The Z Car — A 40-year journey in North America

The journey from the original 240Z to the current 370Z made a number of interesting stops along the past 40 years. 

Interestingly, the 240Z might not have made the journey to America in the first place, if not for the efforts of one man.

Though many people were responsible for the design and engineering of the first generation 240Z, its success in North America can be attributed to Yutaka Katayama, who was president of Nissan’s U.S. operations at the time.  Known affectionately as “Mr. K,” he was convinced that the company’s new sports car design would be a hit in the U.S. There was just one problem — the vehicle’s name: the Fairlady Z (which is still used in the Japanese market today).

The 1970 Datsun 240Z 

Yutaka Katayama with the original Z Car

With a name change for this market to “240Z” and some aggressive marketing, including early motorsports success, the Z became an instant hit bringing attention and buyers not just to Z, but also to the entire brand.

When the original Datsun 240Z debuted as a 1970 model, its design and performance were considered state-of-the-art: a 150-horsepower 2.4-liter single overhead cam inline 6-cylinder engine, 4-wheel independent suspension, 14-inch wheels, choice of a 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission, and a quarter-mile acceleration time of 17.1 seconds at 84.5 miles per hour.  The 240Z was conceived as a closed coupe body, rather than the typical open-top sports cars of the age, to enhance body rigidity and, therefore, improve handling and durability.

A 1971 240Z on the track

After overseeing Nissan’s growth in the U.S. in the ‘70s, Katayama returned to Japan and remains, to this day, linked to the Z’s success here and around the world.  On Sept. 15th, 2009, Mr. K celebrated his 100th birthday and received cards and birthday greetings from Z lovers everywhere.

In 1974, as the engine displacement climbed to 2.6 liters the name changed to 260Z.  The 2+2 model with an extended roofline and tiny back seat also appeared.  In 1975, engine size increased again to 2.8 liters with fuel injection and the name changed to 280Z.  Z cars continued to dominate on the racetrack, with Pete Brock, John Morton, Bob Sharp and Paul Newman among the many talented drivers.

A 1975 280Z with fuel injection, left, and a second-generation Z starts with the 1979 280ZX

Z sales continued to climb with the introduction in 1979 of the new second generation 280ZX.  Now priced at just under $10,000, the 280ZX was named Motor Trend “Import Car of the Year” and sales passed 86,000 units.  T-tops and a turbocharged engine followed in the early ‘80s.

In 1984, Z engine displacement increased again, with a 3.0-liter V6 replacing the classic Z inline-6, and the 300ZX was born.  Also, a specially equipped model celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary and priced at $25,999 was introduced.  The 1984 Z was the best selling sports car in America.

The 1984 300ZX turbocharged edition became the best-selling sports car in America

The next breakthrough in Z history came in 1990 with the arrival of the totally redesigned, fourth generation 300ZX.  Offered in two-seat and four-seat 2+2 models, it offered an unheard of 222 horsepower and a top speed of 150 mph.  A few months later, the 300ZX Turbo followed – with 300 horsepower, a 160-mph top speed and a $33,000 price tag.

The 1990 300ZX captured the Z’s second Motor Trend “Import Car of the Year” award, along with a spot on Car and Driver and Road & Track “10 Best” lists.  The 300ZX also captured Automobile’s “Design of the Year” and the first of four “All-Stars” awards.

The 1990 300ZX was named
Motor Trend" "Import Car of the Year."

By the mid-‘90s, however, sports car sales in general were slowing and the Z had lost its “affordable” sports car positioning.  With Z sales declining sharply and the core “value” positioning no longer part of the “Z DNA,” sales of the Z in the U.S. slumped and sales were stopped following the 1996 model year.  The last 300ZX imported into the U.S. was inducted into the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

The next chapter of the Z history came just before the end of the century.  In 1999, Nissan and Renault formed what has become the highly successful Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Carlos Ghosn was assigned by Renault to head the new management team.  Among his first tasks was not just to look at the business aspects, but to find the “soul” of the company.  In interview after interview, people inside and outside the company brought up one model to him, one letter: Z.

Production ended with the 1996 model year, which featured a convertible edition

Development of the new Z began later that year, with the return to the values of the original 240Z – a car that sports car enthusiasts would look forward to driving everyday; quick, inspiring and affordable.

In summer 2002, the Z was reborn with the introduction of the 2003 350Z.  It was delivered, as promised, with an MSRP of under $30,000.

The re-born 2003 350

Following the 350Z’s unprecedented success, the sixth generation Z, the 2009 370Z was launched last December.  Now the little sports car that could comes full circle with the announcement of the 370Z 40th Anniversary Edition.

“It’s almost inconceivable that it has been 40 years since the original 240Z changed the course of Nissan and the concept of affordable, everyday sports cars,” said Castignetti. “In a year, 1969, marked by the first man to walk on the moon, the 240Z made a remarkable first step of its own.  Happy anniversary, Z.”

The 40th Anniversary Z