In The Beginning, The Fair Lady
By the early 60's, both Toyota and Nissan had decided that the American market was the key to selling large amounts of cars worldwide. Toyota chose to concentrate on sedans — first of dubious quality and later — well, we all know what happened later. Meanwhile, Nissan's management was struggling with its Datsun cars and pickups in the Asian marketplace. Nissan also had an interest in gaining a foothold in America by introducing a sports car to compete with the MGB. Named the "Fair Lady" in Japan, the first of these little roadsters appeared in 1961. The production run lasted until 1963 and none were imported to the US.
Nissan wasn't discouraged by this initial foray. They hired Albrecht Goertz, designer of the 1957 BMW 507, as a consultant and along with engine designs from Yamaha, several GT coupes were designed and prototypes were built. Goertz didn't stay at Nissan very long but the eventual 240Z carried much of his influence.
Nissan did import two versions of its next sports car to America, the 1600 and 2000 models. These were zippy, reliable little alternatives to MG and Sunbeam and the rest, but were primarily purchased by West Coast military personnel.
Let's Change The Name!
During the last years of the 60's, Nissan's planners were beginning to catch on. They realized that Americans were in the midst of a love affair with muscle cars, not to mention Detroit iron in general. What the Americans will buy, they reasoned, must be a high-quality, moderately-high performance, excellent handling and inexpensive sports car. Since Americans seemed to love models such as "442", "GTO", "GT", etc., why not call the new car something like "Z"?
Just like that, the "Fair Lady" was abandoned for the 240Z — the 240 refers to 2.4 liter displacement. The 1970 model year was off to a great start and the 240Z was priced right where it needed to be at $3,671, smack dab where the MG was selling and $1500 or so less than a Corvette.
The American public went crazy! Nissan introduced a high-value, fun car to an America in which the Baby Boomers were now at working age and looking for neat stuff on which to spend their money. Acceptance of the 240Z was so great that the folks at Nissan found themselves unable to produce the car in quantities sufficient to meet demand.
Those Lovable Car Dealers
Imagine what happened when Datsun dealers found themselves having to put customers on 7-month waiting lists for the 240Z. Those benevolent souls took $1000 non-refundable deposits and loaded the cars with every conceivable option, that's what! Color choice? No way! The dealers hadn't invented such modern "snake oil" concepts as paint protection, fabric guard and the like, but they managed to deliver their Z's at an average selling price of $4400.
None of that mattered, though, because the buying public was in love with these 150 horsepower machines which could not only keep up with a lot of heavier muscle cars but could deliver 24 miles-per-gallon while doing so! Also, the 240Z didn't break down. Unlike the frequent repair of the British cars (due mainly to poorly-designed electrical connections), the 240Z's just ran and ran and ran. In fact, those that didn't rust away are still running.
The Overall Effect
Sure, the Z-cars gradually became heavier, less performance oriented and more plush as the 70's turned into the 80's, but the 240Z helped to change the American buyers' minds about the quality and reliability and fuel mileage that cars from Japan offered.
The Z couldn't have come at a better time for Japan. Just three years into its run, the first energy crisis hit and forever changed the automobile market around the world. Japan cashed in on its opportunity by producing ever-higher quality cars as Detroit lost its way in product planning, quality control and the still-unexplainable "brand management" fad. Nissan lost some momentum at the end of the 1990s, canceling the Z-Car and concentrating on sedan and SUV sales. Things improved for the company, so much so that the new 350Z was introduced in 2002.
History showed that the 240 Z became the best-selling single model sports car ever, at over a half million produced. It's widely believed that the 1972 Z is the best overall model, with most of the bugs worked out and the best overall feel. Want one? Good running examples can be found for $3,500-5,000, just about what the original owner paid. Fully-restored models will set you back $10,000.