Datsun 240Z: Taking the Japanese Sports Car to New Heights

Our Value Proposition series examines the intrinsic value of a model line that became a dynasty

by | May 22, 2019 | Value Proposition

Photo: Nissan

Datsun 240Z: Taking the Japanese Sports Car to New Heights

Our Value Proposition series examines the intrinsic value of a model line that became a dynasty

by | May 22, 2019 | Value Proposition

Photo: Nissan

It was, quite simply, a revelation.

In 1970, we already had the choice of several sub-$5,000 sports cars. Alfa Romeo’s lovable GTV, the Fiat 124 Sports Coupe, Porsche’s flat-4 914, the MGB GT, the Triumph GT6, and Opel’s forgettable GT to name a few. Then Datsun dropped the 240Z into the mix and, to quote Road & Track, it set “new standards in performance and elegance for medium-priced 2-seat GT cars.”

Datsun had been in the U.S. sports car market for years with its 2000 roadster series but failed to make much impact. The 2000 was nice enough and so like an MGB, there was a rumor some parts were interchangeable. They weren’t.

Early internal photo of what would become the Datsun 240Z Photo: Courtesy Nissan

Then, in early 1970, Datsun dealers began stocking Z cars on their lots, and our view of the sub-$5,000 sports car changed dramatically.

The profile was near perfect — long nose leading back to a fastback cabin. Wheels were located fore/aft where you wanted them. Viewed head-on, the Z car was dramatic for the day; going away, the taillights fit perfectly in the vertical tail.

Inside were the sort of sports seats enthusiasts expected, comfy with some side support. Tach and speedo were well-hooded directly ahead of the driver. Three gauges to the right atop the center console offered info on fuel level, oil pressure, and coolant temperature. Controls for the radio, heating, and such were positioned just below. The designers got it right because all were in the logical places and easily reached.

1970 Datsun 240Z  Photo: Courtesy Nissan

Under the expansive hood resided a 2,393-cc overhead-cam inline-6. It was a derivation of the 1,595-cc four in the highly regarded (1971 Trans-Am champion) Datsun 510 sedan, right down to the same bore, stroke, pistons, connecting rods, and bearings. Fed by a pair of Hitachi-SU carbs, the 9.0:1 compression ratio produced 150 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. The standard transmission was a 4-speed manual, with a 3-speed automatic being optional.

The front suspension was a MacPherson strut design borrowed from the 1800 Laurel sedan, while out back was a similar layout. Steering was by rack and pinion, with front disk brakes, rear drums.

In its day, the 2,355-lb 240Z got from zero to 60 mph in 8.7 sec — quickest in its class. A 122-mph top speed was the car’s reported zenith.

The 240Z’s base price? A tempting $3,526. Compare that to the $5,200 of the 1970 Chevrolet Corvette coupe and maybe it wasn’t so much a revelation as a revolution.

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Born in 1909, in Hamamatsu, Yutaka Katayama (Mr. K) put together the key concepts for the Z-car and laid the foundations for Nissan North America. Photo: Courtesy Nissan

While its name in the U.S. market was the Datsun 240Z, the car’s name in Japan and some other locales was Fairlady Z. It seems that Katsuji Kawamata, then president of Nissan, had seen the Broadway musical “My Fair Lady” and was so taken by it that it inspired the name he put on the sports car. Yutaka Katayama, the legendary “Mr. K” who ran Nissan in the U.S., thought Fairlady Z might not be appropriate for the American market and had the name changed to 240Z for the States.

By any name, car magazines loved the Datsun sports car. Car and Driver enthused, “The difference between the Datsun 240Z and your everyday three-and-a-half thousand dollar sports car is that about twice as much thinking went into the Datsun. It shows. For the money the 240Z is an almost brilliant car.”

Road & Track compared the Japanese sports car with the MGB GT and Porsche 911T because the 240Z had the price of the British car but the performance of the German.

Nissan would build 168,584 240Zs from 1969-1973. It was replaced for one year by the 2.6-liter 260Z before the 2.8-liter 280Z took over.

A racing BRE Datsun 240Z at Orange County Raceway 1972 Photo: Courtesy the BRE Collection and Nissan

Mr. K knew racing helped establish a sports car’s reputation and so had two U.S. factory teams, Bob Sharp in the East and Peter Brock’s BRE in the West. The results were immediate when John Morton raced a BRE Z car to the SCCA’s 1970 and 1971 C Production national championships. And the cars keep racing. Larry Cooper from Sparks, Nevada, competed in a 1971 240Z in E Production at the 2018 SCCA National Runoffs. As recently as 2015, Greg Ira of Plantation, Florida, took the SCCA EP title in a ’71 Z. Many of us went through Bob Bondurant’s racing school in Z cars at what used to be called Sears Point Raceway.

The car has quite a history, and it is one worth saving. Google “Datsun 240Z for sale” and you’ll find a slew of them for under $30,000. We went to Howard Swig, who heads auctions for Bring a Trailer, to get his thoughts on 240Z values and futures.

The Fairlady Z, known as the 240Z in most export markets, was the overall winner of the 19th Safari Rally in April 1971 . Photo: Courtesy Nissan

“The 240Z is popular for a lot of reasons,” Swig told us. “Probably among the top of those is that it’s one of those cars that appeal to a multi-generational segment of buyers. I think there are guys in their 20s who think the Z’s are cool and aspire to own one. I know there are guys in their 60s and 70s actively bidding on and buying them on Bring a Trailer. So it is of interest to a huge group of collectors and future collectors.”

The fact that a very clean, fun-to-drive 240Z won’t clear out a bank account is another reason for the car’s continuing popularity.

“Like any car, the difference between great and mediocre is large, so you can still buy and drive a 240Z for 20 grand,” Swig said. “Really nice ones, either really original or cars that have been restored to a high standard, seem to trade in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, the higher end of the Z market. Then again, we just sold a really exceptional example for $68,000, which on Bring a Trailer was the highest 240Z result to date.”

1972 Datsun 240Z Photo: Courtesy Nissan

The fact that the 240Z was popular in its day means a lot of examples of the car still exist.

“They made a lot of them, and they have a relatively high survival rate,” Swig said. “Parts availability is good, and the general cost to maintain and service Z cars compared to a lot of European cars is very affordable.”

Another plus is that the 240Z, while not modern, is a very drivable car that combines good handling limits with reasonable creature comforts.

The 240Z’s long racing history includes 2013 SCCA E-Production Champion Greg Ira and his 240Z. Photo: Courtesy Nissan

“It’s a nice automobile to sit in for nine hours if you’re on a road trip or a rally,” said Swig, who has completed a long-distance rally in a Z car. “It’s a big six, so it’s got some power and it’s relatively exciting to drive.”

Swig says that not only has the market value of the car gone up, he also expects it to escalate still further. And he has these hints:

“I think there is a small premium for the Series One cars, the ’69 and ’70s,” he said. “The early serial numbers that have some unique features. Will they ever cross the $100,000 mark? I do think in the near future you will see one at a highly exposed public auction that will transaction for that.”

For a sports car that originally sold for $3,526 that would be another revelation.

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