In October 1969, a sleek new two-door sports car was presented at the Pierre Hotel, New York in front of the Detroit Press and Automotive Media that would inevitably create history. The new Datsun 240Z was breathtakingly beautiful and combined performance and handling that matched or outstripped much more expensive competitors from Alfa Romeo to Porsche.
Nissan had noticed a gap in the car market for a coupe sports car that would be made reliable and affordable to the masses. Initally they projected sales of 3,000 units per month, something that the Nissan upper management thought wildly optimistic. However at its peak, sales would total 7,500 a month, with demand outstripping supply.
The Datsun 240Z success story was heavily indebted to Yutaka Katayama who was tasked with bringing the Datsun brand to the United States in the early 1960s.
History of Datsun Sports Cars
Nissan first looked at sports car with the creation of the Datsun Sports, DC-3. It was showcased in 1952 at the Nissan Automobile Show that was held near Ginza in Tokyo.
The automobile was originally a concept car that was planned by Yutaka Katayama. In total 50 DC-3 were produced, however, disappointingly only 30 were sold.
Although the DC-3 was far from a success story it did pave the way for further sports car models to be released by Nissan.
In 1958, with Datsun looking to soon begin exporting cars around the world, Mr Katayama was appointed Datsun racing team manager.
Katayama persuaded executives that motorsports would be great for Nissan. He entered two Datsun 210s in the Australian Mobilgas Trial, a grueling off-road rally known at the time as “The Worlds’ Cruelest Rally.” The race traveled clockwise around the Australian continent covered 10,000 miles in 19 days.
The team ended the race victorious in their class and 25th overall. This instantly catapulted the Datsun brand into worldwide recognition.
Their first real inroads into sales were with the Datsun 1500 (SP310) which was also known as the ‘Fairlady’ in Japan, named after the Broadway musical ‘My Fairlady’.
This was Nissan’s first fully-fledged sports car and it stole the show at the 8th Tokyo Motor Show in 1961 and was released in 1962. Its styling had hints of UK- made sports cars like the MG and Triumph sports cars of their day.
Although they were more successful than previous models, they only made modest sales in established car markets like Europe and the USA.
Two years after the victory in the Australian Mobilgas Trial, Katayama’s whimsical and aggressive approach to marketing continued to irk Nissan management.
Not wanting to let go of their brilliant marketing manager, but not wanting to have him around as a negative influence to the accepted staid corporate behavior, Nissan executives decided to send Katayama to Southern California to do market research.
Katayama however, who had now become affectionately known as “Mr.K” to his friends and employees, took his new challenge as a unique opportunity to make Nissan a real presence in the U.S.
Despite Nissan having a presence on both coasts of the United States, he decided to focus attention on the West Coast. In the process, he discovered how Americans thought and more importantly, what they wanted in a car.
At this time, Japanese vehicles were almost universally regarded in the U.S. as being of poor quality. Sales were less than 1,000 vehicles annually under the Datsun brand name through independent distributors. Not wanting to risk failure with the Nissan name, The Nissan company chose to continue to use the Datsun brand outside of Japan.
Mr. K had grand plans for Datsun’s expansion in the U.S. He tried convincing any car dealer he could find to take on the new Datsun brand despite lackluster earlier sales performance.
Despite Mr. K’s strong sales efforts, he was not impressed with sales of the early Datsuns. Compared to the competition, the cars were unrefined and underpowered.
He constantly asked the company for improvements, including better fit and finish, improved brakes, and especially bigger and more powerful engines.
At the time Nissan wasn’t the only company in Japan aiming for the export market. Rivals Honda and Toyota were also exporting and starting to get some success and recognition.
Toyota had released their version of a sports car in 1966 as the 2000GT. The car however lacked sales and ultimately failed due to many factors including its high price. Nissan was acutely aware of the failure and was determined to not repeat history with Datsun sports cars.
Development of the Datsun 240Z
As of 1965, Nissan Motors Ltd’s own Engineering Design and Development Department were in charge of the development of the Datsun 240Z with the department headed by Mr. Teiichi Hara.
The chief designer of the 240Z was Yoshihiko Matsuo, who was promoted to head of the design studio after his success with redesigning the 411 Bluebird.
During this period of time, Matsuo thought of coming up with a relatively affordable grand tourer. Matsuo’s design caught the attention of Yutaka Katayama, who Like Matsuo, were at odds with the conservative higher-ups of Nissan.
He was motivated to follow his dream when Mr. Katayama returned from America and visited his department. Mr. K stated that they could go on producing cheap economy automobiles forever, but by doing so, they would never make substantial inroads into the valuable export markets.
He shared his vision that Nissan, and Japan as a country, needed to produce something stunning and original that would make foreign manufacturers sit up and take notice of them.
Initially, Matuso’s starting point was to produce a small roadster that was based around the 2.0-liter U20 engine. This design, known as plan A, was a direct continuation of the Fairlady, and featured sleek lines, and focused on aerodynamics.
Although Matuso preferred this design (and was the one that in which the project ran with) upon reviewing his design management desired a more conservative approach based on the lines of the Silvia Coupe that was previously developed. Matsuo refers to this as Plan B.
From the initial mock-ups and styling sketches, it is apparent that Nissan was aiming for a roadster. However, in late 1966, they changed direction in the project.
One main factor contributing to the change was America’s new safety regulations (MVSS). It was apparent that it was going to be extremely difficult for an open car to comply with these regulations, particularly with the roll-over requirements.
Mr Katayama believed a closed coupe would be an ideal compromise, so they ventured into the idea of a hatchback that would enable aerodynamic styling combined with generous luggage capacity.
The final clay model produced in 1967 had a wider body and higher hood to accommodate the revised and bored L20A, the L24, and the S20 engine.
The car commenced production in 1969 with the company president naming it the “Fairlady Z”.
When the first of the new cars were being unloaded at the Los Angeles dock, Mr. K was there to greet the deliveries. He immediately spotted the name “Fairlady” on the first car coming off the ship and, along with his team, they began prying off the “Fairlady” nameplates.
A few days later, a new label with the iconic “240Z” nameplate replaced the nameplate, a name that had been the company’s internal designation for when it was being developed.
Production and Sales
The new Datsun 240Z was priced at a modest $3,500, equivalent to around $23,000 in today’s dollars (U.S.). The new car was excitingly beautiful and had nearly perfect proportions, closely resembling the Jaguar E-type which sold for nearly two thousand dollars more.
The new 240Z was also nimble and fast, making it immensely popular. The Datsun 240Z was soon selling 4,000 cars a month, and demand routinely exceeded volume.
Datsun dealers around the country began to have waiting lists as much as a year-long for the exciting new sports car and encouraged the company to soon change focus to a more “sporty” image.
Only 543 Datsun 240Z were produced in 1969, and of these only a few were sold as ’69 model year vehicles. Even rarer only 3 were produced as RHD.
In 1970 a total of 16,215 were exported to the USA with numbers increasing to 33,684 in 1971. The year 1972 was their best year with 52,628 car being distributed to the United States. The final year, being 1973 saw 45,588 units distributed to the United States.
In total 164,616 Datsun 240Z cars were produced with 90% being exported to the United States followed by Canada which received 6.9% (11,198 units).
Body and Interior
Unlike its European competition, the Datsun 240Z body was made from steel and not fiberglass. This made the body heavier though Datsun incorporated thinner steel to reduce weight.
The interior of the Datsun 240Z for its price gave a more expensive appearance. On inspection of the cabin, it is surprisingly roomy and comfortable, featuring elaborately contoured bucket seats that are dressed in black vinyl upholstery as are the door panels.
The dashboard is designed in textured plastic and houses deep factory instruments to create a sporty feel. The steering wheel is three-spoke and wood-rimmed with a timber shift knob for the four-speed gearbox adding to the decor of the interior.
Powering the Datsun 240Z is the L24 engine, a 2.4-liter single-overhead-cam straight-six. It features a cast-iron block with a bore of 83.0 mm (3.27 in) and a stroke of 73.7 mm (2.90 in). The heads are composed of aluminum and the maximum power it can generate was 150bhp @ 5600rpm.
With the car only weighing 2400lbs in the North American trim, its performance can provide a smile on the face of its owners with a top speed of 126 mph and the ability to accelerate from 0 – 60mph in 8 seconds. At its release, it was 9 mph faster than the Triumph TR6 and several mph quicker than a 2-liter Porsche 911T.
The 240Z was delivered to the United States as a 4 speed manual with the option from 1971 for a three-speed automatic. Other parts of the world such as the UK, Australia, and Japan were fitted with a 5-speed manual transmission.
Two distinct types of SU carburetors were utilized on the 240z during its production life. SU carburetors at the time were mainly built by The S.U. Carburettor Company Ltd., however, Hitachi also produced carburetors principally from the SU design.
The Datsun found its inexpensive cars to be in high demand, particularly after the 1973 oil crisis as they were more fuel-efficient compared to the American muscle cars of the time.
Brakes, Tires, Wheels
The front disc brakes and rear drums were pretty good for their time, and are well up to street driving and the infrequent spirited off-street drive.
The tires that were selected as stock were Bridgestone 175 SR14 radials due to their good handling characteristics.
The Datsun 240Z wheels consisted of a set of steel TOPY wheels and a set of “D” wheel covers that were installed at the dealer.
There were two types of hubcaps for the 240Z: the first was seen on the 1970/71 240Z which incorporated a ‘D’ in the center of the hubcap.
After 1971 the hubcap featured triangle-shaped slots instead and a red ‘Z’ emblem in the center.
Changes in Design
The different years that the 240Z was produced can be distinguished by changes to the car that were made at production. The collector community uses the terms “Series 1” and “Series 2”, however, these were never official terms ever used by Nissan/Datsun. Instead, they are a way to separate cars created before (series 1) and after the middle of 1971 (series 2).
Air exhaust vents were built into its hatch in series 1 cars however the vents were removed from the hatch in the series 2 240Z.
Earlier year cars had a speedometer starting at 20mph. This was swapped in later years with a speedometer starting at 0mph.
Another notable difference can be found in the car emblem that is used on the roof pillar. Series 1 cars have the writing ‘240Z’ while Series 2 cars have a circular ‘Z’.
Datsun 240Z Racing: Shelby Vs Brock
By 1968, Nissan became known for its total commitment toward SCCA racing drivers under the direction of Mr. Katayama, now the President of Nissan USA. The company established a motorsports catalog, racer discount system, and track support at the SCCA Runoffs every year. This resulted in the cars continuing to be successful and more drivers being attracted to the Nissan brand.
During this era, Pete Brock, the owner of Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) was in contract negotiations with Toyota to run the Toyota 2000 GT racing program. However, an 11th-hour deal was arranged with racing legend Carroll Shelby, Brock’s former boss, and the creator of the iconic AC Cobra.
To compete with the Toyota 2000GT in a racing series as a way to get back at Carroll Shelby, Peter brock raced the Datsun 2000 Sports in the 1968 SCCA D Production Pacific Coast championship as a way to settle the score.
By the end of the season Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) had successfully claimed the Pacific Coast Championship.
Impressed with the outcome, Datsun contacted Brock for a meeting. At the encounter was Mr Katayama, and by the end of the meeting, Brock had secured the Datsun’s racing program and the opportunity to race the Datsun 240Z.
Even though Shelby’s Toyota racing program was funded with $500,000, not one Toyota 2000 GT qualified for the national competition. Things were quite different in the Datsun camp with BRE 240Zs winning SCCA’s CP class in 1970 and 1971.
The 240Z also had great success in rallying such as at the 1971 East African Safari Rally, one of the world’s most grueling sports car events.
A Datsun 240Z driven by Kenyan rally driver, Edgar Herrman and Hans Schüller of Germany, won the International Championship for Manufacturers (IMC), taking trophies for class, team, and the overall trophy. The car also won the overall victory for the second time in 1973.
The Rallye Monte-Carlo is often known as the “snow and ice rally,” and it is acknowledged that front-engine, rear-wheel-drive cars are difficult to control in these conditions. Datsun became the center of attention when a 1972 Datsun 240Z driven by R. Aaltonen and J. Todt came in overall third at the 1972 Rallye Monte-Carlo.
Datsun 240z Rally Monte Carlo 1972. Source: Superkarro
In 1998, the Automotive Hall of Fame inducted Mr. Katayama, recognizing his major contribution in ushering in a generation of vehicles that redefined the American car market. The citation reads that he “loved, understood, and unstintingly cooperated with and supported people regardless of nationality, ignoring borders.”
Mr. K passed away on 19 February 2015 at the age of 105, but the legacy of his accomplishments lives on with the 240Z.
The 240Z stunning looks, affordable pricing, and exciting driving experience ensured the sports car a place as one of the great sports cars of the 70s.