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.
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 let 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. Katayama was not politically well-connected — he had not joined Nissan’s management union, which had been a bad move from the standpoint of career advancement — and his enthusiasm for sports cars was, paradoxically, considered unseemly for a Nissan executive.
Considering his well-publicized victory, firing him or laying him off would have been embarrassing for the company, 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).
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.
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.
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 due mainly to concerns over its cost, although Nissan (at least partly at Katayama’s insistence) remained interested in a sporty coupe for the U.S. market. Goertz did some initial studies toward that end before his contract ended in 1965. He also developed the production version of the first Silvia coupe (refining a concept originated by in-house designer Kazuo Kimura) and introduced Nissan designers to the Western practice of creating full-size clay models as an intermediate stage between concept rendering and production design.
Exactly how much Goertz’s work influenced Nissan’s subsequent sports car project is still hotly debated. In later years, Goertz frequently intimated that he designed the original Z-car during his consultancy and actually threatened to sue Nissan for libel when the company said otherwise. (Contrary to many accounts, he never actually filed such a suit.) Surviving photos of Goertz’s designs don’t look much like the finished product, but some historians note certain common elements and argue that at the very least, Goertz’s work represented the point of departure for Nissan’s in-house designers.
In a letter to Goertz in November 1980, Nissan’s head of legal affairs acknowledged the influence of Goertz’s contributions, but maintained that the production car was nonetheless an in-house design. That was the end of the legal confrontation, but the idea that Goertz designed the Z persisted even after his death in 2006.
(Although the A550X project did not come to fruition, Yamaha subsequently developed a conceptually similar project with Toyota that resulted in the Toyota 2000GT sports car. To our knowledge, Goertz had no involvement with the Toyota project.)
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, albeit with little serious support.
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.
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 mm (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).
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: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in the 8-second range and a top speed of more than 120 mph (195+ 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.
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 tuneability, 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.
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 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 added a ponderous quality to the handling and took its toll on the brakes, a problem not addressed until the subsequent generation.
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.
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. 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.
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 and saw it as 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 a forced retirement, although he continued to work for some years afterward for a Nissan subsidiary.
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. [Author’s note: He died in 2015.]
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.
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 almost entirely correct). If there is something quixotic and Pyrrhic about their achievement, that makes it no less admirable, even if it took a surprisingly long time for it to receive the recognition and honor it deserves.
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); John B. Rae, Nissan/Datsun: A History of Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A. 1960–1980 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982); and Akira Yokoyama’s authorized manga (comic book) account, Project X – Datsun Fairlady Z (Project X 240Z Challengers) (Gardena, CA: Digital Manga Publishing, 2006) (although we suspect some of its over-earnest dramatization must be taken with a grain of salt), 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). Additional information came from John B. 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), Carl Beck, “The First American Sports/GT Designed and Build in Japan,” (12 May 2004, Internet Z Car Club, www.zhome. com/ History/DesignEvolution/AmericanGT.htm, accessed 6 June 2009), the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Nissan Z History” (19 November 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ nissan-z-history.htm, accessed 6 June 2009); Brian Long, Datsun Fairlady Roadster to 280ZX: The Z-car story (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing, 2006); and Yutaka Katayama and Yoshihiko Matsuo’s account in Fairlady Z Story, Datsun SP/SR & Z (Tokyo, Japan: Miki Press, 1999). Some other information came from the letters to the editor in Special Interest Autos #125 (October 1991), and 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, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 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.
Historical exchange rate equivalences were estimated based on data from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2009, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/; used by permission). Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and provided for illustration and general informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!