Nissan Wakes Up ... Catches Up With Its Z's
BOSTON — The folks at Nissan know they can't build a classic car overnight.
But they might be able to rebuild one.
Exit Nissan's racy sports car, the 300ZX, which the company pulled from the lineup this year.
Enter Nissan's hoped-for classic, the 1972 Datsun 240Z, and enter Nissan's hopes it will revive Americans' stalled interest in Japanese sports cars.
The 1972 "Z" car is not something you buy at an auction, out of the classified ads, or through some car collectors' magazine.
These classics roll off a showroom floor, in good-as-new condition, with a good-as-new price tag, and a factory warranty.
Nissan hopes to buy up as many as 60 original Datsun 240Z's, the car it introduced in 1970 and which revolutionized the sports car business.
The company plans to restore the 1972 Z-cars and sell them as new (by 1972 standards) through select dealers this spring. Prices have not been announced, but expect "about the price of a new car," says company spokesman Scott Vasin.
Customers will get essentially a brand new 1972 Datsun 240Z, with few modern amenities.
They'll still include analog radios and crank windows. Most of the cars won't have air conditioning, and none will have air bags, antilock brakes, or even smog control. (This is legal since the government considers these used cars.)
Only the 10 dealers in the South and West who have sold the most Z's will be allowed to sell the restored originals.
"We're just trying to keep our loyal Z customers happy and keep in touch with those people," says Jerry Spahn of Nissan North America.
But there's more to it than that.
Last year, many Japanese carmakers abandoned the US sports car market.
Nissan itself dropped the 300ZX; Mazda garaged its long-serving RX-7; Subaru has unplugged its SVX line; and Honda remade the Prelude to a sporty sedan.
Sport-utility vehicles, it seems, not sports cars, now top Americans' wish lists.
Japan Inc.'s sense of the US market was punctured almost immediately, mostly by European carmakers.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Porsche, even Plymouth launched new sports cars last year, and most reported waiting lists before the cars ever went on sale.
Nissan's problem was a question of style. Sports cars are fashion statements and can go out of style quickly.
Most Americans balked at spending $40,000 on a car with a short shelf life - especially a Japanese sportster, which lacks the prestige of those from Europe.
Nissan executives hope that, if customers are willing to pay $20,000 for the company's 25-year-old classic, Z-cars will begin appreciating.
That could give Nissan sports cars the prestige of a European moniker, says Mr. Vasin.
Then when Nissan builds a new sports car, it can command the same prices the European brands can.
The success of the original 240Z came from its low price and high dependability, two elements noticeably lacking, at the time, among European names.
That gives Nissan a reserve of goodwill among Americans, who owned more than 1 million 240Z's.
"When you drive a Z, a lot of people stop you and say, 'I used to have one of those before I had kids, and boy would I like to have one again,' " says "Mad Mike" Taylor, president of the national Z Car Club Association.
But the kids now drive their own wheels, and the parents, again, represent an untapped market.
At about $20,000 a piece, the new/old 240Z carries a hefty premium, at least $5,000 more than pristine, show-quality Z's have ever brought.
And while virtually new, they will not be show quality, because they will not be in strictly original condition.
Some original parts are no longer available, such as the diamond-quilted vinyl rear interior upholstery. And earlier cars will be updated to specifications of the 1972 model, which Nissan regards as the best of the earlier models.
All the restorations come from Pierre's Z's, in Carson, Calif., which just finished the first car, a silver 1971 240Z.
From the 240Z, Nissan plans to include later and later cars - 260Z's, 280Z's, 280ZX's, and 300ZX's.
If those fail to spark an interest, the company might move back in time and restore Datsun roadsters from the 1960s.
Not all collectors are interested. Dave Brownell, editor of Special Interest Autos magazine, doubts Japanese cars will ever become collector investments.
"Many collectors still have a lot of hostility" over Pearl Harbor, he says.
If the cars don't begin appreciating, though, that's OK, says Vasin.
The No. 1 reason Nissan's doing this, he says, is that "it's fun."
Almost Classics, for Collectors With Almost Enough Money
Some cars were meant to be classics. Duesenbergs and Bugattis spring to mind. Those cars from the 1930s have been getting more valuable every year, not depreciating as ordinary used cars do. Here are some others that, while they may not be classics yet, are starting to appreciate in value. The cars listed sell for between $5,000 and about $12,000. With any of these cars, watch out for rust, and buy the most rust-free example you can find. Mechanical problems are easier to fix. Comments come from Dave Brownell, editor of Special Interest Autos magazine and one of the nation's foremost authorities on collector cars.
Other Cars on the list:
Alfa Romeo Spyders 1954-1970
AMC Javelin/AMX 1968-1974
Austin Mini Cooper S
Austin Healy Sprite 1958-1971
BMW 1600-2002 1968-1974
BMW 2800CS, 3.0 CS, 633 CSi
Buick Riviera 1971-1973
Cadillac Eldorados 1967-1970
Pontiac Firebirds 1967-1969
Datsun 240Z 2-seater 1970-1972
Datsun Roadsters 1500, 1600,
and 2000 1961-1969
Dodge Challenger coupes
Fiat Spyders 1968-1978
Oldsmobile Toronado 1966-1970
Plymouth Barracudas 1964-1966
Porsche 914 1972-1975
Porsche 912 1968-1969
and 912E 1976
Saab Sonnett 1966-1974
Sunbeam Alpine 1960- 1968
Triumph TR6 1969-1976
VW Bugs 1949-1979
Volvo PV544 1958-1965