The Datsun 240Z – or as they call it in Japan, the Fairlady – has to be one of the most iconic sports cars of all time. The Japanese introduced it onto the market in 1969, a week after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the moon. Comparing the two might strike most people as a little far-fetched, but if you're a car nut, the 240Z was a milestone. Here was a car that looked like it cost a lot more money than it actually did combined with serious sports car performance – quite an achievement 40 years ago.
I might not have had a chance to stretch my legs on the lunar surface, but I did get to do something almost as exclusive, and that's drive one of the rare Japanese-only 240Zs from the period, a privilege that even entailed the need of a private road to take it for a spin, just to ensure nothing untoward happened to it.
The leather-brown Japanese-only model is distinguished by the front end of the car being longer than the export models. Other features include glass covers over the front headlights, and front wing mirrors positioned half way down the bonnet. A lot of people hate these mirrors, but I think they enhance that sense of '70s cool the car exudes, while inside the cabin the gauges, the thin, wood-simulated steering wheel and the switchgear all bringing a sepia-tinted tear to the eye. It even smells of the '70s in here.
The remarkable thing about the 240Z is how practical it remains to this day, being both easy to drive and fun with it. It's a reflection of how profound an impact the car had when it first arrived in the West and the US in particular at the start of the '70s. Essentially, the 240Z did for Japanese sports cars in that decade what MG did for British sports cars in the 1950s.
Nissan studied what Americans and Europeans liked when designing the car – the flared rear end, the long hood, all the little styling cues they thought Westerners would go for. And they got it right, too – the car was like a mini E-Type Jaguar. But just as the E-Type was a better value junior equivalent to the Aston Martin, with both cars featuring six cylinders and comparable horsepower, so it was with the 240Z when compared to the E-Type.
You have to remember the kind of market that the 240Z entered in the US, a market where British sports cars were the familiar foreign import. Much as I love British sports cars, by the 1970s they were pretty awful. The quality was at an all-time low, they didn't even attempt to meet US emissions standards, and many of them still had plastic windows and tops that didn't seal properly and so leaked water. Then along comes this car that is, if not half the price of an XKE, almost certainly a third less, yet with much the same performance – six cylinders, five-speed transmission and 150 horsepower (112kW). What's more, it came with a bulletproof engine and was easy to work on.
If you were 21 in 1971 this might have been your first sports car, and driving one of them now is full of nostalgia for baby boomers like me. All of which makes me think that what Nissan need – Datsun having been phased out a long time ago, of course – is a new version of this iconic car.
Nissan seem to think so too, which is why after getting the chance to drive the original 240Z, I was invited to the Nissan Technical centre in Atsugi, Kanagawa. I was there to meet chief creative design officer Shiro Nakamura, who happens to be a friend (and an awesome bass player, incidentally) to find out if the company is going to go one better than NASA and make another 240Z just as evocative as the original.
Before divulging anything about a possible remake of the 240Z, Shiro took me to look at a first generation Fairlady 240Z. Unlike the hirsute '70s feel of the car I drove, this is the car in its purest form, pretty much exactly as it left the factory, and featuring a white paint-job, which succeeds in enhancing its timeless, good-looking design.
I'm still surprised that it's such a big car. Other Japanese sports cars around at the time were toy cars in comparison. The Honda 600 was a jewel of a car but tiny, the Mazda Cosmo was just too bizarre for most tastes with its expensive and little-known Wankel engine, while the Toyota GT had the same amount of horsepower as the Datsun, and was a beautiful and brilliant car, but was way too pricey and still too small.
Bond fans will remember that Sean Connery appeared in a Toyota GT in You Only Live Twice. In the film the car had the roof sawn off, the reason being they had to turn it into a "convertible" just to fit his head inside. In contrast to these, the 240Z was a car designed with American people and roads in mind, its 2.4-litre, six-cylinder engine big by Japanese standards. And it's that combination of price, performance and reliability that gave it such enduring appeal over most of its rivals. As Nissan gets ready to celebrate 80 years of the company, a new version of the 240Z may well be the car to mark the occasion.
In the Technical Centre, under Shiro's guidance, Nissan's designers have been in the process of coming up with new concepts, the potential redux of the 240Z among them. On the design board on the wall were sketches of profiles of all of the variations on the 240Z since the first in 1969, some of which drifted a long way from the design ethos behind the original. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, it got bigger, fatter and wider, and turned into something like a Japanese version of the Thunderbird. It became less a sports car and more a cruiser. Of course, in recent years Nissan have had a lot of success with the 240Z's relation, the 370Z, which is a cruiser of sorts and a nice car. But it's not a car based on a sports car chassis, it's a little too heavy for that.
But from a sketch of what might potentially be the new 240Z, the suggestion is that the design is returning to that original shape, which is very exciting. Just like the first time you tell a joke, the first design of a car is almost always the best because it's the most inspired - they never built a better-looking Mustang than the first Mustang, for example. To my mind, this first generation of the 240Z was always the purest and they never built a better one.
Talking a bit about design, Shiro asked me which part of the 240Z I like best.
I put my hand on one of the rear haunches of the car and told him that the whole back end of the car is great. I love the practicality of the hatchback and the space available. There was no other sports car, except maybe a Corvette, where you got this kind of room back in those days. You could actually go on a trip and take more than just a pair of gloves. And, minor detail though it may seem, I love the shape of the small rear side windows. You don't realise how well this sort of element is designed until you see it done poorly.
Shiro told me that the designers start by doing sketches in a completely unfettered way, exercising their pure imagination, and then at a later stage they have to think about the whole package, which means safety regulations, the size of the engine and so on. It's remarkable how much thought goes into something even as simple as a gearshift lever, as I saw when looking at all the different interpretations on the design board. When I looked at some of the far out concepts, I could still see the general shape of the 240Z in a lot of them. Shiro then suggested I sit down with one of his designers for 10 minutes and design a 240Z myself. Design a 240Z in 10 minutes? How hard can that be?
But I wouldn't want to pass up the chance, so I sat down with a designer and explained how the rear haunches are my favourite part of the car. I like having the rear come up and flow, that aerodynamic look to it. But if you're going to have a retro kind of shape it should have some exciting new things on it, like LED lights, and so the designer got to work with some of these ideas. I turned to Shiro with a smile and asked if I could expect a royalty cheque if any of this made it into the real thing.
After Shiro's young designer had done his stuff, the result was an attractive update on a timeless classic, even if I do say so myself. I just hope Nissan go on to create the new 240Z, and I hope they keep the name, especially given you could get some serious horsepower out of 2.4 litres these days. If Nissan keep it light and maybe put a V6 in there, I think it would be a really exciting car, a fitting follow-up to the legendary original and the perfect way to celebrate Nissan's 80th anniversary.