The 1970 Datsun 240Z debuted to a world very different than today. Datsun and Toyota were enjoying a budding sales success, and indeed, other Japanese makers were beginning to crowd into an expanding subcompact market that had once been the sole province of cars from Britain and the Continent…and dominated by one German marque in particular. But despite that and despite Bob Sharp and Pete Brock showing what could be done on the track with the Datsun 510, and despite the Sports Car Club of America national championships already garnered in Datsun roadsters, “Made in Japan” was still an epithet in 1970, a synonym for a shoddy copy of the real thing.
So it’s little wonder that the automotive world was set on its collective ear by the appearance of the Datsun 240Z. The automotive press was astounded, tripping over its typewriters describing the new sports car from Japan while enthusiasts set aside their prejudices to throw dollars at dealers to buy a Z car.
Indeed, dealers played along, arrogantly denying a choice of color—you get what comes—adding mandatory options, especially aftermarket wheel and tire packages, along with the blatant markups (a practice later known as ADP—additional dealer profit—that drove actual sale prices from a manufacturer’s suggested $3,526 to as much as $5,500. That was almost the price of a Jaguar XK-E coupe. But the customers came, saw and bought anyway.
Although the best-selling Datsun in America was the 1600 pickup, the 240Z wasn’t the company’s first sports car. The Datsun 1600 and 2000 roadsters won races, if not the fervid loyalty afforded the likes of MG and Triumph. The roadsters were as cramped and primitive as an MGB, and developed only a modest following. Still, hedging its bets, Datsun U.S.A. sold the roadster side-by-side in 1970. But the 240Z was different from the open cars, sharing only its assembly plant and the sugar-scoop headlamps.
Even the engine was new. Rather than the U-series overhead-cam four-cylinder used in the 2.0-liter roadster, the Datsun 240Z bound for the United States got a lengthened version of the L-series aluminum-head engine used in the Datsun 510. The 2.4-liter inline six shared bore and stroke, connecting rods, bearings, valve train and a duplex change-driven camshaft with the 1.6-liter four that powered the Datsun 510. With higher compression pistons, larger intake valves, more radical cam timing and a pair of Hitachi-SU HJG 46W sidedraft carburetors, the U.S.-spec 240-Z was rated at 150 horsepower at 6000 rpm, with a 7000 rpm redline.
Only a four-speed manual transmission was available at first (a three-speed automatic was offered in 1971). A five-speed manual like the one in the 2000 roadster was promised, though never delivered in the 240Zs sold in America, despite the availability of that gearbox in the European and home market 240Z. With sales as hot as they were, there wasn’t much incentive for Datsun to add the costlier five-cog box in the United States, so it waited for a later model.
At a time when the live rear axle was king, the Z’s suspension was fully independent. MacPherson struts were used in front. Lower A-arms with coil-over struts in back were an improvement on the 510’s semi-trailing arm rear suspension. The Z’s solid front discs brakes and finned cast-iron rear drums were considered better than adequate in 1970.
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