By Bryan Raab Davis
The 280ZX was undeniably a bit of a cad’s car. Picture a suave dude who always had his hairbrush at the ready and smelled of Jovan Musk aftershave. That is the man who would have driven a new “Z Car.”
Often likened to the American Chevy Corvette, the Japanese 280ZX is really closer in spirit to a British Jaguar XJS, for it offered genuine refinement along with performance.
Nissan hit the nail on the head with the new, softer touring Z, and Motor Trend named it “Import Car of the Year” when it debuted in 1979. It was a harbinger of things to come, being the first car sold as a “Datsun by Nissan.” By 1986, the Datsun name would be completely phased out. The 280ZX was a fresh design; the only thing remaining from the preceding 280Z was the excellent 145-bhp inline six. Buyers with a taste for wasabi could specify a turbocharged version of the same engine producing 180 bhp. As with the 280Z, the 280ZX was available as a two-seater or 2+2.
A West Coast collector invited me to get acquainted with his near-mint 1982 280ZX two-seater, and I learned what made it such a desirable piece in its heyday and what makes it a great malaise-era collector car today.
The car is a mature creation that its designers paid a lot of attention to detail. The NACA-style duct on the hood is functional, and the body boasted a drag coefficient of .385 — an improvement of .14 relative to the preceding model. If you should need to check under the hood after dark, there’s a lamp on a spool to provide illumination wherever it’s needed. The hood hinges from the front so should it become unlatched at speed, catastrophe will not ensue.
An abundance of louvres, moldings and creases make the 280ZX fussy but still attractive. Our feature car’s Regal Red paint sets off the shape nicely. The front of the car is dominated by the plane of the hood and headlamp buckets, and there is no grille as such; just an air intake under the bumper. Rear fenders are muscular and benefit from a subtle “Coke bottle” effect enhanced by the high beltline. A thick lower body molding encircles the car, emphasizing length. By today’s standards, the bodywork overwhelms the wheel arches and rolling stock, but car buyers in 1982 wouldn’t have looked at it that way. Overall, the styling harkens back to the original 240Z and represents a final flowering of the 1960s sports and GT styling influences that shaped the Z cars from the start.
The interior is a masterful piece of early-’80s Japanese techno-lux. Supportive seats are covered in rich-feeling red velour that stops just short of being garish. Fitted sunshades snap in place to reduce cabin heat. The factory stereo is a real gem — the cassette deck is equipped with a counter, just like a home hi-fi. All the usual gauges are present, plus Nissan’s trick two-part fuel readout with a secondary needle that engages when you’re down to the last quarter of a tank. This secondary needle really lets you eke out every last drop of fuel before queuing for gas. This wasn’t a gimmick; fuel shortages had been a reality in the ’70s and no one knew if the ’80s might bring more of the same. A digital instrument could be had to up the technological ante.
Our featured car is a naturally aspirated example, and its 2753cc overhead-cam inline six provides silken power delivery. The Z starts without hesitation and settles into a quiet idle. Getting underway, the gear lever’s action is a touch notchy, but power delivery is linear with excellent mid-range punch given the power-to-weight ratio (the 280ZX tips the scales at around 2800 lbs). Where the car really shines is its superb suspension tuning. The bushings and shocks feel like they’re made of silk velvet and the 280ZX is unflappable on the highway. Corners bring more body roll than a hairy-chested gymkhana driver would want, but for the hairy-chested patron of the discotheque, the ride/handling balance is just about perfect. A weight distribution of 50/50 helps keep the car on an even keel. An overdrive fifth gear and good sound insulation make for very relaxed motoring. A three-speed automatic transmission was available for the shiftless.
The luxury-oriented Datsun Maxima (Datsun 810 in its home market) provided many of the oily bits for the 280ZX including suspension, which was by MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms aft. Early cars were equipped with either a manual rack-and-pinion steering system or power-assisted recirculating ball steering box. By the 1982 model year, a power rack-and-pinion steering gear was made available across the range.
The owner of our feature car typically sells his acquisitions after a brief tenure, but he is in no hurry to part with this immaculate 280ZX, and I can’t say that I blame him. Time warp examples are pretty rare these days, and his general feeling is that there’s a lot of room for the 280ZX market to grow in the forthcoming years. There’s a significant price spread ranging from $4,000 for a rough example up to $25,000 or so for a pristine car with turbocharged cars commanding a greater premium.
If you’re the sort of enthusiast who likes to engage in serious touring, the 280ZX deserves a hard look because it can cover vast distances with comfort and aplomb. The purist might deride the last inline-six-powered Z car for having succumbed to middle age spread. The more astute would opine that its svelte predecessors may have been tauter of sinew and sharper of reflex, but there is much to be said for refined, comfortable maturity.
Besides, Japanese iron of every sort has been getting a lot of attention lately. The 280ZX is a car to keep a close eye on.
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