The cars we loved.
When talking about Nissan’s Z car, the third generation or “z31” cars often get little love. Before it, the light and lean 240Z and stole the world’s automotive heart. During the 80’s, the 280Z got larger, heavier and less sports car like and more a grand tourer. By the time the third generation car rolled out in late 1983, the 300ZX had become that larger and heavier GT car the hardcore fanatics hoped it would not become. Heavier it might have been, but it was more technically sophisticated car that had matured. The switch from an inline 6 to a V6 was big news as Nissan became Japans first mass producer of the six cylinder engine type. The Nissan name, used around the world for decades was being introduced to the United States. During this transitional time, the word Datsun still appeared on the 300ZX along with Nissan during the 1984 model year. Datsun was more associated with inexpensive entry-level cars in emerging markets. Nissan clearly had higher ambitions in the US market and the 300ZX would spearhead that upwardly mobile trajectory.
Even bigger news was that the Z31 car promised more performance with an a all-new turbocharged version. It was based on the same SOHC configuration of the naturally aspirated car, but had a Garret T3 oil cooled turbocharger. At 200 hp, it represented a 40 hp increase over the base engine and had more performance car like stats: ) to 60 in 7 seconds and a top (regulated) speed of 120 mph. A fully loaded special 50th Anniversary Edition car was introduced in 1984 with the turbocharged engine. Available with adjustable shocks, Bodysonic speaker in seats and a host of other technical goodies, the $26,000 sticker price made it the most expensive Z Car to date. AE cars are easily identifiable by their silver and black paint scheme and turbo style wheels. 50th anniversary badges came with all 300Zx cars that year and were placed in the glove compartments with the owner’s manuals. Some dealers applied the emblems to non AE cars in a bid to cash in on the profit potential.
Real AE car or not, the evolution of the Z car remained familiar, yet retained the long nose and hatchback styling of the previous cars. The curves of the 280ZX had given way to a kind of organi-like angularity. The new wedge like shape improved aerodynamics and efficiency, with a 0.30 cd. Pop up headlights contributed to the sleek profile and were new for 1984, but the rear tail lights were easily identifiable as a Z car. The interior became more plush, with all manner of electronics that monitored car functions and displayed then in video game like fashion on the dash display. The digital theme extended to an annoying electronic voice alert system that had become quite common in Japanese and Japanese wanna be cars of the 80’s. The tight snug intimacy of the 83’ model was gone. In its place was an almost generically design dash, that could have easily been placed in a Mitsubishi Starion or Toyota Supra.
Rear wheel drive gave the 300ZX a kind of performance missing from many Japanese sports cars, even if ultimately it was not the fastest car around. The 300ZX was ascending slowly to world-class status, at least its price had reflected as much. As the 80’s wore on the Z would get a major make over for 1988. The sharp edges would become more rounded and aerodynamic. Before 1988, the cars are refered to as “Zenki” while the post 87 cars are labeled “Kouki” Kouki is where the z31 would get it’s groove on. A new limited-slip differential improved handling while the turbo got a higher compression ratio for a power boost to 205. Engine displacement would remain at 3 litres for the life of the z31 bodystyle.
The 300ZX was sold in Europe and Australia, where versions of the turbo cars got 241 and 230 hp respectively. These cars were more like the Japanese versions than the ones sold in America. Turbocharged cars were sold in Australia from 1986 to 1989 only. Nearly all 300ZX cars sold outside of the US had more aggressive camshafts, making for more horsepower. As a kind of concession to American buyers, the 50th Anniversary cars in Australia were not nearly as loaded as the ones in the States. More model performance parity would come in the form of the last z31 special edition car.
1988 also marked the zenith in z31 performance with the final special edition car: the Shiro Special. Named for the Japanese word for white the Shiro was coated in pearl white paint with matching wheels. Although it shared the same 205 hp engine from the Turbo Z, it was 125 lbs. less and had enhanced suspension modifications. Heavy duty anti-sway bars and gas-filled shocks were among its handling refinements. A unique front air dam hinted to the aerodynamics of the upcoming 1989 car. The special Shiro Edition had Recaro seats up front and no pretend seats in back like other models. It was loaded with no options, making each of these rare cars identical. The five speed manual equipped Shiro cost about $1,000 more than a loaded Turbo Z model.
The z31 had been criticized by the automotive press as becoming fat and lazy. The Shiro Special would silence these critics as it was Japan’s fastest car for a time. It could top out at 153 mph with the limiter off. It was available in the US during the winter of 1988 with just over 1000 cars sold. While the 1989 300ZX may have overshadowed all versions of the z31, the 87 and 88 models were big sellers. So popular, that Nissan’s 240SX would take on much of the look of the outgoing 300ZX. The 240SX also was closer to the spirit of the Z car in that it was lighter, handled well and was rear wheel drive. The 240SX was under powered making the new 1989 300ZX more a standout and flagship sports car. As Z car prices continue to head north, the time may come when the z31 cars will get more respect and love. The z31 was truly a stepping stone to greatness, firmly placed between the classic shape of the 240 and the post modern look of the z32, the z31 cars will always be seen as a stepping stone for Nissan during a transitional period. These cars are still impressive, even if the casual observer is unable to see beyond what came before or after.