The Z Phenomenon

A dance through Nissan's history

The Nissan Z. The name rolls off the tongue with a satisfying cool factor. But where did the Z phenomenon begin?

Nissan, or Datsun as it was known in Oz when I was a lad, weren’t new to affordable two door sports cars when they conceived the Z. Back in the sixties they released the Fairlady roadster, a cute little one litre two door. The next model became the 1200, then 1500, 1600 and finally the 2000. Can you see a trend with the naming convention matching the engine displacement? Another trivial cool fact about early Datsuns/Nissans.

It was actually a Fairlady 1600 sport convertible finished in metallic silver with black seats and a four-speed floor shift, owned by a lady who was a client of my employer at the time, that first cemented my love of sports cars.

Despite the lovingly maintained little beast already being considered an old vehicle at the time; I fell in love with the chrome work, sports gauges, twin SU carbys and that rasp from the exhaust, plus the ability to unbolt the roof and leave it off. This thing just screamed cool!

Most importantly, it proved Nissan had long mastered the art of producing desirable sports cars that were realistically affordable.

Enter the 240Z. It had an instant charismatic appeal, with a drop-dead gorgeous silhouette that looked like the offspring of an E-Type Jaguar, especially if it had the optional perspex headlight covers fitted. And so, the Z legend was born.

The first 240Z wasn’t just good looking. It’s engaging and playful nature meant it delivered a driving experience as desirable as its good looks.

This was a vehicle you could stir along quickly, and it would reward you with wide smiles and giggles for good technique. The slightly over square 2.4L straight six was ridiculously simple in design, and near bullet proof, providing a wonderful 115kWs of torquey acceleration. Given the 240’s moderate body weight, that equated to pure fun. This single overhead cam straight six just loved to rev with an eagerness to please. Behind the wheel, you felt connected to it rather than riding on it.

And, for its time, the 240Z’s interior had all the desirable hallmarks and wow factor of a much more expensive European exotic. In classic sports car style, it had deeply recessed tacho and speedo, a quick shifting stubby gear lever, nicely placed pedals for heel and toe downshifts, and a super cool, serious sports car three pod instrument cluster adorning the top of the dash.

But to say the Z’s evolution was colourful is an understatement.  Most iconic name plates have an almost linear and logical evolution. Think Porsche 911, Lamborghini or Ferrari—with each successive model there is a continuation of beauty, form and function derived from the former model’s core DNA. Whereas the Z has jumped around like a piece on a chess board, sometimes looking like it was suffering from a little too much plastic surgery.

The 240 morphed into the 260, which was heavier and longer as they added a 2+2 version with an unusable rear seat to accommodate pixies and leprechauns. Many considered the 260 to have lost a little of the edgy performance of the 240’s spirited character. Which wasn’t surprising with the dual whammy of some atrocious early emission systems hampering rather than helping engine performance plus a bigger body and extra trimmings adding weight which wasn’t fully compensated by the extra displacement. But, none the less, the 260 was still an impressive car to drive.

The second generation 280ZX was even longer. But it regained a little performance thanks to increased displacement and the efficiencies of fuel injection. The bigger 2.8L had a smooth power delivery and could be spun willingly in the upper rpm ranges to good effect. Whilst the dreadful auto held back the 280’s playful side, the introduction of a slick shifting five-speed manual returned some of that original Z’s charisma. I enjoyed the novelty of a twin glass T-Top roof as it added a legendary Sally Field/Burt Reynolds ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ appeal. Cruising a winding road through the hills on warm summers day provided a delightful sense of freedom as you stretched the 280’s legs. I’d rate the 2.8L as my favourite of the straight sixes for its willingness, tractability and silky operation hot or cold, coupled to that slithery five speed in a harmonious mechanical match. Sadly, those overly soft plush seats and rollie polly suspension didn’t do it any favours.

Done stretching and sucking the life out of the original 240’s salacious body shape, the Nissan design engineers started pushing boundaries to meet the desires of an 80s demographic hooked on Bay Watch and Miami Vice, with a love affair for the flamboyant Lamborghini Countach. Bold bling, and spandex was in. Looks ruled and we all wanted to be the cool kids. Step forward and take a bow 300ZX, the new third generation.

Streamlined, but with a chopped off, square rear end, flat lifeless ironing board sides and a tapered front end reminiscent of a door wedge. Nowadays, you’d be lucky to get someone to lift their head from their coffee cup, even if you tooted at them. I remember driving a gloss black version, which from certain angles had an uncanny resemblance to another eighty’s icon, Kit from the tacky TV series, Night Rider.

Despite the larger beefier VG30 V6, a departure from the smooth inline six, and even after throwing in some fancy digital instrumentation, you couldn’t really call it inspiring. Sure, it followed the design trend at the time. It was pleasant to drive, but just felt like the Z lineage was going soft. For me the 300ZX had lost its way, unsure of whether it was supposed to be a luxury GT or a sports car. To be brutally honest, it missed the mark on both options. Slowly spreading around the waistline and getting podgy, it was sadly more focused on visual aesthetics, with the driver wearing mirror tinted sunnies and a sharp looking navy-blue sports jacket over an exorbitantly priced white T-shirt for attention, rather than offering any real inspirational driving dynamics. I’ll admit the turbo version was better, but it came too late for me.

Getting rid of the shoulder pads, ripping off the wide double buckle belts and washing the blonde streaks out of their hair; moving into the 90s Nissan refocused on the purpose of their sports cars, driving.

When Nissan announced the fourth generation of the 300ZX… Oh WOW!

I was gob smacked and left speechless like most in the industry. Bold, beautiful, wide, low, and sexy. It was so astonishingly unexpected. Finished in a stunning red, it simply took your breath away. I vividly remember driving it for the first time. Everywhere you went, heads would snap left or right to stare in disbelief that this catwalk model was wearing a Nissan badge.

Back in the day when dealer stock was limited, and few had beheld this beauty, I parked it next to a concourse Ferrari 328 GTB drop top, and the Nissan got more attention.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the twin turbo edition on our local dealer floors with its scintillating acceleration of 0-100kph in a flat 5s. Remember we’re talking early 90s here. That was quick, and it’s actually still no slouch by today’s standards.

Even in its normally aspirated trim, the quad cam 24-valve power plant provided spirited performance with steering and chassis dynamics to match. This was a winner!

Then came the fifth generation 350Z, followed by the sixth generation 370Z; both a radical departure from the 300ZX predecessor’s style and grace.

And unfairly suggested as mimicking another body style from an already recognised classic.

Love it or hate it, there were further performance improvements across the board, with the 370Z being the pick of the litter, having a more polished presentation, and lashings of weight reducing aluminium offering crisper performance.

I’ll be the first to admit, with a little aftermarket body kit enhancement, this Z couple could look formidably imposing and demand instant street cred.

Add some quality off-the-shelf tuning gear and enthusiasts were squeezing out some eye widening performance.

Personally, I wasn’t a fan. The aesthetics and design language of the 350/370Z were so far left of centre, they could have been a different model in the Nissan line up. If you consider the body styles from the 280, to the two radically different 300s, and then the 350 and 370, the Z was all over the place.

It’s as though the design engineers were in constant disagreement about which direction the Z should progress, experimenting with different ideas to see which one would appeal the best. Until someone yelled “STOP! Let’s go back to the beginning”. Nissan needed to look at the lessons learned and take the most favourable aspects from each generation to recapture the essence of what makes owning a Z so enjoyable.

That’s exactly what they’ve done!

So, what of this new model simply called Z? There’s no numerical indicator in its title to suggest its hierarchical position in the family tree. And therein lies the true nature of this vehicle. It’s the simplicity of just “Z” which signifies Nissan’s desire to return this vehicle to its primordial beginnings and honour the original designer’s ethos to build a vehicle that delivers an engaging and rewarding driving experience for the enthusiast through innovation and clever engineering.

And now, for the final chapter on the Z phenomenon…click here!

Drive Editor - Ray Cully
Drive Editor – Ray Cully

About our Motoring Editor: Ray has been passionate about all things automotive since he first started collecting Matchbox and Hot Wheels models when he was five. Since leaving his executive role at General Motors (GM), he’s been sharing his driving experiences with Australian audiences for nearly 20 years, commencing his automotive journalist career with a popular WA-based magazine and was writing his own column in The West Australian for 8 years.

Ray’s strong love of automotive engineering and clever design has seen his articles and photography featured in prominent national magazines in Australia and the UK. He loves sharing his passion with other drivers, including via a long running stint as Senior Instructor for Land Rover Experience, providing training and education for new vehicle owners.

Recently Ray has been presenting on TV shows including Ready for Adventure and the very popular Caravan and Camping WA, to showcase some of the great products, vehicles and companies that make getting out and exploring Western Australia that much more enjoyable.