You’ve heard “millennials don’t like to get their hands dirty” and “kids aren’t into cars anymore.” But don’t worry—hot rod culture is still alive, but today the greasy tattooed Danny Zuko types build stuff like this 1975 Datsun 280Z with a Nissan Skyline engine swap. And it’s fast, difficult to drive, and just the right amount of janky.
(Full disclosure: Professional drifter Chris Forsberg works with the car audio company Clarion and Donut Media to sell stuff. He built this car himself, for himself, and had it out on the Streets Of Willow track at Willow Springs for a video shoot. While that was going down, he let me take a couple laps before the throttle got stuck, the car overheated, and everyone ran away screaming.)
The 1970s were tough for car enthusiasts. Engines were choked in begrudging compliance with emissions rules and parched by stratospheric gas prices And oh, god, those early low-speed bumpers. Those things were so ugly it’s almost like automakers were intentionally flipping off the American people for demanding safer cars.
In retrospect, diving board bumpers aside, this era looks like a clear transitional phase between the rounded eggshell corners of the ’60s and severe angles of the ’80s.
Forsberg’s custom build accentuates that blended look even further.
I mean, right?
Forsberg’s Z feels a little too brash to be called “timeless.” But if you don’t know what you’re looking at, this sleek and slabby car with its bolded-on broadness seems more like something out of a parallel universe than any specific era of car design.
“I built the 280Z because I always wanted a first generation Z. Also, because I knew that I could push the limits of the build and still be street legal as a classic car,” Forsberg told me. “The toughest part of putting this thing together was doing all of the interior and exterior upgrades in the short amount of time. Carbon Signal made everything but then I still had to fit it all and have it look perfect and there was very little time before SEMA to get it all right.”
The confluence of classic lines with a heap of purposeful-looking bolt-ons and this unusual color gives this car an almost Mad Maxian flavor. It looks cobbled together, but faster for it. Meaner.
The driving experience is more of an acquired taste. But it is consistent with the way the car looks.
Having never driven a Datsun Z of this vintage, or a more modern Skyline like the one this car’s engine was heaved out of, I had exactly no idea what to expect when I got on the gas pedal out of the parking lot.
But I was pretty surprised and a little disappointed when I felt a big black hole of nothingness where I thought, for sure, there’d be horsepower.
As I gingerly rolled into the throttle, the car trotted along like a small dog at the end of a long walk. It coughed a little and worked its way up to a canter, but it wasn’t happy with me. Forsberg, sitting to my right, was laughing at my trepidation. “It’s a top-end car. Lay into it!”
His car, his rules, I guess.
Dumping a full boot into the gas pedal made the car snort, squeal and surge like a horse with a fresh brand on its butt. There was no lateral motion from the steamroller-sized rear tires at all, just a huge gulp of air which was immediately compressed into energy and expelled as raw speed.
Reeling the car in for the first corner, the brakes wanted to respond with the same binary behavior. A light touch of the pedal did nothing, a little more and your face was headed for the windshield.
The clutch was heavier than what’s in most modern Japanese cars, but not by as much as you might think. The shifter linkage was a blunt instrument though—crunchy, notchy, definitive about getting into gear. Shifting this thing was like putting an Autobot together. Ram, jam, ca-chunk.
I could sense the car’s true power, at those high RPMs where the turbo could sing. But I didn’t quite have the talent to exercise it. The energy was just out of my reach, but I could feel it start to bubble at the upper-middle of the tachometer’s range. Between the peaky engine and beefy transmission, yeah, I could imagine a braver pilot keeping the revs pegged and hanging the rear end to the outside of a corner.
When Forsberg and I rolled back into the pit after a couple casual runs around the Streets Of Willow, I could tell he was thinking the same thing. “Want me to show you a lap?”
After we’d cinched ourselves back into opposite seats, Forsberg wasted no time trying to make me sick. He hitched a lasso to that car’s powerband, somewhere north of 6,000 RPM, and we just hung the hell on.
By the time we were in the braking zone of the first corner I was already starting to think, well, this would be one of the cooler cars to die in.
Forsberg played a little whack-a-mole on the car’s pedals and turned the Z’s ten-inch wide rear tires into a pair of fog machines, making them try to pass the car’s mile-long hood as we slid around the first turn. Then he did something with the steering wheel and we were stepping out the other way, careening sideways around a second corner.
When he slowed down to cool the car off, I finally got the chance to look around and appreciate the interior. Like the outside, the car’s basic architecture is essentially preserved. It’s just been recovered and decorated with a few dangerous-looking devices, like that weapon of a handbrake protruding from the center console.
The doors and chunks of interior padding feel heavy and tough, kind of like those ugly bumpers I was just complaining about.
The feeling of clean cohesiveness we’ve come to expect fast-from-the-factory cars like today’s Nissan GT-R completely eludes Forsberg’s Z. While an M4 or 911 or even a high-end Mustang can be gently driven around town just as easily as they can step to speed, this Z sort of stumbles like a pre-animated Frankenstein until lightning strikes and then hoooly shit we’ve got a monster!
The Z is exactly what a tuner car should be: an extreme and focused machine that’s creatively executed and dialed into a specific driver’s desires. I hope my own project cars have as much personality as this Z when I’m done.
Want the whole spec sheet? Get ready to scroll:
- RB25DET Engine and transmission
- Carbon Signal G-Nose Carbon Body Kit
- BRE Style Rear Wing
- SSR MS-1 Wheels - 16x9 and 17x10
- Hankook Tires - 225/50/16 and 255/40/17
- Techno Toy Tuning Front and Rear Coilover Conversion
- Techno Toy Tuning GTX2 Front Control Arm Package
- Techno Toy Tuning Adjustable Rear Control Arm
- Techno Toy Tuning Rear Sway Bar
- Techno Toy Tuning Billet Front Hubs
- Techno Toy Tuning Weld In Camber Plates
- Techno Toy Tuning 3 Point Strut Tower Bar
- Techno Toy Tuning Solid Pillow Mounts
- Techno Toy Tuning Big Brake Kit
- Techno Toy Tuning Complete R200 Rear Conversion
- Wilwood 4 piston Brake Calipers
- Wilwood Vented Rotors
- Wilwood Brake Master Cylinder
- Wilwood Clutch Master Cylinder
- Wilwood Brake Proportioning Valve
- Custom Stainless Steel Hardlines
- Nissan R200 Differential with GKTech Billet Cover
- ACT 6 puck clutch
- Mishimoto M-Line Intercooler
- Mishimoto Dual Pass Oil Cooler
- Mishimoto Thermostatic Oil Block
- Mishimoto Radiator
- Custom Plenum Creations Carbon / Billet Intake Manifold
- DOC Race V-Band Manifold
- TiAL XONA Rotor 3071 with Stainless V-Band housing
- TiAL QRJ Blow Off Valve
- TiAL MV-R Wastegate
- OCD Works T51R Turbo Mod
- OCD Works Billet Valve Cover
- Apexi Power FC D-Jetro
- Radium Engineering Pulse Dampener
- Radium Engineering Fuel Surge Tank
- Deatschwerks 650 cc Top Feed Injectors
- Deatschwerks 340 lph Fuel Pump
- Odyssey PC1200 Battery
- Custom 3-inch Stainless Exhaust
- K&N Fuel Filter
- AEM 4-inch Intake Filter
- Custom Charge Piping
- Sam’s Auto Land Paint
- Carbon Signal Custom Dashboard
- Speedhut Custom Gauge Kit
- Carbon Signal Door Panels
- Carbon Signal Bucket Seats
- Carbon Signal Center Console
- Clarion NX604 Navigation Unit
- Clarion 6.5-inch Speakers
- Techno Toy Tuning Harness Bar
- Takata 4 Point Harnesses
- Custom Electric Power Steering Column
- Dapper Lighting Headlights and Taillights