The year is 1996. The aging 300ZX is nearing the end of its run, and Nissan has no replacement at the ready. Instead, R&D dollars have been spent where most needed: on the growing market trend towards SUVs. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
It should, because Nissan finds itself in the same predicament today. The decade-old 370Z can still hold its own, but it is dying on the vine. Nissan has already cancelled the convertible variant, and the coupe can't be far behind.
But back in 1996, Nissan did something radical and unexpected. The automaker saved the soul of the Z by reaching back to its roots and appealing to nostalgia and enthusiasm. It can do so again. The timing demands it. It's time to bring the 300ZX twin-turbo back into showrooms.
Sold between 1990 and 1996 in the US, the Z32-chassis 300ZX is one of those rare cars that actually lives up to the hero worship. This modified 1990 2+2 belongs to Mike Lugni, who bought it in high school and has owned it for 20 years.
"You just don't see them anymore," he says. "The cost of ownership is roughly the same as a Porsche 911, but the 300ZX just doesn't have the same value. It's become so rare to see them these days because of the cost involved in keeping them on the road. It's the sentimental value. This car is everything to me."
From the factory, the 300ZX's 3.0L twin-turbo V-6 put out 300 horsepower—plenty even by today's standards, and highly tunable. The shape has aged very well, low and sleek and pure 1990s. It's a very desirable car, but as Lugni points out, you just don't see many on the roads today. But there's a way Nissan could change that.
Starting in 1996, when the last 300ZXs were being sold in the US, Nissan started buying up Datsun 240Zs from the 1970 to 1972 model years. The cars were sent to one of four specialist Datsun shops in southern California, where they were completely disassembled. The engines were shipped to Texas, and the transmissions to North Carolina.
Next, Nissan designated ten dealerships across the US as Z Stores. Walk through the doors of any one, and you'd have the option of buying a brand-new, 25-year-old Datsun sports car. Each refurbished 240Z was repainted, sported a a restored interior, and was putting out the factory 150 hp from its 2.4L inline-six. As a final touch, Nissan wrapped the cars with a 12-month, 12,000-mile warranty.
On the surface, the plan was genius. Imagine being 10 years old when you saw a 240Z come cruising through your neighborhood. Now you're 35 and you've got the money to actually buy one—and your Nissan dealership is selling them in as-new condition. The price was steep—$25,000 to $27,500 in mid-1990s money—and you had to wait about 30 days. But the option was there, and the first brand-new old Z rolled out of the showroom in April of 1997.
Financially, the program was not a success. Nissan lost money on every restored 240Z it sold, and ended up cancelling the program after moving just 37 cars.
But as a boost for the brand? The Vintage Z program was just the shot in the arm Nissan needed. Nissan ran three-page ads boasting, "No power mirrors. No cup holders. No lumbar support. (First come, first served.)" The media went ape over the idea of selling classic cars out of dealer showrooms, and Nissan's marketing agency made the most of tucking the restored Zs into a campaign touting the automaker's heritage. Overall, Nissan spent $200 million on its advertising campaign, so a few losses on vintage 240Zs barely counted as a rounding error.
In one memorable ad from that campaign, an action figure dressed like Indiana Jones drops from the jaws of a toy Tyrannosaurus Rex, climbs into a cherry red 300ZX R/C car, and then races off to steal Barbie from Ken. Set to The Kinks' You Really Got Me, it's one of the best commercials of all time, and a memorable part of many people's childhoods.
Those people are now grownups, many of whom are shelling out huge money for the likes of Mark IV Toyota Supras and first-generation Acura NSXs. There's a wave of nostalgia for cars from the tail end of the Japanese economic bubble, and Nissan could surf that goodwill for years.
Restoring a 300ZX twin-turbo is not a task for the faint-hearted. But it's hardly an impossibility. Peter Monshizadeh of Kansas restored a mechanical basket-case of a 300ZX in his garage, and laid out exactly what it cost. The project took months, and Monshizadeh's well-organized catalogue of the build is not for the mechanically squeamish. I'm still shuddering over the time he drained the transmission oil and found a handful of broken synchro teeth.
"It's better to buy a cosmetically good car that needs some mechanical work, rather than the other way around,” Monshizadeh says. "Many original cosmetic parts, such as interior and exterior trim, are no longer being produced for the Z32. This leaves you at the mercy of high-priced NOS parts, questionable-quality used parts, or the aftermarket."
Monshizadeh used factory parts, and reports that pretty much everything mechanical was readily available by special-order. For longevity, he upgraded to Phase 2 injectors to handle modern ethanol-gasoline blends, and he warns that the original Power Transistor Unit (PTU) is prone to failure.
Peter's car cost him $3100 to buy, and his extensive, engine-out repairs totaled $8158. Getting a specialist shop like Z1 Motorsports in Georgia or Specialty-Z in California to perform ground-up restorations on donor car would doubtless add thousands of dollars in labor costs.
Then there's the question of what Nissan could charge for a brand-new 1990s 300ZX. Adjusted for inflation, those restored 240Zs cost approximately $40,000 in today's money. According to Hagerty Insurance's valuation tools, a #2 condition 300ZX twin-turbo is worth $34,700.
Matt Nelson, a vehicle data specialist at Hagerty who also owns a Z32, explains the car's market further. "The high rate of modification gives the original low-mile car a real premium. What we are starting to see is that Z prices are distinctly bifurcating between those unmolested sub-100,000-mile cars and everything else."
Would you pay up to $40,000 for a factory-spec childhood dream car that's been thoroughly reconditioned by a professional shop, had its mechanical weak points addressed, and been cosmetically restored to original condition? If it came with a warranty? Even if Nissan only sold a few dozen Z32s—and, again, lost money on each one—think of the publicity that would come out of it.
And then there's the trickle-down effect. A program like this would help every Z32 fan in the country. The original 240Z restoration program put a lot of Z specialists to work, and ended up funding the creation of some hard-to-find reissued parts. Those molds and tooling then went on to supply new, original-spec parts for average enthusiasts fixing up their own 240Zs.
Mazda's already doing something similar with its factory MX-5 Miata restoration program in Japan. Nissan need not attempt something so complex in order to recreate the result of its 1990s 240Z program with the 300ZX.
So do it Nissan. If the future seems shaky, reach into your basement archives and Enjoy The Ride. Don't let the Z fade away with a whimper—underline your commitment to the breed with a ZX flourish.
And if Nissan won't, then we have to. Z32 enthusiasts like Lugni and Monshizadeh are making sure the 300ZX twin-turbo still gets the love it deserves. It's not easy, but they already know what Nissan needs to realize. Z can't die. Z is forever.
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