The List Our reader bought a BMW M635CSI over a Datsun 240Z – will the bucket-list drive we give him challenge his choice?
Before buying an M635CSI, six-footer Steve Hough viewed several Datsun 240Zs, but never got to drive one. Today we put that right – and the first surprise is that there’s room inside to spare
However much planning goes into one of our reader dream drive features, there’s one element that we have zero control over. And if anyone’s bucket list does include a thoroughly grey day in Grays, barely a container lorry’s braking distance from Tilbury Docks on the Thames estuary, to be honest I’d probably rather not meet them anyway.
This issue’s participant, Steve Hough, remains upbeat about the damp and gloom outside, though – which is no small relief. He also makes a reassuring point. ‘As a former Caterham owner I’m used to a bit of weather.
‘Anyway, I think it’s easing,’ he adds, peering out of the raised roller door at the rear of Vintage and Prestige Classic Cars’ showroom. He may be on to something, too. Though the Radio 4 weather man has been very clear that we’re unlikely to be including any clichéd ‘rising sun’ photos in today’s shoot, the drizzle is definitely thinning. It’s almost time to fire up the 240Z and head for the relative delights and hopefully quieter roads of Canvey Island.
But there’s still time to finish our tea and explore Steve’s motivation behind the inclusion of the sporty little Datsun on his wishlist. ‘The 240Z’s a car I’ve always had a thing for. Before buying my BMW recently I was torn between getting a classic with two or four seats. Top of the list for two-seaters was the Datsun 240Z – good to look at, rare but with good specialist support, and in today’s market seemingly good value.
‘I even looked at a few restored cars, including one at a northern dealer that had previously been owned by legendary racer Barrie “Whizzo” Williams. But despite all that I never got to drive one, which I wish I had. In the end, with a growing son in the family, I decided I wasn’t going to use a two-seater car enough, so plumped for the four-seater BMW M635CSI.’
So it’s time to put those missed driving opportunities right, and Steve is instantly impressed with one important factor designed into the Z with the American market firmly in mind. ‘I’m six-foot-two and there’s plenty of space in here, remarkable for what is actually quite a small car from the outside. It’s rare that I have to pull a seat forward from its most rearward setting, but that’s what I’ve just done. It feels very roomy around me too.
‘But though I like the layout, it does look quite low-rent in here – perhaps austere is a better word – considering what these cost new, and it’s quite tinny the way the door shuts with a clang rather than a thud. Why wasn’t it more upmarket, smarter, or is this just of its time? Maybe it was just built to a price.’ That’s a fair observation – in Britain the 240Z most closely competed with the
‘It’s a very easy car to drive and feels quick’
‘With a growing son I chose the four-seater M635CSI, but I’ve always had a thing for the 240Z’
Reliant Scimitar GTE, and cost 50 per cent more than a Triumph TR6 back in the early Seventies. Against those measures it is lacking in the special touches we’ve been conditioned to expect in a premium product. Steve’s finding plenty of positives, though. ‘It’s all well laid out and I love the deep-dish dials – very Alfa-ish – and the centre air vent that rolls shut to leave a chrome bar on display. It’s all quite stylish for its day, don’t you think? All this blackness reminds me of an E-type.’
We fasten the lap belts – this Datsun is a recent US import – and set off, Steve quickly noting another thing that marks this out as an American-market Z. ‘It’s a shame this only has the four-speed gearbox – we got a five-speed over here. And I’m finding it quite hard to find the gears, but then I’m used to a modern springloaded shift; with this you have to guide it into the right slot yourself. The lever has quite a short throw, but it’s a bit like stirring porridge while you seek the next gear.
‘The throttle pedal is also a bit stiff, which may just be from lack of recent use, but along with the gearbox it does make for rather jerky progress. That aside this is a very easy car to drive. The controls are all quite light; I expected more meatiness to them. It feels quick too. Given the Z’s sporting pretensions it would be nice to do a bit of track-daying in it, like I used to in my Caterham. I’m impressed that the power delivery is not cammy at all. It’s really linear, pulling all the way through the rev range with no surprises to catch you out. But then this car was a different approach for a Japanese manufacturer. They were known for small, high-revving engines and this has relatively large capacity at 2.4 litres.
‘I’m not sure about the brakes, though; they’re surprisingly light. For some reason I expected a harder pedal. Also there’s very little brake force in the first half of the pedal travel and only after that do they start to bite. I don’t get a great amount of confidence with this little feel. It’s okay, but I don’t feel ready to try a big stop.
‘One thing you do notice, like a lot of cars of this era, is the great visibility thanks to the slim pillars. It’s good in all directions in this 240Z, which does help your confidence when starting to drive it more quickly. And talking of visibility, those windscreen wipers are very characteristic of its time, the way they do that little halfflick dance before returning to the park position.
‘I am a bit puzzled by the steering, though – it’s a bit vague at sixty-ish when you’re going straight, which is a little disconcerting. You don’t expect that from a rack-and-pinion system. The steering wheel itself is interesting – the deep dish with square slots in the spokes is quite cool and very much of its time, and again illustrates the car’s sporty pretensions. There’s almost a grain on the rim, so it looks and feels like wood, and has crenellations on the back to help grip it, but I’m assuming it’s some kind of plastic.’ Steve’s right, it is. Next, we stop for a few minutes to take stock of the 240Z’s exterior dimensions and details.
‘I can’t get over how small it looks from the outside now, knowing how roomy it is inside,’ says Steve. ‘It looks all nose, like an E-type, but sits on the same footprint as a 911 from the same era, so it’s really cleverly packaged. There’s a lot of Aston Martin DBS and of course Audi 100 S Coupé about it in styling cues, especially at the back. At the front there are those hints of E-type, along with a bit of Ferrari Daytona as you move to the rear quarters. Nissan certainly did its homework.
‘The black-painted rear panel breaks it up nicely, and goes with the start of impact bumpers and a move away from chrome. It’s also great to see one still wearing its original wheel trims; you see so many 240Zs fitted with alloys.’ There’s a reason for that, tied into this particular car’s remarkable history, which is hinted at by a couple of old stickers on the front bumper: ‘USAF registered vehicle FEX 588’ and ‘Dobbins AFB’. Sold new in Georgia – where Dobbins Air Force Base is located – it remained with the same owner, Richard Friese, from 1971 until 2014 and has still only covered 56,000 miles. As such it is a remarkably original example of a 240Z: no alloy wheels, no modifications and unrestored. There’s even a 1987 petrol receipt in the glovebox for a $6.10 fill-up in Atlanta, which bought seven gallons of lead-free. So what we are getting today is the pure unadulterated Datsun experience.
One item in particular fascinates Steve. ‘It’s wonderful that the original Hitachi self-seeking radio still works. It’s great pressing a preset channel button and watching the needle sweep smoothly across the dial to the station. I could play with that for hours, and the sound’s pretty good for such an old system too.’
I know what he means – this pre-digital piece of hi-tech wizardry is mesmerising – but we should get on and clock up a few more miles. Steve refastens the lap belt, wriggles his shoulders and nods approvingly. ‘There are lots of cars from this era that I haven’t fitted in properly because of various ergonomic problems; in fact the only really good one was a Triumph 2000. But this actually is comfortable and supportive enough, especially with the seat’s side bolsters.
‘I do wonder what all these swathes of black PVC would be like in the summer, though. Those air vent buttons in the seat backs look like a bit of a giveaway – I reckon it could get pretty hot and sticky in here. No wonder they fitted
that aircon unit.’ That’s another neat period feature of the car, looking like either a dealer-fit or early accessory unit under the dash in the passenger footwell area. It’s badged ‘Frigitte’ and matches the grained vinyl and chromed plastic look of the rest of the cabin. Whether or not it still works isn’t something we’ll need to investigate today given the Canvey Island climate, but it must have been essential in the sweaty Georgian summertime.
Looking more relaxed as we accelerate down a dual carriageway that divides industrial Canvey Island from a retail park, Steve admits, ‘You wouldn’t need to do a lot to run this every day. There’s plenty of practicality with that spacious boot area. In fact it would be an ideal car to take down to Le Mans. There’s room for a decent load of camping gear in the back, but no cubby holes to store things in the front, which is a bit of a surprise. Or perhaps I’m just too used to seeing cupholders and boxes in armrests.
‘That’s just detail stuff, though. The only real criticisms I have of this car are that I expected it to be a bit quicker; noisier too. It doesn’t really sound like a six-cylinder – in fact there’s nothing from the sound to give you any idea of what kind of engine it has under the bonnet. For this kind of car it’s a bit muted – what it needs is a better exhaust system to make that six really roar. Then you’d have something that came closer to matching its promise.
‘Despite my earlier comments, there’s nothing wrong with the way it drives, and the more you relax and begin to push it, the sportier it feels. And I’m sure with a few more road miles under my belt, and better conditions, I could start enjoying that performance even more. I’m also surprised that the four-speed gearbox is actually fine at motorway speeds, although a Uk-spec car with a five-speed box would still be preferable.
‘As nice as it is, I don’t think I’d want to buy this particular car, however. I drive my classics too much. This is a remarkable timewarp museum piece, but it’s so original you wouldn’t get to use it much for fear of adding too many more to its 56,000 miles. For me there’s more to a classic than just looking at it. It might sound odd, but I’d want a 240Z with more miles on the clock, that is fully sorted and drives perfectly; probably subtly modified too, keeping the original character but looking and sounding more fun.’
So is this a busted myth or is there still a chance we might see a 240Z in Steve’s garage one day? ‘Yes, I hope I haven’t sounded too negative, because what a great car. The performance was adequate and perhaps I was unfairly judging that aspect given its age. It has a comfortable driving position that really suits and the practicality would be a major boon to me. But the biggest surprise was to discover that this was not the grand tourer I expected – it’s a proper sports car. If only it sounded as bit more special.’
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Reader Steve enjoyed the Hitachi-su-carb-fed 2.4-litre six, but wanted more noise
Life on US Air Force base means the low-mileage Z remains unmolested – but is it too perfect for Steve?