A Japanese executive found the formula to penetrate the American heart and wallet with a cheap sports car.
A few weeks ago a chill went through the spines of many car fans. Nissan announced the revival of the Datsun brand. An instant flashback to the early 1970s came back and with it the Datsun Z cars, starting with the unforgettable 240Z, the first mass market Japanese sports car. As the flashback faded, however, the news sank in: Nissan was not going to revive Datsun's past glories; it's to be a down market brand for cheap cars aimed at emerging markets.
The idea for the Z car started in the early '60s when Yutaka Katayama, a Datsun senior executive, was sent to the U.S. to do market research. The Japanese automakers were trying to enter the U.S. market and Katayama, who later on became famous in the U.S. as 'Mr. K.', got the impression that for Americans talking about cars was talking about sports cars. One of his assignments was to sort out the best way to import cars to the U.S. He realized that it would be better doing that with your own company rather being dependent on trading companies. Having made that recommendation he was appointed to establish and lead their U.S. operations.
From his new position, Mr. K. pushed for the production of a sports car truly built and designed for the American market. In 1968 Nissan started selling the Datsun 510 with a 1.6-liter engine. In 1970 the 240Z arrived. Originally Nissan wanted the car to be named 'Fairlady', but Mr. K., already aware of American tastes, convinced the company's bureaucrats to add the 240Z to the original name, which is now almost forgotten. The 'Z' then became one of the most famous trademarks in the automotive world. For the Japanese the 240Z was the exception to the rule of keeping it simple. Yoshihiko Matsuo, who led the Sports Car Styling Studio, wrote in 1999:
"About 35 years ago, Japan was just starting to make inroads into the American market, but at the time our products were not highly regarded, they sold because they were cheap. When Mr. Katayama came back from America...he stated that we could go on making cheap economy cars forever, but by doing so, we would never be able to move forward in export markets. Nissan, and Japan as a whole, needed to build something stunning, something original that would make foreign manufacturers sit up and take notice of us." In October 1969 two silver Datsun 240-Z's arrived in the U.S. West Coast for test runs.
After completing several thousand miles they returned to Japan before the model's production start. Mr. K. projected sales of 3,000 units per month; however senior officials didn't believe this projection and assigned production to the Nissan Shatia Koki Company, in which Nissan had a 16 percent stake. That situation later proved to be wholly inadequate for supplying the American appetite for the new Japanese sports car. The 240Z was equipped with an inline 6-cylinder 2.4-liter engine. A single overhead camshaft operated two valves per cylinder and the engine could rev to an impressive 7,000 rpm.
Output was measured at 151hp and 146ft-lb of torque. Three transmission options were available: two manuals with four or five speeds and a three-speed automatic. The 240Z came with an independent suspension in all four corners, disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear. It weighed only 2,355 lbs. and had a top speed of 125 mph. At the time (1970), there was nothing else quite like it in the U.S. During the '70s the 240Z became a popular racing and rally car. It took part in American road racing and European and African rallying, as its most memorable victories were achieved at the East Africa Safari Rally.
In 1969 the Datsun 1600 SSS saloon, driven by Rauno Aaltonen, finished eighth on RAC Rally in the UK and proved it could rally effectively. A year later Aaltonen was at the wheel of a 240Z Coupe with about 200hp. This time he retired early due to a differential failure but Tony Fall, a UK rally driver, brought his 240Z home in 7th place. Edgar Herman, a Kenyan of German origin, won the daunting Safari Rally in 1971 and Shekhar Mehta won it in 1973. He covered 3,300 miles of tough East African terrain. There were no special stages in that rally, so it was actually one long special stage that had to be dealt with in order to keep the car in one piece.
The original 240Z was sold from 1970 to 1973 before it was replaced by the 260Z and later by the 280Z. In 1998 Nissan began a program in which it purchased old Z cars and restored them to original factory spec and sold them back to dealerships for $24,000. It was a great way to keep the dynasty alive.