I still remember that high-pitched six-cylinder roar of the Datsun 240Z rally car which won the outright victory, class, team and manufacturers trophies during the East African Safari Rally in 1971 in the hands of Edgar Hermann and Hans Schuller. The Datsun 240Z was the first car to capture an overall victory in its first year of competition. The East African Safari Rally was acknowledged as the “toughest rally in the world” at the time.
Up to middle of the 1960s, the high-end sports car and muscle car market was dominated by European and American manufacturers. Japan’s first foray into this market was led by Toyota in 1967 with their 2000 GT modelled on the Jaguar E-Type.
Designed in collaboration with Yamaha, this “halo” car was a front six-cylinder engine, rear wheel drive, two-seater, hardtop coupé grand tourer but at a price tag of $6,800 (much more than contemporary Jaguars and Porsches) it was never going to be a marketing success. Only 351 units were made and in this cut-throat sports car world, production ended in 1970. The car was featured in the 1967 James Bond You Only Live Twice as one-off topless model.
As Toyota were leaving the global sports car market, rival car maker Nissan/Datsun picked up right where the 2000 GT left off. What is not known to many is that the 2000 GT was initially a collaboration between Nissan and Yamaha, with a design by Bernard Goertz, the man behind the iconic BMW 507. A prototype was built, but when Nissan walked away from the project, Yamaha pitched it to Toyota who redesigned it and the rest is history.
Nissan’s US chief, Yutaka Takayama, saw the potential for 2000 GT-type of car for the American market and in 1967 pushed for a “halo” car that could keep up with the world’s best while remaining affordable for most buyers. Following his efforts, the first truly Japanese world beating sports car, the Datsun 240Z was unveiled to the public in October 1969.
Like its predecessor, the 2000 GT (and Ferraris, Jaguars, Aston Martins and company), it had cutting-edge features like disc brakes, fully independent suspension and an overhead camshaft engine. It put the moniker, “Japanese tin can” to rest. However, unlike those other exotic models, the price tag was only $3,500 or the price of a reasonably equipped Ford Mustang V8.
While the 2000 GT was a Japanese Jaguar, the 240Z borrowed from the E-Type, Porsche 911, Ferrari Daytona and even had some Maserati Ghibli thrown in for good measure. The comparison did not end with the looks but in a class with MGB GT, Porsche 914 and Opel GT, the 240Z not only blew the doors off its competitors, it had a higher top speed than the Porsche 911T.
Reviewing the car in June 1970, “Car and Driver” declared “The difference between Datsun 240Z and your everyday three and a half thousand dollar car is that twice as much thinking went into the Datsun. It shows.
The Datsun 240Z fell into that sweet spot between the American muscle car and the European sports car, gaining it wide acceptability. In 1970, Datsun sold a respectable 16,215 240Zs and as muscle cars became more and more restricted by US emissions controls 240Z sales continued to rise. By the end of 1973, Datsun sold 148,115 240Zs in the US alone. For the first time Japanese cars were beginning to be accepted in the US, in no small part due to the early success of the 240Z.
In Britain, a 50-year-old advert paints the picture of a new breed of sports car: “So pretty you don’t know whether to frame it or floor it.”- a phrase which applies as much today to a car which still looks and sounds sensational. Although tariff barriers restricted sales in Britain, crucially the 240Z encouraged people to visit Datsun showrooms for the first time.
In Kenya, the Datsun 1600 SSS had already popularised the marque by winning the Safari Rally in 1970 proving to all and sundry that Japanese cars were just as good if not better than European and American makes. The 1600 SSS was more functional as a family sedan in standard trim as opposed to the 240Z which was a very focused two-seater sports car.
Nevertheless, the phenomenal success of the 240Z in the Safari Rally made it a very popular choice for the rally enthusiast for many years. Today, there are many 240Zs which are regularly entered in the East African Safari Classic Rally with good results.
For 1974, the car got a bigger 2.6 litre engine becoming the 260Z. Although the car looked much the same it was bogged down by US safety and emissions requirements like heavy steel five-mile per hour crash-resistant bumpers and lower power output. In 1975 it became the 280Z and soldiered on until 1978 when it was replaced by the monochrome T-topped disco-fantastic 280Z. When the 300ZX was discontinued in the US in 1996, Nissan decided to try a new idea by buying old 240Zs and restoring them to as good-as-new condition and selling them at Nissan dealerships for $25,000, with one year, 12,000-mile warranty. This proved popular with baby boomers who now had the money to relive their dreams from the 1970s.
The Datsun 240Z has become a highly collectible classic. A quality example will cost about £40,000 while some exceptional classics will put you back in excess of £60,000.
The 240Z is a legend and one of the greatest sports cars of all time.