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Big Sam! - Driven: Datsun 240Z Club racer

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Long-time racer Mark Hales is reunited on-track with a past adversary - a Datsun 240Z club racer that has a big reputation and an even bigger personality

The brown and orange Datsun 240Z you see in these pictures, the one with the bulbous arches, big spoilers and period swirly signwriting, is a strange beast. Or rather, it’s not. Pretty conventional as a racing saloon of the time, the odd thing about it is that it has survived to be so recognizable today – especially when you consider it competed only briefly in British club racing in the 1970s and ’80s.

This is no works special, no international rally car, no world racer. The basic shell might have been driven at some time as a rally machine by Sikh hero Shekhar Mehta – who crashed it sufficiently hard to render it a write-off – but that might have been the shell that replaced the one Win Percy crashed at Brands, which might originally have been a rally shell, too. Except those were all right-hand drive and this was left-drive before it was converted... You see the problem.

Distance and language have ensured that the cult that 
follows the Z-cars is still discussing such details. This model would undoubtedly be worth more money if it was rebuilt in original works rally form – but then, it wouldn’t be Big Sam. For me, the origins before it became Large or Samuel are less interesting mainly because, unlike a great many modified motors from that period, this one is still very much as it was in 1974. And in 1981, when I raced against it with my Ford V6-powered Marcos. Yes, I have to confess to form when it comes to Big Sam – I had many a happy scrap with Martin Sharp, the former motorcycle racer who drove the car with hand controls. More of that in a moment, but first a bit of background.

The international motor-racing scene continues to be well documented by a host of respected commentators, but unless you were in and around club racing in the 1970s it’s hard to imagine where it sat in the great scheme. It was certainly more significant than it is now. There were high-profile firms headlining the various championships, whose status was more ‘National’ than ‘Club’. A few drivers even made the transition to international races – Win Percy being one, Steve Soper another. There were others, and it’s less likely to happen today.

Datsun 240Z Big Sam was a Modified Sports, or Modsports, car – a category which sat slightly below saloons but was still significant in the ’70s. The affordable two-seater has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, but in those days there were dozens of them. Porsches were available to those who could afford one, but Jaguar, Triumph, Austin-Healey and MG were all plentiful, as were Morgan, Lotus, Marcos, TVR, Jensen-Healey, Turner, Elva, Ginetta and a host of other specials. There were even a couple of Corvettes.

The Modsports regulations were reasonably free as far as the mechanicals were concerned, but you had to keep the original engine block and cylinder head, while the basic body had to stay as manufactured, apart from the usual glassfibre bonnet, boot, doors and wings. That much tended to favour the specials that already had fiberglass bodies.

The 240Z, though, was a steel-shelled volume car from a Japanese giant. Folklore says its inspiration was a mixture of Jaguar E-type and Healey 3000 ingredients, and that the Japanese engineers and stylists took the best bits and stirred them into a pot, hoping to cook up something with world appeal. Whether that’s true I have no idea, but by 1973 the Datsun 240Z was certainly on its way to world’s best-selling sports car status. That made it readily eligible for Modsports, but none appeared in England – maybe because it would have involved the destruction of an almost new and prestigious road car or, more likely, because a 2.4-litre engine seemed too small and the steel body too heavy to do real battle with the 3-litre Porsches in the over-2-litre division.

Meanwhile, the Nissan factory (‘Datsun’ was used only outside Japan) was engaged in an international rally programme – winning the 1971 and ’73 East African Safaris – and a lot of special parts were made for the cars. The rally shells were different, built on the same line as the volume machines but with thinner gauge outer panels and thicker chassis sections. These were the favourite basis for a circuit car and there were plenty of those, but almost exclusively in Japan.

The 240Z’s engine was a straight-six with a chain-driven single overhead cam, which bore a distinct resemblance to a Mercedes of the period (there’s no obvious link, so let’s say it was an inspiration). It was teamed with a five-speed ’box. Front suspension was Ford-simple MacPherson struts, while the back featured another pair of struts with big, pressed-steel lower links, an independent system not unlike that on the Lotus Elan. A centrally mounted differential turned driveshafts which were apparently interchangeable with those on the front-drive Austin 1800, a legacy of the previous links between the two companies.

The ‘Samuri’ connection which informs the car’s soubriquet was courtesy of a pair of Bedfordshire garagistes – Bob Gathercole and former Broadspeed cylinder head guru Spike Anderson. The latter was producing engine tuning parts for Datsuns in general and 240Zs in particular, and Gathercole had become a customer. A partnership was formed to find a wider market and the race car was seen as a promotional item. Modsports was the only category in which a 240Z could race, and having demonstrated winning potential
while hillclimbing another 240Z, Touring Car champion-to-be Win Percy was engaged as a driver. The spelling mistake in the handle was deliberate; someone else had already registered the name ‘Samurai’…

It was a brief but successful partnership: results included a National class title in 1974. Arguably the presence of a car such as the Datsun and its Porsche battles did a lot for Modsports’ profile, but by the end of the year Big Sam had passed to a new owner who used it for hillclimbs, and then another who raced it only occasionally. It ended up back with Anderson in 1981, who adapted it with hand controls for former works BSA rider Martin Sharp. The latter had lost the use of his legs in a horrible accident on the Isle of Man, and, but for the fortuitous route of the rescue helicopter on its way to another accident, my Marcos and I would never have raced against him in ’81...

They were good times, yet the Datsun’s reputation was still bigger than the sum of its success. Even if, all these years down the road, I’m about to find out first hand how that success might have been achieved, it is something only a few people could ever know... As I said at the start, strange was the wrong word to describe the car in its prime. It’s certainly different, and all the better for that.

Conventional was nevertheless a fair summary, even if that doesn’t give credit to the detail work by the people who put it together. Anderson worked his magic on the head, and a crank from a 2-litre Datsun was fitted to shorten the stroke so it could rev higher. Then the block was bored back to 2.4 litres to push out about 250bhp at 7500rpm. The engine was moved back in the shell to shift the weight distribution and a close-ratio Nissan sports ’box installed. More rally-bred parts such as shorter steering knuckles (for quicker steering) were sourced, and a set of vented discs and four-pot calipers from a CanAm car went on. The rest was simply the normal rebushing and stiffening of suspension that typified the breed at the time, but carefully and cleverly done. The car sat on a set of big slicks (originally 15in diameter, now 16in diameter and 10in wide at the front and 12in at the rear), while the body was completed by fiberglass wings, bonnet, tailgate and doors, plus those distinctive front and rear spoilers which the regulations of the time allowed. Given the car’s origins, the result was surprisingly light at just over 900kg.

By the time current owner Nick Howell found Big Sam in 1989, it was looking rather tired. Some of that was attributable to whichever shell’s original role as an international rally machine, some was a legacy of race-car shunts, some was simply the decay that has accounted for a great many road-going counterparts.

Howell – a former Fleet Street print worker turned supplier of pilchards to the major supermarkets – had the car fully restored by specialist Tim Riley (son of well known former rally drivers Peter and Ann, née Wisdom, Riley), all the time taking great care to keep its original appearance. That includes a quantity of rallying ripples, slightly wobbly fiberglass, signwriter’s script and the rear spaceframe which was probably fitted in the 1980s and bolts to the original Datsun mountings. The whole car nevertheless looks very tidy and genuinely exudes real period patina. It’s also a surprisingly good-looking lot, even with the spoilers. A long bonnet is a shove-in for the styling stakes, and if folklore’s Healey influence is hard to detect, the rest of the lines retain just enough of an E-type’s grace.

And so to Goodwood, where I am going find out what Messrs Percy and Sharp (sadlyno longer with us), not to mention fellow Octanier Tony Dron, who briefly campaigned the car for Howell in the ’90s, discovered long ago.

The cabin in which they sat is still bold and simple, with easy-to-read dials, a minimum of controls and the black plastic-blade Lucas switches that so perfectly define the period. A thankfully more modern seat is adjustable, and the car’s size and volume origins mean it’s immediately comfortable for legs and arms. A prominent revcounter sits straight ahead. I wait for the engine to warm, its smooth 2000rpm hum overlaid by a spluttering crackle from the big exhaust beneath the passenger door. Every so often I tap the pedal – once to clear out the fuel, then again to savour the way the motor spins up. It’s totally smooth to the touch and makes a mellifluous wail as only a straight-six can.

There’s nothing much below 3000rpm, and the engine drops away as quickly as it builds up, so at first I stagger away from Goodwood’s pit lane in a series of surges. I then remember the only way to manage a light flywheel is to hold the unit at about 4000rpm, gently ride a sharp clutch until it’s properly rolling, then pour it on. Crackle, cough, 4000rpm... wail. The car suddenly wakes up and comes alive.

Seven thousand. Shove the long gearlever forward and let it snick right. Second gear is close, and so is third, and fourth... The shift action is instant. I later discover that the ’box was built up by Tim Riley using a mix of American
hi-ratio rolling start ratios and European rally ratios, and that this item alone is now worth around £5000. It takes about half-a-lap to feel at home, despite a lovely new set of those 12-inch-wide Avon slicks that are barely losing their shine. And the Datsun already feels much smaller than it looks. Maybe it’s those spoilers, but then I remember the car is actually almost similar in dimensions to an Escort. However, it’s still the balance that immediately impresses. The thing that defines whether you feel confident quickly. Someone said the weight distribution is virtually equal front to rear. It certainly feels like it.

And yet because the major mass – the motor – is in the nose rather than behind you, that’s what loads up the front when you brake or come off the gas. Build up the speed now, ride it through the tricky double apex at Madgwick in fourth. Steering inputs are minimal, just a squeeze here, straighten up, then another squeeze. Pour on the power. It’s not a huge wallop, just a continuous pull. They said 7500rpm, but the car feels like it could go more... Later I learn it can – 8500rpm is perfectly safe, although the peak power is well done by then. It would help down the back straight, where I’m having to back off as I approach Woodcote. There the brakes are firm and bite hard, and the car just dips its nose and waits for you to aim it... Need to do that sooner, then.

It’s just so easy, and yet it’s certainly not underwhelming. More like it says: ‘Come on, is that all you’re going to make me do...?’ I’ve been working up to take Fordwater flat in fifth, but there’s a bit of initial slew from the tail just after I aim the nose. Been caught like that before. In the mists of time the car has been set different, the rear suspension bottoms out just as you load it. Down the dip and spit right, then backwards into the barriers. Best not... Ten-and-a-bit minutes pass in the space of eight delightful laps, and the flag falls. I come into the paddock where sometime Formula 5000 racer Ian Maguire, who is looking after the car, reckons the rear tyre pressures are too high. The outside edges of the slicks are still shiny. I’ve heard that sort of thing before and, while it may be absolutely true, it rarely makes a big difference to the handling. We’ll see, but only after a plate of shepherd’s pie in the old control tower...

In between I look round the car. I notice the tall, slim, in-line motor, which looks polished and shiny. It is set way back against the bulkhead, lost in a large-by-comparison engine bay. So simple, and so very different to today’s norm. Spot the spindly anti-roll bar – that’s different, too: in most front-motored saloons it’s the size of a tree stump. Must be that 50/50 weight distribution. And as I crawl underneath the back looking at the tubular links which replace the original pressed steel, the slicks look even bigger. They fill the arches and some more. No wonder there’s a lot of grip. And maybe that big front airdam-cum-spoiler is the reason the car points so well through the fast corners. Much the same were fitted to the works BMW CSLs in the 1970s.

Time for another go. Ian was right. That slight tail kick has gone, or at least it has on the quicker turns. Fordwater is now completely flat in top, and the theory about the spoiler makes even more sense. I start to notice the gentle but insistent kickback from the big front tyres, which keeps my hands moving like a juggler’s, and now the confidence inspired by the calmer tail lets me come off the brakes sooner, take in extra speed and lean the car on the front left tyre. It might even be possible to take No Name with just a lift, no braking. Meanwhile, at the chicane before the pits and at Lavant, the double-apex sequence leading to the bottom straight, the little slew from the tail is still there, and welcome. It points the nose in, then the car settles because I’ve taken off the lock and I can stomp the pedal to the floor.

All too soon it’s time to come in, and I’m left feeling that I could still have gone quicker and the car would let me. It’s not quite what we are here for, but I can’t help it... I’m still amazed by the amount of grip, the stability through the fast corners and on the brakes, the sweet engine, wailing exhaust and swift shift, and the way Big Sam points into the slow corners. And although 250bhp is quite a lot, when you find yourself wanting more all the time it means the chassis is working well.

It’s not often that I’ve found a car that I didn’t want to fiddle with, but not this. If they asked me to race it tomorrow, I would. In the words of the great Alain Prost: ‘Don’t touch a thing. The car is perfect. Just polish it and put it in the truck.’

Thanks to Nick Howell, Polygon Transport, historian Alan Thomas, Goodwood Motor Circuit and Bonhams.

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