What Fast Looks Like: Datsun 280Z

Though I tend to find just about every car interesting, here is one from that beloved time of automotive production: the mid to late 1970s. The Datsun 280Z, an awesome car that nobody really likes.

I don’t really mean that nobody likes these cars, (though the cobwebs on this example seems to point to the owner even not being the biggest fan) because there are plenty of people out there picking these cars up on the cheap and roaring around in them. However, I don’t think that many of them truly dream about their cars.

The old Datsun Z that I knew when I was in high school (which I think is a shared experience for many post-1970s Americans, if anyone bothers to remember it) was
a 280ZX 2+2.  It was a big brown two door that looked like, well, it was a deep, full-bodied, mud colored thing, to say the least. The owner was a friend of mine, but I only saw his car twice: once in a reflective moment in the middle of a field on the edge of town in the early, early morning, and once a few weeks later, missing a large chunk out of one of the quarter panels from when he’d invariably had a one-vehicle accident into a tree or something like that. It was a car to rag on, to project high-speed dreams onto, to thrash and burn and crash. But the desire was always some kind of automotive sport, and the 280Z has rarely been more than a vessel for such desires.

And they’re cheap, so don’t expect them to be pampered, cared-for, preserved vessels either. The inherent good looks of the 280Z’s shape and its classic/old-school/obsolete in-line six cylinder engine do nothing to keep this car (and cars like it) from sitting on sidestreets in towns across America, owned by people lacking the motivation to either fix their car up right or ship it off for scrap.

The reason for this middleness is the very middleness that makes up this car. The Datsun 280Z is the second evolution of the Datsun 240Z, a car praised in enthusiast circles for being the car that freed American sportscardom from the oppression of British unreliability in the late 1960s. It’s a compelling story of perseverance and liberation, told remarkably well here at Ate Up With Motor.

Brilliant legacies are left for the 240Z; this is the 280Z. The change in name, even, tells a lot of the story as to why this car sits in the state that it does. The ‘240’ in ‘240Z’ stands for 2.4, the amount of displacement in liters of the car’s engine. The 280Z uses the same nomenclature, having a 2.8 liter engine. So why the increase in engine size? The typical discourse on the 280Z often goes that as safety and emissions regulations made cars heavier and engines less powerful for their size, Datsun management had to compensate for the penalties of regulation by making the Z-car’s engine larger. A larger engine would help to retain the sportiness of the original car in spite of regulatory de-sportification.

In fact, many cars that started out as sporty in the 1960s seem to have worked harder and harder through the 1970s to retain at least the appearance of sportiness. High speed capability, excellent handling, and racetrack credibility are supposedly desirable selling points.

I think otherwise. The Z-cars sold better and better through the 1970s with every step away from the sporting credentials of the original, outstanding 240Z. The 280Z would give way in 1979 to the 280ZX, a car that deemphasized the pursuit for more power, more sportiness and relished in wallowey sporty-ness, that is, the 280ZX was a Möchtegern, a wannabe, poser/poseur car.

So the 280Z then. I don’t think that the increase in engine size and race-car details over the clean, unadorned 240Z really represent a chase after the kind of sporty appeal of the original. I think that this car certainly represents a significant step towards the softness of the 280ZX and that the 280Z made its mark by appealing to real sensibilities of luxury and rakishness inherent in the impracticalities of a low-slung two door automobile. When it was new in the 1970s, the 280Z had one foot in the pursuit of sports-car thrills and one foot in that of good looks cruising. The bigger, torquier, low-speed rumblier 2.8 liter engine is proof enough for that.

The story of the 280Z does not end in the 1970s, because this is an interesting car to be remembered, an interesting old car. The 280Z was still built on the platform of the original 240Z, and for the wishful-thinking, imaginative high schooler like my friend, that is enough to warrant high-speed excursions beyond the limits of the overweight, 5-mph bumper equipped car. Indeed the car is still light and old school by modern standards, but that it is so watered down from the 240Z predecessor, the 280Z doesn’t quite capture any of the glamor or desirability of the older car, and thus sits unrestored, unwanted, and immobile like this one here.

I don’t think of this car as a failure by any means – it was a sales success, it looks great, sounds great, has a kind of caddish appeal, and is a real cheap rusty beater to boot. I love it for exactly what it is, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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