For years, Nissan had failed to replicate the raw thrills of the original Z-car, the legendary 240Z of 1969, producing a series of bloated replacements that pandered to the American market.
But then came the 300ZX, which – via two distinct incarnations – evolved to restore the lustre to the tarnished Z range that still shines brightly today.
We trace the car’s transformation from worthy 1980s sports coupé to the full-blooded Japanese performance masterpiece of the Nineties – the potent Z32.
The Datsun 240Z caused something of a sensation when it was unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1969.
Here was a Japanese car that broke the mould; still cheap, as you’d expect from the Land of the Rising Sun in those days, but also great looking and fast.
With the profile of an E-Type in the footprint of a Porsche 911, the 240Z quickly became the world’s best-selling sports car, thanks largely to its popularity in America.
Autocar said there was a “tendency to describe the 240Z as the natural successor to the Big Healey…but so much more comfortable, so much roomier and so much better handling that comparisons are difficult”. “There is no denying, however, that the character is there,” it added, all wrapped up in a modern and affordable package.
Donald Healey himself was reported to have been a fan, but very few made it to the UK thanks to import taxes that made it £700 more expensive than a 3-litre Ford Capri.
It was a different story in America, where it was cheaper than comparable British sports cars and the home-grown Corvette.
Of the 150,076 240Zs made before it bowed out in 1973, a startling 146,000 went to the US, sowing the seeds for the future Z-cars’ gradual downfall as the sort of agile road racer loved by Europeans.
Through the larger-engined 260Z, longer-wheelbased 2+2 and 280ZX boulevardier, the Z-cars slowly lost their sporting edge as an uncomplicated driver’s car gave way to a more luxurious feel aimed at the huge American market.
The cars became longer, wider, heavier and much, much softer.
Arrival of the 300ZX
And then came the 300ZX, which joined the fray in 1983, utilising a new alloy-headed 2960cc V6 with Garrett turbocharger, developing 228bhp at 5400rpm and 242lb ft torque at 4400rpm.
The numbers were impressive – its performance was comparable to a Porsche 944 Lux Coupe – so was this the car to bring back the Z-car’s sparkle?
Not quite yet, according to road-testers of the day, with the Z31 model making up some, but not all, of the ground lost over the years.
Autocar, writing in August 1984, said turbo lag off the mark and relatively mild boost at the top end made it “not feel particularly exhilarating”.
“It is only when the stopwatch shows up the reality of the car’s behaviour that you realise how deceptive that on-the-road feel can be,” it reported.
“What the 300ZX may lack in gut-grabbing getaway it gains in exceptional flexibility…accelerating from 10mph in fourth gear.”
It may have been deceptive, but there was no getting away from the fact that it was quick, hitting 60mph in 7.2 seconds on its way to a top speed of 137mph.
Cheap, though, it wasn’t. At £17,205 the 300ZX was in Mercedes 280CE territory, and nearly £10,000 more than a Capri 2.8i and almost £6,000 more than a Toyota Supra.
“It could be that in some measure, you’re paying for the Z-car cachet, the fondly lingering memory of that 240Z,” the magazine said.
“The Nissan may be the fastest Z-car yet, it may be well equipped, it may be comfortable and chuckable, and it does build on a legendary tradition. Perhaps its only failing – apart from the price – is that in pandering to the Americans it has developed that tradition away from the British taste.”
It was an impression confirmed by What Car?, who got hold of a test car in December 1984 and said “…the sad fact is that the 300ZX is still designed with the Yankee Dollar very much in mind”.
“It’s not a car to get the adrenaline pumping, but it’ll still get you where you want to go quicker than most,” it wrote.
“It lacks the intangible excitement a supercar should have. It tries very hard to be a supercar, and it certainly has a supercar price tag, but the end result is simply another efficient, unexciting Japanese two-seater.”
It wasn’t all negative though, the magazine describing it as “the meanest looking yet, with sharp, angular lines, huge fat tyres and an air of ‘muscle’ that some more exclusive cars have trouble emulating”.
“It’s quick, quiet, reasonably refined, and has sporting handling that should delight the enthusiast.”
A 50th anniversary special edition was created for 1984, celebrating the year when Nissan took control of Datsun, with a silver and black colour scheme, a digital dash and extra gauges including average mileage, G-force and compass readouts, plus in-car electronic adjustable shocks, Bodysonic speakers in the seats, cruise and radio controls in the steering wheel.
By 1987, there were signs that Nissan was on the right road when the Z31 received a new, watercooled turbocharger that gave better performance, shaving the 0-60mph time to 7 seconds flat and increasing top speed to 143mph.
A slight facelift, making the car more rounded and featuring flared wheelarches over wider tyres, gave it a more aggressive stance to go with its bigger punch.
Autocar, having lamented Nissan’s Z-car “identity crisis”, praised the latest effort to make their once-firecracker sports car fun to drive again.
“It started out as a sports car with the original ‘Z’ and then slowly degenerated into a soggy, overweight sports coupe the Americans seem to love,” it said.
“Perhaps now the 300ZX Targa Turbo is re-emerging as a more convincing and desirable sports coupe compromise – it’s the best attempt to date, though American influence in its steering and ride quality remain.”
Price, in the UK at least, was once again an issue, at £21,412 on the road it was still significantly more expensive than its Japanese performance competitors, the Supra and the Mitsubishi Starion.
In 1988, the Shiro Special became the fastest car to come out of Japan, capable of 153mph with the electronic speed limiter disabled.
A total of 1,002 were produced for the US market, and all featured pearl white paint, stiffer springs and matched shocks, a unique front air dam, paint-matched wheels, Recaro seats and a viscous limited slip differential.
The Z-car is back: the Z32
When the new-generation 300ZX, the Z32, was launched, everything changed.
Smooth, voluptuous lines with a high, stumpy tail, the new car looked the part, but that only told half the story.
As CAR magazine said in March 1990, you could “forget everything you ever thought about Nissan”.
Under the bonnet was a 3.0-litre, 24-valve V6 producing 280bhp – indeed, it was the first car to be marketed following the introduction of a gentleman’s agreement that limited power to 280bhp.
But it didn’t need any more, the twin turbos helping to propel the Nissan into supercar performance territory, hitting 60mph in 5.7 seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph.
And while the Z31 had fairly impressive statistics, it was the way in which its successor delivered its power that finally restored the Z-car reputation for pure, unalloyed fun.
“Forget all you ever knew about Nissan’s previous 300ZX, taller, longer and narrower than the successor that shares its name, but not much else…a different animal of far superior stock,” said CAR.
“(This is) one of the great sports machines; super-fast, well-balanced and handsome.
“It looks terrific, sounds potent, menacing. It compels attention. The car has a butch elegance, an imposing presence. Slip inside the inviting cabin and you’re imbued with a sense of well-being, an urge to twist the key and go.
“Drive Japan’s latest wondercar and you’re immediately hooked, seduced by its scorching performance and brilliant handling.
“Here was a new star, an icon that exceeds expectations by a larger margin than most hyped-up muscle cars fall short of them.”
High praise, indeed, and a welcome return to form that pitched the 300ZX into a new battleground.
The £35,000 asking price was steep compared with its traditional rivals, but such was its quality, refinement and performance it now had a new target in its sights – Porsche.
“The 300ZX really is like a Porsche 944 Turbo and 928S4 rolled into one. Porsche now has a serious rival that it cannot begin to match on price,” enthused the magazine.
“(It) thrusts with explosive muscle that’s as impressive for its effortlessness as for its venom. The shove that buries your back is everything you’d expect.
“Steering is responsive, clean, bereft of twitchiness. Body control through S-bends is impeccable. Few big cars can change direction so positively and cleanly.”
The new 300ZX was famously advertised during Super Bowl XXIV in 1990, a 60-second dream sequence directed by Ridley Scott that placed the car in a Mad Max-style sci-fi landscape, out-running a sports motorcycle, an F1 car and a fighter jet.
It was pulled after just one airing after concerns that it promoted street racing.
In the UK, the car was only available as a twin turbo, 2+2 targa, but was offered in the Japanese Domestic Market with a range of trim variations not available elsewhere, including the Version R with Recaro front seats, later versions of which had side skirts, revised front bumper and rear spoiler, and Xenon headlamps on the twin turbo.
With the American market increasingly favouring SUVs by the mid 1990s, and Yen / Dollar exchange rates becoming less favourable, sales in North America ended in 1996.
But the car continued to be produced in Japan until 2000 before it was replaced by the 350Z, a sporty two-seater in keeping with the original 240Z.
Owning a 300ZX
“Every time I take it for a drive it’s dramatic,” says Joel Pickering, an aviation engineer who has owned his 1993 Z32 for 11 years.
“It feels special. When compared to a normal daily driver, it’s a drama.”
Joel’s Japanese import has been sympathetically modified in OEM+ form, little changed on the outside but with more low-down grunt from uprated turbos, Skyline brakes, a tweaked ride height and 19in Volk Racing wheels.
It’s transformed a car already boasting ‘90s supercar performance into one that can more than keep up with its modern equivalents.
The fact that the Nissan remains something of a niche classic in the UK, a relatively rare sight, adds to the sense that Joel is driving something a little special, something that will leave passers-by scratching their heads.
“They were never really mainstream here. I get a lot of people asking what the car is, or I’ll hear people talking with friends, telling friends what it is but saying Supra or Zonda, because of the Z badge,” he says.
“People are generally very complimentary when I’m at a petrol station filling it up. They’ll say ‘lovely example mate, well done’. It’s quite rewarding to have the compliments.”
Joel had long held a candle for the 300ZX, but started his motoring life driving hot hatches in his teens, and “spending far too much money tinkering with them and trying to make them go faster”.
“My wife turned round to me one day and said it might be a wise idea to get a car that’s fast in the first place,” he says.
“I had a 300ZX in my mind from a child when I saw one driving down the street, not having a clue what it was.
“When I got to a point when I could insure one, I bought a UK one. I had a hard time finding one to be honest. This was at a time when there were loads of them around. They had reached the bottom of the depreciation curve and I could not find a decent one.
“I lived in Bournemouth at the time but I was searching up and down the country. I must have looked at double figures, but I couldn’t find a decent one, so I gave up.
“A few months later a friend came in with a local newspaper and there was an advert for a 300 in there.
“I loved it – it was a fantastic car to drive and I used it as my daily driver. I started to use it less and less as a daily driver, it became a second car and at that point the turbos started to smoke on idle – it had done about 120,000 miles so the turbos were probably just at the end of their life.”
Rather than undertake the expensive “engine out” repair job, and address corrosion caused by the UK’s salty roads and a design flaw in the targa’s drainage system, Joel started looking around for another car.
“At the time they were so cheap I could buy a freshly imported car for less than the cost of buying new turbos and carrying out the other repairs, combined with the value in selling my car,” he says.
“That and the fact I wanted a manual tipped the decision over the edge.”
This was 2007, and Joel’s second 300ZX, a 2+2 twin turbo, cost just £4,750 fresh off the boat from Japan.
“It was immaculate and was everything I wanted, although I didn’t initially want a red one,” he says. “I didn’t like them, I was quite against them but it was so tidy it won me over.”
However, the car did have a known fault with the engine when Joel bought it, a cylinder compression problem caused by a bent con-rod.
“I had it fixed through the warranty and put some money towards it, fitting larger turbos, but when we had it on a rolling road it showed the injectors were maxing out at stock boost,” he says.
“We replaced the injectors and unlocked the rest of the power. With the old injectors it was producing 365bhp at 9psi, but it’s now at 15psi so it’s probably about 450bhp.
“Not overly interested in the numbers though – it’s how it feels to drive that’s important. It was all about getting power delivery lower down so it drives almost like a non turbo car. More torque at the bottom end was the main target, to get as much power out of it whilst keeping it reliable.
“If you go too far you’ll affect the reliability, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as nice to drive or any more fun.”
Joel may have spent less than £5,000 buying the car, now insured for £12,000, but he’s spent significantly more on the Nissan’s evolution into a retro-modern supercar.
“I’ve ploughed far too much money into it over the years,” he admits. “I have a folder with documents in of everything I’ve spent, and a few years ago I went through with a calculator, got to a certain figure and thought ‘no, stop’.
“It’s probably £25-30,000 including the car. I look at that and think I could have bought an M3, more refined and modern. But I would have had no car for 11 years while saving for it!
“I like the fact it’s a lot of car for the money that’s for sure, even with the money spent.”
And Joel has no intention of selling the car any time soon.
“People have offered several times to buy it from me, but I’ve resisted so far,” he says. “It’s not just the enjoyment of the car, it’s the thrill of the chase. When I took it apart and undersealed it, I got some enjoyment of working towards the final goal. Once it’s finished that’s when people tend to sell it, they get bored quickly then, but I’ve no intention of selling.”
Unlike his first Z32, the new car was never a daily driver, and was pampered from day one.
“I went through a small spell of intending to use it more in the rain, just keeping it off the road for the salty period,” he says.
“So I stripped everything off the underneath, undersealed it and put on chassis wax. It took me 19 months, I finished it and thought ‘wow, that’s amazing, I’m never driving that in the rain’. So it backfired on me and she’s now a garage queen, although she is taxed all year round. If I’m out at a show and it starts raining, it doesn’t bother me.”
Joel believes the 300ZX Z32 was the spiritual successor to the original 240Z after years of missteps while Nissan chased the American market.
“I think they really took it back to the drawing board,” he says. “Not necessarily back to the roots fully – the 240Z was a cheap fun sports car whereas the 300ZX was not so cheap, but in performance terms had really upped its game to put it up there with the supercars.
“It doesn’t feel like driving a 30-year-old car – the only tell-tale sign is wind noise around the trims, it’s not as aerodynamically smooth as modern cars.”
It is, however, fast, furious and a great deal of fun.