Talk about the performance and sporting nature of a Nissan S30 Fairlady Z, and chances are that not everyone will know what you are referring to – unless of course they are wholly familiar with the Japanese automotive market of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why? Because apart from its home country, the Fairlady Z was badged and sold as the Datsun 240Z – picking up quite a reputation after its launch in 1969.
Besides creating a sports GT that was deserving of its place in the market, the 240Z was designed with the aim of going head-to-head with some more familiar British iron that was enjoying some not too shabby sales in the USA – in particular the MGB. It was therefore priced with a view to tempting those with hearts set on a slice of England, to dining out on an offering from the Land of the Rising Sun – a successful ploy, and soon waiting lists were growing as potential owners queued to get their hands on the Datsun.
The 240Z was the brainchild of Yutaka Katayama, the president of Nissan Motor Corporation USA. Mr K (as he was often respectfully referred to by his employees) enlisted Yoshihiko Matsuo to head up the design process; the result was a sharp-lined, long bonneted sports car that built upon the success of its predecessor, the Datsun 510 – itself a rival to the BMW Neue Klasse 1600, but powered by Nissan’s L-series straight-six with twin Hitachi SU-like carburettors. Mr K wanted something that could give the Jaguar E-type a run for its money in the styling stakes and make things difficult for Porsche in motorsport – arguably, he managed to achieve both.
Datsun had already made an appearance in competition with the 510, but the arrival of the 240Z took things up a gear. Victory at Suzuka under the Fairlady badge was followed by more silverware in the US as the 240Z competed in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) from 1970 to 1973.
Arguably however, it was rallying that provided the Datsun with its competitive home. With the 510 having paved the way in 1970 with victory at the hands of Edgar Herrmann and Hans Schüller, the 240Z could be seen making brisk progress on the challenging East African Safari the following year, with the duo once again claiming the top spot with the new car – a victory that would be repeated in 1973 with the Kenyan team of Shekhar Mehta and Lofty Drews.
For those tempted by Datsun’s MGB alternative, there were some obvious improvements for owners looking to compare the two. Japanese build quality and reliability were two main positives, and road testers at the time certainly appeared to be impressed – firstly by the ergonomics of the interior and the controls, but more importantly by the handling. Although some claimed the 240Z to not live up to the initial expectation of power and speed, its feel on the road was more than favourable: pleasantly light steering, high-speed stability and ‘reassuring’ brakes were all reported.
Motor Sport suggested that the car’s only hope of keeping up with the Lotus Elan would be on a motorway, but acknowledged that it was a different type of car – capable of cruising at high speed all day long with relatively little wind noise, rather than offering an enlightening experience on twisty B-roads. Yet it was their final statement that actually bought into Katayama’s commercial vision, admitting that it was the car that the MGC-GT should have been and a shame that the British Motor Industry couldn’t offer something similar. They may not have been bowled over by the 240Z, but they could clearly see how important this landmark car would be.