Crucial Cars: The Datsun Z

Yutaka Katayama. You may not have heard of him, but you’ve surely seen his influence on the automotive world. Affectionately known as “Mr. K” and the “Father of the Z car,” Katayama is to many a hero and a legend.

Datsun 240z

Source | Matthew Davis

In the 1960s, Japanese cars in the United States were nothing more than disposable transportation that got decent fuel economy and were known to be more reliable and affordable than their domestic counterparts. In short, they were anything but cool. As an executive at Nissan, Katayama had some radical ideas and introduced several cars to the American market that changed the perception of Japanese cars forever. One was the Datsun 240Z.

To Japan, Nissan has been akin to one of the “Big Three” in the United States. When it first started selling cars in the U.S., it used the moniker “Datsun” instead of “Nissan,” for fear of the line failing in America and thus tarnishing the Nissan name. But when the Datsun 240Z hit showroom floors in 1969, it was such a smashing success that over the next 15 years Datsuns started to display badges that advertised “Datsun by Nissan” and, eventually, just “Nissan.”

1970 Datusn 240z

Source | Matthew Davis

There have been other vehicles, like the Datsun 510 and Toyota Celica, that helped cement the status of Japanese cars. But if David and Goliath was an allegory about Japanese car success, the stone that hit Goliath in the temple was the Z.

The Datsun 240Z entered the U.S. market at the tail end of the great muscle-car era and at the peak of popularity for British roadsters. The latter group, with models such as the Triumph TR6 and MG MGB, were directly in the crosshairs of Mr. K’s creation, and they were blown from the sky by the Z. The 240Z was a two-seater GT (grand touring) sports car with a short deck and elegant long hood. Many consider it to be the budget version of the venerable Jaguar E-Type. It certainly had a British feel to the design, sound, and feel of the car, but without the quirky, unreliable aspects.

With an MSRP of $3,500, the Datsun 240Z was priced slightly higher than the MGB GT and roughly about the same as a Porsche 914. Those who wanted something along the lines of a Chevrolet Corvette or Ford Mustang would have needed to pay over $2,500 more, nearly doubling the price of the Datsun.

The Z gave people the cool factor they wanted at a price they could afford, and it was reliable, day in and day out. As muscle cars lost potency through the 1970s, the Datsun Z increased in popularity in the U.S., while its British competitors all but ceased to exist.

The Datsun Z Straight 6

Source | Matthew Davis

Powered by a 2.4L straight six (the L24), the Datsun Z produced 151 horsepower and could hit 0-60 mph in just over eight seconds. That was quick enough to hang with the likes of the Porsche 911. Rear independent suspension enabled the Z to handle just as well as it looked, and it had great success on the racetrack as well as on the showroom floor. “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday” was a popular saying in those days.

Buy, sell, hold

When it comes to collecting cars, the nostalgic Japanese market is an interesting niche to consider. The past five years or so have truly given us a glimpse at the potential of these great vehicles. Fifteen years ago, you could pick up a clean Datsun Z for less than they sold new. Nowadays, an early 240Z will bring over $10,000 in a moderate state of disrepair. Just as with the stock market, in the auto market there are some models you should buy before they rise, some that you should probably sell because they’ve peaked, and others that you want to hold onto because they are climbing in value.

Some say that the 240Z, in particular, is climbing in value at a higher rate than almost any other car. Out of the three early-generation models of the Z (240, 260, 280) the 1970 models have almost already reached the stage where you’d want to hold. The 260Z and 280Z are where you can still pick them up for a good price. The key is finding models that haven’t been wrecked or aren’t too cankered with rust. Japanese cars of this era are notorious for rusting away.

Source | Matthew Davis

The crystal ball

We’ve all heard the stories of the people who sold a 1955 Chevrolet for peanuts and kick themselves every day for it. While there’s no crystal ball to tell you what cars will come into their own down the road, there are a few patterns to consider. The Datsun Z is becoming a collectible because not only was it an icon and a game changer in its day, but also because the people who now want to buy their first collector car remember growing up when the Z hit the showroom floor. It’s the type of car that gets comments at the gas station like, “I had one of those in high school, and it was so cool!”

Sometimes predicting the future is as simple as thinking back to the cars that influenced you when you were in your formative years.

Did you covet or own a Datsun Z? Let us know in the comments!