BIG IN JAPAN

DSC_0702.JPG

By Graeme Hurst

The motoring world woke up to Japan’s automotive talent when Datsun created the 240Z back in 1969. Famed for being inspired by the best of Europe and aimed squarely at the sports car-mad US market, it was a game changer that put the Far East carmaker on the map.

Today the ‘Made in Japan’ moniker on the back of your camera is a statement of quality and precision in much the same way as ‘Made in West Germany’ was in the 1980s. But rewind to the late ’60s and early ’70s and Japan had a reputation for churning out knock-offs. Everything from wristwatches to Hi-Fis and spanners was available as a cheaper and, usually, flimsier alternative. It’s no wonder the image of Japanese cars suffered as a result. Tinny, plasticky and sterile was the common perception, even if the motoring world had to concede that products from Far East carmakers were fantastically reliable and often boasted clever technological innovation (think of the roller-bearing engine in Honda’s diminutive S600 Roadster). As a result, Japanese car sales were limited abroad, particularly over in the US, where the market’s taste for the country’s goods was still tainted by anti-Japanese sentiment after the events of Pearl Harbour.

DSC_0691.JPG

But all that changed with the launch of the 240Z in 1969: a compact two-seater sports GT from Datsun that offered fantastic six-cylinder performance, great handling and excellent quality... all for a price that undercut the competition. What’s more, it was undeniably good looking in a way that didn’t see it out of place parked alongside way more exotic fare such as a Jaguar E-type or a Maserati Ghibli. Or even a Ferrari of the same era. So how did Datsun pull it off?

The thinking began in the early 1960s when designer Albrecht Goertz of BMW 507 fame was engaged by Datsun as a consultant on the rather still-born Silvia Coupé but stayed on at their request to design a sports car. His design came to fruition as a one-off by Yamaha and looked more like a cross between Toyota’s 2000GT and the 240Z – which isn’t a surprise as, after Datsun stalled on the idea, Toyota took over the prototype from Yamaha.

Goertz’s influence remained, however, and a few years on Datsun’s own designers, headed by Yoshihiko Matsuo, penned the 240Z’s shape in response to a brief for a sports car inspired by the best that European carmakers had to offer and which would appeal to America’s growing desire for performance cars.

DSC_0608.JPG

Mechanically, it relied heavily on Datsun’s corporate parts bin but it was up to date in terms of specification with a 2.4-litre overhead cam engine, independent rear suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and a five-speed gearbox (except for the US market).

Inside, you got some ergonomic thinking: a well-laid out dashboard with a centre binnacle full of controls – and topped with a trio of gauges – while ahead of the driver were two main instrument pods with cone covers to avoid glare. There were also high-back one-piece seats to limit whiplash, a multi-functional stalk control for the lights and a decent, variable fresh air supply. All in all, it was a sea change from the typical configuration in the Austin-Healey and Triumph offerings, which had become synonymous with the concept of affordable six-cylinder sports car by the late ʼ60s.

DSC_0642.JPG

Launched at the Tokyo Motor Show in late 1969, Datsun’s 240Z was a brilliant all-round package that that looked every bit as good on paper as it did in the metal: here was a $3 500 car that could accelerate from 0-60mph in 8.7 seconds and top out at 122mph, according to America’s influential Road & Track magazine. Its rival title, Car & Driver was impressed too, commenting that: “Datsun didn’t invent the overhead cam engine or disc brakes or independent suspension but it has a habit of incorporating these sophisticated systems into brilliantly conceived and easily affordable cars.” No surprise that Datsun flogged over 10 000 in the first year alone.

This particular example belonging to a local classic car collector is a rare beast: “It was Datsun South Africa’s press car and is a pre-production prototype,” he explains. “Datsun produced 30 cars for the launch in 1969 and this is number 21 but demand was so strong they had to build another 70.” His car was retained by Datsun SA for a few years but ended up languishing in storage as part of their historic press fleet. Fast-forward to the mid-’90s and he acquired it after a friend, who worked for Nissan South Africa, alerted him to it being available. “Back then it was just a nice, original example. I didn’t know it was one of the prototypes until I needed to replace the head gasket and got in touch with the guys from the Z register in the UK,” he explains. “As soon as they saw the VIN number they started jumping up and down about it being a special car.”

DSC_0700.JPG

His Opalescent Blue 240Z has barely 30 000km on the clock and is fantastically original, apart from the paint and wheel covers. “It needed a re-spray as it had various scratches and small dents from being moved around in storage over the years, but that was it.” The wheel covers are the correct 240Z production hubcaps that the collector elected to put on, but he has the original Cosmic alloys – which this show car wore – in storage.

Inside it’s impressively unworn – as you’d expect for the mileage – and the expanse of shiny ever-so-ʼ60s blue vinyl is all in tip-top shape, down to the quilted diamond pattern covering the transmission tunnel and suspension turrets (if cynics doubt that Matsuo’s team had a good look at the likes of Ferrari’s 250 before picking up their pencils, that will silence them).

Lift the bonnet and it all looks equally factory-fresh, down to the portable leadlight that you can unclip and use if needed – 45 years on the original bulb in it still works! As a pre-production example, it boasts a few finishes that didn’t make it down the assembly line, including the rear vents near the bottom of the tailgate (those were found to let fumes into the cabin) and the manual throttle control on the centre console. It also has a genuine wood-rimmed steering wheel which was switched to less harmful imitation wood (that won’t splinter in a prang) in the production variant.

DSC_0577.JPG

Underneath, the car has a three-piece propshaft which Datsun found finnicky to balance, so it was substituted with a more conventional two-piece item. And there’s little in the way of sound proofing in the doors on the pre-production cars too, meaning they close with an alarmingly tinny ‘wang’ – a noise not unlike those from a door on a Datsun 120Y.

But driving it today it’s easy to see why this GT coupé was so well received. To start with, it’s very comfortable – Goertz was apparently at pains to get Datsun’s designers to accommodate the typical American physique – and the driving position is inspiring: you sit deep and quite far back (near the rear axle), arms outstretched and drink in the view of the bulge topping that gorgeously long bonnet – very E-type. And with 155bhp and just over a tonne to haul along, the little Z coupé is quick off the mark, pulling like the proverbial train above 3 000rpm and all the way to its lofty 6 500rpm redline.

The gearbox has a tight gate... in fact it needs precise operation not to flummox gear changes... but that gives it an unexpected character – for a Japanese car, at least. The steering is refreshingly crisp and decisive in feel too, while the independent rear end makes for a relatively supple ride although it’s not as refined as an E-type. The engine’s not in the same league from a refinement point of view either, but it’s unmistakably a ‘six’ with a throaty drone much like you get with a Mercedes Pagoda. But that’s no coincidence: the basic design for the overhead cam unit came from a collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and Prince earlier in the decade, before the latter was taken over by Datsun.

DSC_0705.JPG

Handling wise it feels relatively neutral (although there’s mild understeer in corners at low speeds, thanks to the weight of the six-cylinder engine upfront) but it’s easily and predictably translated into oversteer as you explore the performance. It’s that predictability (along with the impressive straight-line urge and sheer reliability) that made 240Zs so formidable on rally circuits. Datsun had already made its mark on the 1970 Safari when Edgar Herrman and Hans Schuller took victory (the first for a Japanese car maker) in a 1600SSS and the pair consummately repeated the feat in a 240Z the following year. The model was also successful on the notoriously tricky Monte Carlo with a third place at the hands of Rauno Aaltonen and Jean Todt in ’72.

The 240Z was campaigned locally too, most notably in the 1972 Rand Daily Mail 9 Hour at Kyalami, although it failed to finish at the hands of Rob Grant and Alain Lavoipierre after gearbox problems. There was success the following year though when Arnold Chatz and Geoff Mortimer took a Nissan works car to a sixth place (and first for a production car), while Nissan’s Kunimitsu Takahashi and Kenji Tohira piloted a 260Z pre-production car to fourth overall. Chatz and Mortimer took the 240Z to another sixth at Killarney a few weeks later too.

DSC_0683.JPG

Datsun’s first ‘Z’ coupé was in production until the end of ’73, when it was superseded by the 260Z which offered more power and torque – needed to maintain performance in the increasingly emissions-conscious US market – thanks to a 2.6-litre engine. It was also available as a 2+2, although that meant an increase in wheelbase of 300mm which compromised the design, although not as drastically as going 2+2 did with Jaguar’s E-Type. From 1975, the 260Z evolved into the 280Z but only in the US – the rest of the world got the 2+2 version known as the 280ZX.

And that was the first ‘Z’ to be made available here in SA as, despite this press car being shipped over, the model was never officially listed here. And neither was its successor, the 260Z. No, it was only in October ’82 that the 280ZX appeared in CAR magazine’s price guide, at R26 405 or R27 145 if you wanted a self-shifter. But, fully loaded with aircon and power steering – not to mention an interior similar to its Laurel saloon cousin – it was a lardy and pastiche take on the original.

The sheer demand over in the US is probably to blame for South Africans not getting the chance to savour the original Z: by the end of ’73 Datsun had built over 135 000 240Zs. Yet in the UK (a more important right-hand-drive market than SA, where Datsun was already making healthy inroads with the likes of its 1200 Bakkie and 1600SSS) just over 1 600 customers got the keys to one. It’s obvious the 240Z hit its target market so precisely that even the ever-thorough Japanese were caught off guard. Volume aside, it, along with Toyota’s exquisite 2000GT, is one of the country’s standout automotive prodigies. And if you want proof, then consider this: it’s the only Japanese car in this collection, which includes such motoring icons as a Blower Bentley, Ferrari Dino and Aston Martin DB2 MkIII. Enough said.

DSC_0686.JPG

Latest Motoring Articles

Browse our classic cars on auction
Visit Auctions
Inviting auction consignments
Selling Guide