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Retro drive: 1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.

Retro drive: 1971 Datsun 240Z
The car which transformed the Japanese motor industry, driven in 2019. How does it fare?

   



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1971 Datsun 240Z

5 5 5 5 5

Good points: stunning noise, comfortable ride, glorious looks, the importance of it

Not so good: not as quick as you might expect, even allowing for its age... but who cares?!

What is it?

The Datsun 240Z, the beginning of an evolutionary line of two-door, affordable performance coupes from Nissan (Datsun was Nissan's export brand for many decades, in case you're wondering) which culminated in the 370Z Nismo. But the 240Z is so much more than just a cheap coupe; it's the car responsible for kick-starting the Japanese motoring industry's reputation as a manufacturer of interesting metal.

Japan had built plenty of cars for worldwide consumption prior to the 240Z's appearance at the back end of the Swinging Sixties. Heck, it had even already built a sports car of global repute - the almost impossibly pretty Toyota 2000GT. And if you don't know what a 2000GT looks like, watch the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, because it features heavily in the movie.

However, due to the 2000GT's rarity and high cost, by the time the Datsun arrived Japan's automotive output was still seen as primitive in the rest of the world: these were cars built to mass production/consumer-consumption spec, cheap, good on fuel but not high on excitement. It was the 240Z which changed all of that. All of it. Except the 'cheap' bit, although 'inexpensive' would be a fairer assessment.

Without this car paving the way, we might never have had Nissan's own Skyline series and the brutal R35 GT-R, we may never have heard the boxer burbling of a Subaru Impreza WRX STI, we might have missed out on the razor-sharp skills of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, we'd have been denied the pleasure of the rotary-engined Mazda RX-7, there could very well have been no array of hot Hondas - like the NSX, or the S2000, or the DC2 ITR, or the Accord Type R, or even the Civic Type R... we mean, we could go on.

Like the original Mazda MX-5, Datsun's approach to the 240Z was very much 'monkey see, monkey do'. Spotting the popularity of contemporary European and American affordable performance machines, a key example being the MGB, Japan just copied the idea... and did it better. The 240Z had a lusty big straight-six up front, driving the rear wheels. It looked gorgeous. The interior was well equipped and intelligently laid out. And, given it was Japanese, it had every chance of being as reliable as it was desirable, a characteristic which could not be easily laid at the door of western classic cars of the time, for sure. An important car, then. And maybe we should have written that 'important' with a capital 'I'.

Why are you driving it?

Well, why not?! Nissan, in launching the new 62kWh version of the Mk2 Nissan Leaf, wanted to look to a brighter, zero-emissions future. But perhaps it also wanted to remind us of its storied past, too; and what better way to do it than with this Datsun? So when someone offers you the chance to drive a 240Z, you take it. With both hands.

Is it any good these days?

There was also another reason we were keen to try out the 240Z on the Leaf event, because we'd actually driven this beautiful yellow example before - back in 2013, at an SMMT event. And we were... less than impressed with it. Whenever you drive a classic car in the modern era, you have to accept that it won't feel remotely fast, it won't feel tied down in the suspension department and it won't have anything like the stopping power of anything from the 21st century; but you make these concessions in your mind before driving an older machine, and then (hopefully) judge it from there.

Back in 2013, though, even cutting it as much slack as we could, AWU 491K felt awful. The gearbox was recalcitrant, the bushes gave the impression of being shot to all holy hell and the engine appeared as if it needed a full overhaul. Odd, because the car was supposed to have been restored to factory standards in 2003. Fast-forward to 2019 and here we are once again, holding the tiny blade key for the 240Z in our hands and being told 'it was fully restored last year'. We're nervous. Our first drive in the Z six years ago left us disappointed and we really didn't want to be disappointed by a legend like this, so we don't want a repeat showing now the Datsun is approaching its 50th birthday.

But we needn't have worried. And, if anything, we could be smugly self-satisfied and say 'we told you it wasn't right in 2013'. Because the suspension has clearly been vastly improved since last time out, returning the 240Z to the beautiful, loping gait befitting of this car. The gearbox actually works, allowing you to select ratios in a clean and fuss-free fashion. The engine also feels stronger - maybe still not quite at the levels you're expecting from 150hp of inline-six powering a little more than a tonne of Japanese tin, but more than adequate enough for a car built in the pre-decimalisation era. And the carbed motor is blessed with a soundtrack that almost defies explanation; it's so loud, so gruff, so wonderfully, wonderfully intoxicating. It is a proper old-school fast-car engine that is bereft of any sort of sound augmentation or falseness. It is, in short, everything a combustion unit should sound like. You'll spool the 240Z through second and third umpteen times in the first few miles behind the exquisite thin-rimmed steering wheel and you will never, ever tire of the baritone roar the Japanese motor serves up.

The Datsun is fairly noisy overall, because it's from a time before NVH considerations saw cars stuffed with ever more sound-deadening, so at a 70mph cruise up the M3 there's a lot of wind noise and tyre roar, meaning conversations with your passenger must be conducted at a semi-shout. Also, like all old cars, the driving position has you crammed up against the right-hand door, meaning you've not got much in the way of elbow room. And yet the experience, take two, of piloting this 240Z is magical. Sitting reclined and almost on the rear axle, looking out over that long, primrose-yellow prow, the six-pot motor gargling away in front and knowing how this thing changed the conceptions of an entire country's motoring industry, it's hard not to wonder if there's a better or more important affordable classic car than this in history. The Model T Ford, perhaps? Issigonis' Mini? That's the sort of level we're at with the Datsun, make no mistake, certainly if you're a fan of go-faster Japanese machinery. We are.

Is it a genuine classic, or just some mildly interesting old biffer?

It's a genuine classic. The 240Z was followed by the 260Z and the 280Z, before Nissan branding took over with the 300ZX and then the 350Z. While the 350Z was a return to form (of sorts), and the 300ZX had twin-turbo speed on its side, in reality none of these successors was ever as pure, as enjoyable and as downright spot-on as the Datsun 240Z. We're glad we got the chance to drive it again, now that's it's in the rudest of health, because we can finally see what all the fuss was about. This is the car that made modern Japanese motoring; how much more kudos can you give a vehicle than that?

The numbers

Model tested: 1971 Datsun 240Z
Price: when new in 1971, 2,000 (circa 27,770, inflation-adjusted for 2019); used examples anything from 12,000-30,000 today
Build period: 1970-1973
Build numbers: 168,584
Engine: 2.4-litre inline six-cylinder 12-valve petrol
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, five-speed manual
Body style: two-door coupe
Combined economy: c.25mpg
Top speed: 125mph
0-62mph: 8.0 seconds
Power: 150hp at 5,600rpm
Torque: 198Nm at 4,400rpm



Matt Robinson - 24 Jun 2019



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1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.

1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.1971 Datsun 240Z. Image by Nissan.








 

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