BRE’s Baja Datsun 240Z Kisses the Asphalt Goodbye

Photography Credit: Dave King / Trackside Photos

Paved roads have been with us for a long time. The city of Ur had streets paved with stone, and that was way back in 4000 B.C. Jump ahead six millennia, and it’s easy to see the modern world as a massive paved playground for sports cars.

Smooth, grippy pavement is everywhere, from the thrilling switchbacks that carve through mountain ranges to the unending filaments of arrow-straight highway that pull like gravity on a driver’s right foot, beckoning the gauge needles to spin ever clockwise.

It’s easy to dismiss the unpaved ground outside the white lines as mere scenery, but make no mistake: A staggering majority of the planet knows no roads. It takes a special type of person—and car—to leave the easy path behind and improvise a route on the blank canvas of the Earth. Peter Brock is one such individual, and in 1972 he transformed a very street-oriented Datsun sports car into an off-road racing curiosity.

A Love of Dirt

Peter Brock is best known for his paved-road exploits, specifically as the man behind Brock Racing Enterprises and as the exterior designer of the Cobra Daytona coupe. However, he’s just as fond of the road less traveled.

“I like open road racing and racing on dirt,” Brock says, so the Baja race was a natural fit. “The combination—along with the sense of adventure racing in Mexico—was irresistible. Our first foray into Baja was in 1967 with a Datsun pickup truck, our parts chaser built into a racer. We had no budget!”

In 1968 BRE took things a bit further and built a Datsun 510 specifically for use in the Baja, this time with Brock himself at the wheel. BRE had a trio of 510s for 1969. The little 510s fared well enough, but Brock longed for more speed on the fast sand and dirt sections. Luckily, Datsun had the answer in the form of their brand-new 240Z sports car.

With a powerful straight-six under the long hood and an attractive aerodynamic shape, the new Z-car was an obvious choice for road racing. BRE did just that—they’d already won the 1970 and 1971 SCCA C Production titles with the 240Z—but Brock also wanted to see how the Z would fare in a more punishing venue. He secured an early 1973 model and began preparing it for the Baja 500 desert race.

Although the car has its share of trouble along the way, thankfully there was no shortage of help or beer on the road to La Paz. Photography Credit: Dave King / Trackside Photos.

Toughen Up

Inside, Brock and the BRE team stripped the interior of the Datsun and added a protective roll bar. A strut tower brace in the front gave the big open space in the nose some structural reinforcement, and an alloy skidplate installed under the engine protected the oil pan and other delicate bits.

A peek under the hood or through a window of this 240Z might remind you of Peter Brock's championship-winning, road-racing Z-cars, but the chunky tread and powerful lighting package required to negotiate the Mexican desert make the car's profile one of a kind.. Photography Credit: Peter Brock

To ensure that the fuel gauge wouldn’t hit E at an inconvenient time in the middle of nowhere, BRE fabricated a 26-gallon aluminum alloy fuel cell in the cabin space behind the driver. This gave the car greater range while simultaneously improving its ground clearance—the stock tank would have been far too close to the angry rocks that line the desert floor.

Photography Credit: Peter Brock

The 240Z had a pretty healthy engine for its time right off the showroom floor, but Brock was interested in keeping those long, straight stretches as brief as possible. By upping the compression and adding some BRE/Venolia pistons, a BRE cam and a freer-flowing exhaust, the stock figure of 150 horsepower jumped to an impressive 250.

Photography Credit: Peter Brock

The suspension was a mix of BRE and Interpart components, while the tiny stock tires gave way to rugged Bridgestone off-road rubber. Many are surprised to find that Brock opted to use magnesium American Racing Le Mans wheels. Despite their exotic and lightweight construction, the wheels held up to the rigors of the desert.

Photography Credit: Peter Brock

Getting There Is the Fun Part

The Baja desert race is notoriously grueling; simply finishing the event is a praiseworthy accomplishment. The Baja BRE 240Z is unique in that it’s the only BRE Datsun 240Z that Peter Brock personally raced. He and co-driver Lee Midgley took the green flag in Ensenada, Mexico, from starting position 300—hence the number on the car.

“From Ensenada, south for about 100 miles was on pavement—we were fast!” Brock recalls with excitement. “Parnelli Jones, the eventual winner, was in Bill Stroppe’s ‘Big Oly’ racing Bronco, right behind us at the starting line—cars start at 30-second intervals. We stayed in front all the way to where we left the pavement, then he ate us in a couple of miles. It was fun while it lasted.”

A coolant leak in the second leg put the 240Z off the pace, but they resolved the problem and continued on. The straight-line speed was impressive, but the 240Z suffered in the technical sections. Brock explains that the car’s long nose had too much overhang, so he had to slow momentarily when cresting a hill to see what was ahead. Once over the crest, he then had to take extreme care to not bash the nose on severe washouts.

Brock was pleased with the car, and it held up very well. “The chassis didn’t break and the struts held up. I think we finished,” says, Brock, “but we were rather far back. Just finishing is always an achievement.”

Peter Brock demonstrates the straight-line speed of his 240Z. Photography Credit: Dave King / Trackside Photos.

Lost and Found

The BRE Baja 240Z also ran in the Baja 1000 race in 1973 with Brock’s boyhood friend Fritz Warren at the wheel. BRE closed its doors in 1973, and Brock moved on to the world of ultralight flight. A Dr. Logan bought the car from Brock in 1973 and returned it to street duty, where the Datsun faded into obscurity.

Fast-forward to the 1990s and say hello to Carl Beck, a now-retired aerospace engineer and Datsun Z fanatic. Beck is the president of the Internet Z Car Club, an online Datsun resource that actually predates the modern Internet. Beck’s line of work gave him access to the Internet’s forebear, the ARPANET, and the Internet Z Car Club started way back in 1987 as a small e-mail list of Z-car enthusiasts.

Beck and friend Les Cannaday were aware that the Baja 240Z was the only BRE Datsun Z-car that was still unaccounted for. They were eager to find it, and spent nearly six years attempting to track it down. Eventually their search led them to a dentist, Dr. Logan, who still had the Baja 240Z sitting in his garage. Beck purchased the car from Logan in 1999 and began the restoration process.

“Dr. Logan had converted it to street use. He put a stock color and a stock interior in it, and street raced it,” Beck explains. “It was cheaper to do that than to hop up a street car.” No doubt the 250-horsepower BRE motor gave more than one muscle car a bit of a shock on the streets.

Apart from some dings on its underside from the Baja race, the Datsun was in remarkable shape, with no rust and just 13,000 miles on the odometer. The majority of the as-raced components were there, with the exception of the special fuel cell and the magnesium wheels. Beck decided to strip it down to bare metal in order to restore the car to its former off-road glory. The project got underway in 2004.

Photography Credit: Peter Brock

Farewell to the Street (Again)

Beck’s biggest challenge in returning the 240Z to its Baja specifications was getting accurate documentation and pictures of what the Datsun looked like when it was raced. Peter Brock gave Beck access to his own photographic records of the car.

Finding the missing parts was another hurdle. The Internet Z Car Club came to the rescue with a found set of 14x7.5 magnesium American Racing wheels that the previous owner had installed on, of all things, a BRE Datsun 510. The BRE seat was also missing, but the Z Club e-mail list paid off again when a friend of Beck’s found a broken seat in otherwise good shape. Beck made a mold and used it to recreate a pair of seats.

“Having the 26-gallon fuel cell made was a real pain,” says Beck. “On the first attempt the company did such good TIG welding that you couldn’t even see the welds. I had to go back and tell them I wanted it to look like the pictures.”

The engine came out and was sent to Sunbelt Performance Engines near Atlanta, Georgia, for a rebuild to BRE specifications. Beck bead-blasted the entire car to strip its various layers of paint, and Pratts Auto Magic in Florida repainted the car in BRE livery.

The only thing currently missing from the car is a fifth magnesium American Racing Le Mans-style wheel for the spare tire wheel. The rest is there, right down to the Lucas spotlight in the roof that BRE had to cover with a bag during official photo shoots—the official lights on the car were Cibié, after all.

For Beck, the BRE Datsun 240Z is a dream come true. “I’ve had just about every kind of sports car you can imagine—Porsches, Ferraris. Out of all of them, the Datsun 240Z is my favorite car. It’s beautiful and easy to drive. Having one of the original BRE Z’s is the pinnacle of Z ownership as far as I’m concerned, and having the only one that Brock drove himself is really special.”

Car builder Peter Brock (on left) and current owner Carl Beck share a moment with the historic 240Z. They certainly aren't immune to the giddiness this car can inspire. Photography Credit: Gayle Brock

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Sawasan
Sawasan New Reader
8/15/20 5:11 p.m.

Nice story.   Glad to hear it was saved.   I almost  bought a 280Z once.  I do own a ‘07 350Z now and also had  a ‘03 Z when they brought them back.

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