The Birth of the Modern Sports Car: Datsun 240Z, Porsche 924, Triumph TR7 and Mazda RX-7

Engineers didn’t wake up one morning and deliver the modern sports car. The type evolved over time. The Mercer Raceabout, produced a little more than a hundred years ago, was an early attempt at delivering true sporting performance.

As the decades progressed, the formula was refined: lower center of gravity, more powerful engines and increased stick. Four machines, we’d argue, helped propel us into the modern era of the sports car. Each one helped us break free from upright styling, ox-cart suspensions and tall, skinny tires.

Datsun 240Z: 1970-'73

Upon its arrival for the 1970 model year, the Datsun 240Z changed everything. Sure, sleek sports cars boasting fully independent suspensions had come before, but the Z brought these features to the masses. Its price, at just $3500, was only around $200 more than an MGB GT.

Then there was the interior: The driver faced a modern, molded plastic dashboard with an ergonomic layout. Unlike some of its predecessors, the 240Z didn’t ask its occupants to contort before entering. 

The Datsun was practical, too, sporting a hatchback. This was somewhat new at the time, but soon it would become standard issue. 

Behind the Wheel:
If there’s a knock to the driving experience, it becomes evident when the door is slammed shut: The Z is a bit tinny. A Porsche 911 or SL-class Mercedes-Benz, it is not. 

That’s soon forgiven when the car starts moving. The engine is smoooth and, yes, we meant to spell it with an extra O. The steering wheel is properly placed. The location of the gearshift and pedal make sense. The windowsills may seem a little high, but by today’s standards they’re par for the course. Maybe the seats are also a little flat by the current yardstick, but remember the facts: The car came out in the fall of 1969. Compared to the rest of its graduating class, the Z was years ahead. 

Historical Perspective:
Aside from the Toyota 2000GT, Japanese cars have taken a while to be recognized by traditional collectors. Of any Japanese cars imported to the U.S. in real numbers, however, this is the one that has the most collector upside right now.

Racing Pedigree:
The Datsun 240Z didn’t waste much time acclimating itself to American sports car racing. Peter Brock’s lead driver, John Morton, wheeled the Z to the 1970 and 1971 Sports Car Club of America C Production national championships, besting the best from Porsche and Triumph. When Brock moved to SCCA’s Trans-Am series, where his Datsun 510 coupes dominated, Bob Sharp took over, giving the 240Z follow-up C Production titles for 1972, 1973 and 1975.

Shopping Today:
If you’re seeking collector appeal, the 1970 model is the one to get simply because of its first-of-the-field status. Functionally, however, there’s no major difference through the 1972 model. The 1973 cars sport bigger bumpers and problematic carburetion.

The subsequent 260Z and 280Z models added more power and eventually a nice five-speed transmission, but those upgrades were teamed with more weight. Good news: That five-speed box can be retrofitted to the earlier cars. Biggest concern when shopping? Rust, rust, rust.

Triumph TR7: 1975-'81

You could argue that Triumph helped put the sports car in the hands of the average postwar enthusiast ever since they released their TR2 for the 1953 model year. Follow-up models carried on that tradition. They also carried on a lot of that original architecture: Strip down a TR6 model, sold between 1969 and 1976, and you’ll find a lot of 1950s DNA.

The TR7, released for 1975, was all new. The tag lines found in so many ads summed it up nicely: the shape of things to come.

That shape, specifically, was a wedge. Sleek. Wind-cheating. The TR7 looked nothing like the rest of the Triumph lineup. Only Lotus offered such machines, but their customer base came from a different tax bracket.

Behind the Wheel:
The TR7 was much closer to the 240Z, boasting a modern dash, good seats and a thick steering wheel. It just didn’t offer the same thrust, but remember the times: The Z came out before performance hit the skids, with the Triumph just afterward.

Historical Perspective:
Despite its landmark status, the TR7 had a rough debut. Labor issues were blamed for a host of problems, including a long line of major mechanical troubles. Plus, initially the lineup didn’t include a convertible. 

While the TR7 sold well and eventually exorcized its demons—and added a drop-top model to the lineup—its place in history is not ideal. Yes, the TR7 has its fans, but when most people conjure up an image of a Triumph, it has wire wheels—either two or four.

Racing Pedigree:
The Triumph TR7’s track career started on a strong note. On the car’s first time out, Group 44 Inc. team boss Bob Tullius gave the TR7 an SCCA D Production title. He backed that up with four more consecutive titles. And then his team abandoned the TR7, favoring their Jaguar XJS Trans-Am program for the rest of 1976. Group 44 Inc. didn’t totally forget the wedgy Triumphs, however, as they ran the V8-powered TR8 during the 1979 Trans-Am season; the effort was so dominating that Group 44 Inc. moved to IMSA competition for 1980 in response to the SCCA’s competition adjustments.

Shopping Today:
The TR7 is a bit of an enigma. Some argue that once sorted, it’s the best-driving Triumph this side of the TR8—basically a TR7 fitted with the infamous Buick/Rover V8. The TR7 and TR8 also represent Triumph’s last sports cars, as the brand imploded in 1981. TR7 values, though, have remained low—very low.

Triumph built less than 2500 copies of the TR8, a true milestone car, for the 1978-’81 model years.

Porsche 924: 1976-'82

For some 65 years, Porsche has defined the sports car. Where other manufacturers have come and gone, Porsche has kept award-winning sports cars at their core—first the 356 and today the 911.

This company can also be a little slow to accept change, but the 924 helped propel it into modern times by introducing a radical new concept to the firm: water cooling. The 924 also gave Porsche their first front-engined production car—at the time another big deal. 

Then there was the styling. Any hints of the brand’s Volkswagen family ties had been banished. (Technically, the 924’s rear suspension does have air-cooled roots, but we’ll let that slide for now.)

The interior was equally modern. The pedals hung from the dashboard—like in a real car—while the body featured a practical rear hatch. 

Looking for some neat, cutting-edge technology? The 924 featured a rear-mounted transaxle. 

Behind the Wheel:
For the day, Porsche got the ergonomics right on this one. The visibility is also solid, a Porsche trademark.

A lot of Porsche fans will argue that the manufacturer finally got the interior correct halfway through 1985, repositioning the steering wheel and replacing the squared-off dash with a swoopy number worthy of a Porsche charm bracelet. However, by then the 924 was no more, replaced by the 944. Any downsides? Well, it’s kind of slow. Figure it takes around 11 seconds to reach 60 mph.

Historical Perspective:
Like the Triumph TR7, history hasn’t been overly kind to the 924. Sure, the 924 was a sales success, but in today’s Porsche circles it is simply overshadowed by subsequent models that shared its chassis. The various versions of the 944 and 968 still show up to most any Porsche club event. And what about the 924, the car that brought Porsche into modern times? You’d be lucky to spot one. 

Racing Pedigree:
Maybe this car wasn’t a 911—or even a 914—but Porsche wasn’t afraid to race it, supporting several factory competition programs. Specifically for American racers, Porsche offered a competition-ready, turnkey version of the 924 aimed at SCCA D Production racing. During the program’s first year, Doc Bundy claimed the year-end title. The factory created radical, flared versions of the 924 for FIA Group 4 competition, and turbo versions for Le Mans; at the 1980 running of the famed French race, the 924 finished sixth, 12th and 13th overall. 

Shopping Today:
The big thing now is finding a decent example. The 924 has been at the bottom of the Porsche totem pole for so long that most have disappeared. Plus, right now you can get a decent 944—which many feel is the superior car—for just a few thousand dollars. 

Here’s a different take on the situation: Buying the finest example of nearly any Porsche model can be an expensive proposition. However, the 924 bucks that trend.

Mazda RX-7: 1978-'85

If the 240Z put the traditional sports car on the ropes, the Mazda RX-7 delivered the knockout blow. The Mazda also carried the torch from the ’70s into the ’80s.

The original RX-7 featured so much of the goodness found in the 240Z: modern styling, an ergonomic interior, sure-footed suspension and even a practical shape. 

Under the hood, though, the Mazda differed. The piston engine found in so many cars before and since had been replaced by the rotary: two triangular rotors, no valves, and only a few moving parts. Yes, rotary cars had come before, but this one was aimed at the masses. The promise? Smooth power and solid performance from less than a liter and a half. The compact engine also could be fitted back in the chassis, helping improve front-to-rear weight distribution.

Behind the Wheel:
The early 12A-powered cars aren’t exactly quick—figure zero to 60 in around 9 seconds—but you have to remember the time. The late ’70s wasn’t exactly the era of performance. By this time the Z had become a bit bloated and soft, but the RX-7 was light and spry. 

Like the Z, the Mazda also received a modern interior. Matte-black plastic replaced the chrome that was used a decade earlier. Even by today’s standards, the RX-7’s interior makes sense.

Historical Perspective:
Rotaries have their drawbacks: limited engine life spans, excess noise and heat, and horrible fuel economy. In reality, most of those issues have been cured by now. (Okay, a rotary will probably not win a fuel economy contest.)

Considering Mazda is the only Japanese car to boast an overall victory at Le Mans (and class wins at other places like Daytona), we’re surprised this one has been slow to pick up collector interest. Remember, this car came from the same company that gave us the Miata, supports thousands of club racers, and maintains a very active race program here and abroad. 

Racing Pedigree:
The original Mazda RX-7 shined in the day’s IMSA endurance competition: 10 consecutive class wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona starting in 1982 plus nonstop IMSA GTU titles from 1980 until 1987. The big wins continued after Mazda released its all-new, second-gen RX-7 for 1986.

Shopping Today:
If we’re talking performance, you really have to go with one of the 13B-powered GSL-SE cars sold during the 1984 and 1985 model years. These received more power, more wheel and tire, more traction. Right now, the price difference is negligible in the grand scheme of things. In another decade or two, either the GSL-SE will be the one to have, or as usual, the first-year cars will get the most attention for the simple fact that they’re the original ones. 

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Comments
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mad_machine (Forum Supporter)
mad_machine (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
8/28/20 10:40 a.m.

I would also throw the Alfa GTV6 into the mix.  If for no other reason than to have an Italian car in the lineup.  Yes, it's driveline is a lot like the 924, but it also brings semi-usable rear seats into a very sexy and svelt body that can dance with the best of them.  Unlike the German and English cars, it also includes a sweet sounding and sexy smooth v6.  It is the car that bridges the Datsun and Porsche, combining the best of both cars in a way only the italians can

LindBrosRacing
LindBrosRacing
8/28/20 4:01 p.m.

You should add the 140 horsepower Jensen Healey to this article. Underrated and under appreciated it is a great alternative to the average underpowered 70's sports car . You should also recognize Joe Huffaker and Huffaker Engineering for making the TR7 and TR8 winners. Huffaker also won two National Championships with the Jensen Healey in the first two years of production. A first for any production car.

Timothy Murray
Timothy Murray None
8/31/20 9:01 a.m.

Let's not forget the Fiat X1/9 that debuted its "...sleek, wind-cheating..." shape year earlier than the TR7 to people who were arguably in the same tax bracket as TR7 buyers.  My X still makes me smile every time I look at her.  

Tom_T
Tom_T New Reader
2/24/21 1:55 p.m.

Come on!  ... Really!? ... How groundbreaking are a handful of front engine updates?

You start with the 240Z then jump to the TR7 & 924 - while skipping past the first mid-engine mass market sports car with electronic fuel injection, 4 wheel disc brakes, standard 5-speed transmission, and both flat 4 & 6 cylinder air cooled engine options - with great race history for both powerplants, which continues today in vintage racing! 

Many of your "ground breakers" had only front discs, only a 4-speed transmission (until later on), were carbureted, and most were 4 cylinder only - except for the rotary RX-7 & I-6 240Z - which was not even cutting edge at that time. 

How can you ignore the car which saved Porsche from bankruptcy, just as the more recent and another VW-Porsche joint venture Cayenne did in the 2000's?

You really need to add the 914/4 & 914-6 to this list - unless you're trying to say the only fron engine sports cars need apply - which then is really NOT so groundbreaking!

Tom T

1973 914-2.0 "914S" 2nd owner since 1975

///////

 

Bardan
Bardan New Reader
2/24/21 1:55 p.m.

In reply to Timothy Murray :

I worked for a guy that had an X1/9. He loved it when it drove, but spent most of it's time being towed or in the shop. 

johnorm
johnorm New Reader
2/24/21 7:08 p.m.

I would add the Porsche 914, Volvo P1800 and TR8 to the list of 70's and 80's sportscars.  I have have owned three TR8's, two 914's and two P1800's over the years. They are a great choice because they are still a great bargain compared to a 240Z (currently have the two 914's).

vintagemilano
vintagemilano New Reader
2/24/21 9:02 p.m.

I feel that the Alfa GTV6 is a bit outside the parameters of this article as it's model run was 81-86. However, the Alfetta GT from 75-79 with 5 speed transmission, 4 wheel disc brakes and fuel injection for all years would totally fit in. Classic wedge styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro also a plus. With 140,000 made of all variants it compares side by side with your TR7 and 924 published examples. The alfetta GT also has racing pedigree. Mind you the original release of this article was almost ten years ago now. Would "birth of the modern sports car" writings look any different today?

dougie
dougie HalfDork
2/24/21 9:07 p.m.
LindBrosRacing said:

You should add the 140 horsepower Jensen Healey to this article. Underrated and under appreciated it is a great alternative to the average underpowered 70's sports car . You should also recognize Joe Huffaker and Huffaker Engineering for making the TR7 and TR8 winners. Huffaker also won two National Championships with the Jensen Healey in the first two years of production. A first for any production car.

Right you are and still going strong in historics as you know.....

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
2/26/21 4:41 p.m.
Bardan said:

In reply to Timothy Murray :

I worked for a guy that had an X1/9. He loved it when it drove, but spent most of it's time being towed or in the shop. 

As someone that owned many X1/9's over a number of years, most X1/9 problems are due to not knowing how to work on it, or electrical ground problems.  Mine had very few issues, as long as you knew what you were doing.  For instance, there is a bleed valve in the frunk, and if you do anything with the cooling system, you have to jack up the front of the car and open the valve.  Problem is, it doesn't look much like a valve and you had to know if was there.  And most Fiat dealerships at the time I think were pretty shoddy.  

And as someone that has owned all the cars on the list, the X1/9 probably deserves it far more than the TR7.  I'm an old Triumph guy, but there's not much revolutionary about the TR7 except in terms of a modern-ish British car.  The X1/9 though was built by a "super car" builder in Bertone, plus an engine design that owes its origin to Aurelio Lampredi, who also designed iconic Ferrari engines. It also was built to a safety standard that was almost unheard of at the time.  It really was a revolutionary car and sold in pretty good numbers.  If they were less prone to rusting and had a bit more hp from the factory, the collectibilty of the X1/9 would be far greater.

Also, not sure the TR7 or even the 914 can claim to have spawned other cars like the Fiat did, namely the MR2 and FIero.  The AW11 is in many ways, a good, updated copy of the X1/9 underneath.  

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
2/27/21 2:14 p.m.

IMHO, the birth of the modern sports car didn't take place in the 1970s (although the Datsun 240Z did come as a shock to the traditional British sports car types), it took place in the previous decade - in fact at the beginning of it.

To my way of thinking, this was the first modern sports car - 

In 1962 the car had:

- non-rusting GRP body

- backbone chassis and all independent suspension

- light weight

- efficient 4 wheel disc brakes

- modern DOHC over-square 4 cylinder engine.

Later variants (the 26R with just over 1300 lbs and around 180 bhp) burned up the tracks in their displacement class until the next generation of mid/rear engines sports racing cars showed up (Ginetta, Chevron etc.)

A fair bit of the Elan DNA came from the Lotus Elite, one of the prettiest Loti ever, and fairly quick on the track (although when I was racing in historic racing, the fastest ones tended to have more DNFs so weren't considerd real threats). Unfortunately the forward thinking all fiberglass monocoque chassis was expensive to build and maintain, which I beleive is why the Elan came along only five years later.

In a lot of ways, the Elan was a lower production somewhat less reliable Mazda Miata almost thirty years before its time.

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