The sports car that was built for America is getting a new family member.
Nissan has been building sports cars for over 50 years, but the first Nissan Z-car showed up in 1969. It's descended from the Datsun Sports/Datsun Fairlady/Nissan Fairlady line of sports cars that originated in 1959. It was the first Japanese sports car to compete with British and Italian roadsters of the time. Other Japanese companies followed, including Honda with the S500, and Toyota with its Sports 800.
Nissan realized that an affordable sports car it could market internationally would be essential towards its growth and partnered with Yamaha to develop a replacement for the Fairlady. The Yamaha YX-30 prototype was scrapped as Nissan didn't think Yamaha's engine was good enough. However, Nissan now had Prince Motor Company, the same company that developed the first Skyline. With a full engineering and product development team in place, Nissan created a flagship sports car that could remain inexpensive to build by using interchangeable parts from other Nissan vehicles. In October of 1969, the first Nissan Fairlady Z went on sale, and America was its target.
The Nissan Fairlady Z arrived with a long hood, a fastback tailgate, and chiseled styling in 1969. There were two different engines for the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) and then the US when it arrived in 1971. It got a 2.0-liter straight-six making 130 horsepower in Japan, while America's Datsun-branded 240Z got a 2.4-liter straight-six generating 151 hp. It was a real driver's car and stylish to boot. It was an immediate success in the US, with 16,215 sold in its first year, then 40,000 units sold in 1970. It was exceptional value for money at a price of just $3,601, which would be around $26,000 now.
In 1974, Nissan updated the sports car and named it the 260Z, and a 2+2 version was launched with 11.9 inches added to the wheelbase. The base engine was enlarged to 2.6 liters and given a new fuel injection system, but emissions restrictions ensured horsepower dropped to just 139.
Still branded as Datsun in the US and on the S30 platform, the 280Z was a big refresh to keep the sports car alive in America. It arrived in the US in 1975 to capitalize on what Nissan saw the North American wanted. That included velour upholstery, T-tops for the 2+2 version, and a digital dashboard. The engine was enlarged to 2.8 liters and made 170 hp, while larger bumpers were equipped as per US law. Then, in 1977 the 280Z gained a five-speed manual transmission.
The Z-car got an overhaul in 1978, ushering in the second generation S130-chassis Datsun 280ZX. The 2.8-liter L28 straight-six engine carried over from the 280Z, but due to changes in how power was measured (from SAE gross to SAE net), power was now claimed at 135 hp. But the 280ZX was longer, wider, and heavier. Underneath, the Chapman strut rear suspension was switched to a semi-trailing arm system used on the Datsun 510. A turbo option was added to the engine in 1980 and offered 180 hp, which helped a little, but sales were flagging. Nissan retired the Datsun name in 1981, and the 280ZX had its final model year in 1983.
The third-generation Z-car, the Z31 Nissan 300ZX, arrived in Japan in 1983 and went on sale in the US in 1984. It was a whole new car, but like the 280ZX, it was more upmarket inside. It was also faster and came with more technology, which meant it was also more expensive. Under the hood was a 160 hp 3.0-liter V6 engine instead of the hallmark inline-six, making 160 hp, while a turbocharged version pushed 200 hp to the rear wheels. It was available as a two-seater or as a 2+2, and T-tops became standard during its production run. The extra heft and its larger price tag, plus the dwindling sales of premium sports cars at the time, led Nissan to end production of the Z31 300ZX in 1989. It was a shame as, stripped of its weight for competition, the 300ZX was a capable machine in motorsport.
In 1990, Nissan switched things up, and instead of making the next-generation Z-car even cushier, the Z32-generation 300ZX fully redeemed the Z-car name. The 3.0-liter V6 engine was carried over into the new chassis but got a big upgrade from double overhead valves and variable timing. The refreshed engine made 222 hp and had razor-sharp handling and grip for days. Then, Nissan brought out a twin-turbo version making 300 hp and 283 lb-ft, which were bombshell numbers in 1990 for something that wasn't a supercar. The Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo hit 60 mph in 5 seconds despite its weight, and its sophisticated suspension outperformed most of its contemporaries on the road and track.
In the US, we didn't see a new Z-car from 1997 to 2002. The French car company Renault bought 44.4% of Nissan in 1999, and Carlos Ghosn became CEO. Ghosn promised the world, "We will build the Z. And we will make it profitable." Nissan raided the parts bins and used an existing front-engine and rear-drive platform as well as an improved version of its 3.5-liter VQ35DE V6 engine making between 287-306 hp through the car's production. The 350Z harked back to the original 240Z, both with its parts-bin approach to construction and the long hood and short rear deck design.
The 350Z returned as a pure sports car and had a competitive price at around $26,000. Various trim packages were available through its life cycle, including a Track and then a Nismo version. The latter making a visceral 350 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque, a carbon-fiber driveshaft, a change in weight balance, increased aero, tuned suspension, and Brembo brakes.
In 2009, Nissan delivered the sixth generation Z-car as a marked improvement over the 350Z. The 370Z arrived with the VQ-series V6 engine stroked to 3.7 liters and delivering 328 hp with 268 lb-ft of torque. It was 3.9 inches shorter than the previous generation and weighed less than the 350Z due to the use of aluminum body panels. It could hit 60 mph in just under five seconds and hold its own on any road or race track. With a price range of $29,930 - $35,760, it was one of the best sports cars you could get for the money. While the 370Z is still on sale, that's not necessarily still the case 11 years later. In its most potent form, the 370Z Nismo produces 350 hp and 276 lb-ft, admirable numbers, but not enough to keep the aging sports car relevant. The 370Z has had its day, but at least now we know its retirement is coming.
The next chapter of Z-car history is on its way. Nissan has revealed the 400Z Proto, a prototype the Japanese company promises to be close to the finished product. It will go to production with a twin-turbocharged V6 engine we've experienced in Infiniti cars making 400 hp and a six-speed manual transmission. Nissan has been keen to point out how its sleek modern styling is full of retro callbacks to previous generations. Above all, though, the 400Z is instantly recognizable as a Z-car.
Compact dimensions, a manual gearbox, and, to appease the purists, no assistance from outside manufacturers - all these things bode well for the 400Z. Although a market launch is still several years away, we're just happy the Z-car legacy will be continued after all.