Nissan Z — A Brief History
More than 50 years ago, Nissan changed the way the world looks at sports cars when it introduced the model that lives at the end of the alphabet: the Z car. This year Nissan introduces the all-new seventh generation of this legendary sports car — the 2023 Nissan Z. With considerably more power and technology than the original 240Z, the new Z stays true to its roots with styling and performance befitting that special letter. Here’s how this now iconic Nissan made its way from the original 1970 240Z to the 400-horsepower 2023 Nissan Z.
1970 Nissan Fairlady Z / Datsun 240Z
After three years of research and design work with the goal of creating a 2-seat sports car for the American market, Nissan introduced the 240Z for the 1970 model year. Launched as the Fairlady Z in Japan, it came to America as the Datsun 240Z and was in high demand from the start. Priced at $3,601, more than 16,000 Z cars were sold in its first year on the market.
Proper Sports Car
The 1970 Datsun 240Z featured a long hood and sleek fastback design that gave the new model proper sports car proportions. This first 240Z had a 2.4-liter 6-cylinder engine sending 150 horsepower to the rear wheels via a synchromesh 4-speed manual gearbox. Body and frame were all steel, and the new Z rode on 14-inch steel wheels with radial tires and front-wheel disc brakes.
Giving further credence to this new model on the sports car scene, Datsun brought three rally-prepped Z cars to the East African Safari Rally in 1971. Driven by Edgar Herrmann and Hans Schuller, car #11 won first place — impressive for a vehicle that had never been tested before in such an event. The 240Z also had great success at the track, raced by Brock Racing Enterprises to multiple SCCA national championships in the U.S.
1974 Datsun 260Z
Riding on a wave of strong sales numbers, Datsun increased the size of the Z’s engine to 2.6 liters and thus renamed the car the 260Z. Unfortunately new emission restrictions sapped the power to just 139 horses while at the same time bumper requirements increased the overall curb weight. At that time Nissan added a 2+2 version measuring almost a foot longer but had the additional benefit of a rear seat.
1975–78 Datsun 280Z
The following year Nissan further increased the Z car’s engine size to 2.8-liters and logically changed the name to 280Z. With the addition of Bosch fuel injection, power increased to 170 horsepower to offset the added weight of new bumpers and upgraded interior features. Two years later Nissan equipped the 280Z with a 5-speed manual gearbox. The 280Z would end production in 1978. By this time more than 500,000 Z cars had been sold worldwide.
1979 Datsun 280ZX
In 1978 Nissan introduced the second-generation Z car, the 280ZX. Styling remained similar to the outgoing model, although everything was updated except for the 2.8-liter engine and 5-speed manual. Built on Nissan’s new S130 chassis, the 1979 Datsun 280ZX was longer, wider and heavier than the outgoing model, and due to the way power was now measured (SAE net instead of SAE gross), the power was only 135 horsepower.
More Luxury, More Power
As the Z car entered the 1980s it moved upscale with features such as velour seats and T-tops. A special 10th Anniversary Edition stood out with gold wheels, gold emblems and two-tone gold / black paint as well as leather seats and automatic climate control. In 1981 Nissan added a turbocharged option to the Z which meant a welcome boost to 180 horsepower. In that same year, Nissan dropped the Datsun name and the car became known as the Nissan Z in the U.S. The 280ZX had its final production year in 1983.
1984 Nissan 300ZX
The Z car moved into its third generation for the 1984 model year with a complete redesign inside and out as well as a new engine. The standard 3.0-liter V6 delivered 160 horsepower, while a turbocharged option bumped output to 200 horses. This new Z car’s standard features included air-conditioning, leather upholstery and available T-tops, but these features added weight to the larger car which many considered a GT more than a proper sports car. Nissan ended production of the third-gen Z car in 1989.
1990 Nissan 300ZX
Nissan returned to its performance roots with the fourth-gen Z when it introduced an all-new 300ZX. With a completely new look, the latest Z car made 222 horsepower out of its 3.0-liter DOHC V6 engine with a twin-turbo option that produced 300 horsepower. The turbo engine was good enough to move the 300ZX Twin Turbo to 60 mph in around 5 seconds — an impressive figure for the time.
Not only did the new 300ZX get more power, engineers were able to vastly improve the car’s handling thanks to a new suspension and the available High Capacity Actively Controlled Steering, which included limited rear-wheel steering for better control at speed.
Shortly after the introduction of the fourth-gen Z car, Nissan added a 2+2 version of the 300ZX. Although the car looked visually the same as the 2 seater, it was actually slightly longer with (almost) usable rear seats. In 1993 Nissan added the 300ZX Convertible — available only with the non-turbo motor —and made T-tops standard on all hardtop Z cars.
As prices continued to increase, the business model for a sports car became more difficult to justify. Ultimately the 1996 model year would be the last hurrah for the 300ZX. Nissan sold just 300 copies of a commemorative edition created just for America, which closed out that chapter of the Nissan Z. Enthusiasts would have to wait six years before the car officially returned to American roads.
At the 1999 Detroit Auto Show, Nissan let the world know it hadn’t forgotten about the Z car when it debuted the 240Z Concept. With styling influenced by the original model, the concept featured a less-than-impressive 200-horsepower engine and looks that didn’t quite resonate with show attendees. However, it did show that Nissan was considering the return of this legendary sports car, and that was certainly good news.
2003 Nissan 350Z
Not long after the 240Z Concept, a new Z Concept also debuted at the 2001 Detroit Auto Show. Even though it carried some styling cues of the original model, it was a fresh take on the Z car. At the time Nissan promised it would be arriving the following year with a price starting below $30,000. In the summer of 2002, Nissan held to its promise with the introduction of the fifth-generation Nissan 350Z at a starting MSRP of $26,000.
Proper Sports Car
Available in a range of trim levels, the new 350Z stayed true to its roots while remaining affordable by using an existing rear-wheel-drive architecture (from Infiniti) and the VQ-series 3.5-liter V6 engine that produced 287 horsepower. A 6-speed manual gearbox was standard equipment with the option of a 5-speed automatic. This new Z would remain a two seater with no plans for a 2+2. The hardtop was the only option in its first year. In 2004 Nissan added the 350Z Convertible.
In 2005 Nissan premiered a 35th Anniversary Edition of the 350Z that stood out in either Ultra Yellow, Silverstone or Super Black with special 18-inch wheels. For these unique versions, engineers revised the engine to redline at 7000 rpm while increasing output to 300 horsepower.
More Power, NISMO Edition
In 2007 Nissan installed a new version of the 3.5-liter V6, which generated 306 horsepower, teamed with a revised gearbox for improved performance. To take proper advantage of the additional power, the company introduced the first NISMO 350Z that year. Available only with the 6-speed manual, the NISMO featured a viscous limited-slip differential, NISMO-tuned multi-link suspension, Brembo brakes, front and rear dampeners, RAYS forged alloy wheels and a NISMO aero package with an aggressive front fascia and rear wing.
2009 Nissan 370Z
The sixth generation the Z car debuted in 2008 for the 2009 model year. Slightly smaller with updated styling from the outgoing 350Z, this new model got a larger engine and a corresponding new name: the 370Z. The updated 3.7-liter V6 now produced 330 horsepower with 270 lb-ft of torque. The additional power combined with the smaller, lighter body made for impressive performance; several auto enthusiast publications were able to achieve sprints to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. The 370Z ‘s 6-speed manual had another cool trick. With SynchroRev Match the throttle would automatically blip to match engine and transmission speeds during downshifts, making amateur drivers feel like race car drivers.
Nissan added a convertible to the lineup in 2010, but aside from some cosmetic and packaging updates through the years, the 370Z remained primarily unchanged until it ceased production in 2020.
Nissan Z Proto
It had been fifty years since the Nissan Z first came to America, and what better way to celebrate than to provide a glimpse of what’s in store for the next generation. In September 2020 Nissan took the wraps off the Nissan Z Proto. “The Z represents the joy of driving in its purest form and has helped shape Nissan’s DNA as a passionate, innovative challenger,” said Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida. “Ever since the first generation, it has captured the hearts of car enthusiasts all over the world. That’s why we’re so excited today to be able to say to them: Yes, the next one is coming!” Uchida enthused.
At its debut, the Z Proto was instantly recognizable as a Z car thanks to its long hood and roofline that flows smoothly from the top of the windshield to the squared-off rear end — much like the silhouette of the first-generation Z. The car’s bright yellow paint is a tribute to the past; the color was part of a popular paint scheme on the first-generation 240Z.
Almost a year after the Z Proto appeared, Nissan planned the debut of an all-new, seventh-generation Z car at the rescheduled New York Auto Show. Unfortunately the show was cancelled at the last minute but the reveal happened as planned. With styling very similar to the Z Proto, the new Z would be the most powerful production version yet with 400 horsepower driving the rear wheels with a standard 6-speed manual gearbox —the perfect formula for the Z enthusiast. And it would just be called the Nissan Z — no more numeric identifier.
Best Z Yet
“Simply put, our goal is to make this the best Z yet, period. With each generation, we raise the bar, pushing the limits of Z and continuing to tap into the human instinct for that next thrilling journey,” said Hiroshi Tamura, chief product specialist of the new Z. “More than just powerful and agile, the 2023 Z is designed to be one with the driver for all kinds of on-road adventures,” Tamura noted.
50 Years of Influence
Designers created the new Z with its pedigree in mind. The long hood and roofline that flows smoothly from the top of the windshield to a low-stance rear end is much like the silhouette of the first-generation Z car. Rear combination lights are much like those found on the 300ZX from the early 1990s, although these take advantage of modern technology with a signature 3D look. “Inspired by the voices of thousands of Z owners and Z lovers, and ignited by internal conversations around the six generations of Z that have come before, we found ourselves gravitating towards the sketches that touched the high points of certain decades while remaining true to our vision of the future,” said Alfonso Albaisa, global head of design at Nissan. “Ultimately, we created a Z that travels between the decades while being completely modern,” Albaisa enthused.
Sport and Performance
The new Z is available in two trim levels: Z Sport and Z Performance. Both come well equipped; however, the Z Performance adds front chin and rear spoilers, a sport-tuned suspension, a limited-slip differential, a performance-grade muffler, larger wheels and tires, and Nissan Sport brakes. Inside, the Performance trims upgrade with aluminum pedals, a larger display and a Bose 8-speaker audio system.
The Next 50 Years?
As the Nissan Z embarks on its second half century, its future is looking the brightest since the success of the original 240Z. With expectations of convertibles, special editions and NISMO Zs in the future, we anticipate (and applaud) that the Z will continue to be part of Nissan’s sports car story for years to come.
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