This series, called "Derailed Design," seeks to highlight the mis-steps that manufacturers occasionally make in the progression of well-known model lines. Hopefully it will provide some interesting perspective on automotive design... or at least a chuckle at ugly car's expense.
If you're a car buff, the Datsun (later Nissan) Z-Car line surely holds a special place in your heart. Aside from occasional breaks in production (like the 6-year gap between the 300ZX and 350Z), the iconic Z-car has been in production for nearly 4 decades.
The recipe has always been rather simple: powerful six-cylinder engine up front, rear-wheel drive, a sexy body, and performance and handling to match. While size, weight, and power has always increased incrementally over time, things haven't always so bright and cheery in Z-world.
Like most designs, the original was the purest. The original Z's design is credited to Datsun's Yoshihiko Matsuo, although many believe the Z was actually styled by Germany's Albrecht von Goertz, who collaborated with Datsun on the project. He also styled the gorgeous Toyota 2000GT and BMW 507, the influence of which can easily be seen in the 240Z's classic lines. Good design never goes out of fashion.
The 240Z became the 260Z in 1974 with the enlargement of the L24 I6 from 2.4 to 2.6L (thus the name.) Although power was down thanks to the choking emissions equipment the US market required, the 260Z and later Datsun 280Z were still well-styled, powerful, well-priced sports cars, even if weight went up and suspension control gradually went down...
Things really started to go downhill with the introduction of the 280ZX, badged as "Datsun by Nissan" in the US during the name changeover. The 280ZX finally moved off the classic S30 chassis, to a new longer-wheelbase chassis shared with the Nissan 910/Bluebird in the Japanese market. Oh, and they forgot how to style the thing:
The 280ZX managed to receive Motor Trend's "Import Car Of The Year" award in 1979. But remember, it's Motor Trend. And it was 1979. The 280ZX was pretty roundly panned by the press for being overweight, visually fat, sloppy handling, and lazy - it had lost the plot. At least the introduction of the 280ZX Turbo model in 1981 brought a little bit of sporting pretensions back to the Z-car. Thanks to a bump to 180bhp from 135, the 280ZX Turbo was one of the fastest cars on American roads - with the standard 3-speed automatic, a 280ZX-T could reach 60mph in 7.5 seconds, and run the quarter in 16.5 seconds - quite fast for 1981.
Now, the old 280Z - based on the S30 chassis - was offered in long wheelbase 2+2 form, but it was hardly a stylistic crime. The 280ZX, on the other hand...
It's clear that whoever was styling Nissans/Datsuns back then had forgotten to take the class on "proportions." Perhaps the 280ZX 2+2 was the answer to a question no one was asking; but did it have to be such an ugly answer? Shown above are series I and II 280ZX 2+2's. Notice how the roofline in comparison to the 280ZX 2-seater (2 pictures up) continues straight back further, then just takes a sudden plunge toward the rear of the fender. This was mainly due to them adding wheelbase where it didn't belong- right behind the B-pillar! Then there was the weird kink in the window line right behind the b-pillar, and just... ugh.
Now, don't get me wrong. There's an appeal to a 280ZX. It's easy to swap in an L28ET. It's easy to swap in an RB25DET. It's (relatively) easy to swap in a Chevy small-block V8. But let's just be thankful that Nissan remembered how to style a Z-car after the 280ZX...
It's remarkable how one model can be so easily forgotten - like the 280ZX - and another can age so well. The Z32 300ZX, which debuted in 1989, was named to Automobile Magazine's "Top 25 Most Beautiful Cars of All Time" - in 2006, 17 years after it debuted!