Going to church with 50 years of the “Z” religion

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Chris Tonn

It may not be the cultural touchstone one associates with the original Woodstock festival. It may not carry the risk of tainted Faygo one might get from the Gathering of the Juggalos. For 33 years, however, diehard aficionados of the Datsun/Nissan Z have been flocking to the International Z-Car Convention. This year, ZCON was held near Nashville, Tennessee—home of Nissan’s North American corporate offices—and it neatly coincided with Nissan’s reveal of the long-awaited Z Proto.

More than a few of people with whom I spoke during festivities marveled at the gathered masses, likening the crowd to a cult. I can see where they’re coming from—all of these people holding a car in such reverence that they’d travel across the continent during a pandemic, with over four hundred Zs in attendance. That being said, I’d argue that Z fandom is more a religion than a cult—and ZCON swayed like a revival tent with the unveiling of the latest car.

Chris Tonn

While a cult tends to encourage strict adherence to certain norms of appearance and behavior, modern religions tend to be open to wide varieties. The Z religion showed me the spectrum of fanaticism. From boomers to millennials, all are united by the love of this car. I met a gentleman who had been stationed on Okinawa in 1970. He bought a 240Z for his then-girlfriend, and had it shipped to Philadelphia when he returned stateside. While that original car is long gone, he was able to find an early-build 1970 in the same color, and restored it beautifully. It wears period-appropriate Okinawa license plates—the originals were sadly stolen off a pickup truck a few years back.

Others eschew the concours, modifying their newer cars for autocross, track, drifting, or the slammed street style of stance often derided by other enthusiasts. Stanced cars are welcomed within the Z religion, however. Whether the owner wears a flat-bill ball cap or a Hawaiian-style shirt with stylized vintage Datsuns printed on rayon, he will still be among friends.

I’ll offer another anecdote from my own youth. My dad was a member (and occasional president) of the Z Club here in my hometown of Columbus. That club was memorable for me for a few reasons—one of which revolved around the member who didn’t own a Z. This gentleman had sold his Z for a new Supra (A70 generation, which puts this story somewhere in the late Eighties or early Nineties) but remained a cherished member of the club. The friendships he’d developed with like-minded car crazies were more important than the badge on the hood of his current ride.

Chris Tonn

While much of the world watched Nissan’s reveal of the Z Proto via YouTube, ZCON attendees came to worship in a field. Nissan had arranged a drive-in movie sort of event at a converted farm south of Nashville—a pair of massive screens flanked a stage where the local emcees would interact with the hosts in Yokohama. Comedian Adam Carolla, himself owning a stable full of vintage Z racing machines, whipped the hundreds of attendees into a frenzy during the livestream—encouraging all in attendance to flash headlights and honk horns to show Nissan in Japan how much the car means here in America.

Philosophy professor Sam Fleischacker has suggested that the difference between a cult and a religion is “about 100 years.” By that, he means that once a cult has developed over several generations – enough to develop structure to thrive without a charismatic leader—that cult develops into religion. The Z had a couple of larger-than-life characters who both shepherded the development of the original car, and later encouraged the loyal fanaticism I witnessed at ZCON. Those leaders, Yutaka Katayama and Yoshihiko Matsuo, have both passed – Matsuo earlier this year, Katayama in 2015—leaving others to carry the torch. Both engaged the greater Z community—but there is new blood.

Chris Tonn

Chris Karl, chairman of ZCON, counts a 370Z NISMO edition among several of his cars. He was everywhere during the event—a quick fist bump as he moved between cars while judging Tuesday’s car show was all I felt like taking from his busy week. He took the stage during the livestream on behalf of the entire congregation.

Jonathan Buhler, Nissan North America’s communications manager for sports cars, brought out his 1973 240Z—the very same car his dad bought in 1978. When Buhler received the Z for his 15th birthday in 2005, he restored it into a canyon carver, painting it the LeMans Sunset orange color that was such a sensation on the 2003 edition of the 350Z.

Makoto Uchida is the CEO of Nissan. His first car in 1993—a decade before joining Nissan—was a Z32-chassis Fairlady Z—with a manual transmission.

It’s fair to say that the cult/religion of the Z is not wanting for fresh blood. And it has its own celebrated holidays. Yutaka Katayama was born on September 15th. The digital reveal of the Z Proto was on September 15th -at least in the U.S., Katayama’s adopted country. The seventh generation may indeed be the seventh coming for this unusual enthusiast community.

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