Although it's often overshadowed by the 'Z' car, the 240SX was still a fantastic sports car.
It is perhaps a bit odd to call the 240SX an icon, but the term can still be made to apply in a certain sense. In truth, it is not the 240SX but rather the Japanese-market version of the car, the Silvia, which is the icon. This car was never sold in the US, but the 240SX is essentially a Silvia with a different engine, and this is the sort of thing which is always close enough for tuners. The Silvia is a much older car than the 240SX, but earlier versions of the car were also sold in the US under different names.
These date all the way back to 1975, when the second generation Silvia came over as the Datsun 200SX. It would keep this name in its next generation, and part of it for the fourth generation, when it became the Nissan 200SX. But it is the fifth generation of the Silvia which would become the 240SX for US buyers, and these were the first of the iconic tuner cars. This generation received the internal designation S13, and this would be shared by the US version. It is important to note that the bodywork of the 240SX comes not from the standard Silvia, but from an offshoot of the nameplate known as the 180SX.
This was essentially a Silvia with popup headlights and a liftgate, a confusing distinction which wasn't really our problem anyway, since it was also a JDM car. In an attempt to keep this article from becoming any more confusing than is absolutely necessary, we'll simply refer to the Japanese car as the Silvia from this point on. The S13 240SX looked every bit the sport coupe part right up until you opened the hood. There you would find Nissan's KA24 2.4-liter four-cylinder truck engine, producing 140 horsepower. This would get a bump a couple years later to 155 horsepower, and this engine would carry over to the S14 generation of the 240SX.
Apart from a switch to the fixed headlights and body style of the standard Silvia from that of the 180SX (still with me? I promise that's the last time I'll mention it), the S14 240SX is largely the same as the S13 in every important respect. It never sold well, and wasn't popular with critics either, largely due to its lack of power. To say this was shame, and a waste of potential would be grossly understating the facts, and the tuners knew this. The 240SX was one of the cheapest rear-wheel-drive sports cars you could buy at the time; add to that the fact that it weighed just 2,700lbs, and it's clear that this was a car just begging to be modified.
Though upgrades could be made to the KA24 engine originally offered for the 240SX, this was still a truck engine, good in the torque department, but completely unsuited to a platform like this. An engine swap was really the best way to go. In much the same was that Toyota aficionados speak the name of the 2JZ engine in hushed tones, Nissan's SR20 engine code became a byword among those who were looking to get more out of their 240SX. Some years after the 240SX went out of productions, some owners would swap in Nissan's VQ35 engine out of the 350Z, taking advantage of the fact that the 240SX weight several hundred pounds less than the new Z-car.
But the 240SX would become famous with the SR20, despite the difficulty involved in this operation. This difficulty is easy to explain, the SR20 was never sold in the US in any vehicle. This means that not only would you have to track down a place to buy one (and this in the days when the internet was a much more primitive thing), it was also technically illegal to install one in your car. That said, legal issues never amounted to much outside of California, and since the SR20 was used in the Silvia, it was pretty easy to make it fit once you got your hands on one. This was also just potentially the first step in the tuning process.
Factory turbocharged engines were always popular for tuning, since it was much easier and cheaper to coax extra power out of them. Of course, there weren't as many SR20 upgrade kits available in the US as there were in Japan, but this probably wasn't going to bother anyone determined enough to have gotten this far. The 240SX was killed off for the US market in 1998, at the end of the S14 production cycle, and few would mourn its passing. Japan got an S15 Silvia with an upgraded SR20 engine. Turbo models of these would produce 250hp, up from the 220hp S14 and the 200hp S13; all while keeping curb weight below 2,800lbs.