I like classic cars. I love them more than I love most people. I have owned a handful – a 1977 Alfa Romeo Alfetta, a 1966 Volvo 122 and my current Mercedes-Benz 280SE 1970 – but I have never owned or even driven a Datsun 240Z, and this is partly based on fear.
Now when I say fear I don’t mean the kind of visceral fear of driving something valuable with all the crash protection of a wet paper bag. No, it’s the fear of experiencing something that I loved when I was a child and on which the golden glow of longing is still thick, only for having ruined it. You know, don’t meet your heroes. But despite all this, soon after the, Nissan offered me the chance to drive one of their factory restored Vintage Z program cars, and I said yes, because I’m not an idiot.
Much of my love for old cars – and Datsuns in particular – comes from growing up around vintage racing in the Pacific Northwest, where my father worked as a contractor providing radios to security personnel. Every other weekend I was up to my eyes in classic Porsches, Alfas, BMWs and, yes, Datsuns. I loved the sound the 510s, the roadsters and especially the Zs made as they pounded around what was then called the Seattle International Raceway. How could a road car measure up to this?
It turns out that is part of the beauty of old cars. This 1972 Datsun 240Z was restored in 1997 by Nissan and has driven approximately 50,000 miles in the following years. The car looks fresh but still looks a lot like a budget car from the 1970s. There are squeaks and rattles and, being carburized and not catalyzed, the ubiquitous stench of fuel surrounds the car like a force field against modernity (and the California Air Resources Board). It’s also louder than I expected, and while the tone is undoubtedly softer than the road racing Zs of my youth, that same sound is still there, just slightly muted.
Another wonderful thing about old cars is how tactile they are. It has become something of a car handwriting cliché – steering feel, analog cars, blah blah blah – but it’s true. The thin-rimmed and certainly never came off a tree “wooden” steering wheel is a low-speed crank chore, but when the pace picks up it begins to speak in its own language of vibrations and thrills.
It is the same for the gear lever. This Z’s four-speed manual transmission nowhere resembles modernity, with a certain imprecision between second and third, of which I should be aware. Still, the shifter is solid, and while it does require deliberate thought and thoughtful movement to get it to do what you want, especially smoothly, that effort provides that cute lab-who-gets-the-rat. food-endorphin lozenge hit with every satisfying change of speed.
Pulling the old silver Z out of the parking lot and onto the road immediately begins to reinforce, rather than erode, my love for these cars. The suspension is soft but controlled. The front disc and rear drum brakes are heavy on the pedal but provide enough feel and stopping power that they’re not scary to use. The engine is manoeuvrable and smooth, although it produces only 151 very deceptive SAE gross horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, the 2.4-liter dual-carb inline 6-cylinder L24 revs and makes wonderful noises. , all soft and melodious, and very unlike modern in-line 6 cylinders with all their harsh and violent exhaust notes.
While the Z’s exterior styling is easy to love thanks to its archetypal long hood and short deck, the interior is just as fantastic. It’s not something fancy, but everything is functional and aesthetic. Everything from the bogus wood wheel to vented vinyl seats is supposed to look like some other higher-end material, but the trick works in this environment. What’s not to love about the faux diamond quilting on the cargo area vinyl?
I’m sweaty and reek of exhaust fumes and gas fumes at the end of my short drive, but I’m also ecstatic. It’s everything I dreamed the Zs of my childhood would be. While the world of internet car auctions has assured me that I will probably never park one of those early Z cars in my garage, it will be an experience that will stay with me for a long time, slowly and quietly building its own nostalgia candy shell deep in my brain.