Stuck In The Middle With You


In a bizarre twist of organization and consistency, it seems as if Forgotten Metal has now had two contemporaneous cars of similar purpose and layout in a row. That’s right, this Nissan 300ZX  was in more or less direct competition with that Mazda RX-7 from last time. Okay, technically this car is from 1985, which means it could’ve also competed with the then-new second generation RX-7, but as I say whenever someone tries to pronounce my last name, close enough! That makes the introductory part of this post much easier, because it’s pretty much an echo of last time. It also gives us the opportunity to talk about Burt Reynolds. 


Previously on Forgotten Metal, we talked about how in the seventies and eighties (and nineties and two-thousands to a degree), Japanese automakers saw the major superpowers of the world resting on the laurels of their postwar success. This, in conjunction with a fuel crisis and general malaise left the door wide open to new, radially different entrants to the market, particularly when it came to cars. The RX-7 with its funky Wankel engine and the Toyota Supra with its- uh- faulty head gaskets, were some of the more performance-oriented options that stormed through that door. The 300ZX though, was a little bit more complicated. See, Nissan, back when they were called Datsun, had made a bit of a name for themselves in the world of cheap, good-to-drive-if-not-particularly-fast cars like the 510. So they got it in their heads that they’d develop a sports car. That was in 1969. The car was the 240Z, and for a moment all was good. But then the slow progression of time necessitated updates, and with each successive iteration of the Z it became bigger, heavier, and more bulbous until eventually we ended up with the 280ZX. The fat, dead, Elvis-on-the-toilet of cars. Something had to be done. That’s where the 300ZX comes in.


Here’s the thing, though: while the 280ZX was overweight, over-cushy, and ugly in a way that seemed like it was trying to be, people bought more than a few of them. In fact, it was the best selling Z-car yet, which meant it tapped into something people wanted. So what was Nissan to do? Stay on the profitable track while dishonoring the Z’s name? Or return to the car’s roots at the expense of profits? The answer was somewhere in the middle of those two options. The 300ZX, then, Steeler’s Wheel’d itself between being a luxury car and being a sports car. And this indecisiveness can be seen all over the 300ZX. When it came out, some people derided the car’s headlights. They thought Nissan’s design team couldn’t decide between the pop-up headlight and the more conservative rounded headlight, so they instead went with an unholy matrimony of the two, producing a strange, partially covered headlight. It looks sleepy.


Indecision plagued the roof as well. The 300ZX had a t-top, which meant that instead of a convertible or a targa setup, the roof was composed of two removable panels that connected to a bar joining the front windshield with the back windshield. Perhaps the most recognizable example of this is in Smokey and the Bandit’s Pontiac Trans Am, but the idea was first seen way back in 1948, when a man named Gordon Buehrig designed a car called the Tasco for the New American Sports Car Company. The Tasco never made it past the prototype phase, but the t-top idea was picked up by General Motors twenty years later for use on the 1968 Corvette. Now, I like t-tops quite a bit (it’s probably due to some deep-seated desire to be as cool as seventies-era Burt Reynolds), but even so, in the 300ZX’s case, it’s still a case of “we couldn’t decide whether to make our car a coupe or convertible so, uh- here, have both! Please, all we want is to be loved!”


Let’s talk about the engine for a moment. Nissan did away with the straight-6 of the 280ZX in favor of a V6: a layout the Z car has retained into the present day. Nissan did beat Toyota and Mazda to market by offering a turbocharged version of the 300ZX, which produced 200 horsepower and could go from 0 to 60 in 7.5 seconds when it was new. Those are decent numbers, especially when you consider the size of the turbo against the relatively large 3 liter engine displacement. That put the 300ZX Turbo above the less powerful but cheaper Honda Preludes and Toyota Celicas, but not quite in the same echelon as Corvettes or Porsches. This isn’t a turbo 300ZX. You can tell because it doesn’t have a fun little off-center scoop on the hood. This is the naturally aspirated model, which makes 160 horsepower and is linked up to a five speed manual transmission. You could also have “electro-adjustable shock absorbers,” that let you choose between a normal, soft or firm ride. That was if you were, say, indecisive. Ahem.


So, the 300ZX: did it accomplish its goal of moving the Z name forward while remaining true to its past? Well, it certainly sold. Nissan moved over 300,000 units during its production run- a doubly impressive figure when you consider this is an impractical sports car designed for a niche market (aging men who peaked in high school). But that doesn’t really answer the question. In my opinion, the transition to a V6, turbo or not, helped move the Z from a kinda sporty luxury car to a kinda luxurious sports car. But it leaves behind a rather confused message. In trying to be good at two very different things, it is great at neither of them. It’s that indecisiveness- that failure to make a judgement call and stick to it- that makes the 300ZX a good car, but not a great one.


Additional Thoughts:

  • If you’re in the market for a 300ZX of this vintage, be sure to check the timing belt. Like the Toyota Supra’s head gasket, the timing belt on the 300ZX is its Achilles’ Heel. They should be swapped out every 80,000 miles or so.
  • Just behold the digital dashboard that was available as an option on this car. Witness its pure, unabashed 1980s glory.
  • In a similar vein, these cars were also equipped with a voice alert system, which has since taken on the name “Bitching Betty,” for the voice’s female-prison-guard tone. You can read more about it here.
  • 1985 was the first year that the Z car was actually badged as a Nissan. When the 300ZX came out a year prior, it was called the “Datsun 300ZX by Nissan.”
  • Buehrig actually sued GM for stealing his idea for the t-top, and they settled. Though not for very much, if rumors are to be believed.
  • T-Tops were standard on 1985 300ZX’s. All other years they were optional.



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