(Editor’s note: During the month of January, the ClassicCars.com Journal presents a series of stories related to and perhaps explaining the recent increase in interest in collecting cars produced by Japan-based automakers.)
The Datsun 240Z was a breakthrough for Japanese automakers, and just as it raised appreciation of performance cars from Japan a half century ago, it is leading the charge today for vintage Japanese collector cars.
While the 240Z has not been the subject of the rapid gain in values that was expected five years ago, it has enjoyed a steady rise in genuine interest as one of the most influential cars of its era.
As Nissan has recently shown with its debut of the Z Proto, styled after the original Z, as well as the examples of hordes of enthusiast owners who collect, drive and race Z cars from throughout the generations, the passion for these cars remains strong.
In 1970, as small cars and trucks from Japan were just starting to make headway among US drivers, the 240Z appeared in Datsun showrooms to much acclaim and something akin to shocked surprise.
Acclaim because the attractive sports/GT coupe competed in price with MGs, Triumphs and Fiats but in style and performance with Jaguar E-Types and Porsche 911s. And shocked surprise because at the time, few in the US sports car community expected such an exceptional craft to be mass-produced by a Japanese automaker.
The 240Z ushered in what could be considered the decade of Japanese vehicles in the United States, when Toyota, Datsun, Honda, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Subaru became the go-to brands for compact cars, the result of rising fuel prices and changing consumer tastes.
Datsun had earlier introduced a two-seat roadster to the US, the Datsun 1600, which competed directly with small, agile sports cars from England and Italy. But the 240Z was something else again, powered by an overhead-cam straight-6 that produced more than 150 horsepower with an all-independent-suspension chassis and an evocative body that could have been styled by an Italian carrozzeria.
A well-sorted 240Z is still a great-driving car even by today’s standards, with plenty of strident power, a smooth-shifting manual transmission and handling as refined as many European GTs. They are great road-trip cars and loads of fun for flinging along a winding back road.
A few years back, I had the opportunity to co-pilot a friend’s all-original ’71 240Z on a multi-day Arizona road rally, and I found the drivability and level of engagement to be right up there. The coupe shrugged off the long stretches of vast desert scenery, as well as slicing sharply though the canyons. I was impressed both as driver and navigator.
Car collectors and dealers are continuously looking for the Next Big Thing among vintage cars, and for a while there, it seemed that the undervalued 240Z produced from 1970 through ’73 would boom in values at auctions and in private sales. And yes, there was a rise in prices, but it was pretty much along with the rest of the collector car market in and around 2015, rather than anything exceptional.
Average prices for these cars in decent condition have remained in the $25,000 range for the past few years, although well-restored examples can go for double or triple that. Part of the reason they have not soared in value is simply because there were so many of them sold, a good proportion of which still survive. Commonality reduces value.
As with most cars, however, the sky’s the limit for the rare time-warp preserved 240Z in superb original condition; just about a year ago, a splendid survivor in immaculate all-original condition sold for more than $300,000 on an online auction site, setting a sales record for the model.
But just like when they were new, one of the major attractions of these Datsuns is their relative affordability, not just to buy but to own and maintain, because of the wide range of parts and club support. And their enduring stylishness can provide a good deal of ownership pride.
Prospective 240Z owners have many choices for sale out there, but there are plenty of used-car pitfalls to beware. Because they were so inexpensive for so long, many of them were not as well-maintained as they should have been or fell prey to shoddy repairs. Watch out for signs of deferred maintenance and poor upkeep when examining a 240Z for purchase.
Rust was a major killer for Japanese cars from this era, and many 240Zs have fallen victim to the deadly tin worm. These unibody cars can suffer extensive structural damage from rust, but they also can be properly repaired with readily available steel body, floor and chassis parts. They also can be poorly repaired, so be sure to look closely for signs of rust damage and any crude repairs that were maybe done on the cheap.
Also watch out for those that have been customized with ill-advised hot rod treatments, which lessen the value and can create problems. Performance upgrades are also a sign that the car might have been thrashed regularly by an overly aggressive driver. Look for a car that’s as original as possible.
Mechanically, 240Zs are fairly robust and hold up well to all but the most abusive characters behind the wheel. The torquey engines rev nicely and can be driven hard without breaking, and the transmissions generally stand up to sporty shifting. Within reason.
One notorious trouble spot for 240Zs is premature steering-box wear, which can make the car feel loose and vague on the highway. Replacement parts are readily available, though. Another problem area is the dashboard top, which cracks with age.
The 240Z and the later 260Z and 280Z remain great choices for those just getting into the collector car hobby, especially younger enthusiasts with a propensity for Japanese cars. And because they are retaining and even growing value as collector cars, a solid example should pay for itself down the road.