We can’t talk about Nissan’s greatest sports car and not start with the brand’s biggest rival. In 1967, Toyota released the 2000GT, a world-class grand tourer that served as a halo car for the entire Japanese auto industry. With its gorgeous supercar looks, free-revving double overhead cam straight six, and an unforgettable appearance in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, it not only marked the arrival of the modern Japanese sports car, but it did it with an exclamation point. The downside? With a price of around $7,000, it was thousands more than a comparable Jaguar E-Type, and without name recognition in the cut-throat sports car world, production ended in 1970 after just 351 2000GTs were built.
But just as Toyota was leaving the global sports car market (it would return with the ponycar-fighting Celica for 1971), rival automaker Nissan/Datsun was picking up right where the 2000GT left off. In fact, Nissan’s connection to Toyota’s range-topper went deeper than one might think. The 2000GT began life as a collaboration between Nissan and Yamaha, with a design by Bernard Goertz, the man behind the iconic BMW 507. A prototype was built, but when Nissan walked away from the project, Yamaha pitched it to Toyota, Toyota gave it a redesign, and the rest is history.
But unlike Toyota, Nissan already had some success in the sports car world — even in America. Launched in 1959, the Fairlady roadster was in many ways a spiritual precursor to the Mazda Miata. Small, peppy, and pretty, it was an MGB/Austin-Healey Sprite/Triumph Spitfire fighter that offered everything the Brits did, except it would start every morning and wouldn’t leave oil stains on your driveway. But outside of warm climates and the die-hard roadster set, the Fairlady wasn’t going to set any sales records, and Nissan’s U.S. chief, Yutaka Katayama, knew it. He saw the potential of a 2000GT-type car for the American market and in 1967 pushed for a halo car that could keep up with the world’s best while staying affordable for most buyers. He pitched the idea to the brass in Yokohama, and luckily, they listened. As a result, the first true world-beating Japanese sports car was unveiled to the world in October 1969.
In its first decade, Nissan USA was the redheaded stepchild of the company. Launched in 1958, the company began selling its cars badged as Datsuns in the U.S., in order to distance itself from its role with the Japanese military in World War II, and so it could reintroduce the brand later on if Datsun failed. But by the end of the ‘60s, the company was starting to pick up steam. Its small trucks were popular on the West Coast, and its compact 510 sedan (released 1968) was having success in SCCA competitions and drawing comparisons to the more expensive BMW 2002.
Back in Japan, Nissan’s brass wanted to call its new sports car the Fairlady Z. Over in the U.S., it was known as the 240Z, named after its 2.4 liter inline-six. Like the 2000GT (and Ferraris, Jaguars, Aston Martins, etc.), it had cutting edge features like disc brakes, a fully-independent suspension, and an overhead cam engine. Unlike those exotics, it cost around $3,500 fully loaded — or about the price of a well-equipped V8 Ford Mustang.
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