Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

| 10 Jul 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The times they are a-changin’, declared Bob Dylan in 1964.

Whether the song was a hit in the boardrooms of BMC, Triumph and Jaguar goes unrecorded, but what is certain is that Dylan hit the nail on the head.

He may not have been thinking of sports cars when he penned those immortal lyrics, but they would certainly have struck a chord at the Nissan headquarters in Tokyo.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The Datsun 240Z’s beautiful proportions are shown off from the rear three-quarter

Since American servicemen returning home after the Second World War had introduced their compatriots to the delights of the affordable sports car, Britain had dominated the global market, with the US taking the lion’s share of sales.

When Dylan released his seminal track, MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey could do no wrong, yet the heyday of the British sports car would soon be drawing to a close.

The Big Healey would be dead and buried before the decade was out, while each update of Triumph’s TR roadsters would serve merely to highlight the crudeness of their design.

The MGB, meanwhile, would be Abingdon’s last genuinely new model and, after the introduction of the GT in ’65, would receive little more than tinkering to morph into the MGC and V8.

On the other side of the globe, things were very different.

Although the Fairlady roadster had gone on sale with moderate success in the United States, outside of Japan the Datsun name was still all but irrelevant in the mid-1960s, and the first tentative imports wouldn’t arrive in the UK until late ’68.

But within a decade, the little-known make would have conquered the world with a six-cylinder coupé that had few peers.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The Datsun 240Z’s straight-six engine produces 151bhp

There have been many conflicting reports about who was behind the Z car concept, as well as who was responsible for its shape.

The president of Nissan’s US sales division, Yutaka Katayama (Mr K, as he became known) has often been credited with the model’s inception, and it is true that he lobbied hard for the car.

In truth, the people in Tokyo had already begun work on a new sports car before he became involved.

Designated A550X, it appeared in ’64 and was powered by a Yamaha-designed twin-cam 2-litre ‘four’, while the shape has often been attributed to German-born Albrecht Goertz.

As a result of this project, plus the Japanese ethos of no individual claiming responsibility for a particular design, for many years Goertz was erroneously credited with the design of the 240Z that would follow.

Although the A550X could have influenced the production car’s lines, the German’s involvement went no further than that.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

This early Datsun 240Z’s interior is dark, but the cowled instruments are a nice touch

The A550X was short-lived and didn’t progress beyond the prototype stage, but that didn’t deter the engineers.

Development work on a new project started in November 1965, with Hitoshi Uemera, Tsuneo Benitani and Hidemi Kamahara responsible for engineering, while the styling was by Fumio Yoshida and Kumeo Tamura under the leadership of Yoshihiko Matsuo.

A number of proposals were considered, with full-size mock-ups being constructed on the Silvia – a pretty handbuilt coupé that trickled off the line in such small numbers that today it is sadly all but forgotten outside Japan.

To keep costs to a minimum, the corporate parts bin was raided, the front suspension coming from the Datsun 1800 Laurel while the engine was a reworked version of the L20 powerplant from the 1965 Cedric Special Six.

Known internally as the S30 and badged Fairlady Z for the domestic market (the 240Z moniker would be adopted elsewhere), the car was unveiled to the press on 18 October 1969, making its public debut a few days later at the Tokyo motor show.

Powered by a 2.4-litre single-overhead-cam straight-six (single-cam or 24-valve twin-cam 2-litre units were also available in the home market), the car offered an enticing blend of stylish modernity, lusty performance and a well-equipped cabin.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

‘The Datsun was such an instant hit that production couldn’t match demand’

Aggressively marketed by Nissan in America, its price there of $3526 aimed it squarely at the already antiquated MGB GT.

The British car might have offered the kudos of an established and respected name, but in every other respect the Japanese upstart wiped the floor with it.

Boasting all-round independent suspension, a top speed of 125mph and rakish modern lines that made the MG look like a relic, the S30 was an instant hit, to such an extent that production at Nissan Shatai’s Hiratsuka plant simply couldn’t match demand.

As a result, the model wouldn’t reach the UK until 1971, by which time, under the guidance of Yasuharu Namba, it had begun notching up a series of impressive rally victories, including a one-two on the car-breaking East African Safari Rally.

Unfortunately for UK enthusiasts, import tariffs bumped up the price to £2288, when Triumph’s TR6 could have been yours for £1536, a Ford Capri 3-litre GT £1550, and an MGB GT £1451.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

Engine capacity grew from 2393cc in the Datsun 240Z (left) to 2753cc in the 280ZX (right)

The fact that it managed to sell here – 1609 were officially imported – is testament to the excellence of Datsun’s concept, but it didn’t sweep all before it as it had done in the US.

When you first set eyes on ‘our’ wonderfully original 1971 240Z, it’s easy to see what all the fuss was about.

The car’s rarity today heightens the visual impact, and there is no arguing that this is a stunning design.

There are hints of the Toyota 2000GT and Ferrari 250GTO, but brought bang up to date.

Typically of Japanese cars of the time, some of the detailing is perhaps a little fussy – the overly ornate wheeltrims, for example, look prosaic and plasticky (they are actually metal).

Wolfrace slot-mag alloys were a common modification, and give the car a more aggressive stance, but these original wheels are an intrinsic part of the early Z’s aesthetics.

Climb into the low-slung interior and you’re faced with a comprehensive set of heavily cowled instruments and swathes of unremitting black plastic, the only lift coming from the (fake) wood adorning the gearknob and deeply dished steering wheel.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

This Datsun 260Z has colour-coded front and rear spoilers, plus aftermarket alloy wheels

The effect is highly evocative and shouts 1960s GT (the quilted vinyl on the transmission tunnel could have been lifted straight from a Gordon-Keeble) but in period, although the space, ergonomics and clever details were highly praised, the materials weren’t.

The Datsun was conceived as a cheap car, and the evidence of that is here.

But don’t let the relatively low-rent interior furnishings put you off, for to fire up the Z is to experience a truly wonderful machine.

The soundtrack is not unlike that of an XK-engined Jaguar.

Although remarkably quiet at tickover, a prod of the throttle pedal is enough to confirm that the engineers at Nissan had done their homework.

The car revs with an urgency that would be alien to MGC owners, the Japanese ‘six’ really coming alive as the crankshaft hits 4000rpm.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The Datsun 260Z features a smaller steering wheel, among minor detail changes

The fireworks are over by 6000rpm, but the smooth-shifting five-speed gearbox that was standard on UK cars means that keeping the motor on cam is no hardship.

More taxing is the steering, which at parking speeds is guaranteed to build your biceps.

The knobbly low-speed ride also detracts slightly, although the high-back seats are supremely comfortable, and as momentum builds the Datsun gets into the groove, the ride improving noticeably.

The speedo is rather optimistically calibrated to 160mph, which equates to an implausibly frenetic 7300rpm in top, but performance is impressively strong – road-test figures put the Japanese car on a par with the much more expensive Porsche 911T.

Building on the S30’s success, the 260Z replaced the 240Z in the Datsun line-up in late 1973, with initial imports arriving in the UK in 1974.

At first glance, the car looks identical to its predecessor, although closer examination reveals a host of detail differences – from redesigned rear lights to wider tyres and a smaller steering wheel.

The most important modifications, however, were under the skin.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

‘The Datsun 260Z feels more developed, without losing the magic of the original car’

As the name suggests, the ‘six’ was stretched from 2393 to 2565cc, the resultant increase in torque greatly improving flexibility.

Other notable improvements included stiffened front springs, plus revised gear ratios and a higher final drive.

The changes are minor, but the car feels more developed, without losing the magic that made the original such a hoot.

Motor Sport wrote of the new model in April ’74: ‘It represents the most covetable sporting car produced by a major manufacturer below the Porsche or Ferrari Dino.’ High praise indeed.

A longer-wheelbase 2+2 would also join the range (see below), but otherwise the car would continue largely unchanged for the next four years, by which time 622,649 S30s of all types had found buyers.

But if the 260Z was little more than a careful development of the original concept, a more dramatic change was to follow.

Design work began on the second-generation car, designated S130, in 1975, the production version being unveiled in August 1978.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The Datsun 280ZX is less elegant than the earlier cars, but it’s easier to drive

Badged 280ZX, the new model would feature a completely redesigned body, which, although continuing many of the S30’s design cues, would offer far greater aerodynamic efficiency as well as improved safety.

As with the 260Z, a 2+2 would be offered in addition to the two-seater.

Power would come from the same ‘six’ employed in the S30, but with an increased bore stretching capacity to 2753cc, while fuel injection would replace the earlier cars’ carburettors.

Dubbed L28E, this powerplant had made its debut in the US-only 280Z of 1975 – in essence a de-smogged 260Z – and was rated at 140bhp DIN (which was actually more potent than the 151bhp SAE of the 240Z’s L24 unit).

The 280ZX would retain MacPherson struts at the front, but with semi-trailing arms from the Datsun Bluebird 810 at the rear, while on UK-market cars steering would be by power-assisted recirculating ball rather than the earlier cars’ manual rack-and-pinion system.

The overall result was a softer, more grown-up model – a long-distance tourer rather than a lairy hooligan

That difference in character is immediately apparent.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

Fuel injection replaced carburettors for the 140bhp Datsun 280ZX

Gone is the spartan black vinyl, replaced by swathes of crushed velvet, while the dashboard and frameless electric windows give the feel of a contemporary Mercedes-Benz W123 coupé.

It’s a supremely comfortable place to be, and a lot less punishing to steer around town compared to its forebears – the assistance and a slicker, lighter gearchange taking the effort out of city driving.

This is a car that you could easily live with on a day-to-day basis.

Motor praised the 280ZX for being quiet, well equipped and having excellent road manners, but criticised it for a lack of poke compared to the S30.

Nissan would address that with the 200bhp T-bar Turbo, which it unveiled at the 1979 Frankfurt show.

Alas, while that car’s targa-style roof made it to these shores on the 2+2 from 1981, the hotter engine would never be marketed in Britain – although tuning specialist Janspeed offered its own turbo conversion.

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The Datsun 280ZX’s interior is brighter, yet something of an acquired taste

The two-seater was discontinued in the UK in September 1982, while the 2+2 was replaced by the all-new V6-engined 300ZX in ’84, marking the end of the L-series models.

The 240Z and 260Z offer the purest styling as well as the most undiluted driving experience – they are fantastic cars and fully deserve their place in the history books.

But don’t write off the 280ZX. It’s far better than its reputation might have you believe, plus it represents tremendous value today.

It doesn’t have the same raw appeal as its earlier siblings, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad car.

It’s simply that for the Z car, too, times had been a-changin’.

Images: James Mann

Thanks to: JD Classics for the featured 240Z; Ali Khosravi; Anthony Toop, John Peek; The Z Club; Fourways Engineering; Chatham Historic Dockyard

This was first in our October 2015 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

Datsun 260Z 2+2: family-friendly sports car

Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

The larger Datsun 260Z 2+2 was a sales success

Although the 240Z was only ever offered as a strict two-seater, in November 1973 Datsun broadened the 260Z’s appeal by adding an occasional four-seater to the line-up.

Sitting on a floorpan that had been stretched by 12in and costing £600 more than the two-seater, the 2+2 – or ‘2by2’ as it was marketed in Japan – was pricey compared to rivals such as the Ford Capri 3-litre and Reliant Scimitar GTE.

Even so, Autocar deemed it to be a ‘complete success’, and customers clearly agreed.

It outsold the regular model by almost two to one.

A rare version today – The Z Club reckons that there are no more than 20 left on UK roads – it would pave the way for the bigger, heavier 280ZX.

The latter, in contrast, is much more likely to be seen as a 2+2 than a two-seater, reflecting that model’s role as a civilised GT in the mould of the Vauxhall Royale, rather than an outright sports car.


Classic & Sports Car – Datsun 240Z, 260Z and 280ZX: Japan’s finest sports cars

Datsun 240Z

  • Sold/number built 1969-’73/156,078
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, single-overhead-camshaft 2393cc straight-six, twin Hitachi SU-type carburettors
  • Max power 151bhp @ 5600rpm (SAE)
  • Max torque 146lb ft @ 4400rpm (SAE)
  • Transmission five-speed manual, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts, lower links, anti-roll bar rear MacPherson struts, lower wishbones
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
  • Length 13ft 7in (4140mm)
  • Width 5ft 4in (1625mm)
  • Height 4ft 2½in (1283mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 6½in (2299mm)
  • Weight 2284lb (1038kg)
  • 0-60mph 8 secs
  • Top speed 125mph
  • Mpg 24
  • Price new £2288 (1971)


Datsun 260Z
(where different)

  • Sold/number built 1974-’78/466,571 (all 260Zs)
  • Engine 2565cc
  • Max power 162bhp @ 5600rpm (SAE)
  • Max torque 152lb ft @ 4400rpm (SAE)
  • Top speed 127mph
  • Price new £2895 (1974)
  • Price now £17,000-plus


Datsun 260Z 2+2
(where different to Datsun 260Z)

  • Length 14ft 6in (4419mm)
  • Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
  • Height 4ft 2½in (1283mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6½in (2603mm)
  • Weight 2632lb (1195kg)
  • 0-60mph 9.9 secs
  • Top speed 120mph
  • Price new £3429 (1974)


Datsun 280ZX
(where different)

  • Sold/number built 1978-’83/414,628 (all types)
  • Engine 2753cc, Bosch L-Jetronic injection
  • Max power 140bhp @ 5200rpm (DIN)
  • Max torque 149lb ft @ 4000rpm (DIN)
  • Transmission five-speed manual or three-speed automatic, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension independent, at rear by semi-trailing arms
  • Steering power-assisted ZF recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs all round, with servo
  • Length 14ft 3in (4343mm)
  • Width 5ft 6½in (1689mm)
  • Height 4ft 3in (1295mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2520mm)
  • Weight 2881lb (1307kg)
  • 0-60mph 10.4 secs
  • Top speed 117mph
  • Mpg 20
  • Price new £9922 (1979)

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