NZ Classic Driver
LEWIS LOW’S DATSUN 240Z ‘SCARAB’
Often referred to as the ‘poor man’s E-Type’ the Datsun 240Z has since gained classic status as well as motorsport success.
As a teenager I recall discussions at a time when a serious interest in cars began to kick in, as to whether Japanese cars would ever be held in the same esteem as the British, European and American cars that we had all been bought up on?
The answer was, invariably, never! What we reckoned was that most of the cars produced by the Japanese were just rubbish and would never ever be considered as classics. After all, we were so knowledgeable as the owners of Austin A40s and 100E Anglias and the like: All ‘boys-only’ stuff!
In reality signs of a Japanese vehicle revolution were already making inroads by the 1970s, and the presence of Japanese competition cars had also started to make an impression. The best examples to be found during the early years of that decade in New Zealand were the Datsun 1200 and 1600 and success came on the track and in rallying. The Mazda RX-3 also made its mark along with the Toyota Corolla and the Datsun 240Z.
The first Japanese motorsport appearances in our part of the world date back to 1958 when Datsun competed in the 10,000 Mobilgas Round Australia Trial with two 1-litre 210s.
Closer to home, Rod Millen won three national rally championships in 1975, 1976 and 1977 in his Mazda RX-3 coupé. Subsequent seasons in the 0-1300 rally classes, both national and regionally, were largely dominated by the Datsun 1200.
The Batty brothers – Allan and David – competed in one of the early Corollas. After David’s death in a rally accident, the car was subsequently campaigned by John Kennard, who went onto navigate for Hayden Paddon in his World Rally Championship exploits.
The first classic race meeting at Ruapuna in 1991, the BP-Alfa (now the SKOPE), did have a Japanese presence, despite suggestions that Japanese cars would never be regarded as classics. How wrong was that! The programme lists D Hudson in a 1971 Datsun 1200SS, Garry Cockram, 1966 Datsun Fairlady and Dean Kirk with a 1978 Mazda RX-7. All those cars were 20 years of age plus, so that was probably the reasoning for their acceptance, along with their known motorsport success.
Fast-forward only four years and the list had grown to include the 1972 Datsun 240Zs of Russell Cunningham, David Lye, Stuart Calder and Hugh Jolliffe. Cunningham and Jolliffe continued to run these cars for many years – indeed, Jolliffe was commonly referred to as ‘24 ounce’ at his local watering hole!
Times have changed and the above-mentioned examples, plus more, are now a common and worthy sight at the annual SKOPE Classic. Deciding what is a classic and what is not is subjective, and an interpretation by one person will not necessarily be the same as somebody else.
Lewis Low as the new Canterbury Car Club president, is a member of the committee that decides what is acceptable and what is not for the SKOPE and, according to Lewis, an essential consideration for any proposed entry is “the car’s presentation and is it over 25 years old? We do have cars that might qualify, but if the presentation is not good enough then, sorry, no.”
Lewis is also a convert to Japanese cars, having witnessed their gradual inclusion in classic race meetings.
Although having first campaigned a 2-litre Ford Cortina MkI in southern classic racing events, since 2015 Lewis has campaigned his 1972 Datsun 240Z ‘Scarab’ replica. He is a great believer in Japanese racing cars, noting that they are not overly complicated to work on, are not hard to drive and have made it so much easier for aspiring competitors to get into the sport.
His affair with the 240Z is ongoing and a walk through his workshop reveals another 240Z with a Chevrolet engine on a cradle nearby in the process of being turned into another Scarab replica.
First appearing in 1969 as the Fairlady, when Datsun marketed their new sports car in the USA in 1970 it was renamed as the 240Z. With its original 2.4-litre six-cylinder engine allied to good looks, the car was an immediate success. In 1971, 45,000 examples were sold in the USA, 50,000 in 1972 and 40,000 in 1973. Seven generations of the Z car were subsequently produced.
On the local racing scene in the USA, Bob Sharp Racing took the 240Z to SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) championship class wins in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1973. In 1973 the team also introduced actor Paul Newman into the racing fraternity. Newman raced with some success until 1976 with various 280ZXs and a turbocharged 280ZX. Interestingly, the film star’s racing career began with a Datsun 510 (known in NZ as the Datsun 1600). He also formed his own race team with Bill Freeman before establishing Newman/Haas Racing.
The 240Z was also successful on the world rally scene, most notably with Kenyan driver Shekhar Mehta, who won the gruelling
1973 East African Safari Rally (as it was known then) in a 240Z. He followed this with four more victories on this rally with a Datsun 160J and a Nissan Violet. Mehta also competed on a WRC round in New Zealand in the early 1980s also with Datsun. Mehta was a lovely man who was a pleasure to interview – sadly he passed away in 2006.
Ex-pat Kiwi Steve Millen also had considerable success in the USA with a fourth generation Z, the twin turbo, V6 powered 300ZX. Millen won the IMSA GT title in 1992 and 1994 along with class wins at both the Le Mans and Daytona 24-hour races as well as the Sebring 12 Hour.
Lewis’ racing introduction came as a teenager when, along with mates, watching the racing at Ruapuna became a regular thing. The biggest attraction was the saloon cars and at school leaving age he gained a job for five months as the ‘odd job’ boy at PDL Racing during the construction of the PDL Mustang 2. Apart from messages, he also got to tackle a little fibreglass work, something that later helped him when building up
his own cars. He then began an electrical apprenticeship with PDL Industries before moving up to a test engineer.
Apart from a casual interest in motor racing, it was not until his early 50s that thoughts of racing surfaced. It was his son, Ryan, who encouraged him, suggesting that the Cortina MkI sitting in the family garage should be given new life.
However, Lewis’ love of Japanese cars wasn’t far away and after five years campaigning on the southern circuits with the Cortina, the appeal of racing a Z-car was too great not to let an opportunity pass.
Lewis’ current 240Z came from Auckland and was originally powered by a six-cylinder RB25 engine. This unit did not last long as it proved unreliable, and a decision to replace it was not difficult.
“I could have stayed with a six,” said Lewis, “but the 350 Chev Scarab idea appealed. It had been a popular conversion too, so it was an easy decision really.”
Painted in the Bob Sharp racing team’s distinctive red and white colour scheme (distinctive primarily because Paul Newman’s involvement with the team attracted massive
publicity during his racing days), Lewis’ first time on the track with the V8 came at Highlands Motorsport Park – where he promptly put his Z on pole. In the seven years since first taking to the track, the V8 has now completed almost 4000 kilometres. It is getting a little tired but remains reliable and he is currently building a new car.
“I could go back to a six-cylinder for the new build, but the Scarab still appeals. It is a period thing and I like that. I like the 240Z too; it has a proper feel without all the electronics that go with today’s cars. I’m not a real purist though and don’t mind some modifications. My Cortina has a 2-litre engine, it is a Ford though and from the same period. Racing cars shouldn’t be in museums, if it isn’t possible or not really necessary to have the same or similar unit under the bonnet, then put something else in.”
Lewis’ new 240Z will essentially be the same as his previous car, but with a new feel. His attention will also be focused on Canterbury Car Club presidential duties and, although a staunch saloon car follower, he will also be helping his son, Ryan, with his South Island Formula Ford campaign.