I got pretty much the same reaction every time I told someone about my newly-acquired Nissan Z. “With the Diablo headlights? Those are looking good.” No. “The sleek ’70s one? Poor man’s E-Type?” Nope. I got the one that looks like an 8-bit alligator. And I still can’t believe how it happened.
My newly-collected old car was not found in an actual barn, but I did find it in surprisingly nice shape, in the possession of the original owner, who was willing to part with it for the cash in my pocket if I was willing to give it a good home in return.
The 1984 Nissan Datsun (yes, both badges are on the trunk) 300ZX was built in great quantities. It’s not exceptionally fast, nimble, or collectible by any objective measure. As a classic, it’s still maturing—not old enough to look traditionally vintage, definitely not modern enough to keep up with any of today’s cars. This era Z’s aftermarket is lean and so are the ranks of enthusiasts lusting after one. But the first car to be called 300ZX, known as the Z31, is quintessentially a product of its time.
Even without the optional digital dashboard, the original 300ZX looks like the 1980s on wheels. Feels like it, too. And that’s the main reason I suspect these cars will be cherished. Eventually. Maybe.
I’ll be honest, the Z31 is not a car I’d thought about a lot or imagined myself owning. This particular Z’s owner, whose name you’ll see on the pin striping, actually found me. She started corresponding with me by email after I’d written a random story about another 300ZX. People send me unsolicited emails about their cars all the time, but they don’t usually want me to adopt them.
Mary-Ann and I exchanged some notes and spoke on the phone about how excellent ’80s cars are. She described her ’84 Z with nothing less than love. After having put over 200,000 miles on it in some 33 years, she wanted to get rid of it. Or, rather, to pass it on.
She talked about about how she couldn’t bear to scrap it or pawn it off to a freshly-licensed hotshot who might hack it up or hurt themselves in it. “That’s actually understandable,” I replied, thinking back to the ’89 Mazda RX-7 I owned as a teenager and all the mortifying “modifications” I’d applied to it. Never mind how many times I nearly died driving it. I told her about how much I missed that old Mazda and, relatedly, the ’88 Mitsubishi Starion a friend and I once drove from Boston to Los Angeles.
Still, I was surprised to hear: “Well, would you be able to take my car?”
I must had passed some kind of ’80s import car worthiness test, because this person who I’d never met was looking to pass the non-turbo manual-transmission T-roof 300ZX she’d cared for since 1984 on to me for $100 and a promise to treat it right.
I was skeptical, suspicious and incredulous but, let’s be real, only for a few seconds. There’s no point denying it—I could be lured to go almost anywhere for an almost-free stick shift rear-wheel drive car.
Flash forward a few weeks and my fiancée and I rolled up to Mary-Ann’s house with a Toyota Tundra tugging a U-Haul auto transporter. It was about a 200 mile trek, but the Z lived in California’s central coast region which is always worth inventing an excuse to visit.
“She seemed perfectly nice on the phone,” I reassured my co-pilot, as we drove deeper and deeper into the sparsely populated hill country outside San Luis Obispo.
“If we get murdered out here, I am going to kill you,” my future wife replied. But she became a lot more optimistic when we spotted the car at the address we’d been given. “Oh, it’s...it’s real!”
Better than real—the Z actually looked downright sharp from 40 feet away. At 20 feet, the sun scorches on the pale blue paint became painfully apparent. Up close, yeah, have you ever seen cobwebs in a coil spring before?
I didn’t have a lot of time to look it over before the woman with her name pin striped on the car’s tailgate emerged from the house, cheerful, friendly, and just as excited to talk about ’80s cars in real life as she had been over the phone. Her equally good-natured husband joined us. A corgi squawked behind a fence while we were given a tour of the car.
“This was the only Z around here when it was new,” Mary-Ann beamed. “And it’s never really had a major problem that I can remember,” her husband said as we propped the hood up with a fence post and examined the filthy engine. “I’m not really a keep-cars-clean kind of guy, though” he added with a smile. I was scanning the block for leaks, but really just waiting to hear–
“So, do you want to take it for a ride or what?”
The 207,000 mile Z’s clutch felt forgiving, at least enough to save me the crippling embarrassment of stalling the car in front of the person who’d owned it for longer than I’ve been alive.
Once we were out of the driveway, I discovered that the oddly-shaped steering wheel had a healthy sensation of action and that the whole car listed like a pirate ship as I guided it through a gentle slalom. Rolling into the throttle, the car calmly picked up speed. Matting the throttle... it did the same thing.
But hell, everything seemed to be working. There were no discernible grinds or clunks. This car wants to live!
My co-pilot and I cruised back to the car’s mom’s house and I gave her another chance to retract her offer. But, no, she didn’t want to see the Z sit in the sun another day and had long since replaced it with a new one anyway. Well, a BMW Z4. Better, regardless.
“And, oh, my friend saw your Tom Petty story and made you these to take with the car,” she exclaimed, producing a handful of home-made cassette mix tapes, some of which had been carefully labeled, “TOM PETTY,” in Sharpie.
And so it was settled. This exceedingly kind stranger, her husband, and apparently her friend, and also the universe, clearly wanted me to take this 300ZX home. Who was I to argue?
As this post goes live, the car’s being looked over by a mechanic in my neighborhood who happens to specialize in Nissan Zs. After his report comes back, we’ll find out just how much of a mess I’ve really wrought upon myself.