The Datsun 240Z has to be one of the most iconic sports cars of all time. The Japanese introduced it in 1969, a week after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Comparing the two might strike you as a little far-fetched, but if you’re a car nut the 240Z was a major milestone. Here was a car that looked like it cost a lot more money than it actually did, combined with serious sports car performance – quite an achievement 40 years ago.
I might not have stretched my legs on the lunar surface, but I did get to do something almost as exclusive: I drove one of the rare Japanese-only 240Zs from the period, a privilege that required a private road just to ensure nothing untoward happened to it.
The Japanese-market version is distinguished by a longer front end than the export model’s. Other features include glass covers over the headlights, and wing mirrors halfway down the hood. A lot of people hate those mirrors but I think they enhance the Z’s 1970s cool, while inside, the gauges, the thin, simulated-wood steering wheel and the switchgear all bring a sepia-tinted tear to the eye. It even smells of the 1970s in here.
What’s remarkable about the 240Z is how practical it remains to this day, being easy to drive and fun with it. It’s a reflection of how profound an impact the car had when it first arrived in the West at the start of the 1970s. Nissan studied what Americans and Europeans liked when designing the car – the flared rear end, the long hood, all the little styling cues they thought Westerners would go for. And they got it right, too – the car was like a mini Jaguar E-type that cost only half as much.
Driving one of them now is full of nostalgia for baby-boomers like me. All of which makes me think that what Nissan needs – Datsun having been phased out a long time ago, of course – is a new version of this iconic automobile. Nissan thinks so too, which is why, after getting the chance to drive the original 240Z, I went to the Nissan Technical Centre in Atsugi, Kanagawa. I was there to meet chief creative design officer Shiro Nakamura, a friend of mine (and an awesome bass player, incidentally), to find out if the company is going to go one better than NASA and actually make another 240Z, perhaps to celebrate Nissan’s 80th birthday.
Shiro took me to look at a first-generation 240Z. Unlike the hirsute ’70s feel of the version I drove, this is the car in its purest form, pretty much exactly as it left the factory.
I’m still surprised that it’s such a big car. Other Japanese sports cars at the time were toys by comparison, whether the little jewel that was the Honda 600, the Wankel-engined Mazda Cosmo or the beautiful Toyota GT. Bond fans will remember that Sean Connery appeared in a GT in You Only Live Twice. The car had the roof sawn off; they had to turn it into a ‘convertible’ just to fit his head inside. In contrast to these, the 240Z had room to spread out, with a 2.4-liter six-cylinder engine that was big by Japanese standards.
Under Shiro’s guidance, Nissan’s designers have been in the process of coming up with the potential redux of the 240Z. On the design board on the wall were sketches of profiles of all the variations on the car since the first in 1969, some of which drifted a long way from the design ethos behind the original.
But from a sketch of what might potentially be the new 240Z, the suggestion is that the design is returning to that original shape, and I’m excited about that. To my mind, this first generation of the 240Z was always the purest.
Shiro asked me which part of the 240Z I like best. I put my hand on one of the rear haunches of the car and told him that the whole back end is great. I love the practicality of the hatchback and the space available. You could actually go on a trip and take more than just a pair of gloves.
After browsing the design board, Shiro suggested I sit down with one of his designers for ten minutes and design a 240Z myself. Design a 240Z in ten minutes? How hard can that be? I explained that I like the way the rear comes up and flows, that aerodynamic look to it, but that the retro kind of shape should have some exciting new things on it, like LED lights.
After Shiro’s young designer had done his stuff, the result was an attractive update on a timeless classic, even if I do say so myself. I just hope Nissan goes on to create the new 240Z, and I hope it keeps the name. You could get some serious horsepower out of 2.4 liters now, and if Nissan keeps it light and maybe puts a V6 in there, I think it would be a really exciting car. The perfect way to celebrate Nissan’s 80th anniversary, in fact.