The Datsun 240Z that rewrote the Bonneville record book

Photography Credit: The Enthusiast Network/Courtesy Getty Images

Story by Preston Lerner

The car sat buried in the far reaches of a dingy Nissan storage facility in Nashville like a forgotten trinket destined for a yard sale or, even worse, the trash. 

By 240Z standards, it was an odd bird, with a long, rounded beak and a striking but somewhat strange stars-and-stripes paint job. The vintage hotrod-style Moon disc hubcaps were another weird touch. But it all made sense when you saw the F/GT lettering on the front fender.

In 1972, Racer Brown–the famous hotrod cam grinder–broke the class record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in this very Z by reaching 152.134 mph. Four years later, a small team of Nissan USA volunteers led by field engineer Bob Stockman used the same chassis with a different engine to set a new standard: 166.037 mph. 

The car then languished in warehouses and, for a spell, at the Lane Motor Museum, for the better part of a half-century until last year, when Atlanta-based Z-car obsessive Randy Jaffe bought it from Nissan. In the midst of the pandemic, he sent the car cross-country to Z Car Garage in San Jose, where shop owner Rob Fuller–another crazed Datsun/Nissan devotee–undertook a sympathetic restoration.

It’s a piece of Nissan history,” Jaffe says. “I want to put it out there for people to enjoy.”

Jaffe is one of those guys who can recite Z-car lore until your eyes roll back in your head, so he was familiar with the quasi-factory Bonneville effort in 1976. But after acquiring the car, he noticed some orange paint in hard-to-mask areas. After investigating the chassis history, he discovered–much to his amazement–that his car had also been run on the salt by Brown.

When a crew of Nissan employees took the Z to Bonneville in 1976, the car wore a more patriotic paint scheme–one that remains today. Randy Jaffe, in the light-blue shirt, had the car freshened by Rob Fuller’s Z Car Garage. Photography Credit: Courtesy Nissan (old programs), David S. Wallens

Besides moonlighting as the technical editor at Hot Rod, Brown developed engine parts for the Datsun Competition Department catalog (and wrote detailed articles about the L-series single-overhead-cam engines found in 510s and 240Zs). 

In 1972, he persuaded Nissan USA to give him a 240Z to take to Bonneville. Naturally, he tweaked the engine–the inline-six known internally as the L24–to his specifications. He also installed a roll bar, repainted the white body orange, and slapped on a front splitter and rear spoiler sourced from BRE. Other than that, the car looked remarkably stock, down to the crude four-lug steel wheels.

Brown’s speed record didn’t generate much excitement inside or outside the company, so when he returned the 240Z to Nissan, it was buried in a warehouse in Gardena, California. Fast-forward two years: A bunch of Nissan engineers and mechanics were sitting around at lunch, yakking about Bonneville, when they had a “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” moment.

National Service Manager Bob Whitehead presented a plan to upper management, which agreed to spend $5000 on a program to set a record on the salt. But not in a Z. “The B210 was just coming out, and the powers that be wanted some publicity for the car,” says Milan Micka, who performed the suspension and body work on the humdrum hatchback.

More than a dozen employees volunteered to work on the after-hours project. They drew lots to see who would drive the car at Bonneville. Mechanic Mike Jones won the right to take the wheel, and he duly set an I Production record at 121.8 mph. (Although this might not sound very impressive, the record has advanced by less than 1.5 mph since then.)

As so often happens with racers who venture to Bonneville, the team was infected with salt fever. For 1975, Nissan provided another $5000 to chase another record with a 2+2 version of the 280Z, which was being introduced to North America that year. To prove that the car qualified for the four-seat production class, Nissan had to get the blessing of the Southern California Timing Association. So the car was taken to an inspection site–a local muffler shop in Southern California–where SCTA officials decided, after much head-scratching, to have the largest tech inspector climb inside.

“They said, ‘If Big Willie can fit in the back seat, then it’s a production car,’” Tom O’Connor recalls with a laugh.

O’Connor built the engine for the Bonneville effort–engines, actually. The plan was to go for the G Production record with an L24 and then the F Production mark with a new 2.8-liter L28 engine. O’Connor tweaked both with a smorgasbord of Datsun Competition go-fast parts that had already been battle-tested in road racing, like Venolia pistons and Carrillo rods. He also reworked the cylinder head to run a 13.5:1 compression ratio and opted for a trio of huge 50mm, side-draft, two-barrel Solex/Mikuni carburetors.

Back in the day, according to the Southern California Timing Association rules governing land-speed racing at Bonneville, a car first had to exceed the existing record in a qualifying run. It then had to sit in impound overnight before making two more passes in opposite directions within an hour the next morning. The official speed was an average of these two runs. 

The orange paint sprayed by Racer Brown for that 1972 run at Bonneville can still be found in the Datsun’s jambs and crevices. The rare Z432R Fairlady bucket seats remain as well. The car’s history was preserved rather than replaced. Photography Credits: Rob Fuller (show photo), David S. Wallens

Micka’s three passes went off without a hitch. As soon as he set a new G Production mark at 164.3 mph in the morning, the crew thrashed to swap in the larger engine for O’Connor to make a successful qualifying attempt that afternoon. The following morning, he set an F Production record of 164.6 mph, and the team was towing the car home on an open trailer before nightfall.

Both Micka and O’Connor agree that there was no drama either before or during their runs. Their only regret was that they’d been forced to run on the short course. “We were turning the motors to 7600 or 7700 rpm, but we still had a few hundred rpm left at the end of the measured mile,” O’Connor says. “We could have gone 10 or 15 mph faster on the long course.”

With three records in the bag, interest in Bonneville waned, and the race team dwindled to about half a dozen diehards. But they got the band back together for one last hurrah in 1976. Funded with another $5000 from management, they saved time and money by taking the L28 that had set the record the previous year and installing it in the 240 Brown had run in 1972. The car was slicked up with a long so-called G-nose and Moon wheel covers. Micka designed the paint scheme and added suspension components developed for road-racing Zs.

Stockman, who’d ramrodded the Bonneville program from the start, was given the honor of driving the car. He qualified easily on the first Sunday of Speed Week. “As I recall, there was an E-type Jaguar and a 300 SL Mercedes in F/GT, and those guys were pissed off that the Z went so fast,” says Frank Honsowetz, who worked as a junior mechanic on all three Datsun Bonneville cars and later became a manager of Nissan Motorsports.

The only glitches were rain and a glut of other entrants. Stockman wasn’t able to set a record until the following Wednesday, when he entered the SCTA book with an official speed of 166.037, nearly 13 mph faster than the existing mark set by a Gullwing Mercedes. Nine years would pass before the 240Z was eclipsed–barely–by a Ferrari 308.

A special issue of a Nissan employee newsletter was published to commemorate the success of the Z. “It actually does look like the beginning of a Bonneville racing dynasty for Datsun,” the writer crows. As it turned out, Nissan never returned to the salt with a full-on factory effort, though many Datsuns and Nissans (and Infinitis) have been raced there by privateers.

The 240Z made just a few appearances over the years, including one at the 2017 Japanese Classic Car Show. While the Bonneville engine has been lost to history, today the car runs a race-prepped L28. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Over the years, the exploits of the record-setting 240Z were forgotten by all but the most hardcore Datsun fans. But Randy Jaffe always remembered. After all, this is a guy who’s owned 40 or 50 Z-cars, and he was behind the impeccable recreation–using many salvaged original parts, including the chassis plate–of the iconic BRE 240Z that John Morton drove to a pair of national championships. But when he finally got his hands on the car, he was stunned to find out that it was even more special than he’d thought.

The Bonneville Z-car is chassis HLS30-05834, built in June 1970. But the car has clear back glass, sans defroster wires–an anomaly found only in cars that came off the assembly line much earlier in the production run. Jaffe’s research found that chassis 05835 and 05836 both went to Datsun racer extraordinaire Bob Sharp, the East Coast analog of Peter Brock. The first car was later transformed into a wide-body 260Z famously campaigned in IMSA by Sam Posey, while the second won four SCCA national championships.

Jaffe surmised that the three cars might have been part of a special run of chassis earmarked specifically for racing. Sure enough, Micka confirms his suspicions. Speaking of Jaffe’s 240Z, he says, “That was a car that came directly from Japan. It was a real lightweight car made of really thin sheet metal.”

The car also showcased a bunch of components guaranteed to gobsmack Datsun geeks. The ultra-thin seats appear to be the Ikeda Bussan-manufactured units found in the ultra-rare Z432R Fairlady Z, famously fitted with an S20 motor from a Skyline GT-R. The leather steering wheel is an unusual Nissan Sports Option model nicknamed the Ura Mach, another Z432R item.

Once a race car, now a show winner: The Bonneville 240Z picked up an Amelia Award in the 1961-’89 race car class at this year’s Amelia Island Concours. Photography credit: David S. Wallens

When Jaffe bought the car, it had only 2931 miles on the odometer, but it needed about a half-century of TLC. Before doing any mechanical work, he spent 60 hours cleaning and polishing the car. From the start, he decided to retain Micka’s distinctive stars-and-stripes livery while adding Racer Brown’s name to the door to pay homage to the car’s history.

Unfortunately, the Bonneville engine had been pulled out of the car–nobody knows when–and replaced with an L24 with production-type, flat-top carbs. Coincidentally, Jaffe had recently commissioned a race-prepped L28 with triple 44mm Mikunis from John Caldwell, the one-time engine wizard at BRE, so he stuck that engine in the car before shipping it to Fuller.

Although Fuller has wrenched on thousands of Zs, he’d never seen anything like Jaffe’s latest prize. Emblematic of the many small but ingenious mods were brake lines that had been rerouted to run outside the transmission tunnel just in case the driveline exploded. But what really astonished him was how well preserved the car was. “It’s a time capsule,” he says. “When I got underneath the dash, it looked like it was on the assembly line in Japan.”

Bill Warner, founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, invited Jaffe to show the car in 2021, where it looked spectacular on the lush lawn outside the Ritz-Carlton–but perhaps not as impressive as it did on the smooth white expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats. But in either setting, the car went home with a trophy.

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sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
11/8/21 2:58 p.m.

Great story...thanks

martybtoo
martybtoo
11/9/21 11:53 a.m.

Quite a surprise to see this article, because I was part of the crew that originally built the car.  The car was pretty stock when it arrived at Cecil Yother's shop.  Cecil was a long time customer of Racer Brown, as he always ran his cams in his drag race cars ( the later Melrose Missile cars).  He stripped out the interior, welded up the seams, installed the rollbar, added a fuel cell and built a belly pan for the car, while Racer was building the engine in his shop.  The engine was mated with the chassis, loaded on Cecil's truck and we headed for Bonneville.

As I recall there weren't too many issues (mostly tuning for the altitude), but ultimately we took off the belly pan and the car ran faster without it.  Racer Brown was driving, and one of the test runs started out okay, but he said the engine kind of layed over at the end of the speed traps.  We took off the valve cover, and one of the rocker arms was broken. Cecil and I were in the drag racer next-round mode, so we started to work on it, but when we turned around everyone else was getting ready to leave! It turned out the the Bonneville vets knew we couldn't run the car again until the next day, so they were going to eat lunch first. The car was repaired that afternoon, and set the record the next day.

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