FABULOUS AT FIFTY - DATSUN 240Z

by J. F. MacPherson

It's generally accepted that it's impolite to make a point of a lady's age, but we're making an exception. The Datsun 240Z is looking pretty darn good for fifty.

Originally launched in October 1969, this racy two-seater Japanese fastback coupé with styling that had definite overtones of a modernised, sharper-nosed nod to the Jaguar E-Type, didn't properly hit British roads until 1971.

Starting in the UK at around £2,389, the 240Z was in a similar price bracket to the Reliant Scimitar GTE (£2,379), the Alfa Romeo  2000GTV (£2,439), the Lotus Plus2S 130 (£2,659) and the pricier Jaguar E-Type (£2,882), all of which offered some serious competition in terms of performance or interior space.

Datsun 240Z 1973 front

The Datsun came well fitted in terms of standard specifications. The only optional extras when it first hit the UK market were safety belts, radio, spot lights and fog lights. It boasted a heated rear window (useful in a two-seater),  a petrol filler lock, reclining seats and a light in the engine compartment. The latter could be unclipped and moved around for better viewing of that gutsy six cylinder engine.

Other cars may have out-performed the 240Z on the road, though it was definitely no slouch, but the Datsun came in well on price and, perhaps more importantly for its continuation in the market, profitability.

​'A sports car doesn't have to be luxurious. It should be affordable so that anyone can own one, it should be easy to maintain, and it should be something that you can enjoy without having to spend too much money.'

 

Yukata Katayama 'father' of the Z-cars

Sports car manufacturing has always been a costly process, due largely to the demands of performance impacting comparatively low sales volumes, which is inevitably reflected in their retail prices.

VITAL STATISTICS

  • Unitary chassis

  • Steel body

  • All-independent suspension

  • MacPherson struts & coil springs front & rear

  • 6 cylinder

  • Chain-driven overhead cam

  • Cast iron engine block

  • Aluminium cylinder head

  • 2393cc

  • 83mm bore

  • 73.7mm stroke

  • Power 151 bhp @ 5600rpm

  • Torque 145.7 lb/ft @ 4400rpm

  • Compression ration 9:1

  • Twin Hitachi SU-type carburettors

  • Final drive ratio 3.9:1

  • 5 speed, all synchro gearbox

  • Disc front brakes, drums on rear

  • Rack & pinion steering, 2.7 turns to full lock

  • Combined fuel consumption (approx) 25mpg

  • Extra-urban fuel consumption (approx) 31mpg

Nissan (owner of Datsun) however, ever pragmatic, reused components from other existing models including their Laurel saloons (not originally sold in the UK), helping to bring better economies of scale to what is essentially a niche automotive market.

Even the engine was based on their existing 1595cc 510 four-cyclinder overhead cam unit, upgraded at minimal cost by the simple expedient of adding two more cyclinders and keeping the original dimensions.

The 240Z shares styling cues with the Jaguar E-Type, the MG B-GT and the Triumph GT6, giving the 240Z an assertive, fast look, even when standing still. Its British contemporaries (within the same price range), were far more conservative, helping to put the 240Z firmly into the marketing spot being enjoyed by the like of MG and Lotus.

On  longer journeys, the Datsun had an advantage with a five speed gearbox that leant itself well to long-legged, high speed cruising.

Although the 240Z was well received by both buyers and the press, early reviews of the interior were not uniformally glowing.

Motorsport Magazine's road test review in March 1972, described the interior of their test car as being a 'particularly nasty shade of light "cardboard" brown' that 'generally exuded a plastic look'. 

This increased use of plastic in interiors, was something everyone became used to as the seventies progressed.

Datsun 240Z 1973 rear

​'Eventually I came up with the concept of the Z-car. It was a sports car with a sleek body with a long nose and a short deck, designed so that it could be built utilizing some of the parts and components that were already used in our other production cars... Fortunately it became a big hit and we were soon turning out 4,000 units a month. Then we began to deploy dedicated production lines to keep up with demand.'

 

Yukata Katayama

Yukata Katayama, often referred to as the father of the Z-cars, is the person who was largely responsible for widening Nissan's comfort zone to include more obviously sporty models, including Teruo Uchino's Datsun 510 (sometimes referred to as 'the poor man's BMW').

Katayama, often called simply Mr K, understood the market and its desires. His seemingly instinctive insight was brought into even greater focus by his time in Los Angeles, where he was sent in 1960 to establish Nissan Motors in the USA. This is where the Z-cars were born.

The original design for the 240Z came from the pen of Yoshihiko Matsuo. He had taken it to Mr K, who immediately recognised its potential.

The result was what was internally called the S30, known in Japan as the Fairlady.

The latter name was not one that was likely to warm the hearts of American buyers whe the car was launched there, so Mr K replaced the Fairlady badges on the newly shipped cars with the distinctive, and now iconic, circle and 240Z branding (Series II cars featured a Z in a circle).

​'We were immediately impressed by the design of the controls, both those operated by feet and hands. The pedals made heeling and toeing easy and there was a good footrest for the left shoe.'

Motorsport Magazine, March 1972

​'...we're not selling empty bodies called cars. Rather, we sell "driving performance" or a "driving experience". We earn money by offering this driving experience to our customers.'

Yukata Katayama

A proven racing pedigree is an effective car sales tool. One of Datsun's earliest forays into the racing circuit was in 1958 Mobilgas Round-Australia Trial with two Datsun 988cc 210 saloons. Despite strong opposition, one of the 210s won in the up to 1,000cc class (the other coming fourth) launching the Datsun name to the world.

Race podia were generally dominated up to the second half of the 1960s by European and American marques. The sport was changing, though, in many ways. Up to then, racing was largely the preserve of private racing teams, but big corporations were about to change the game forever.

The outcome of Datsun's first foray into American racing (with the Datsun 2000 Roadster) was not what Mr K. had been hoping for, but Peter Brock of BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises) was to alter that. BRE had won the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Pacific Coast Championship (D Class) in 1969 in a Datsun 2000 roadster. Brock made contact with Katayama and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

The Datsun 240Z has been raced successfully in the SCCA, ARRC (asia Road Racing Championship) and FIA (Groups 1&3), as well as numerous rallies and road races.

Fifty years on, the styling of the Datsun 240Z still sits it firmly amongst the iconic greats of sporting coupés, It is arguably the car that forever changed not only Japanese car design, but also of Western perceptions of Japanese automotive manufacturers.

 

Whilst 'Jap' for some would continue to have pejorative overtones in respect of cars (more so than motorcycles), the 240Z proved that the Japanese auto industry could build comfortable, stylish and reliable cars that buyers truly wanted to own and, more importantly, really wanted to drive.

Datsun 240Z classic Japanese sports car
Datsun 240Z Sports advert 1972
J.F. MacPherson

Acknowledgements: Nissan Global, FIA, Motorsport Magazine

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