loading Loading please wait....

Datsun 240Z: A genuine design icon?

It was the first sports car from Japan to attain the status of icon. Who better than Stephen Bayley to unravel the appeal of the Datsun 240Z?

There’s a marvellous saying in Zen that ‘whatever is true, the opposite is truer’. You can apply that principle to the question of Japanese sports cars. The question being: are there any great ones?
Japanese culture is stiff with concepts of the superiority of collaborative endeavour over individual expression. They have a concept known as nemawashi, which translates as ‘root-binding’, but actually means collective responsibility. Then there is jishu-kisei for self-restraint. Hence a public fast train, the glorious Shinkansen, is preferred over a personal idiosyncratic sports car. Moreover, Japan’s 60km/h speed limit is among the most stringent in the world. 
And yet there is a Japanese sentiment that finds its best expression in sports cars, often of very unusual character. The 1959 Datsun SP211 was based on the Bluebird saloon and called Fairlady, a name inspired, in that amusing Japanese way, by the company president’s 1958 visit to Broadway to see the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe musical that was, itself, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion. Thus, the layered, yet revealing, meanings of automobile nomenclature. 
Pygmalion was a play about a hopeless strumpet being civilised through ambition and elocution. The Fairlady followed a similar path of improvement, evolving into a pleasing MGB-like proposition – although, by the time it reached its final 1968 edition, what had become the Datsun 2000 Sports Roadster proffered an output of some 135bhp, and it effortlessly shaded the English car in every single aspect of performance and quality.

> Read the 240Z buying guide and browse the classifieds here

Then there were the exquisite 1963 Honda S500, and the impressive rotary-engined Mazda Cosmo of the following year. And in 1965 Toyota showed its sensational 2000GT. Clearly inspired by the Jaguar E-type, Toyota refused to attribute its design to any individual until Paolo Tumminelli identified Satoru Nozaki in his fascinating 2014 book Car Design Asia – myths, brands and people.
Forgotten now is the elegant 1966 Isuzu 117 Coupé, drawn by Giugiaro when he was still at Ghia and at least as fine as the same designer’s contemporary Gordon-Keeble. In fact, it’s impossible not to believe they used the same drawings twice. But the greatest Japanese sports car of them all was the new 1969 Datsun Fairlady. This we know as the 240Z.
Like all great products, creation myths surround its origins and evolution. But these creation myths, the idea of ‘authorship’, were a necessary part of the progress and acceptance of Japanese design in the West. Against all the principles of nemawashi and jishu-kisei, the 240Z has always been recognised as the inspiration of Yutaka Katayama, described in his New York Times obituary earlier this year as an ‘ebullient, adventurous man’. Mr K, as he became known, was unlike his timorous and anonymous corporate colleagues. He was 105 years old when he died.
Katayama had been a successful rally driver and became the first president of The Sports Car Club of Japan, an imitator of the American SCCA whose races at Laguna Seca and Bridgehampton offered a theatre for the English sports car to perform in front of appreciative audiences. And it was the leading role of MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey that Katayama set to usurp with his new Datsun coupé. His story is told in David Halberstam’s 1986 book The Reckoning, a study as much about the collapse of the US auto industry as the rise of Japan’s.
Because of his extrovert personality, Katayama had been banished from Japan to California, a sort of gulag as seen from Tokyo. As the first president of what became Nissan Motor Corporation USA, Katayama faced derision, cultural obstacles and profound market apathy in America but, under his influence, by 1969 the neat little Datsun 510 saloon was selling 60,000 units a year. This growing success had given him the prestige to talk his own project into being back in Tokyo.
The precise origins of the 240Z may never perhaps be disinterred from the archives, but it seems to have been based in an early-1960s project called A550X, a joint venture with Yamaha. Albrecht Goertz, a designer who had learnt the craft of self-promotion in the United States from his mentor, the sleek, perfumed and pomaded Raymond Loewy, was hired as a consultant. 
Hitherto, Goertz had worked on Loewy’s Studebakers and the BMW 507 that, since Ferry Porsche was impressed, led to some early styling proposals for the 911. Goertz it was who introduced the Japanese to the use of American-style full-size clay models in the design process, so has a big claim to having begun graphically biased Japan’s adventure into Western sculptural 3D.
But the A550X stalled and Yamaha took its engine technology and the rest of the project to Toyota, where it soon appeared in the Toyota 2000GT – which Yamaha eventually built in its Hamamatsu factory. Goertz, however, stayed on with Datsun, collaborating with in-house designer Kazuo Kimura on the beautiful Silvia Coupé. However, when it was presented at the New York Auto Show of 1965, American critics found the Silvia too cramped and too under-powered. This seems to have been the imperative Katayama needed to create a real sports car.
This he did by encouraging another another in-house Datsun designer, Yoshihiko Matsuo, who ran Styling Studio No 4, to rage against the conservatives at Nissan who had abandoned A550X and design a brave new car. But Goertz stayed long enough to have had his name associated with the 240Z. Persistent claims by the argumentative Goertz were grudgingly and partially acknowledged by the company in 1980, although Matsuo and Katayama published a more official list of those involved in their 1999 book Fairlady Z Story. It reads like a musical’s cast: Teichi Hara, Kazumi Totsurnoto, Akio Yoshida, Sue Chiba, Eiichi Oiwa, Kiichi Nishikawa, Hidemi Kamahara and Tsuneo Benitani. Car design is, indeed, a collaborative venture. And perhaps not one that gives due credit to its heroes.
There is more certain ground to discuss Mr K’s concept. He wanted a coupé, not a roadster. This was pragmatic: impending US legislation would, so it was thought, outlaw convertibles. He liked butch numbers as model designations, not effete names. The ‘Z’ simply connoted a Jetsons-era modernism. It is said that early proposals resembled Giugiaro’s Ghibli, but the car that went on sale in the United States on 22 October 1969 had a style all of its own.
With its 2393cc 151bhp L-series six-cylinder (an engine inspired by Mercedes-Benz, whose designs were produced under licence by Prince, which merged with Nissan in 1966), it easily outperformed English rivals and annihilated the American hegemony of MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey. Katayama said at the New York launch: ‘The 240Z represents the imaginative spirit of Nissan and was designed to please a demanding taste that is strictly American… We have studied the memorable artistry of European coachmakers and engine builders and combined our knowledge with the Japanese craftsman.’
The car cost a modest $3526 and, while some critics found its finish and behaviour a little crude, it soon dominated its class in the symbolically important SCCA races.
Visually, the 240Z is exceptionally distinctive. With its long bonnet and emphatically rearwards cabin, the general arrangement is based on the E-type while its scalloped headlights were inspired by Ferrari, but the whole is unique. It is small, but imposing, aggressive, yet elegant (although most of the original 240Zs had crude pachinko-style wheeltrims, not proper alloys). It does not look nearly half-a-century old. But get into a 240Z today and it seems very narrow, feels slight and a bit upright too. Doors are insubstantial and strangely thin. The structure pre-dates the computer-aided modelling that, inspired by safety legislation, has given impressive psychological bulk to even the most modest contemporary cars. 
The 240Z’s glazing bars seem fragile. There are sharp edges and you wince to think of its integrity during an impact. Indeed, a stabiliser bar across the rear hatch opening suggests that body flexing was a problem. The hatch itself closes with a shuddering undamped clang, not a modern moderated thwump. Start the engine and there is a fine induction roar. Press the throttle and there is a lot of noise, but not a lot of progress. 
Steering is precise, visibility good. I am not certain I felt that sense of euphoria Katayma described when he said the 240Z gave access to that mystical man-and-machine harmony, but it was certainly amusing to drive. It feels vintage. Sue Chiba’s interior, with its hard plastics and irrational scattering of tumbler switches and sliders, seems Cold War. The 240Z was the first modern Japanese sports car… and also, globally speaking, one of the last old ones.
To my eye, the 240Z cannot be separated from the 1970s and its strange visual culture, still influenced by voyeuristic television serials that were themselves located in a more distant, romantic age of one-dimensional heroes and villains, following linear plots. It was co-eval with the rise of disco and reggae, the avocado-coloured bathroom ‘suite’, Italian furniture in tangerine plastic, and the era in which Habitat (whose signature colour was a violent green) was the dominant high street taste-maker with its knock-off bean bags and inimitable chicken-bricks. Thus, it represented a gorgeous, remote dreamworld of innocently sexy un-wired consumerism.
For this reason, we photographed the 240Z in the extraordinary Edgcumbe Park estate in Crowthorne, near Bracknell, on land that once belonged to Windsor Great Park. Here, as my fantasies enlarged, was where you could reliably enjoy barbecues and wife-swapping after a thrilling blast up the dual carriageway from Maidenhead in the Z-car. More prosaically, Edgcumbe was a high-minded garden suburb created by an enlightened developer called Athelstan Whaley, who had been influenced by Scandinavian domesticity and the ranch-style houses of California. As Katayama said, the 240Z package was addressed to America. At the time, most advanced design was.
Exactly contemporary with the 240Z and its Fairlady predecessor, Edgcumbe Park was begun in 1958 and completed in 1970. The ambitious brochure – more, really, of a manifesto – was revealing: ‘The place to live West of London,’ it said. ‘Every house, every site and winding cul-de-sac is imaginatively planned by our Architectural Staff [note CAPITALS], preserving the Oaks and the Mountain Ash, the Scots Pine and Sycamore, ensuring good orientation and pleasant views.’ And, if you could afford it, you would have a Charles Eames chair and ottoman next to your heated serving trolley with its taramasalata and beef olives, around which your female guests would gather, wearing billowing cheese-cloth dresses and agreeable pouts.
It was in a house on this estate that François Truffaut shot, with Julie Christie, his film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a novel set 50 years in the future. The estate has been described as ‘the future that time forgot’. And now, as we remember it, how distant that age of thigh boots and hot pants seems. Delicious to imagine the felicity of driving a fast and reliable 240Z home, parking it in the drive of your California-style ranch home in Berkshire, then sipping a Campari and soda before you enjoyed a casserole served in bright orange (Raymond Loewy designed) Le Creuset oven-to-tableware.
More than half-a-million 240Zs were manufactured and its success lent Datsun an aura of prestige that could not have been achieved by the front-wheel-drive Cherry. As The New York Times noted in 2008, it changed ‘the auto industry’s perception of Japanese cars’. Katayama-san retired in 1977 when Japan was still a pompous, conservative and hieratic nation. 
While America acknowledged his achievement with the 240Z, at home his high profile was interpreted as vainglory and Katayama was not fêted in retirement. But with the increasing scholarly interest in the history of car design, Katayama began to emerge as a significant figure and, by 1997, Nissan was running television ads featuring the ebullient Mr K, father of the Z-car.
The 240Z is one of the great Japanese cars. In fact, one of the greatest cars of them all. Consider again that Zen proposition and take pleasure in the ability of cars, good and bad, to evoke powerful and romantic ideas. Great cars take your imagination, as well as your body, on fascinating journeys to remote worlds. Even as far as Crowthorne.  

> Read the 240Z buying guide and browse the classifieds here
Thanks to 240Z owner Phil Bradshaw, 240Z specialist Fourways Engineering, www.datsun240z.co.uk, and Edgcumbe Park homeowners Mr and Mrs Vincent.
Words: Stephen Bayley // Images: Paul Harmer

Datsun 240Z Classifieds

more on this car

Related content