1972 Datsun 240Z First Drive Review: Better Late Than Never

First Drive / Comments

We're only 50 years late to the party.

In 1969, Nissan started selling one of the most important sports cars of all time. In the US, it was marketed as the Datsun 240Z, while other parts of the world know it as the Nissan 240Z. Japanese car buyers knew it as the Nissan Fairlady Z, as the company already had a successful line of Fairlady sports cars; however, the 240Z was squarely aimed at the international market. At the time, the president of Nissan USA was Yutaka Katayama, and he realized that an affordable global sports car was exactly what the company needed. The result was something that changed the game completely.

The 240Z was affordable, stylish, reliable, and quick for its time. The important words in the previous sentence are "affordable" and "reliable," as plenty of fast and stylish sports cars were available in the 1960s. However, it was the Brits and the Italians that dominated the worldwide market. The majority of those European sports cars were expensive luxury items, and reliability was, and is still, a running joke.

When Nissan offered us a chance to go and drive the Datsun 240Z in its heritage collection, we didn't hesitate to grab a camera and head into LA to drive the sports car hero that has eluded us for decades.

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Exterior Design

Nissan was seeking to expand its image in international markets beyond being known just for its econoboxes. That meant style was big on the 240Z's design brief. The long hood and short rear deck were a given, as it's a two-seater with an inline-six engine under the hood. However, the rounded headlight design set into the bodywork, the sloping back roofline, and the pronounced rear shoulders are pure yet restrained design flourishes. The word timeless gets thrown around a lot, but it's no coincidence that, over 50 years later, the new Nissan Z has a comparable silhouette and hits or plays on many of the original's design cues.

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Performance: Of Its Time

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, 151 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque was not spectacular, but it was enough to get the job done, and a good engine isn't just about the numbers. The 240Z's engine lacks torque, despite being a 2.4-liter straight-six with double SU carburetors. But it makes up for that with a zest to rev from an enthusiastic startup and into its happy place - the middle of the rev counter and up. You know what an old car's about when the custodian is sitting in the passenger seat and encouraging you to let your right foot get heavy. It doesn't need always to be heavy, though, as the 240Z's engine is sensitive and responsive to a degree that you end up wondering why modern cars don't feel that good.

The engine is mated to a four-speed manual in American spec with an awkward third gear. To get into third gear, the stick needs to move forward and slightly to the right, and it's an odd quirk but easy to get the hang of. Shifting is a breeze, and the old-school long throw mixed with the sensitive throttle pedal makes rev-matching easy and satisfying.

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Driving Impressions: Old School Joy

What Nissan did, and not just for the US, is show the world that automakers can build a great sports car that doesn't cost a fortune or break down every time somebody looks at it wrong. Almost 50 years later, the proof is very much in the pudding. If you jump in a vintage E-Type Jaguar and turn the key, you're already doing it wrong. You need to climb in carefully, then start it up with just the right amount of choke or throttle, and as you pull away, you have that sense of guilt like you're dropping the needle on your parent's most treasured piece of limited edition vinyl. Conversely, you can still jump in a 240Z, give it some choke if it's cold, and drive off with the swift satisfaction of pushing a cassette in a tape deck. You're going to give respect in terms of mechanical sympathy, but that doesn't mean you have to tip-toe around it. The 240Z was built to last, not just to look pretty and have numbers to brag about.

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The suspension is remarkably forgiving over pavement, but then you turn into a corner and feel the lean. It's not considerable, though, and it took a moment to realize that the ride comfort owes a lot to the old-school high-walled tires. Nissan didn't cheap out on the suspension to keep the price down. The 240Z's suspension is fully independent, unlike America's answer to European sports cars, the Ford Mustang. When you turn into the corner in the Z, the steering is heavy and a little on the rubbery side, but it's on par for its age. It still feels good and communicative, though, and it's easy to understand why people loved to put miles on the car. The overall feeling is of something tough and sure of itself, designed to be last while being enjoyed properly.

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Interior Design

Climbing into the interior sets the tone for what the 240Z is all about. It's simple and workmanlike but with touches of flair to remind you why you're in the car. The dashboard is a one-piece molding and ergonomically satisfying with its center-mounted dash gauges and deeply hooded rev-counter and speedometer. A simple radio is exactly where it should be, as was the ashtray, which is a thing people put cigarettes in, as was an actual cigarette lighter. The seats are deep and surprisingly comfortable, and soft enough that you don't feel the need for side bolsters to keep you in place. The steering wheel is a big deep dish with a thin rim that's satisfying to thread through your hands.

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Verdict: Sometimes You Should Meet Your Heroes

Many years ago, I got to drive a Lamborghini Countach, and walked away wondering why people enjoyed driving it anywhere but a track. Like many, I had the poster on my wall as a kid and was led to believe it was the most exciting road car on the planet. In reality, it's a pain to drive. The clutch is heavy, the steering is heavy, visibility is awkward at best, the vibration is relentless, and getting in and out requires practiced technique to avoid looking foolish. It was fast for its time, but driving it for any real period is exhausting. I was more confident when meeting the Nissan 240Z, though, as I knew there wasn't a lot of egotistical design for design's sake in it. And comparing 1970's sports cars and supercars is a fool's game anyway. The Datsun 240Z arrived as a realistic sports car that changed the game in an entirely different and more grounded way.

Beyond the nostalgic sensory enjoyment of an unrestricted exhaust and a driving experience rooted in a simplicity we'll never see again, the 240Z is a fun car to grab by the scruff of the neck and enjoy. It also exudes a style and finesse that's much missed. It's all of the above and its rugged reliability that ensures that decent examples return anything between $25,000 and $60,000 on the classic car market - even if they've been modified.

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