This is one of the most important Japanese sports cars – do you know what it is?
Alex has been a road tester and motoring writer for more than 10 years, and has written on new, used and classic cars for What Car?, Autocar, The Daily Telegraph and PistonHeads, among many others.
Name a Japanese sports car. Go on. What did you come up with? Chances are it was the Mazda MX-5 or RX-7, perhaps a Nissan Skyline, or maybe a Toyota MR2. Chances are it wasn’t this one: the Datsun 240Z.
Yet the 240Z, along with the Honda S800 and Toyota 2000GT, was part of the first wave of proper Japanese sports cars. It is, in short, quite a special bit of history. More than that, it was one of the first cars that proved Japanese cars could be cool.
From where we’re standing in front of the Primrose Yellow example we’re about to drive, the 240Z simply oozes cool. The biggest surprise is that it’s absolutely tiny by modern standards. Parked next to a phalanx of Nissan Leafs, the 240Z is almost half the height and considerably shorter.
But doesn’t it look great? That sharp, pointed nose giving way to the scooped-out headlamps; the flat, vaned bonnet; the sweet little upswept glasshouse and the sharply cut-off, black-painted tail all lend the 240Z the air of being crouched, poised, ready to leap into life.
With a twist of the key, it does just that. It’s starting to rain as we set out on our half-hour drive along Hampshire’s back roads, so we’re taking it easy. Yet even at pootling speeds, the 240Z requires concentration, its steering as vague as you’d expect for a car of its era, perhaps even more so.
That said, the steering is relatively light and the spindly wooden wheel a joy to whirl through your hands; the same goes for the tall, slim gear lever, which slots home accurately and deftly each time. For an old car, the Z is delightfully easy to bimble around in.
It feels splendid, too. There are only two seats, and you sit incredibly low, about as close to the floor as it’s possible to get, your legs almost horizontal ahead of you. The view out takes in the gentle rise and fall of the bonnet, and while the crackle black finish of the dash with its heavily cowled instruments and flimsy switchgear is a little less upmarket than that you’d find in some of the 240Z’s contemporary rivals, the trio of gauges atop the centre stack lend it an undeniable air of sportiness, and the whole thing reeks of the 1970s.
After several roundabouts chock-full of rush-hour traffic, we find a section of straight, empty tarmac where we can open the 240Z up at last. By modern standards it isn’t all that fast, but the 150bhp 2.4-litre straight-six engine can still stick a grin on your face, not least because of the way it sounds – a completely intoxicating, induction-heavy moan that opens out into a hearty, rasping bark as the revs climb.
Then, it’s out into the countryside where we find some B-roads that are mercifully still dry, where that slightly slack steering means it’s hard to feel absolutely confident in the 240Z as you stick it into a bend. Once you’ve managed to pick your line, however, it feels terrific – light on its feet and full of sensation, and while mid-corner bumps can occasionally knock the Z off its line, that just means you have to take a little more care and really listen to what the car’s telling you through the wheel and the chassis.
It is lots of fun, and even if the wandering steering deters you from pressing on in bends, there’s immense fun to be had on the straighter sections of road simply by snicking down a gear, prodding the loud pedal and serving yourself a thumping great slice of that glorious, gravelly engine note.
In short, the 240Z is as joyous a thing to drive as it is to look at. But more than that; you can sense in this car the first shoots of self-confidence in Japanese car manufacturing. The days of churning out copies of Western machinery were long gone, and while there’s clearly a lot of Western influence in the Z’s styling, its execution shows how the Japanese car makers were starting to plough a furrow of performance machinery all of their own.
Put another way, the 240Z mixes the brashness of an American muscle car with the deftness of something European, and throws in a user-friendliness we’ve all come to recognise as distinctly Japanese.
And while it might not be the first that comes to mind, and while it certainly isn't perfect, the 240Z is still one of the sweetest and most likeable Japanese sports cars ever made.