50 Years of Z: A timeline of Nissan’s breakout sportscar

By: Alex Affat, Unique Cars magazine

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Nissan Z timeline Nissan Z timeline

We trace the history of the icon that brought Japanese sports motoring to the masses

Story originally published in October 2019, for Nissan Z's 50th anniversary

First Generation: Datsun S30 240Z-280Z – 1969-1978


The Z-car legacy started here, with the standout 240Z.

It was lauded for a number of things upon release, namely its gorgeous looks courtesy of Albrecht Goertz (of BMW fame), and further fettled by Yoshihiko Matsuo (1934-2020).  It was also one of the few genuine 125mph cars on sale in 1969, and was largely your only choice if you couldn’t fork out for one of the ‘Big Three’ brutes, or a far more expensive Italian supercar.

The real kicker was the price: Just $4567 – believed by many to be the best value for a sweet-looking sports car that could out-accelerate the much dearer TR6s, Alfa 1600s and Capri V6s.


Today, they remain one of Japan’s all-time great classics; with original low-mileage examples overseas regularly fetching unheard of prices over the past 12 months. The record sale was set in February 2020, when an immaculately preserved original 1971 Datsun 240Z sold for AU$463,000.

By 1972, the 240z had become the world’s fastest selling sports coupe, thanks to tightening emissions regulations in the US that saw rival sports car makers slump in sales – or pull out of the market all together.


The US was the updated 260z’s main target. The engine was bored out to 2565cc and they introduced a 2+2 variant with a wheelbase stretched by 302mm, and an elongated notched roofline.

The last iteration of the Z-car’s first generation was the 280Z, released in the US-only from 1975. Again, it took much of the same sheet metal, but introduced a larger 2.8lt inline-six, as well as introducing fuel-injection. Australia carried on offering the 260z until 1978, though a few left-hand drive examples have been imported over time.


Second Generation: Datsun S130 280ZX – 1978-1983


The second-generation Z-car, the 280ZX, marked the slow move away from an outright sports car, to a more GT-like cruiser. Only the 2+2 configuration was sold in Australia, as like almost every export market except for the USA and Canada; the option of ‘+2’ rear-seating outsold the purists’ two-seater by great numbers.

Despite the smooth and comfortable road manners, the single-cam 2.8lt inline-six was deemed a strong and smooth unit – able to spin the speedo up past 190km/h.

Aussie road testers also celebrated its outstanding fuel economy, aided by its aerodynamic (if not exactly pretty) body. The 80-litre fuel tank made for great cruising range for Australia too.

With the perfect hindsight of history behind us; the 280ZX remains a capable classic cruiser. At the time, enthusiasts lamented the fact that it placed more importance on luxury and comfort, further moving away from its sporting roots – but in turn, the 280ZX found unprecedented global success.


Third Generation: Nissan Z31 300ZX – 1983-1989


The Z31 300ZX marked the Z’s transition from Datsun, to Nissan. Again, Nissan Australia only offered one body option: the 2+2 T-top.

This generation again re-cemented the Z-cars luxury-oriented cruising characteristic, and were largely based on the preceding 280ZX with new suspension and a wider stance.

Until 1985, Australia only offered the naturally aspirated 3.0lt V6 yielding a modest 124kW; though from 1986 to 1988, Nissan Australia only offered the 155kW turbocharged variant, sans adjustable shocks which were featured in overseas markets.

Just one trim level was offered in Australia, with the only options being climate control and a very-80s digital instrument cluster. Australia uniquely offered the "Californian" special edition, a run of 200 units marking the last of Z31s sold in Australia.


Fourth Generation: Nissan Z32 300ZX – 1989-1996


1989 marked a golden era for Nissan, of course marking the debut of the game-changing Skyline R32 GT-R. The same year also saw the new Z32 300ZX released, complementing the Yokohama brand’s multi-pronged attack on the global sports car market.

Indeed, while preceding Z-car generations had lost much of their sporting roots, and marked a shift towards more civil boulevard cruisers – the Z32 marked a welcome and surprise return to two-seater sporting.

A new 165kW DOHC 3.0lt V6 now took pride of place under the bonnet, backed up by all-new multilink suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, a viscous differential and anti-lock brakes. Nissan touted it as a genuine Porsche-beater, and on the power-to-weight front, it even outgunned the powerful Supra Turbo of the time.

When you couple its tremendously aerodynamic body, and its well-equipped and ergonomic cabin, the Z32 marked a welcome return to form for the Z-car lineage.


Fifth Generation: Nissan Z33 350Z – 2002-2009


Following the Z32’s time in the sun, the Z-car nameplate enjoyed a six-year hiatus, while Nissan in the US attempted to keep the buzz by selling ‘new, old’ restored 240Zs. By the early 2000s, Nissan was a lot more cash-strapped than they were when the last 300ZX arrived. Nissan revealed a ‘240Z concept’ in 1999, but was ultimately deemed 'too backward' and ‘too retro’ for a company in desperate need of commercial recovery.

The 350Z arrived midway through 2002, with a modern interpretation of the Z’s traditional long bonnet and short deck silhouette, and was announced by then-president Carlos Ghosn as a car that would assist the company’s recovery into the future.

It was a handsome coupe that handled well and whose new 3.5lt V6 propelled the car to 100km/h in under six seconds. Like many Zs before it, the 350Z found favour with numerous aftermarket tuning companies and modifiers around the globe.


Sixth Generation: Nissan Z34 370Z – 2008-current


On first-glance, the 370Z looks a lot like the preceding 350Z. Look closer and you’ll notice that the car’s actually shorter, wider and lower with virtually every panel and component redesigned.

More extensive use of aluminium in its panels, subframe and engine cradle meant the new Zed was both lighter (110kgs) and stiffer than its predecessor.

As per the historical nomenclature, the 370Z was powered by a 3.7lt V6 – taking the Z33’s well-balanced platform and continues the evolution.


Eighth Generation: Nissan Z Proto Concept - 2020


This morning, Nissan unveiled the much-anticipated Z Proto, a concept car set to precede the next-generation of Z-badged road cars - expected to be called the 400Z.

The yellow concept coupe features an amalgamation of design cues from virtually every one of its predecessors: from the 240Z's circular headlights, cutouts and square front air dam, to the 300ZX's modernised tail lamp assembly.

The Z Proto is longer, wider and lower than the ageing 370Z, while enthusiasts will be pleased to know that its manual transmission and rear-wheel driven formula will remain.

Technical details have yet to be announced, although many expect the next-gen Z to feature a 3.0lt twin-turbo V6 capable of 298kW. 

There's no word when the final production car will land in showrooms, however our brothers at Motor Magazine report that it may still be some years away.

It's an important new car for the brand, who are struggling amidst a hugely competitive climate whilst soldiering on with an ageing portfolio. For many of Nissan's sportscar enthusiasts, it has been some time since they have had anything to write home about.

The 400Z could be just that, although we will have to wait and see how the next chapter of Z unfolds.


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