1972 Datsun 240Z
1972 Datsun 240Z. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill vance

With the introduction of the Datsun 240Z in 1969, the affordable sports/grand touring car crown began passing from the British to the Japanese. In the face of impending safety standards, British Motor Corporation laid the beloved but ancient Austin-Healey to rest in 1968, and was allowing the famous MG name to die a slow death, although it had made a half-hearted attempt at updating with the MGB-derived MGC six. The Triumph TR6, TR7 and TR8 were brave attempts, but Britain’s sports car time was passing.

Other countries such as Germany and Italy were producing sports cars, too, but it had been the British that had really established the North American market for cars that were affordable and fun.

Japan had been concentrating on developing bread and butter sedans suitable for the North American market. Datsun (now called Nissan) had had its 1500/1600/2000 Sports models through the ’60s, but they had never been wildly successful.

Toyota’s technically sophisticated 2000GT, apparently built more as an engineering exercise than as a marketing venture, saw limited production. And Honda’s Sports models, the last of which was the S800, were too small for wide appeal.

This was the scene when the Datsun 240Z (called the Fairlady Z in Japan, and quickly dubbed the Z-car in North America) was announced in 1969. It was a signal that the Japanese were now serious about entering the sports-GT market.

Here was a brand-new approach: a technically modern, sharply styled, comfortable grand touring two-seater with sparkling performance and good reliability, all at an affordable price.

Datsun started with an almost clean sheet of paper for the 240Z, but to keep development costs reasonable some existing components were used.

For the Z’s engine, the sturdy 1,595-cc, overhead cam four from the 510 sedan was expanded to a six by adding two cylinders and using the 510’s reciprocating parts. The result was a 2,393-cc, single overhead cam, in-line six developing a lusty 150 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. For a slightly lower hood line, the engine was tilted approximately five degrees to the right.

Suspension was independent all around, with MacPherson struts in front and Chapman struts at the rear, where their upper mounts intruded into the cargo area. Rack-and-pinion steering was fitted, and brakes were power-assisted-disc front/drum rear.

Styling for the unit-construction coupe was largely the work of German-American industrial designer Albrecht Goertz, who had been associated with Raymond Loewy, famed for his trend-setting post-World War II Studebaker work. He had also designed the beautiful BMW 503 and 507 models of the ’50s, and now would now work his magic for Datsun.

Goertz created a fresh, contemporary design that incorporated some Jaguar, Ferrari and Porsche influences, not enough to be accused of blatant plagiarism, just enough to lend the 240 an air of exclusivity.

The two-seater coupe had the requisite long hood, short deck profile. The hood carried a power bulge, and its most notable front end styling feature was the: Ferrari-ish “sugar scoop” headlamps nestled in nacelle-like surrounds.

The interior offered full carpeting, comfortable seating for two, and room for a reasonable amount of luggage.

Well aware of the demands of the North American market, Datsun made an automatic transmission and air conditioning available right from the start.

The 240’s specifications impressed the motoring press. Road & Track magazine, which had called the Z “a real winner” on its first encounter, concluded after a test that it set “new standards of performance and elegance for medium-priced two-seat GT cars.”

R & T (4/70) reported that the 1,068 kg (2,355 lb) four-speed coupe could accelerate from rest to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 8.7 seconds and reach a top speed of 196 km/h (122 mph), excellent performance for the day. They concluded that its combination of styling, performance and handling was a “super-bargain,” far ahead of anything else under $4,000.

The buying public agreed. Close to 20,000 Z-cars were shipped to North America in 1970. That figure would rise to annual sales in the 50,000 range by 1973, the 240’s last year.

The Z-car evolved into larger and more powerful 260Z and 280Z versions, with ultimate production exceeding half a million by the time they were discontinued in 1978, to be replaced by the ZX series.

But it was the original 240Z that set a new standard for sports-GT cars, established the Japanese as a power in that market, and in the process created a new image for Datsun.

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