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Datsun 240Z

Datsun 240Z

By Jack Nerad

Datsun 240Z The Datsun 240Z was blessed with greatness. Not because it was a feat of technological genius. It didn't offer revolutionary styling that turned the industry around, nor did it deliver performance or economy that set it apart from its contemporaries. The Datsun 240Z's greatness derived from the combination of competent engineering, evocative if derivative styling, better-than-average performance and low price. The typical automotive buyer of the late-Sixties couldn't afford a Jaguar E-Type, but he or she could afford a 240Z.

Before 1970 and the introduction of the 240Z, let's follow the winding path of Datsun and Nissan back to pre-World War I. In 1912, Masujiro Hashimoto joined with three partners to create the Kwaishinsha Motor Car Company. In much the same manner as FIAT, the brand name for its car line was DAT, each of the letters taken from the surname of one of its financiers, namely Kenjoro Den, Rokuro Aoyama and Meitaro Takeuchi. The DAT brand name continued to grace the company's cars when it merged with another company, Jidosha Seizo, in 1926.

The stock market crash of 1929 turned the world's car manufacturers topsy-turvy, and even in well-isolated Japan, the Depression had its reverberations. First the company went into reorganization and, as part of its new image, it decided to rename its line of cars "Datson" as in son of DAT. (Later the spelling was changed to "Datsun.") Then the company was, in turn, acquired, split from its parent company, and finally re-acquired by a holding company with ties to its previous owner. The official name of the holding company was Nihon Sagyo, but its Japanese stock exchange abbreviation was Ni-San, and that was how it was referred to by much of the Japanese public. To simplify things, in 1934 the name of the auto manufacturing firm was changed to Nissan Motor Company Limited. Soon thereafter Nissan exported its first vehicles, but Japan's invasion of China and then World War II interrupted the company's progress in a rather serious manner.

Flash forward to 1960. Japan, de-militarized and re-industrialized, decides to reach out to other nations to become a serious exporter of manufactured goods, including automobiles.

And then Mr. K walked in. Yutaka Katayama was hired in 1960 as marketing manager for Nissan's fledgling North American operation. It wasn't much of an assignment, because Datsun vehicles were virtually unknown in America at the time, but Katayama was determined to make the best of it, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Just two years earlier Katayama made a name for himself and for Datsun by lobbying for the creation of a rally team that participated in the 1958 "Around Australia Mobilgas Trial." Entering with low expectations, the Datsun team won the rally, which put Katayama's star on the rise. He figured that high-profile competition using cars created for the American market could move the Datsun brand from the shadows into the limelight in the United States.

With this in mind, Katayama became a pest at Nissan corporate headquarters, trying to persuade the stodgy top executives of the company to okay the development of cars that Americans would enjoy driving. This effort moved in fits and starts, but one of the results of Katayama's efforts was the continued development of the Datsun Fairlady 1500. A convertible two-seater, this model was, in essence, a knock-off of the British sports models of the day, and as it progressed to 1600 and then 2000 trim through the Sixties, it began to attract an American following.

Designing the Datsun 240ZWhile Katayama was helping shepherd Datsun in the U.S., another player entered the ballgame, Dr. Albrecht Graf von Goertz. Von Goertz was a German-born, American industrial designer with impressive experience. He had played a part in the design of the Studebaker Starliner by Raymond Loewy's South, Bend, Indiana-based studio, and then worked with BMW on its classic 507 sports car, which inspired the current BMW Z8. Then he went to Porsche to work on one of the most enduring designs in auto history, the 911.

After all these experiences, von Goertz became a consultant for Nissan in 1963 to work on the Silvia 1600 sports coupe (derivative of the open Fairlady 1600), which debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show.

With that project under his belt von Goertz was then assigned to Katayama's pet project, the creation of a sports car for the U.S. market. In addition to von Goertz, Nissan also employed another outside resource, Yamaha, in the development process, but the project hit snags, mostly revolving around the 2-liter engine, and Nissan put it on the back burner. Almost immediately Yamaha took the prototype model to Toyota, and the Japanese auto giant revitalized the project. Eventually the car that would emerge from their combined efforts was the Toyota 2000GT. Meanwhile von Goertz left Nissan's employ, and the Nissan American sports car program was thoroughly revamped.

Oddly it was the public introduction of the Toyota 2000GT that got the Nissan program back on track. The Toyota model legitimatised the sports/GT design concept, and Katayama, who had ascended to president of Nissan North America, pushed hard to move the project forward. He was the perfect man to conceptualize the car, because he was both an auto enthusiast and a marketing executive. He knew a technologically interesting car like the Toyota 2000GT might look good on paper, but its complexity and high price would doom it to low sales.

Datsun 240ZHe worked closely with project team leader, Tiichi Hara, and the new design team head, Yoshihiko Matsuo, to realize a concept that offered sports/GT looks and performance but at a reasonable price. He also made certain that the new project, dubbed Nissan Design Project Z, was a car that could comfortably hold two American passengers.

The Datsun 240Z was introduced in 1969 as a 1970 model, and it became an immediate sensation. With a smooth and solidly built 2393 cubic centimeter single overhead cam in-line six under its hood, Nissan claimed the 240Z could jet from zero to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds flat. The engine produced 151 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 146 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm, which lends some credence to that claim.

Under its sophisticated and very un-Japanese bodywork, the 240Z also sported a suspension with decent GT credentials. It was independent all around, relying on McPherson struts up front and Chapman struts in the rear. Steering was via quick-ratio rack-and-pinion, and the car was graced with front disc brakes. No, it wasn't an E-Type, but at just $3,500 it was a steal.

Sales took off immediately, and at the close of the 240Z's fourth and final model year in 1973, the total stood at 116,712 units. It was proof positive that the legendary Mr. K had both learned and taught his lessons well.
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