Wednesday, January 26, 2011

History: 40 Years of the Z

In the late sixties, the recipe for a great sports car was pretty simple. Give the car a long front hood to bury a powerful inline-6 engine into and a sloping nose for aerodynamics. Place the passenger compartment back over the rear wheels in a coupe silhouette, and if possible make it a 2+2 for added convenience. Finally, direct the power to the rear wheels, design the car to be sleek and tune the engine and suspension to work a little better than your bread-and-butter cars, and you’ve got yourself a winner. This was the plan when two small Japanese manufacturers joined forces in the mid ‘60s to build an affordable sports car. Nissan and Yamaha partnered the project to improve both companys’ images, however by 1964, Nissan was unhappy with the power that the 2.0L DOHC Yamaha engine was producing and the two parted ways. Yamaha would then take the project to Toyota, and soon the iconic 2000GT was the dream of many a driving enthusiast in Japan and all over the world.

Witnessing the success of the 2000GT, then-President of Nissan USA, Mr. Yetaka Katayama felt that there was a need for an affordable sports GT car in the Nissan line-up. The company already had a very popular roadster, the Fairlady, which was inspired by the standard British roadster of the day, only it was vastly more reliable and much better handling. But the company did not have a GT to take on both the British and Italian sports coupes. So it was back to the drawing board with the lessons learned from the Yamaha venture. In 1966, a prototype was mocked up, designed to be stylish, innovative, fast, and relatively inexpensive through the use of interchangeable parts with other Nissan vehicles. Little did they know the importance of what they had created.

The first Z-car, the 240Z, was released to the world in 1969 with two separate models, one for the Japanese market and one for the American market. The Japanese Fairlady Z featured a SOHC L20A inline-6 producing 129 hp, while the American Datsun 240Z featured a 2.4L L24 inline-6 with twin Hitachi SU-type carburetors that produced 151 hp. A third Z, the 432Z shared a performance version of the DOHC 2.0L S20 engine with the Nissan Skyline.

The car’s supercar styling of the day and affordable price tag made it a hit in North America, where it sold 135,000 units under the Datsun name between 1969 and 1973. Despite the differences between the Asian and North American models, all Zs were built at the Nissan Shatai plant in Hiratsuka. Once the American-bound cars arrived, Katayama (aka “Mr. K”) would ensure all Nissan badging would be replaced by Datsun badging before shipment to dealerships. The “240” in the American naming stood for the engine displacement, which was 2.4L.

In 1974, the 240 would become the 260, as Nissan increased the displacement of the inline-6 to 2.6L. Ironically, with new emissions regulations in the States demanding internal modifications to meet the standards, the bigger engine actually produced less power than the 240. Everywhere else in the world the 260Z was a 153 hp sports car, but stateside, the 2.6L was limited to 139 hp, 12 hp less than the 240Z. The new 260Z also had the option of 2+2 seating.

Mr. K wanted to see the 260Z be a proper performance evolution of the 240 in America. So, in 1975, to combat the regulations at that time, the 280Z was introduced only in North America with an even larger 2.8L engine that now could produce the performance the car required to be a proper sports car, and to help move a car that was becoming increasingly heavy with modern luxuries and safety requirements. The new 2.8L would feature Bosch fuel injection instead of carburetion, that would help emissions and produce 170 hp.

A second generation of the Z-cars would come in 1979 with the introduction of the Nissan 280ZX. This was an impressive complete redesign of the styling to bring the iconic ‘60s sports car into the modern era, and a beautiful car it was. Owners still had the choice of 2 or 2+2 seating, as well as an available T-tops roof. Mechanically speaking, the ZX was exactly the same as the American 280Z with its 2.8L and 5-speed gearbox, but Nissan would jump into the popular turbocharging game a year later, producing the 280ZX Turbo which bumped power up to 180 hp and 203 lb-ft. These improvements only strengthened the brand, as Nissan sold 86,000 units in the first year alone.

However in 1984, engine and turbocharging technologies where changing at an ever increasing rate, and it wasn’t long before the 280ZX was replaced with the third generation 300ZX. The new car featured an all-new engine for the first time, a 3.0L V6 dubbed the VG series. In naturally aspirated form, the engine was good for 160 hp, while a turbocharged equivalent fetched an impressive 200 hp. With yet another all-out styling change, the 300 led the futuristic craze, a technique that worked well as Nissan sold another 70,000 units.

The 300ZX would drive on for another six years, with the Shatai plant pumping out 330,000 examples of the third generation. In 1990, the 300 got another makeover, but this time, the car meant business. The fourth generation 300ZX was a sleek and aerodynamic affair that took performance capabilities well past anything the original designers of the 240Z could have imagined. The displacement of the VG engine remained the same; however, with the aid of variable valve timing, the power of the NA jumped to 222 hp and 198 lb-ft, while a new twin-turbo version was pumping out an outstanding 300 hp and 283 lb-ft. The Z had now developed to the point were it wasn’t just imitating exotics, it was now competing with them directly. The resulting impact of these changes meant that American Z-car sales reached the one million mark, making it the all-time best-selling sports car.

With the success of the 300ZX, inevitably the price had to climb, to the point where turbos were fetching over $50,000 USD. The car may have been setting performance records for the company, but the original concept of an affordable sports car for the average man was coming out of touch. Then in 1996, with Nissan in financial troubles and concentrating on building SUVs, the dream came to an end. The iconic Z car was doomed to the same fate that awaited nearly every Japanese sports car and the program was canceled.

Nissan did not take the same direction as the others, however, the company went through some hard times in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, flirting with bankruptcy on a couple of occasions. Then, French carmaker Renault, a company with a history of doing things differently and against the grain, stepped in and bought Nissan in 1999. The charismatic company head, Carlos Ghosn pronounced, “We will build the Z, and we will make it profitable.” And so, the 350Z, then the 370Z with a 3.7L modular V6, was returned to us. It is a car that pays homage not only to the original design of the earlier cars, but also brings back that joy of driving, a characteristic lost in so many of today’s modern cars.

In a time where safety, fuel efficiency, mass appeal and cost of building dominates the makeup of the cars we drive, the modern Z is a joyful release that reminds us what made driving fun in the first place.


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