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We Sample Three Generations of the Nissan Z

Automobile logo Automobile 7/11/2018 Conner Golden

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Quietly, the Nissan 370Z turned 10 years old earlier this spring. No cake, no fanfare—just a reserved press release announcing the perennial sports car will soldier on through the 2019 model year. A decade of continuous production, whether achieved through maintained popularity or gradual neglect, is a milestone worth commemorating. As it turns out, 2018 is also a perfect year for some Z reminiscing, with Nissan taking pole position at two of the most prestigious vintage motorsports events in the U.S.

Before headlining the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion later this summer at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the Japanese automaker returned to Road Atlanta—the site of some of its greatest road racing triumphs on U.S. soil—as the featured marque of the Classic Motorsports Mitty. Just a few hours' drive from the brand's U.S. headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, it was a perfect spot to throw a Z party—calls were made, routes were drafted, hotels were booked.

a car parked in a parking lot© Darren Martin

We met our Nissan contacts at the automaker's Heritage Collection, housed at the wonderful Lane Motor Museum not far from Nissan HQ. In a far corner of the museum's sprawling basement, Nissan's rolling archives reside behind a nondescript garage door guarded by dusty Citro ns and Matras.

You won't find any JDM specials here—only Datsun and Nissan products sold on our shores are allowed. Among a fairly comprehensive lineup of vintage compact trucks, former show cars, and a handful of itty-bitty Datsun sedans, a cluster of wrapper-fresh Zs rest on the spotless garage floor. Even the most zealous Z-head surveying the almost of 50 years' worth of the Z's history gathered in one place would have to admit to its sinusoidal time line—when it was good, it was a world-beater, and when it was bad, it was the malaise era at its worst.

But there are far more high points of the lineage on display. Mr. K's (Yutaka Katayama, aka the Father of the Z) yellow 260Z sits next to an incredibly low-mileage 10th Anniversary 280ZX, further downwind from a similarly untouched black 300ZX Twin Turbo. Across the aisle, a ludicrously wide and flat 300ZX GTP race car replica glowers from a half-lifted car cover.

a yellow car parked on the side of a road© Darren Martin

We draft two classic Zs from the collection for our trip down to The Mitty: a silver 1971 240Z for the origin story and the big, brutish 300ZX Twin Turbo SMZ Edition—a tuner special hailing from a time when the Z locked horns with some of Japan's all-time greats.

Joining them in our caravan is a brand-new 2018 370Z Heritage Edition. Although a NISMO would have been more fun, the Heritage Edition, drenched in Chicane Yellow paint and plastered with black stripes, was too pitch-perfect to pass up. The car nods to the obscure 1977 280ZX "Zap" edition, which wore a similar livery.

Beneath its gussied-up exterior, the Heritage Edition is essentially the same 370Z we first saw at the 2008 L.A. Auto Show. If anything, the 370Z is a model of endurance, overlapping two generations of Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and Porsche 911. While it's impossible to hide from a decade of progress, in an era of hard-nosed, rakish coupes replete with creases and angles, the curvaceous 370Z is surprisingly understated.

a car parked on the side of a road© Darren Martin

Inside, the years hang heavier. If you stick with the bargain-basement trim found on our tester, it's Lotus-worthy in its asceticism. Aside from rudimentary Bluetooth connectivity, there isn't much in the way of infotainment tech—instead of the traditional center display screen, there's a leather-wrapped panel that opens to reveal a small storage cubby. A line of three gauge pods on the center-top of the dash display the time, oil temp, and battery power. A small display to the left of the tach offers up standard trip and fuel efficiency data.

In spite of this, there's still a lot to like. Even chugging through the outskirts of Nashville, it wasn't hard to see the raw appeal of the 370Z, 10 years on. You sit low, hunkered down in the two-seat cabin, confronted by no distractions. There's no dead space behind you, either. Starting after the seat backs, the roof slopes backward into the glass decklid, broken only by a brace that crosses the rear cargo shelf. If Porsche or Ferrari decontented their sports cars this much, you'd be ecstatic.

Where the 370Z is back to basics, the 300ZX Twin Turbo was a contemporary technological powerhouse. The 3.0-liter VG30DETT twin-turbo V-6 spit out a then-impressive 300 hp, enough to match the pace of the Toyota Supra, Mitsubishi 3000GT, and Mazda RX-7. Outfit yours like this black SMZ Edition, and it leaves them for dead.

a car engine© Darren Martin

In 1995, Nissan commissioned racer and engineer Steve Millen (the SM in SMZ) to turn the wick up on a small number of 300ZXs, resulting in a $14,000 upgrade package available through select dealers. A new intake manifold, air filter, exhaust system, and 2 more pounds of boost resulted in 65 extra ponies and an additional 49 lb-ft of torque. Beefier brakes and a stiffer suspension managed the added motivation, while new wheels and a sizable hatch-mounted wing advertised the SMZ's potency.

Even weighed down with the optional four-speed automatic, the SMZ was fast. This is speed from a different era, a product of delicious turbo lag and alarming highway thrust that blows the graphics off the Heritage Edition. Same family name, different purpose—in contrast to the 370Z's sports car ethos, the SMZ played the role of high-speed cruiser very, very well. The roomy, well-appointed interior (complete with period-correct Def Leppard cassette) paired with a long wheelbase and rear-wheel steering was purpose-built for the arrow-straight farmland highways that cut through southern Tennessee. Free of the grassy expanse, the SMZ cut a path through some wooded hills just north of the state line. It's a hefty car, weighing some 100 pounds more than the base 370Z, and you feel every ounce when you hustle it.

An accelerated timetable put us back in the 370Z for an extended portion of the trip. The trailered 240Z was already approaching Atlanta and The Mitty, so we blasted through northern Georgia, skipping the more scenic portions for the sake of seat time in the '71.

a car parked on the side of a road© Darren Martin

It's a good thing we made the sacrifice. This is a special car, one we're unlikely to drive again. In 1997, one year after the 300ZX was pulled from our market, the automaker decided the best way to keep morale high among the Z faithful was a factory restoration program involving a number of old 240Zs. Donor 240s were sourced from dry desert regions and rebuilt from the ground up. Aside from a few mandatory modernizations to the suspension, brakes, and paint, these remanufactured cars were as close as you could get to a brand-new 240Z. Unfortunately, the appetite for classics wasn't quite at the same fervor it is today, and the $25,000 price tag proved a hard sell. Nissan quietly binned the program after building around 40 cars, including this silver example.

Straight away, we were smitten. The 240Z was light, loud, and shockingly easy to operate despite packing a drivetrain designed a half century ago. The 2.4-liter inline-six snorts and sings, spitting out 151 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque on its way to a 7,000-rpm redline. Like all old-timers of this ilk, it never prompts abuse, instead operating best under a deliberate hand—don't yank on the five-speed, let it warm up, and don't smash the non-ABS brakes for best results.

Much like Porsche 911s from the same era, it feels confident and composed enough for a spontaneous cross-country tour. There's a thick torque curve from the sixer, providing excellent acceleration through the rev range. The effortless, low-stress fun and great soundtrack made it the sweetheart of the bunch and had us smiling right up to the gates of Road Atlanta and The Mitty.

Started in 1977 as a way for regional racers and local Atlantans to blow off some steam and enjoy their cars, the vintage racing festival soon earned the "Mitty" title for the escapist attitude of its workaday participants, a reference to the title character of James Thurber's short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Now in its 41st year, The Mitty attracts visitors and drivers from around the world, congregating on the legendary circuit for a weekend of sound, exhaust, and infield BBQs.

a car driving on a road© Darren Martin

Long before playing host for the latest Mitty event, Road Atlanta was a hotly contested battleground for Nissan. Datsun 1600 Roadsters, 240Zs, and 510s dominated the SCCA in their days, racking up a staggering number of wins through the late 1960s and into the '70s and '80s. Between Datsun and Nissan, the combined marques captured victory at 100 individual SCCA Runoffs, the majority of which were won at Road Atlanta. For a moment in the 1970s, they might as well have planted the Japanese flag in Georgia's red clay.

The following day was spent among some of Nissan's greatest motorsports hits. Randy Jaffe was there with his nuts-and-bolts re-creation of the championship-winning BRE 240Z, piloted by renowned driver John Morton, the man who put Nissan on the podium when the 240Z was still brand-new. A few paces away was the championship-winning Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo, still in as-raced condition. Out on the track, Datsuns and Nissans of all shapes and sizes screamed over every inch of the 2.54-mile circuit.

As the sun set, we couldn't resist rounding up three BRE-liveried counterparts to the road-trip Zs for a photo shoot between the bridge and Turn 12. Surveying the array of some of the greatest cars in Z history, it's hard to not get lost in the nostalgia and the hope that Nissan will find a way to keep it from fading away. The raw, unapologetically anachronistic 370Z is still with us, at least through 2019. Beyond that, the future is foggy for the nameplate. Rumors of the Z's next incarnation swirl, ranging from a sporty crossover to a 500-hp hybrid supercoupe to battle the forthcoming Toyota Supra.

No matter what happens, we're grateful the Z has stuck around for as long as it has. We may never see anything like it again.

Nissan 370Z Heritage 02© Darren Martin Nissan 370Z Heritage 02

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