Just over two decades ago Nissan was in deep trouble, but its American division secretly put together a Z-badged concept that signalled they weren’t done yet
The year was 1998 and Nissan had lost its way, to the point where it was on the verge of collapse. Since changing its name from Datsun it had tried fruitlessly to compete in premium market sectors that were increasingly expensive to operate in, and even more expensive to succeed in. The glory days of the Datsun 240Z felt like ancient history.
It’s a bleak picture and it really was tough for Nissan at that period, unlike now when it’s bringing the desperately tempting ‘Z’ to bear on the market. Having abandoned the simplicity, beauty and purity of spirit of the truly affordable 240Z in order to chase the Toyota Supra’s tail around the expensive Japanese super-coupe sector, buyers in the West lost interest and sales dropped calamitously.
Sure, a number of its cars from that time – like the 300ZX and 200SX – became cult heroes down the line thanks to the modifying culture born in the late 1990s, from which The Fast and the Furious also emerged, but none of that would help reduce Nissan’s cash deficit as the millennium came to a close.
Senior staff and designers at the American studio in La Jolla, California, were frustrated at the lack of budget and lack of Japanese backing for creative projects like a new Z. So, as ever when things like this happen, a skunkworks project emerged. It was this: the 240Z concept of 1999. Jerry Hirshberg was the North American design chief at the time and took responsibility for the look, which had sat gathering metaphorical dust in his brain.
Writing on thetruthaboutcars.com, Jason Vines, a senior PR figure who had just joined Nissan, described how he persuaded Hirshberg to put a concept together but they had to do it on a strict budget of half what the designer had requested, in order to keep it out of sight of notoriously reluctant top brass back in Japan.
In just 12 weeks the small group came up with this; a weirdly high-riding and under-wheeled echo of the old Datsun. It was fully functional with around 200bhp courtesy of a transplanted KA24DE 200SX engine but was “just OK” according to Vines’ recollection of Hirshberg’s assessment. Nevertheless, it did its job: it was revealed to North American Nissan dealers who apparently cheered when the wraps were taken off. It kept the sales network sweet at a time when sales had nosedived and dissent was building fast.
Likewise, when it was displayed to the world at the 1999 North American International Auto Show, it sent the message that Nissan still had it; that it still had the desire to build interesting cars that got people talking about the brand. They decided to say the 240Z concept was set for production, too, but the night before the press conference Japan found out and the company chairman – who hadn’t approved any such thing – went nuts. Needless to say it never quite got to the mass-market stage; the money just wasn’t forthcoming and the media response, though fairly positive, wasn’t enough to persuade the company at that time.
But the story didn’t end there. While DaimlerChrysler had looked at buying Nissan until it saw how much debt it was in, Renault saw something and stepped up. Guess what was born just a few years later? The 350Z. It was basically a 240Z concept with sharper light clusters and a sorted ride height, not to mention a very lovely 3.5-litre V6 under the long bonnet in place of the outmoded KA24. Even the colour from the 240Z concept was carried over to the 350Z.
This was no coincidence. The 240Z concept, developed without head office’s knowledge or permission, seems likely to have been a tipping factor in Renault and Carlos Ghosn’s decision to save Nissan from the brink. That’s a hell of an achievement, the spirit of which lives on in the incoming new ‘Z’.