The Z car is perhaps the most iconic sports car that Nissan has ever made. Its history dates back to October 1969, when it premiered in Japan as the Nissan Fairlady Z. When the Z was exported overseas, it was called the Datsun 240Z. The masses have loved this line since its inception, resulting in its continuous production over the decades.
Nissan’s Z car is notable because it beautifully combines style, performance, and speed at a relatively affordable price — you’ll be hard pressed to find other coupes in its class that are as outstanding and cost less than $30,000. The Z has slowly changed over the years to keep it in demand and maintain its edge.
Here’s a look at the history and evolution of the Nissan Z car.
Nissan Fairlady Z and Datsun 240Z
The Nissan Fairlady Z began as a quest to create a halo car for the brand that would boost its image with consumers. It was sold for the 1970 model year in October 1969 with two iterations. The Nissan Fairlady Z, was for the Japanese market. It had a 2.0 liter inline-six engine and its name reflected the Datsun Sports roadster that preceded it.
The American version of the car, the Datsun 240Z, was first released on October 2, 1969. It had a 2.4 liter inline-six engine and Hitachi carburetors that produced 151 hp. The public loved its sporty look and speed, and the car received a warm reception in the US. During its first year on the market more than 45,000 Datsun 240Zs were sold. It continued to sell well for the 1972 and 1973 model years, leading Nissan to tweak it a bit and come out with an updated model in 1974, the 260Z. This Z car had a 2.6 liter engine and was available with a 2+2 body.
Another version of the first generation of Z cars, the 280Z, debuted in 1975 in the US and it was the first to use a Bosch fuel injection system. This change offset the weight from its additional features and larger bumper and allowed the car to reach 170 hp.
Second Generation 280ZX/S130
The Nissan 280ZX maintained the use of the Fairlady label in Japan and was the Datsun 280ZX in America. This model ushered in the second generation of Z car and had more luxurious features such as climate control, leather seats, headlamp washers, two toned paint, and gold alloy wheels. During its first year on the market, the 280ZX sold over 86,000 units, which was a sales record. It was also recognized as Motor Trend‘s “Import Car of the Year” in 1979. This iteration of the Z car put aesthetics and luxury features over driving speed and performance, which most of the public didn’t mind. Some sports car aficionados, however, expressed concern about where the car’s changes.
Third Generation 300ZX/Z31
In 1984 Nissan decided to completely revamp the Z car and included its new 3.0 liter V6 engine in the design. The third generation of the model would also mark the dropping of the Datsun label, and all Z cars thereafter were sold under the Nissan name in all markets. In addition to a new engine, the 300ZX and 300ZX Turbo had different aesthetics than previous iterations of the Z car. The body was wedge shaped and had pronounced pop up headlights. The trend of excessive luxury features continued with this version of the model, and the 300ZX even had the option to include seats that vibrated along to the music being played in the car. Still, the car remained popular and sold well. In 1987 the 300ZX was restyled to soften its lines, but the car remained largely unchanged until the 1990s.
Fourth Generation 300ZX/Z32
From 1990 to 1996 the fourth generation of the Nissan Z was produced, and it had sweeping changes in terms of style, power and performance. This marked an exotic turn for the model, and the 300ZX was compared to the Corvette and Porsche 928 S4 because of its markedly improved performance and handling. The twin turbo version of the 1990 300ZX earned the title of “Import Car of the Year” from Motor Trend, and the public was enamored with its stunning looks.
In addition to looking great, the fourth generation 300ZX had plenty of speed. It was able to reach 220 hp, which was significantly more than the 1989 model year Z. Its heavier weight was about the only criticism levied against this version of the Z car, but it was so comfortable that few seemed to mind. For all of its beauty and great features this Nissan Z was pricier than past versions, which lead to the model’s sales numbers dipping. As a result, the Z car was pulled from the US market after the 1996 model year, but it continued to sell in Japan.
The 240Z Concept
The American public increasingly turned to SUVs during the 90s, so Nissan focused on producing those to avoid tanking financially. In 1998, the company introduced a restoration program wherein original Z cars were purchased, restored, and sold at Nissan dealerships with a price tag of $24,000.
The 240Z Concept premiered in 1999 at the North American International Auto Show and was a nod to the first iteration of the Z car. Fabulous bright orange paint, a two seater body, and classic styling brought back the American public’s love for the Nissan Z, and in a few more years it would come back to the US market.
Fifth Generation 350Z/Z33
The Nissan Z returned to America for the 2003 model year as the 350Z. It was only sold as a two seater and had a naturally aspirated six clinger engine, larger wheels, and a tapered tail end. Its V6 engine produced 287 hp, but the model didn’t take many risks with its design or engineering. During the next few years after its reintroduction, the Nissan Z underwent several tweaks to give it better styling and reach a balance between luxury features and power. This was important to keep the price in check and ensure demand for the vehicle stayed high enough to warrant its production.
As a result of its changes, the Nissan Z’s popularity grew. A 35th anniversary edition of the Z car was released in 2005 that had a manual transmission and a revised engine that gave it 300 hp. For the 2007 to 2008 model year, the Nissan Z featured a 3.5 liter engine that produced 306 hp and an improved transmission.
Sixth Generation 370Z/Z34
The 370Z is the sixth generation and most current iteration of the Z car. It started production in 2008 for the 2009 model year and gets its name from having a 3.7 liter V6 engine, which provides 270 lb-ft torque and 332 hp. The current design was created with reducing weight in mind, which is why 3.9 inches was removed from the wheelbase and the car’s overall length was shortened by 2.2 inches. The exterior of the 370Z is noticeably different and is a combination of traditional Z car styling and contemporary design cues. This gives the 370Z a distinct look that sets it apart from its predecessors.
It’s also plenty speedy and does an excellent job of being affordable while also performing as well as cars that cost many times its base price of $30,000. Nissan used the Porsche Cayman as a performance benchmark for the 370Z, and the car is able to actually consistently meet or exceed the former’s speed. Going back to its roots of delivering beautiful performance and style at a price the masses can afford is what makes the 370Z one of the best models in the history of the Nissan Z.