By Marc Lachapelle
It was the Sixties. Muscle cars and American V8 power ruled over North America and Japanese manufacturers were still bit players. Nissan was called Datsun on this continent at the time and in 1969, it launched an all-new sports car as a 1970 model. With classic long-hood, short-tail sports car proportions and sharp styling, it was called the Fairlady Z in Japan but Nissan’s visionary US president Yutaka Katayama correctly believed that the name would not fly well here. He decided to call it the 240Z to evoke the 2.4-litre displacement of its engine. With the 151 horsepower of this inline, single overhead cam six-cylinder powerplant, the original ‘Z’ offered the performance of European sports cars of the time with much better comfort and reliability, at a very competitive price. It was a smash hit and pretty well rang the death knell of British sports cars in North America. Nissan proudly points out that it sold a half-million ‘Z’ cars in ten years while Corvette sales needed 25 years to reach this milestone.
The car’s model name changed to Datsun 260Z in 1974 when engine displacement was bumped up to 2.6 litres. The Z also became available as a 2+2 on a wheelbase stretched 11.9 inches (302 mm). Its svelte silhouette was further compromised the following year with the addition of clumsy bumpers dictated by new safety regulations in the US. Engine displacement was bumped up again, this time to 2.8 litres, in an effort to counter the horsepower and torque-robbing effects of the first emissions-reducing measures. The model designation thus changed again, to 280Z.
The launch of a new version prompted yet another name change to Nissan 300ZX in 1985 as the carmaker dropped the name Datsun to make Nissan the only brand for its vehicles worldwide. This new car also became the first Z to be powered by a V6 engine and the first to be available with turbo power. The naturally-aspirated version of this 3.0-litre single overhead cam engine was rated at 160 horsepower and the turbocharged variant at 200 horsepower. The Z had long been a successful racer too. In 1985, legendary actor/racer Paul Newman won the SCCA National championship in GT1 at the wheel of 300ZX. It was the 50th national title for the Z.
An entirely new Z car was launched as a 1989 model, with sleek styling and an all-new platform with leading-edge features such as a kinematic, multi-link independent rear suspension. It was offered as both a two-seater and as a 2+2, on a 120-millimetre longer wheelbase. A 300ZX Turbo version was introduced for the 1990 model year, powered by a twin-turbocharged, 300-horsepower, 3.0-litre V6. The 300ZX was retired in 1996 after a twenty-six year run and a new Z sports car announced in 1999. The Concept Z was a hit at the Detroit auto show. Production of an all-new 350Z started in 2002 and it was introduced as a 2003 model, in coupe form. It was powered by a 3.5-litre, 287-horsepower V6 engine. A new 350Z Roadster was launched as a 2004 model. Horsepower was upped to 306 horsepower along with a slight restyling for the 2007 model year.
Nissan has revamped the Z car again for the 2010 model year. The 370Z gets a naturally-aspirated 3.7-litre V6 that develops 36 horsepower more than the twin-turbocharged V6 in the former 300ZX Turbo. The 370Z is lighter and wider than its immediate predecessor, under a fresh interpretation of the modern Z’s distinctive profile, penned by Canadian designer Randy Rodriguez. With an extremely competitive base price of $39,998, the newest Z renews with the clear focus and exceptional value of the original 240Z. It has everything to become, once again, a sports car for the times.