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Nissan 350Z 240Z models (Nissan)
Nissan 350Z 240Z models (Nissan)

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This Nissan is no lady Add to ...

Most of the world's great high performance sports cars have had evocative and tough sounding names - Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 911, Shelby Cobra, Chevrolet Corvette - but one, that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has always been known in its homeland by the rather whimsical name Fairlady.

By the time it arrived in North American in 1969, the Fairlady moniker had been dropped like a lace hanky in favour of the much cooler designation 240Z. This Japanese performance car would eventually become one of the world's most popular.

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In Pictures: Datsun became Nissan in 1981, but the auto maker kept the popular Z name as the car got better with each edition

And then Datsun/now Nissan has remained faithful to this nomenclature for over four decades with the 260Z, 280ZX, 300ZX, 350Z and 370Z. The Z-car's four decade history is being celebrated with a special 40th Anniversary Edition of the current 370Z.

The Japanese have long had a fascination with applying English names - not always appropriately, sometimes hilariously - to products, but it's a mystery how Datsun came up with Fairlady for its first 50s sports car, the progenitor of the soon to follow "Z-cars."

By the late 1950s Datsun (which became Nissan in 1981) was hitting its stride once again as a car maker and this rediscovered enthusiasm resulted in the development of what it claims was the first sports model offered by a Japanese firm in the post-war years, the Fairlady Sportster, a two-seat roadster. The Fairlady was offered in 37 hp, four-seat form in the U.S. between 1959-62.

This humble first effort was followed by a much improved model called the Datsun 1500 Sports Roadster introduced at the 1962 New York motor show.

This was a conventional British-pattern sports car, with separate frame and bodywork, 1,500 cc four-cylinder engine and four-speed gearbox and independent front/live axle rear suspension and drum brakes. Priced at US$2,465, it was loaded with amenities Brits eschewed but Americans appreciated. It was followed later in the decade by the 1600 Sport and then the 2000 Sport with much improved performance.

By the 1966, however, Datsun was already looking beyond these fairly crude designs to something that would prove very special. A team under the direction of designer Fumio Yashida had created a new sports car concept in 1966 that found favour with Datsun's North American West Coast boss Yutaka Katayama - a.k.a Mr.K - who insisted it be a built as a two-place coupe.

What finally emerged from the factory was a long-hood fastback design that was claimed to be uniquely a Datsun effort, but which may have been influenced by Jaguar's E-Type and likely Ferrari's GTO. Whatever its inspiration, it was an absolutely great looking car.

Known as the Fairlady Z in Japan, it was christened the 240Z on its arrival in the U.S. in 1969, where it was promptly greeted with huge enthusiasm by sports car enthusiasts, not to mention Datsun dealers who doled them out at way over its US$3,526 list price.

The 240Z's performance matched its looks. Home market cars got a 2.0 litre engine, but North American models a 2.4 litre, single-overhead-camshaft, inline six that produced 150 hp at 6,000 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm and came with a four-speed manual gearbox.

A stiff for the time monocoque structure anchored fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts at the front and Chapman struts at the rear. Brakes were a disc front/drum rear system and 175/14 tires were fitted on steel rims with high-style hubcaps. It weighed just 1,015 kg which helped with acceleration and cornering on those skinny tires, and was well equipped with a full suite of gauges, heater, radio and other amenities.

Nissan had begun importing cars into Canada in 1960, and set up a wholly owned subsidiary here in 1965, the first Japanese company to do so. In that first year it sold 1,200 cars through 84 dealers and by 1970, the first model year for the 240Z here, it was the number two importer.

The arrival of the 240Z, the first Datsun to sell for more than $3,000, added some major league prestige, and the sporty 510 sedan with its broader appeal provided the impetus that saw the company promoted to the number one importer spot in 1971.

The 240Z had put Datsun in the headlines with styling and performance unprecedented in a Japanese car and changed North American consumers' perceptions about Japanese cars.

The 240Z was sold until 1973 by which time almost 117,000 had been built.

It was replaced in 1974 by the short-lived 260Z, which came with two-seat or 2+2 bodywork and was fitted with a larger 2.6 litre engine, but with power down to 139 hp due to struggles to meet emission regulations.

The 280Z arrived in 1975 with a 2.8 litre fuel-injected engine with power now up to 149 hp and bodywork with bigger front and rear bumpers to meet increased crash damage standards. Power in the 280Z had climbed to 170 hp by 1977 with few other changes.

The next chapter in the Z-car saga began in 1979 with the introduction of the second generation 280ZX, an all-new design with the exception of the drivetrain. This was a much more sophisticated and luxuriously equipped car that in 1980 became available with a T-Bar roof, and in 1981 with a turbocharged, 180 hp motor with three-speed automatic.

The third generation bowed for 1984 as the 300ZX with a 3.0 litre V-6 making 160 hp in normally aspirated and 200 hp in turbo form. The fourth generation was introduced for 1990 with a new 3.0 litre V-6 that now made 222 hp and a huge (for the time) 300 hp in turbocharged versions.

A special model celebrated the Z-cars 25th anniversary in 1995, but all was not well and sales numbers were un-spooling like a wound-back odometer. A year later it was all over for the "Z," with 1996 being its last model year - or was it?

The rumour mill had predicted a comeback and it came in 2002 with the 350Z Coupe, equipped with 3.5 litre 287 hp V-6 and all new styling. It was joined by a roadster for 2004.

The sixth generation, known as the 370Z and boasting a 3.7 litre V-6 producing 332 hp, and a seven speed paddle shift automatic or six-speed manual that blips the throttle on downshifts was introduced to keep the legend alive for 2009.

In Pictures: Datsun became Nissan in 1981, but the auto maker kept the popular Z name as the car got better with each edition

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