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Nissan Datsun 240Z (1969 - 1975)

Last updated 1 October 2013

 
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The Datsun 240Z changed the face of the sports car market, and established its maker as front-running motor manufacturer that had more buyers than cars. With its deep-chested straight-six, lively handling, and keen pricing, everyone wanted one.

And more than 40 years later, the 240Z still as an adoring fan base. But does it live up to the legend?


Classic road test: Datsun 240Z

Datsun 240Z (2)

The sports car establishment in 1969 was beginning to look a little haggard, The MGB had been around for seven years, and the new straight-six powered MGC, which was so heavily based on it, was not quite the revolution enthusiasts had been hoping for. As for the Triumph GT6, also new in 1969, it was a direct evolution of the Spitfire - and that had been around since 1962. These were the cars to beat in 1969 - and were Datsun's prime targets for the 240Z.

They were fun to drive, but were saddled with mediocre performance and roadholding - especially in de-smogged US market form. Before the Datsun 240Z, this might have been forgiveable but, once the six-pot Datsun rocked up with its 151bhp and Austin Healey soundtrack, the market changed, and the British sports car manufacturers struggled to come up with a convincing reply.

The styling, near-perfectly resolved by Yoshihiko Matsuo, is as appealing today as it was when it went on sale, and American buyers were happy to pay their local Datsun dealer a premium, or join a lengthy queue, to own one. Before the 240Z, Japanese cars combined a degree of Detroit-inspired chintz with barely disguised Euro plagiarism – and rarely did they look at ease with themselves. The 240Z was none of these and, although its proportions hinted at Jaguar E-type or Triumph GT6, it was also great-looking.

Inside the 240Z

Datsun 240Z (5)

Inside, it’s all sports car, too. The reclined driving position, which sits you almost atop the rear axle, and upright wheel are standard fare, but the dashboard is a world apart from the traditional British sports car. The Z’s one-piece dash is beautifully sculpted and the bank of instruments set deeply within it is perfectly set out. The wide use of grained plastic was a world away from the wood or crackle-black slabs that passed for dashboards in British sports cars - it was a tangible move towards modernity.

The instrument layout is traditionally conventional, with the speedometer and rev counter getting due prominence directly ahead of the driver in their own deeply recessed nascelles. They contain their own dainty warning lamps, leaving room for the additional instruments to sit centrally atop the dashboard.  

On the road

Datsun 240Z (8)

Firing it up doesn’t disappoint; the straight-six doesn’t take much stoking as long as you give it plenty of choke from cold. It settles down to a rock-steady and sweetly resonant idle. Heading off, it's smooth and quiet at low revs and when trickling - and in fact, it doesn't sound that sporting at all. The controls are heavy, the steering is direct, and offers plenty of feedback - and kickback - through its slim, wooden rim.

The gearchange is also weighty, and you have to be deliberate when selecting your ratio. The throttle is long and linear, and offers great adjustablility. This is clearly a car for the open road. Overall, the 240Z is easy to drive along with the flow. When you drive around town, the long bonnet is a disadvantage when you’re nosing out of side-roads.

Once you get out on to the open road, the 240Z's character changes. Clear of the urban sprawl, and as the speeds rise, the responsiveness of the steering improves and it starts to feel much lighter on its feet.

Once you get out on to the open road, the 240Z's character changes. Clear of the urban sprawl, and as the speeds rise, the responsiveness of the steering improves and it starts to feel much lighter on its feet. We adopt the slow-in, fast-out approach to corners, planting the throttle only once we're near the corner exit. The rear squats down, and as the outer rear wheel digs in, you feel everything the rear suspension's doing through both your palms and the base of the seat. That's no bad thing, as the rear will swing wide if you're caught out by a tightening radius or surface dampness.

And surface imprerfections reveal another dynamic issue - the suspension's lack of damping control. It's not a particularly firm set-up, but there are too many times when the sloppy damping has the 240Z crashing into its bump stops. We suspect a more modern set of shock absorbers and some new bushes would tie-down the rear end and accentuate this car's positive dynamic points.

The best way to push a 240Z along is to steer smoothly and feed it into the bends. There is some body roll to contend with, but the transition into lean is well controlled. That initial turn-in bite translates into a touch of entry understeer, but it is neutral enough not to frustrate keener drivers.

Performance

Datsun 240Z (1)

Straight line performance certainly isn't lacking. Planting the throttle in third at 50mph is a satisfying experience. The 2.4-litre straight-six was designed primarily for the Cedric but, rather like the Austin-Healey 3000 or MGC, what should be an unexciting engine delivers a soundtrack that eggs-on the driver. The deep-chested, mid-bass roar from 3000rpm is matched by purposeful acceleration.

According to Autocar in its 1971 road test, it was quick beyond the legal limit, too: 'In fifth gear we reached a mean maximum of 125mph just over the power peak at 5750rpm. The standing-start acceleration times were good. The clutch was let in smartly at 4000rpm and the car leapt off the line, leaving a few yards of rubber on the road. From here on, progress was rapid, indeed: 60mph was reached in 8.0sec exactly while still in second gear.'

The HJClassics Verdict

The 240Z was great to drive, looked good, and pleasantly quick. But that wasn't all that was in its armoury - it was reliable, dependable, and well serviced by efficient and helpful dealers.

The Datsun 240Z earned its stripes as a sports car - perhaps on looks alone. Its success back in the '70s was well-deserved, even if the company's management didn't expect it at all. A lot has been written about the 240Z's huge commercial success, and how it kick-started a long-line of sports cars that continues to this day, but most of the superlatives are warranted. It might feel old school today on challenging roads, but when it was new, the 240Z was a revelation compared with its ageing British rivals. And in its own way, helped hasten the demise of the affordable British sports car.

The 240Z is great to drive, looks good, and is pleasantly quick. But back in 1969 that wasn't all that was in its armoury - it was reliable, dependable, and well serviced by efficient and helpful dealers. Culture shock for MG and Triumph owners. And that underlines another home truth – the Japanese mastered reliability in affordable cars long before everyone else. The Datsun 240Z was – and is – the perfect sports car for everyone. We'd say bag a bargain while you can, but rising values already reflect their desirability.

Datsun 240Z (3)

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