Your handy 1970–73 Datsun 240Z buyer’s guide
The 240Z was not the only Japanese performance car of its era, nor was it the first sporting vehicle from Datsun. But the Z car stood out from the crowd because Datsun managed to strike the perfect balance between performance, comfort, practicality, and affordability. This was an undeniable, irresistible combination that put Japan on the sports-car map and provided a halo effect for all Datsuns—and, for that matter, most Japanese cars—sold in America. If you’re in the market for an early Z car, the 240Z has your attention for good reason.
Hot off the heels of Toyota’s high-dollar 2000GT sports tourer in 1965, the president of Nissan Motors USA, Yutaka Katayama, embarked on a mission to make a similar vehicle for Datsun’s American product portfolio. But “Mister K” instead aimed his car at the youth-oriented sports-car market, with a price tag to match. His affinity for the Jaguar XK-E provided the inspiration the design team, for what would become the Datsun 240Z. (Or, as it was known in the Japanese home market, the Nissan Fairlady Z.)
The end result, shown in our buyer’s guide video, is stunning to behold yet completely approachable for most Americans. Built between May and December of 1969, the first batch of left hand drive “HLS30” series 240Zs (538 units) all possessed the Z car’s now signature four-wheel independent suspension, front disc brakes, and the L20 2.4-liter SOHC inline-six. HLS30 serial numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 were preproduction mules that were subsequently destroyed, but #6, 7, and 8 were used for marketing purposes in the United States. These marketing vehicles were then given to race teams, two of which are campaigned in vintage racing series to this day.
Production stopped in December to accommodate a switch to a different crankshaft, one of many running changes that make the Z cars difficult to restore to 100 percent factory spec. That said, the “HLS30 Series I” was produced in full swing by June of 1970, with eight exterior and two interior colors. By August 1970 the first Z car with an automatic transmission left the factory gates. A revised valve cover arrived in August, while passive ventilation in the hatchback (with bolt-on grilles) was added later in the year. A robust 17,740 units (16,215 in the U.S.) were sold in 1970, cementing the Series 1 240Z as an instant hit.
The end of 1970 through January of 1971 was dedicated to Series I production (calendar year, not model year) the Series II was rolling off the assembly line by February. The Series II 240Z is differentiated by its lack of hatch vents, which were replaced by passive ventilation in the C-pillars (integrated into the “240Z” emblem). Other distinguishing features include hinges that can also hold the doors partially open; steering wheel spokes with actual holes, rather than indentations; push-button seatbelt releases; longer sun visors; a reversible ignition key; twin floor-mounted storage nooks behind the seats; and a redesigned center heating/ventilation register with more louvers. While the color palette remained the same, other changes included a focused reading light with less glare and a speedometer that started, as it should, at 0 mph; Series I speedos inexplicably began with 20 mph.
The Series II also featured a revised defogger switch with integral warning light, improved designs for the oil pressure gauge/wiper motor/headlight harness, and a rear taillight assembly with four bulbs instead of three. All Series IIs sported uprated “HR” spec 175 HR 14 tires, an improvement over the lower SR rating, while a reclining and flip-forward seat was an option for those needing quick access to the rear storage area.
The first Series IIIs were produced in mid-September and boasted a revised four-speed gearbox, new rear suspension/axle geometry (moved 35 mm aft), flip-forward seats as standard equipment, 5-inch-wide wheels (with new wheel caps), a new center console (with integrated warning lights and the rear defogger switch), and the deletion of the gas-door latching mechanism. The buying public responded well, and Datsun sold 38,371 units (33,684 in the U.S.). (NB: While a new seatbelt buzzer, seatbelt warning light, and retracting seatbelt spools were added to the Series IIIs, they were likely present only on units built after December of 1971.)
As Series III production continued in 1971 and through the 1972 calendar year, it’s a safe bet that everyone knew how to defeat the aforementioned (and likely obnoxious) seatbelt buzzers by January of ’72. But another notable Series III change was the switch from vertical to horizontal rear-window defogger lines.
While there were still eight exterior colors offered in this year, Datsun did a bit of shuffling to include metallic brown, a hue that reflected the bell-bottom era in which the 240Z thrived. Datsun offered a surprising wealth of interior color choices this year—seven in total. The Series III 240Z soldiered on with no other discernible changes until its demise in August, 1972. Just like every other car sold in America at this time, the new Series IV took a turn for the worse.
The new Series IV was redesigned to meet federal safety and emissions requirements, which necessitated a revised cylinder head (E-88), emissions-friendly “flat top” SU carburetors (though some suggest they came in 1973-only), and redesigned bumpers able to withstand a 2.5-mph impact. The latter required a heavier chassis structure, and the added weight at each end suppressed the 240Z’s light, tossable nature. The dampened performance didn’t seem to discourage buyers, however, because sales soared to 58,053 units (52,628 in America), proving the strength of the Z car’s bang-for-your-buck proposition during that tumultuous time.
Other changes for ’72 are less infamous, such as fiberglass (rather than steel) headlight buckets, intermittent wipers, backlit heating/ventilation controls, and a pull-out knob, rather than a toggle switch, to control the hazard lights.
Production of the Series IV 240Z remained unchanged as 1972 became 1973, and the original Z car quietly disappeared as the new 260 Z began rolling off the assembly line in July 1973. The eight exterior colors were modified yet again, while interior colors were cut to five. The last 240Z was reportedly built in August, so it’s a safe bet that a majority of the 50,452 units built in ’73 (45,588 for America) were indeed Series IV models.
Before you buy
There’s plenty to love about the Datsun 240Z, but finding one that won’t eat a hole in your wallet may be more challenging than you anticipated. Rust is a well-known, highly documented problem in these cars: inspect for rust under the battery tray, in the wheel arches, around the windshield, in the fender behind the front wheels, in the rocker panels, floorboards, and around the rear hatch. Unless you are looking at a high-dollar restoration performed in recent memory, even a proclaimed “rust-free” 240Z could have rot issues somewhere.
Even if rust has been addressed, watch out for poorly repaired areas that use fiberglass patch panels or copious amounts of body filler to achieve a smooth surface. Don’t dismiss such an example out of hand, however: Most sheetmetal is now available in the aftermarket. After assessing the metalwork, evaluate the condition of rubber parts in the suspension, the powertrain, and the body weatherstripping. Most, if not all, rubber parts are readily available, so factor in the cost of fixing any rubber bit that doesn’t pass muster. As always, remember that tires lose the majority of their performance potential after 7–10 years, so take a look at the date code stamped on the sidewall and evaluate whether you’ll need new rubber.
Combine the tips above with a test drive and an examination of all miscellaneous features (lights, gauges, wipers, seat belts, heating/ventilation, etc.), and you’ll be well-equipped to judge whether you’re getting the 240Z you want and whether the asking price is indeed fair. When in doubt, hire a professional automobile inspector to give you a full report.
The only remaining issue is that of authenticity. The 240Z had numerous running changes (as mentioned above), so thoughtful checking of part numbers and factory stampings will be necessary to ensure you’re buying a 240Z with a pedigree. Avoid sellers asking for top dollar who don’t provide paperwork or visual proof to demonstrate the authenticity, originality, and condition of their 240Z. If exhaustive or extensive originality isn’t a concern for you, consider these rules to be far more flexible.
Many examples were modified over time, up to and including radical changes like V-8 engine swaps. If you’re a casual driver looking for more modern performance, consider the advantages of upgrading from the 1978–83 Datsun 280ZX parts bin: four-wheel disc brakes, five-speed transmissions, larger radiators, 2.8-liter short block, etc. will improve the experience without significantly changing the 240Z’s classic demeanor.
Ten years ago as of this writing, a 240Z in #2 (Excellent) condition was worth roughly $20,000; now, that figure has jumped to $54,500. Values been ticking up since 2015 and showed some of the strongest growth between 2015–18, when they increased by 74 percent. In the first four months of 2021, #2-condition values have already increased 42 percent.
Outliers like recent six-figure transactions (here, here, here) have led us to raise prices, but 240Zs in all conditions have been selling for more and more money. While we currently place the 240Z in Hagerty’s Affordable Classics Index, it’s clear that times have changed: Our median quoted value of $18,300 may seem low, but this figure has actually increased 52 percent over the past five years.
Who’s interested in these cars? The demographic skews toward younger enthusiasts—principally, toward Gen Xers and millennials, who together account for half of our 240Z quotes. Millennials may only comprise 18 percent of the market, but their interest (26 percent of all 240Z quotes) is exceptionally strong. Gen Xers represent 24 percent of quotes for these cars, and Boomers carry the largest share, at 38 percent. That the demographic of potential 240Z buyers skews toward younger enthusiasts is likely connected to Z cars’ reliability and ease of ownership, qualities which these age ranges prioritize when scoping out a classic vehicle.
With prices rising and interest waxing stronger, the best advice remains simple: Find a Datsun 240Z with the least amount of rust and in a condition that’s up to your standards. And of course, choose the best example you can afford.