There's no question about it: If you want to blow minds with a vintage sports car, a classic Ferrari, a Porsche, and even a Mustang are all surefire ways to do just that. And Lord knows we here at GQ Style love those cars. But if you want to blow the right minds—the connoisseurs, gearheads, speed freaks, and taste gods—it's all about the early-'70s Datsun 240Zs right now. These Japanese marvels of mechanical engineering entered the American market as reliable, affordable, high-performance alternatives to the European imports that dominated when it came to exotic horsepower. And despite several decades of ripping up the roads (and being made of some highly rust-prone steel), many of them have survived and remain worthy rivals to their more popular (and far more expensive) Western counterparts. Thanks to that and the laws of scarcity, they're hotter now than ever, and those who truly get it are rabid for them. Here, in the words of some of the most obsessed and lead-footed among them, is the story of the incredible Z-car.
Carl Beck (collector; owns three 240Zs—two original 1972s and the 1973 Pete Brock raced in Baja that same year): I was driving a Porsche, and I passed the Datsun dealership, and they had a 240Z sitting in the showroom. I saw it, and thought, Gee, what was that? I turned around and went back. Long story short, after a prolonged test-drive that evening, I bought it. The dealer couldn't take the Porsche on trade. It was worth too much. He would have had to give me money!
Rich Scharf (collector, restorer; owns four 240Zs, from 1970, '71, '72, and '74): My 1970 is my dad's original. I was 9 years old the day he brought it home brand new. I remember that moment. It was always the coolest car. He wouldn't let me touch it.
Chris Karl (collector; executive director, Z-Car Club Association): Delivered pizza. Saved up money. Mom helped me on the down payment. I paid her right back when I got paid. Champagne gold, five-speed, red velour interior of the time—not exactly tasteful. Every date I had thought it was a Porsche.
Scharf: It's that long front end that's very attractive. A lot of people say it was based off of the Ferrari, the 250 GT Ferrari. A lot of people said it looked like the Jaguar E-type. It's a head-turner.
Beck: I think the thing that makes the 240Z, gives it its longevity, is it moves from one generation to the next because it's a beautiful car. It was and still is a classic design. Coke-bottle shape, you know, long nose, short deck. A real art piece. It draws a crowd almost anywhere you stop.
Peter Brock (designer, racer; founder, Brock Racing Enterprises, whose team won the Sports Car Club of America championships in 1970 and '71 with a production 240Z): The car that came to the United States from Japan was the dream of Mr. Yutaka Katayama. The engine was designed by guys over at Nissan who had never built a race engine. In the end we took this engine that was an absolute hand grenade and we built one of the best production racing engines in the world. The car was unbeatable. We took it out for the first time, and we smoked the Porsches. And Porsche, unable to compete with us, quit. Triumph quit as well. And so the 240Z dominated for the next five or six years and became the most popular GT car in the car business. We won the next two national championships. And at that point, it took like three months to get a Datsun 240Z. Was supposed to be $3,500, and the dealers kept marking them up two or three thousand dollars. That's how valuable they were.
Karl: The real intent was to deliver a driver's vehicle…where you could enjoy going around turns. Back in 1970, there was nothing like it. The clear interpretation is that Nissan was not convinced that they could be successful in the United States. Mr. K [Yutaka Katayama], however, made it a massive success with the release of the 240.
Beck: Yeah, the funny thing is, I sold the '70 for more than I paid for it. Demand was so high. Even two years, three years into the car, the demand was so high. I paid $3,500 plus tax, and a year and a half later, with 68,000 miles, I sold it for $4,200.
Karl: There's been a massive resurgence around the Datsun Z over the last two years. Jay Leno is a fan. Adam Carolla. Massive interest. He owns a lot of Paul Newman and Bob Sharp racing cars. The twin-turbo 280ZX. Paul Newman used to race in one. He owned that vehicle.
Adam Carolla (comedian; host, ‘The Adam Carolla Show’; collector; owns several racing Zs, including a 1979 280ZX previously owned and raced by Paul Newman): Most guys you're going to talk to are collectors, or they're the cars-and-coffee guys, which is fine, but I race. It's a lot more intense than cars and coffee. I like the machinery. I raced at Road Atlanta several months ago with one of those BRE [Brock Racing Enterprises] Z-cars, and those are fast cars. John Morton is driving it now, who's the same guy that drove it back in the day—still fast. The 240 and the Datsun 510 are two of the most raced cars ever.
Jay Leno (comedian; host, ‘Jay Leno's Garage’; America's classic-car dean emeritus): It was a real sports car that real, American-size people could fit in. Your shoes could sit on the pedals without hitting the gas and the brake simultaneously. It was comfortable, and it was durable, and it was quite good. They were easy to fix, easy to work on. You know, it was probably at that point the most American Japanese car ever made.
Carolla: I don't want to over-romanticize the Z—you would rather have a Ferrari Daytona if you can afford it—but for a 50th of the price, the Z is a pretty good piece of machinery. It had an inline six, an overhead cam, an aluminum head. It was easily hot-rodded up. You could put triple Webers on it and mess around with the gear ratio on the rear end. You could just keep going with it.
Beck: I've had a lot of sports cars. Ferraris, Jaguars, Corvettes, Porsches. And the 240Z's always been my favorite. It's the only one I never wanted to get rid of after four or five years.
Scharf: It's a very drivable car. They're simple. Very easy to work on.
Karl: And they're very mechanical, too. If you just look at the engine design, and watch one being revved, then you see all the mechanical linkage connected to the carburetor. You have to understand how to drive a machine. There were no driver aids. Power brakes, power steering—all these things that we take for granted, all of those components—didn't exist. Once you get that car moving, you realize what they mean by driver's car because you feel the road. You can understand what the car's going to do as it starts to reach the limit and the tires are about to squeal. It's a different driving experience.
“Mad” Mike Taylor (Z-Car Club Association liaison to Nissan Japan; friend of Yutaka Katayama's): People just don't get rid of them. You're not going to find a whole lot of 240s for sale.
Karl: There's a genre within our society that still remembers these things. That, combined with the publicity, the skyrocketing values… Because the unfortunate thing about them, they were not made of the best steel. They were very prone to rust, and most of them did not survive.
Michael Dorvillier (chairman, the La Jolla Concours d'Elegance classic-car show): Eventually you probably just threw it away when it quit running and rusted out. The metal was poor. They just weren't valuable. No one wanted them.
Karl: I would wager a third of what was produced is still out there. But rarity will also increase value.
Dorvillier: When people say, “Hey, what's the next car to start collecting?” It's when that guy gets into his late 40s, early 50s, and he's done okay and he's saved a little bit of cash. He's gonna wanna go back and buy the car that the guy that stole his girlfriend in high school had, right?
Craig Jackson (CEO, Barrett-Jackson Auction Company): And it all depends on what you really liked when you were a kid, but we're seeing a lot of the '70s, '80s, into-the-early-'90s cars across all genres becoming collectible because that's what the Gen Xers grew up with.
Dorvillier: And so last year at our event, the Honorary Judge's Choice Award went to a 1970 Datsun 240Z sports coupe. Not the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 Gullwing. He didn't choose the $2 million-plus car. He chose that orange 240Z [shown here]. The car owner is Rich Scharf.
Scharf: I'm really a purist. I like it to be exactly like it came out of the factory. When I do a restoration, that's typically what I do. On my dad's, it's all original. I replaced spark plugs and belts and things like that, but nothing else. Some of the hoses are actually still original, 48-year-old hoses. The plug wires are 48 years old. Original paint on the air cleaner and fan. I try to keep everything as original as possible, even if they have little dings or little scratches. It is what it is.
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