIUMPHANT

Despite its teething problems, the Datsun Z car went into production on schedule and went on sale in the U.S. on October 22, 1969. In Japan, it was called Fairlady Z, but Katayama, who thought the Fairlady name too cutesy for the American market, ordered that U.S. cars be badged simply as “240Z.” (We’re inclined to take stories that Katayama physically removed the Fairlady badges from the first batch of North American cars with a grain of salt.)

With its standard 2,393 cc (146 cu. in.) six, the American 240Z claimed 151 horsepower (113 kW). Thanks to its light weight, it had excellent performance. In June 1970, Car and Driver‘s early Datsun 240Z ran from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 7.8 seconds. Road & Track‘s January 1970 test car wasn’t quite that quick, but recorded a highly respectable top speed of 122 mph (196 km/h). That was no threat to a Corvette or an E-Type Jaguar, but it made the Z quicker than all but the meanest pony cars, not to mention a host of European sports cars ranging from the Porsche 914 to GM’s Opel GT. Testers had mixed feelings about the 240Z’s handling and brakes, but they agreed that all the right ingredients were there.

If the Datsun Z car’s lack of finesse cost it some points, it regained ground with its bargain price. Its list price in the U.S. was only $3,526, about what a buyer might expect to pay for a modestly equipped V8 Camaro and $1,000 or more less than foreign rivals like the Alfa Romeo GTV. Better still, in typical Datsun fashion, that was a “fully equipped” price, including accessories like radio, full instruments, and radial tires, for which American automakers charged extra.

The Datsun Z car’s impact on the marketplace was considerable. Despite its lack of pedigree, the 240Z offered brisk performance, excellent build quality, and the styling flair of a European GT for the price of a plebeian sedan. It absolutely brutalized the English sports cars of its era, particularly the MGB and TR6, and dealt the Opel GT and Porsche 914 a blow from which they never really recovered. Even with substantial dealer markup — something that greatly worried NMC USA — Datsun sold around 23,000 240Zs in the 1970 model year. Total U.S. Datsun sales swelled from 58,000 to over 104,000, indicating that the Z was bringing new customers to Datsun showrooms. For 1971, American Z sales nearly doubled, to over 33,000.

1978 Datsun 280Z hood bulge
Like the hood scoop of an early Thunderbird, the Datun Z car’s distinctive bonnet bulge was a matter of making a styling feature of an engineering necessity: the bulge was necessary for the low hood line to clear the engine’s timing chain cover.

The Z soon proved its mettle on the racetrack, as well as on the sales floor. Bob Sharp and Peter Brock campaigned the Datsun 240Z very successfully in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) road racing, where the Z car dominated the C-Production class for nine years in a row. Amateur racers could avail themselves of a host of performance and competition parts, both from Nissan and from a growing number of aftermarket suppliers. If the Datsun Z car did not quite rival the ubiquitous Ford and Chevy small blocks for tunability, it was not for lack of trying.

Katayama was ecstatic. He knew exactly what the 240Z meant to Nissan in publicity, prestige, and profits and he saw it as a resounding vindication of every argument he’d ever had with the home office. On the eve of the Z car’s launch, he wrote an inspiring dedication in the in-house Datsun newsletter, declaring that the new car had a Japanese heart and an American soul. In many ways, that statement could have been a description of Katayama himself.

1978 Datsun 280Z front 3q
The first 240Z was a bargain, but by 1978, the Datsun Z car was no longer so keenly priced. The Datsun 280Z started at $8,683, more than twice what a 240Z cost in 1970. This car, with the optional three-speed automatic and a host of dealer-installed accessories (like the front and rear bumper bars), was close to $10,000 new — a lot of money in 1978. Still, more than 62,000 were sold that year, so buyers were not unduly dissuaded.

GROWTH, GOOD AND BAD

Domestic automakers had generally shied away from two-seat sports cars, on the grounds that they would never sell well enough to be profitable. For many American buyers, the Datsun Z car’s combination of style, performance, and price were hard to resist.

Sales of the Z continued to climb nearly every year, quickly topping 50,000, and sometimes approaching 75,000. This growth was even more remarkable considering the rapid inflation of the Z’s price. By the late seventies, the typical as-equipped sticker price was more than twice what it had been in 1970.

That higher price bought progressively weaker performance. The original Z car was designed with American safety and emissions standards in mind, but Nissan had not anticipated the rapid tightening of those standards that took place in the mid-seventies. The Datsun 240Z’s power began to drop as emission controls were added, falling to 129 net horsepower (96 kW) by 1973. In 1974, Nissan enlarged the engines of 2.4-liter Z-cars to 2,565 cc (156 cu. in.), raising power to 139 hp (104 kW) and prompting a name change to Datsun 260Z.

Midway through the year, new, federally mandated bumpers further swelled the Z’s burgeoning curb weight, prompting another enlargement of the U.S. car’s engine. This time, it grew to 2,753 cc (168 cu. in.) and Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection was substituted for carburetors. (Japanese and European cars remained at 2.6 L liters) The new engine restored the renamed Datsun 280Z to nearly its original power levels — 149 hp (111 kW) — but the Z was now an embarrassing 180 kg (400 lb) heavier than the original 240Z. Not only was performance down, the extra weight hurt braking, and added a ponderous quality to the handling.

1978 Datsun 280Z dashboard
The Datsun Z car had a well-planned dashboard and good ergonomics for its era, although this 1978 280Z’s 160 mph (258 km/h) speedometer is optimistic. Center-stack gauges include water temperature, oil pressure, voltage, fuel, and an analog clock. This car has an accessory steering wheel and new seats borrowed from a seventies Chevrolet Camaro.

As with the contemporary Corvette, though, sales continued to climb even as performance eroded. Evidently, most customers were more interested in racy looks than outright speed, and in any case, even an automatic 280Z had perfectly adequate acceleration for day-to-day driving. The Z was reasonably practical as well, and from 1974, a longer 2+2 model was available for customers who demanded at least a token rear seat.

In all, more than 540,000 Datsun 240Z, 260Z, and 280Zs were sold, a remarkable total for a two-seat sports car. The Datsun Z car also inspired a variety of imitators, including the Mazda RX-7, Mitsubishi Starion, and Toyota Celica Supra.

1978 Datsun 280Z cargo bay
Part of the appeal of the Datsun Z car was that it was a reasonably practical car. The rear deck and hatchback allow a good deal more useful cargo room than a contemporary Camaro or Corvette. The lip at the front prevents suitcases from sliding into the driver’s seat, although a cargo net would be a useful addition. The large intrusions on either side of the trunk are the shock towers for the rear suspension, which uses Chapman struts.

HAIL AND FAREWELL

The original Datsun Z car continued through 1978 before giving way to the new 280ZX (still called Fairlady Z in Japan). Anyone who hoped the second generation would be a return to the cleaner, lighter early Z was doomed to disappointment.

The ZX looked like a bullet and it still had potential — in 1979, Paul Newman drove one to win the Z car’s ninth consecutive SCCA C-Production championship — but it was bigger, softer, and more luxury-oriented; Car and Driver‘s Patrick Bedard judged it alarmingly Buick-like. Sales remained strong, however, and so the more angular 300ZX, launched in 1984, was more of the same. It was not until 1990 that the Z again became a serious performance car.

1978 Datsun 280Z badge
The Datsun 280Z was the final iteration of the original Z-car, offered in the U.S. from 1975 to 1978. Its immediate successor was the 280ZX, which kept the Z’s L28 engine and basic styling themes, but was bigger, heavier, and somewhat softer. It was also more expensive, a trend that would eventually hurt Z sales, leading to its temporary demise in the mid-1990s.

By the time the ZX debuted in late 1978, Katayama had returned to Japan. It was not a triumphal homecoming. His success had only served to alienate him further from his superiors, who were aware of the adulation Katayama had received in the press as the father of the Z and of Datsun’s American success. According to author David Halberstam, many resented it, seeing Katayama’s public praise not a sign of Katayama’s achievement, but of an unseemly lack of proper humility and loyalty.

In 1975, Katayama had been promoted to chairman of NMC USA, while a stalwart company man, Hiroshi Majima, took over the presidency. The ostensible promotion served mainly to cut Katayama off from the day-to-day decision-making process and troubled his employees, who didn’t understand why the corporation seemed to treat him so shabbily. Finally, in 1977, Katayama was summoned back to Tokyo and told that he had been retired. He did not receive a seat on the board, which would have been the customary reward for so successful an executive. Instead, he was transferred to one of Nissan’s minor subsidiary companies, where he spent the remainder of his career in obscurity.

For years, Katayama’s name disappeared from many official company histories and press statements. It was not until the 1990s — ironically, after Nissan merged with French automaker Renault — that he was officially rehabilitated. In 1997, Nissan began to run television ads featuring an actor intended to represent the man the company’s employees, dealers, and fans once called “Mr. K.” The following year, Katayama was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. As of this writing, he is still hale and hearty, approaching his 90th birthday.

1978 Datsun 280Z rear3q
Perhaps the Datsun Z car’s best styling feature is the sleek blending of the rear fender with the sail panel of the roof, although the heavy chrome window reveals mark it as a product of the 1970s. Headroom is not one of the Z car’s principal virtues; a Datsun 280Z is only 1,295 mm (51 in) high.

FADEAWAY

The Datsun Z car is often the sole Japanese representative in lists of the most important cars of the last century, but the classic status now accorded early Ford Mustangs and Camaros continues to elude it. It still has a small but loyal following, but early Zs in really good shape have become rare. Norm Krell, owner of our photo subject and an avid member of Zcar.com, laments that many owners are reluctant to spend too much money fixing or restoring their cars because it’s easy to spend more than the car is worth. Nissan found this out the hard way in 1997 when they launched a brief, ill-fated campaign to sell professionally restored Datsun 240Zs at select Nissan dealerships.

1978 Datsun 280Z headlight
The Datsun Z car’s “sugar scoop” headlights were inspired by contemporary Ferrari practice; the headlight surround itself was plastic, sourced from a company that also manufactured seating for bus stops and stadiums. The clear plastic covers were not a stock item — they were not legal at the time — but were a popular accessory item and helped to improve aerodynamics at higher speeds.

Why is the Datsun Z car a not-quite classic? If its tangible virtues did not quite live up to its promise, the same could be said of late-sixties pony cars, many of which were slower, clumsier, and far less sleek. Its marque may lack pedigree, but the Z proved itself on the racetrack again and again. It was also very popular and desirable when new, which often adds to a model’s luster in later years. Why, then, is the original Z fading into obscurity even as first-generation Camaro values climb ever higher?

Part of the reason may simply be the era in which it appeared. Although the Z car went on sale in late 1969, it’s most strongly associated with the grim, recessionary mid-to-late seventies, the age of fuel shortages, political disillusionment, and cultural malaise. It’s difficult to feel nostalgia for the seventies without a heavy dose of irony, which is why <Gremlins and Pacers engender more back-handed affection than, say, a contemporary Corvette. Many people of a certain age may have owned or aspired to a Datsun 280Z 30 years ago, but a lot of people wore hip huggers and leisure suits, too, and many are similarly reluctant to admit that in polite company today.

More significant, we think, is the fact that the Z car is Japanese. When Special Interest Autos magazine ran a retrospective on the original Datsun 240Z in the early eighties, they were besieged with angry letters urging them to remember Pearl Harbor. Even today, many American and Europeans enthusiasts still dismiss Japanese sports cars as intrinsically inferior to their European rivals, with a level of condescension that sometimes edges into overt racism.

Some popular automotive histories assert that the Datsun Z car established Japan as a builder of serious sports and GT cars, but people said that about Honda’s NSX and the modern Nissan Skyline GT-R, too, and it still doesn’t seem to have stuck. The Z car did illustrate, however, that Japanese automakers were capable of assaulting unfamiliar market segments with great alacrity if they put their minds to it — something Honda and Toyota would demonstrate repeatedly in subsequent years.

To us, the real significance of the Z car is not its reputation, looks, or performance, but the tenacity of Katayama, Matsuo, and Uemura in the face of a sometimes hostile and mostly disinterested corporate culture. Katayama, in particular, knew from the start that even if he achieved his goals, the home office would never reward him for it. He went on anyway, out of love, and out of faith in his own instincts (which, by the by, proved to be entirely correct). If there is something quixotic and Pyrrhic about their achievement, that makes it no less admirable.

In November 1983, Car & Driver, noting the depressing mediocrity of the contemporary Datsun lineup, lamented, “Where Have You Gone, Yutaka Katayama?” In this age of bland, monolithic corporate conformity — in the auto industry and otherwise — we find ourselves asking the same question.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our account of the career of Yutaka Katayama comes primarily from David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), with additional details from Daniel Banks, “Let’s Meet Mr. K!” (no date, Z Car Club Association, www.zcca.org/pages/ZCarsZhistoryMrK.htm, accessed 5 June 2009). Daniel Banks’ article “What’s in a Name? The Change From Datsun to Nissan” (June 2002, Z Car Club Association, www.zcca.org/pages/ZCarsZhistoryDatsuntoNissan.htm, accessed 6 June 2009) was an additional source on the history of Nissan, including the decision to drop the Datsun name. Yutaka Katayama’s letter from the Datsun newsletter, meanwhile, came from Dan Banks, “Just Z Facts” (February 2005, Chesapeake Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America, The Chesapeake Bulletin, Vol. 45, No. 2, local.aaca.org/chesapeake/JustZFacts.pdf, accessed 5 June 2009), which was in turn based on John Bell Rae, Nissan/Datsun A History of the Nissan Motor Corporation in the U.S.A. 1960-1980 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982).

Additional sources on the development of the Fairlady and 240Z/Fairlady Z included Merlin Blackwell’s history (2000, Datsunhistory.com, www.datsunhistory.com/Roadsterstory.html, accessed 5 June 2009) and Carl Beck, “Z History: The True History of the Z Car” (12 May 2004, www.zhome.com/, accessed 6 June 2009). We also read Akira Yokoyama’s authorized manga (comic book) account, Project X – Datsun Fairlady Z (Project X 240Z Challengers) (Gardena, CA: Digital Manga Publishing, 2006), although some of its over-earnest dramatization must be taken with a grain of salt. Some other information came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001).

For road test notes, we consulted the following articles from Car and Driver: “Ken Miles and the editors of Car and Driver Test Six Sports Roadsters” (September 1966); “Datsun 2000: Great looks it doesn’t have — but who cares?” (June 1968); “Datsun 240Z” (June 1970); “Datsun 260Z: Is taking a winner and improving on it a sure sign of greed?” (April 1974); Don Sherman, “Road Test: Datsun 280Z” (June 1975); Larry Griffin, “Road Test: Datsun 280Z: Eight years old and getting better every day” (July 1978); Patrick Bedard, “Datsun 280-ZX: Introducing the Grand Luxury package and all that entails” (November 1978); and Michael Jordan, “Where have you gone, Yutaka Katayama?” (November 1983), all of which were reprinted in Car and Driver on Datsun Z, 1600 & 2000 1966-1984, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1986).

We are also grateful to Norm Krell, the owner of the red Datsun 280Z, who was kind enough to offer many anecdotes from his experience as a Datsun mechanic and enthusiast.

We should point out that the name “Z-Trip” is also used by DJ/producer Zach Sciacca; the similarity to this article’s title was coincidental.


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  1. The latest 350 and 370Zs are conspicuously absent from the writeup.

    If the focus was more on the circumstances surrounding the original’s birth, that makes sense.

    Nonetheless, what’s your take on the recent torchbearers?

    1. I deliberately didn’t go past the debut of the 280ZX in ’79, partly because even without getting into the later Z-cars, this article was already 5,000 words! Rather than give short shrift to the later Z32 cars (1990-2000 300ZX) — which are very interesting in a number of respects — I decided to stop there and leave the rest for later.

      The modern 350Z/370Z is a puzzler for me. I applaud its simplicity and comparatively moderate cost (combating part of what killed the 300ZX), and its performance is convincing enough. Still, it fails to arouse my affection, largely because of its styling and its bulk. I find it less attractive than the Z32, and its basic styling (particularly the original 350Z) is awfully derivative. It looks, probably on purpose, like an early Audi TT with some kind of terrible gland condition that has caused it to bulk up and also shed the fine detailing that made the original TT interesting to look at. As with the Galant-based Mitsubishi Eclipse — or, for that matter, the old Chrysler E-body Barracuda and Challenger — it can’t hide the fact that it’s based on a sedan, and quite a big one at that. I have even more mixed feelings about the 370Z. It tries to add surface detail to what is ultimately a fairly bland shape; some of it works, some of it is very contrived. Either way, there’s a brutish, thuggish quality to it that isn’t really to my taste.

      I prefer the Z’s platform-mate, the Infiniti G37/Nissan Skyline coupe, whose longer wheelbase gives it more favorable proportions. The better interior trim doesn’t hurt, either. Also, I haven’t checked, but I suspect the insurance company would be happier with the G37′s token back seat than with the pure two-seater Z.

      1. I had no love for the lines on the 350z. Too geometric.

        The 370 is what I’d consider a more organic design: flowing curves that are closer to skin-over-muscle.

        There’s a lot going on (boomerang lights, catfish grille), but I overall I really like it. Although, I’ve read it’s engineered to the point that all but the most intense driving is easy to the point of boredom.

        The G35/37 has always been better looking, but it didn’t take long for the car to take on a stigma of its own.

        1. When I saw the 370Z in the metal for the first time the other day, I was surprised to see that I liked it better than the 350Z, although I thought it was still too apparent that underneath the dress-up, it was the same platform as before. It’s like a middle-aged man who goes out and gets a snazzy new wardrobe — it may look great, but underneath, it’s still the same guy.

          I just feel like the hardpoints of that platform make it too bulky. It’s the same with the Scion tC, which is built on the Avensis sedan platform. For that matter, that was the difficulty with the last S-Type Jaguar. Underneath, it was the DEW98 platform, and for all the self-conscious retro styling, there was a Lincoln LS underneath. Jags were always low-slung and racy, to the point that they weren’t necessarily respectable, but the S-Type seemed like a naughty schoolboy forced to sit up straight.

  2. I am of that ‘certain’ age that [i]lusted in my heart [/i]for the 240-Z, but I never owned a leisure suit in my life. Instead I ended up with a Datsun B-210; a Godzilla-like vehicle unsafe at any speed. It should be pointed out Mr. Katayama is responsible for that too.

    Seeing these photos of the Z I have a hard time remembering why I wanted one so much. Or a Celica or even the NSX. I still crave that era’s Mustangs, Alfas and particularly the Opel GT. I spent my childhood in Japan, so I’m not racist, but there is something so appliance-like in Japanese cars. They may try to look like a Ferrari, even be much more reliable than one, but they do not inspire love and devotion. My Honda Del Sol only reminded be I never had the 914. A Seiko watch works perfectly well but wouldn’t you really want a Rolex?

    (The tC is based on the Avensis? Could have sworn it was yet another version of the Corolla.)

    1. Ah, the B-210. Not an auspicious moment in Nissan history, by any means.

      Tastes naturally change over time, certainly. When I was younger, I was much more enamored of high-tech supercars than I am now, for instance, whereas now my interest is more in purity of line. And subtle differences can make a huge difference in the overall feel of a car.

      Still, I am left to think that at least some of it is the accumulated affect of brand marketing. My complaint with most Mustangs, for example, is that they’re decidedly appliance-like in feel. They may look racy (although I have to say I think the ’71-’73 hardtop, the most popular body style of the time, is an astonishingly ugly car), but it never lets you forget it’s a Falcon or a Fairmont underneath. And I’ve often found the idols to have feet of clay — the 914 is entertaining, but hardly strikes me as Rolex-like, with a shape, styling and feel that seem crude unless you cane it.

      I’ll give you that the Opel GT [i]looks[/i] far more interesting than the Z. It’s not nearly as good a car in anything resembling stock form, but it’s a fabulous piece of design, the kind of thing you can look at for a long time without ever getting bored. Drive it and its appeal begins to fade, but as a piece of sculpture it’s distinctly superior.

      The Scion tC is indeed based on the Avensis platform. If you look at the two in profile, the common hardpoints become readily apparent. It’s less apparent to Americans, simply because we don’t have Avensis sedans hanging around to compare.

  3. The original Fairlady was in fact styled at the same time as the MGB and apparently released before so was not influenced by it.

    1. True. I didn’t mean that the Fairlady was a direct copy of either the TR-4 or the MGB, but it was very much the same sort of car, and I do think it was intended to be sort of an amalgam of British roadsters.

  4. Another article on “The original Datsun Z-Car” indicates another USA-centric, Katayama-centric take on events…

    But [u]Yoshihiko[/u] Matsuo ( please note the spelling of his given name )and his colleagues were working on a small range of sports/GT car models which Nissan [i]officially[/i] called the ‘S30-series’ at launch. The ‘Datsun 240Z’ export models were one part of this, ( even the ‘Datsun 240Z’ moniker denotes quite different specs in different markets ) and the domestic Fairlady Z, Fairlady Z-L, Fairlady Z432 and Fairlady Z432-R models were all designed, engineered and manufactured at the same time as those ‘Datsun 240Z’ LHD & RHD export models. Great pains were taken to ensure that the design and engineering worked for both LHD and RHD versions, even if the natural bias was to the RHD configuration. So which variant was “The Original”? ( answer – they [i]all[/i] were ).

    There’s no King in the deck, unless perhaps you consider that a true sports/GT car might want to be a bit better specified than the softened-up ( springs, dampers, ARBs ) and somewhat dumbed-down ( 4-speed / tall diff ratioed ) north American market HLS30U models.

    Some corrections: Nissan’s U20 engine was not ‘inherited’ from Prince ( from Nissan’s viewpoint it was an in-house Nissan design using some Prince-ish details, which Nissan would have used whether merged with Prince or not ), Prince never designed Nissan’s L-series 6 ( it was a purely Nissan in-house design dating from 1964/65 )and Prince never made any Mercedes M180 engines “under license” ( huh? ), they simply licensed some Mercedes-patented details for their G-series engines.

    Well done for minimising the Goertz content, but it might be better not to mention him at all apart from pointing out that Nissan had NOT employed him as a Designer / Stylist, but rather as an advisor for modernising their full-size clay modelling and styling studio techniques. He certainly did not design the CSP311 Silvia coupe, as this was largely finished – from the pen of Kazuo Kimura – before Goertz had even pitched up at Nissan ( apparently Goertz merely suggested that the rear pillars could be angled slightly differently…). And the CSP311 was based on the chassis and running gear of the SP311 Fairlady, not the “311 Bluebird”.

    So many articles talk about Katayama being “exiled” to the USA as “punishment” ( as though he was supposed to fail ), and then build his story up as some kind of ‘Mein Kampf’ with a happier ending. But the S30-series Z [i]would[/i] have been built even without Katayama’s encouragement ( even if only a few thousand had ended up selling in the USA, and it had looked quite different )as the SP311 and SR311-series Fairladies needed a new generation successor, and Nissan [i][u]had[/u][/i] to have a car in that sector of the market, regardless. Stories such as yours seem to concentrate on the ‘needs’ and requirements of the USA market, when indeed the Japanese domestic market itself was starting to demand an improved product and the then-current Fairlady range was becoming long in the tooth. Does nobody take into account the hopes and dreams of the Japanese market itself, which was changing rapidly during the period we are talking about here? It should also be noted that Nissan’s [i]biggest[/i] single market at that time was the Japanese domestic market itself. Nissan had an up-to-date model in every market sector, so why not a sports/GT car too?

    Moreover, shining the spotlight so strongly on Yutaka Katayama merely casts darker shadows over the bigger story, and over all the other key players in the story. He was – still is – a great man, but in the Hollywood version of the “Datsun 240Z Story” he has been promoted from a supporting cast role to top billing. He gets twinned with the Z when he could just as well be twinned with the hundreds of thousands of little sedans and pickups that sold in the USA market.

    Arguably, one of Katayama’s greatest successes was in selling the benign and positive “Mr K.” concept as an alternative to the idea of a faceless and cold Japanese corporation. It worked, didn’t it?

    1. You make some reasonable points (and thanks for the correction of the spelling of Matsuo’s name), but I’m not sure I entirely agree. I’d compare Katayama’s role to Lee Iacocca’s in the creation of the Mustang — it’s quite likely that the Mustang would have eventually emerged in some form without Iacocca, and giving Iacocca sole credit for it is at best naive, but it wouldn’t have been the same thing without him. (In the case of the Mustang, it might well have ended up like the V8-powered Falcon Sprint, which was a forgettable flop.)

      I do get the distinct impression that if Nissan management did not necessarily expect Katayama to fail in America, his success was not on the menu. The motivation seemed to be to get rid of him, because he was not politically astute and had become something of a pain in the ass. I don’t think sending him to the U.S. was an attempt to set him up for failure, but it was putting him in an area where the company’s aspirations were at best modest, where his success or failure would not be significant.

      I included Goetz because he pops up in some accounts of the Z’s history. I agree that his role in Nissan design was minimal, but given the way he later tried to take credit for the design, I thought it worth mentioning.

      I’ve gotten some conflicting information on the origins of the L-series engine, and I would be pleased to find some authoritative source to help set the record straight.

  5. The difference between Iacocca and Katayama in the example you cite is that Iacocca would certainly have been on hand, and often on site, whilst the organic process of a car’s birth was taking place. Katayama was half way around the other side of the world when the S30-series Z was being designed, styled, engineered and produced. He didn’t have the opportunity – let alone the [u]remit[/u] – to be parachuting into Matsuo and the team’s studio often enough to have much influence, and it’s only the huge sales success of the Datsun 240Z / 260Z / 280Z in mainland USA that has led him to become so inextricably linked with it ( after the fact ). He [i]encouraged[/i] the design team, and his positive noises about such a sector model’s sales potential ensured that some of his input was taken seriously further up the chain of command, but many quoted examples of Katayama-specified details were going to get done whether Katayama requested them or not. The decision to use a 6-cyl engine instead of a 4-cyl is often quoted as a Katayama request, but Katayama was simply pushing for more power. There was already a movement towards the available sixes within Nissan ( see the C30 Laurel and C10 Skyline models, for example ) once the brief started to become more clear. Nobody seems to want to think that something beautiful or interesting could have come from the ‘Maru Z’ team whether Katayama was sticking his head around the door occasionally or not.

    There are so many apocryphal stories that it’s become hard to refute them all. Look at this story you repeat that Katayama [i]“…stripped the Fairlady badges from every car sent to America…”[/i], for example. This is quite obviously not true! For one thing he’d have been pretty busy prising off all those emblems with his screwdriver ( OK, he was reportedly a ‘Hands On’ kind of guy, but this is ridiculous! ), but does anybody take a second to think where all these ’240Z’ emblems he [i]“replaced”[/i] them with suddenly appeared from…? Guess what, they came from Japan too…

    I’m nonplussed by your belief that Nissan had “modest” aspirations in the USA ( and north America in general ), as I think quite the opposite is true and it would be a bit daffy to believe that they didn’t. Nissan – along with Toyota – had already dipped a big toe into the [u]world[/u] market, and had already embarked on their voyage of expansion into it. To think that Katayama’s success or failure ( not forgetting Soichi Kawazoe, who got there before him, and is the [i]other[/i] ‘Mr K.’ ) would [i]“not be significant”[/i] for Nissan is unthinkable. This was a crucial time and mission, and the two Mr Ks had been given point. It seems that only Katayama paints this as some kind of backhanded demotion, but that’s all part of the script isn’t it? Katayama selling [i]“Mr K. – The Movie”[/i] again…

    You don’t need to suffer from conflicting information about the origins of Nissan’s ‘L-Gata’ engines any longer, as the Chief Designer of the original ‘L-Gata’ ( the L20 six of the C130 ‘Cedric Special Six’ ) was interviewed in issue no.102 of Nostalgic Hero magazine. Mr Hiroshi Iida is the man, and you might as well get it from the horse’s mouth. Carl Beck has had a ‘translation’ of this made for him, but seems to have put it through his own somewhat bizarre USA-centric filter and added his own ideas to it too ( so I’d take the zhome.com page that carries it as an ‘amuse bouche’ rather than a main course ). We discussed it on classiczcars.com too.

    Talking of the horse’s mouth, Yoshihiko Matsuo told me in early February that he might be in the USA later this year. He might be persuaded to visit the 2010 ZCCA Convention, so you could possibly have a chance to interview him about all this in person.

    1. [i]Nobody seems to want to think that something beautiful or interesting could have come from the ‘Maru Z’ team whether Katayama was sticking his head around the door occasionally or not.[/i]

      I certainly don’t believe that, and it wasn’t my intention to imply that.

      If you can point me toward other English-language source, I’d be happy to consider them in making appropriate revisions. (I took two semesters of Japanese years ago, but I can’t read it in any meaningful sense.)

  6. Sorry, I don’t think there are any English language books which cover the points we have been talking about here in any great depth. Brian Long’s books for Veloce Publishing are probably the best overall, but in my opinion he goes along with the same overplaying of Katayama’s role that everybody else seems to ( see the post above by ‘r. oliver’, who appears to think that Katayama was “responsible” for the B210 [i]and[/i] the “240Z”, as though he was some kind of almighty creator / commissioner ). If you want to see the other point of view on the Katayama story then I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to some of the relevant people in Japan, or at the very least start looking at the ‘legends’ with a little more critical an eye.

    Trouble is, anyone who questions the exaggerated Katayama-as-God lore is very likely to be damned as some kind of lunatic heretic. Above all, he’s a really nice man and he commands a lot of respect – so nobody wants to think about anything that calls his integrity into question, or shine anything like at least a [i]neutral[/i] light on those whom Katayama painted as his enemies.

    These are [i]Japanese[/i] cars we are talking about here. At some point we need to accept the fact that the story of their concept, design, engineering and production is best researched [i]from Japanese sources[/i]. It may be inconvenient, but it’s true.

    So, there’s a gap in the book market. Here’s your chance!

  7. This was eye an opening article. I like that you are calling the crap cars out. Mr. Katayama could not have hit a home run every time.
    There are employees in every company that are not their superiors’ favorite but are performing their job well enough to keep it. A lot of them will eventually be promoted because they can handle the additional challenges. Mr. Katayama’s fate was driven by the almighty Yen and not legendary oriental honor. Remember, you are talking about the seventies and beyond. The orientals are relentless businessmen who learned well from the cut throat practices of the Americans.
    As far as your assesment of performance and build quality, you seem to be spot on. Please do not forget as you are writing future articles or revising them that it is more invigorating to drive a slower, poor handling car fast than a powerful, good handling car at the same speed. The early Z cars are the invigorating ones.
    The commenters to this article have a lot of good points while missing the focus of your article. I also like that you are willing to listen and briefly discuss your reasons for writing what you did.
    I have this site in my favorites and will be visiting it often.

  8. The 2+2 was available from early in the 1974 model year as a 260Z. I had one. The engine was lovely, the chassis was decent, the fuel induction was miserable. The 1974 cars got the lovely thin bumpers of the earlier cars, but ended up with the ignition interlock system. The 1974.5 cars–never officially called such, but there is a chassis number split–lost the thin bumpers but kept the seatbelt interlock system, despite it being no longer required. Thankfully the stock ignition hardware wires up perfectly to an early GM HEI module with only connector changes. Otherwise when I had to replace an ignition module I would have spent as much as the car was worth.

    1. Thanks! Most of my sources say it arrived either in 1975 or mid-year 1974, but if you actually had one, I’ll go with that.

  9. FYI, Matsuo-san was at ZCon 2010, I got to chat with him and Carl Beck for about 30 minutes. A delightful man who is still very much involved in the engineering of NISSAN products! Mr. K joined us via video phone for both the opening and closing banquets. I agree, there are very few completely stock 240Zs left in this world; mine has the obvious 15X7 rims and tires to go with them, complete dual exhaust and light cowl covers as the external deviations from stock. The rest of the modifications are focused on performance and handling, these cars were meant to be driven, not stuck in a garage! ;D “Lucky 13″ (the first production car sold in the US is completely stock and was at ZCon. Thanks for the wonderful article on the Z car!

  10. Hi Aaron. Just going back through the archives as I contemplate the history of the Z cars. I’m wondering if you’ve considered doing an addendum here on the 280zx, or possibly a longer follow up piece on the S130 and the Z31. I’m particularly interested in the much-maligned but I think almost necessary shift from a sports focus to a GT in the context of a changing market, especially the US export market. The wider, longer, more spacious, more luxurious, easier-handling zx had much going for it, and the elongated tail allowed for a better weight balance. Was there a better-conceived GT on the US market in ’79 below the Porsche 928 or BMW 635csi price bracket? It’s also mysterious to me who bought the 280zx– the marketing focus was ambiguous at the time and remains ambiguous in the classic car market, though they sold extremely well. Who was the audience? How deliberate was their success?

  11. I feel that you might have found a better example of a typical Z car. A 240Z in more original condition would have been more approriate.

    1. It would have been nice, but I’m limited by what photos I have (or that I can find that I can legally use). Unmolested early Z cars are rather scarce, even in Southern California. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 240Z here that wasn’t in the final throes of rust, or that hadn’t been modified almost beyond recognition.

      I would have preferred a photo subject with fewer cosmetic modifications, but in fairness, most of the external modifications on Norm’s 280Z were Datsun dealer accessories. (The brakes and seats are not, obviously, but the headlight covers, wheels, and bumper bars were all dealer catalog stuff.) So, while it’s not the most representative, it’s less incorrect than many of the surviving Zs I’ve seen.

  12. My experience showing my slightly modified 1978 Black Pearl coupe is that the spectators at open shows love to talk about the early Zs. Every third or fourth person has an "I had one of those" or "My brother let me drive his" or "I’ve always loved those cars" or something of a similar ilk. The car is well received – entered 14 shows in the last two years and have 13 trophies to show for it. This summer entered an Open show locally, and garnered the "Best of 70′s" trophy in a pretty good field of American muscle cars. The judge said that he used to see the early Zs on the streets through the 80′s, but they have now pretty much disappeared. He liked the restoration and slight modifications. For some odd reason, early Z owners are loth actually do the sort of restoration that would allow them to present their cars well. It takes as much attention to detail as the muscle car owners do, but it seldom happens. Car show presenters tend to be older, and get more into that "jap scrap" and "Remember Pearl Harbor" and similar nonsense, but they are largely leaving the show scene and/or dying off. The car is a fine representative of its genre, outsold every other sports car in the world during its time, and aesthetically is certainly as beautiful as any other. As for the alleged "worth" of the car, so what? Do we build so we can sell them, or to enjoy, show and drive them? These can be driven. Mine is, regularly. I have enjoyed it for 32 years, and will continue to enjoy it for some time yet. And then my nephew wants it, and I may well sell it to him.

    If you wish them to be seen as Classics, then treat them like a classic and hold your head up when you show them to the public. Don’t ever forget — people Liked these cars. Still do!

  13. I had my first 280Z (a 1977) in 1982 at the age of 22. I had a 69 Mustang fastback with a 351W before that. I love the American muscle car of course but if you get the Z, I mean really “get it” you fall in love with her. I’ve had a 77 280Z, an 83 280ZX, a 93 300ZX, a 78 280Z and now I own a 71 240Z.

    I will be spending several thousand dollars getting my 71 240Z professionally restored this winter. It goes to the shop on 9/20 and I wont have it back till next spring.

    Will I be able to sell it for all I paid and will pay? No, but I don’t intend to. It’s not an investment. It’s a member of the family.

    Thank you for this article, I truly enjoyed it. Perhaps one day the early Z will be officially recognized as it deserves to be, but if not I’m ok, after all I’ll own the sweetest car on the road as far as I’m concerned and in the end that’s all that matters. :-)

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