Back in 1997, anyone could walk into a Nissan dealership, slap down a few greenbacks and drive home in a brand-new 1970 or 1971 Datsun 240Z. And they didn't even need a wormhole to the early '70s, or an 88-mph Delorean, thanks to Nissan's Vintage Z program.
It was a brilliant marketing plan. With the $40,000 Nissan 300ZX on the chopping block, and the new 350Z still years from launch, Nissan was going to keep its economy sports-car ethos on America's mind by recreating its storied past. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to own a brand new 240Z, seemingly pulled from a time capsule, especially if it came with a warranty?
And so, in 1996 Nissan went on a used-car buying binge, rounding up as many clean and straight 1970 and 1971 240Z models they could find, mostly from desert locales. Former race driver and Z-Car restorer Pierre Perrot's Pierre'Z Service Center in Hawthorne, California (and three other SoCal shops) set about dissassembling them, tagging each part and performing ground-up resto jobs. Nissan anticipated a series run of 200 refurbished Zs, and the company picked 10 dealerships as designated "Z Stores," in Texas, Florida, California, Virginia and Georgia, to handle retailing duties.
According to a press release and an article in AutoWeek, Pierre'Z and the others replaced or restored the interiors and powercoated and freshened the suspensions with new bushings and struts. Each 240Z unibody was examined, stripped and reconditioned, then dipped and painted in colors as close to original hues as possible, without pissing off the EPA, using a modern, multi-stage process. Engines were sent to Texas, and transmissions to North Carolina for rebuilding.
In total, more than 800 parts were replaced on each car, including engines, transmissions, brakes and interior pieces. Each car was sent on a 200-mile test drive and inspection process to assure they performed as good as, or better than, new. The Vintage Zs were so fully up to spec — down to the refinished wooden(ish) steering wheels — that Nissan offered the same 12-month/12,000-mile warranty that came with the original cars. (Although the odometers were, by law, not reset.)
Naturally, the 240Z's 2.4-liter inline six and 4-speed transmission were rendered practically as new, producing the same 150 hp and propelling the new-old Zs from 0 to 60 in just under nine seconds. All a new owner needed for the full Z-car time-travel experience was a few stray roaches in the ashtray and Santana's "Abraxas" on the 8-track.
The refurbished Zs rolled out of the shops comparable in every way with the original 240Z models. The only changes, like tires and suspension modernization and non-asbestos brake pads, were added for reliability and durability and to meet new codes. Buyers could tell their refurbished Zs from the originals by an emblem on the center console and a sticker on the quarter window. That and the relative fortune they'd paid for the privilege.
Indeed, the price of a 1996 1970 240Z was quite a bit higher than new. Vintage Zs had been expected to hit the market at around $22,000, but they came in at more like $25,000, and eventually increased to around $27,500 out the door, which blew away the 240Z's original sticker price of $3,526 and its inflation-adjusted equivalent of around $14,500 in 1996 dollars. Still, such an extensive custom restoration would likely have hoovered many more bills from a Z-owner's wallet.
On May 3, 1996, Nissan Motor Company unveiled the first of the factory-refurbished 240 Z's, a silver, company-owned model, at a press event at its U.S. Headquarters in Gardena, California. Company reps on hand reiterated Nissan's noble goal in an accompanying release:
''It is a stop-gap measure for us, in the event that we bring back another Z car. It keeps interest going, especially from the enthusiast side, and brings more awareness of the brand itself,'' said Nissan North America spokesman Scott Vazin [who's now with Volkswagen — ed.]. ''The reaction from dealers is really great. They are really pumped. . . . We can't build them fast enough to meet customer demand.''
Nonetheless, while the project got plenty of page inches in car-enthusiast magazines, the cost was too high for many, and others balked at the lesser value the restored cars might have because — while factory sanctioned — they would still be seen by collectors as "non original" cars. Nissan pulled the plug in 1997, after about 40 cars had been restored.
While three-quarters short of their original goal for the Vintage Z-Car program, Nissan still managed to remind buyers why a company that was only building sedans — for the time being — should, in perpetuity, retain its sports-car cred.
So, what happened to all those restored cars? You can get some into on IZCC's Vintage Z-Car register, but it appears it's at least five years out of date. Do you own one, or know someone who does? Let us know.
Photos: Nissan Motor Company, IZCC's Vintage Z-Car Register