Persistence of Time: Datsun 240Z


Story by David S. Wallens • Photos by Tim Suddard
Restoration Photos Courtesy John Taddonio

All that John Taddonio wanted to do was install some stiffer springs. In the end, though, he wound up totally restoring his Datsun 240Z. Actually, a small clarification: He kind of wound up having to restore the car twice.

Like a lot of us, John can trace his infatuation with sports cars back to his more impressionable days. When he was 12 years old, his dad came home with a brand-new 1970 Jaguar XKE. The next year, John saw something he liked even better: A friend of his dad’s showed up with a Datsun 240Z.

“It had similarities to the Jag, but with a sleek hatchback body that I actually preferred to the Jag’s drop top. It just looked right,” Taddonio recalls. “I was allowed to have a seat behind the wheel, and immediately fell in love. A wood steering wheel. An ultra modern jet-black cockpit with the coolest gauges deep set in the dash. It looked fast standing still. That day it became my dream car.”

A good, early 240Z was out of John’s price range once he came of driving age, so he settled for a 1969 Mustang. Other cars quickly followed, but he didn’t forget his original love. Good examples, though, either exceeded his budget or sported too much rust. He eventually expanded his search beyond his hometown of Rochester, New York, and finally spied an ad for a promising car being offered a few hundred miles away in Chicago: “1970 Datsun 240Z, stereo tape, no rust, low mileage, number 3833, excellent condition, $3000.”

John called on the ad. The seller was the original owner, having purchased the car while stationed in Hawaii. The color? Gold, he was told. It wasn’t John’s dream hue of red, but perhaps this was the one.

He patiently waited for the photos of the car to arrive via the mail–Polaroids, he adds–and liked what he saw. So John, who was still in college at the time, made plans to fly out with his dad to inspect the car. The seller met them at the Holiday Inn O’Hare Airport.

“I was in love with the car immediately, but tried not to show it,” John admits. The car appeared to be as described, money changed hands, and father and son made plans for the 600-mile return drive. The 13-hour trip went without a hitch, John reports. The year was 1979, and he finally had his dream car.

“For the most part, from 1979 to 1991, I drove the 240Z summers, stored it winters, and used it less and less as my family grew,” he reports. “In 1991, I decided to park the car for a while, figuring maybe a year or two. By this time three children, a career, home ownership, dance lessons and Little League games took all my time, and the 240Z stayed parked in the corner of the garage, covered and out of mind. It actually became part of the scenery.”

Time to Rise

John got the bug to put the Z back on the road in 2000. Some internet searching uncovered a local club, the Z Car Club of Rochester, and he met up with them.

“The next day,” he reports, “I put a new battery in my 240Z, not knowing what to expect. The car was physically in good shape, except for a minor dent in the fender from one of the kid’s bikes, but the brake and clutch pedals went to the floor. When I connected the battery, the horn and lights worked, so I held my breath and turned the key. The engine turned over and coughed. I sprayed some starting fluid in the carb throats and tried again. It started right up! It was alive!”

Barry Brown, owner of Riter Vintage Car Care in Rochester, New York, a shop that knows its way around Z-cars, repaired the hydraulics. After letting the Z sit for almost a decade, John was back behind the wheel. “It felt familiar and strange all at the same time as I drove the old 240Z down the road,” he recalls. “When I parked it in my garage, now running again and shiny, I could swear I saw it smile.”

After six years of enjoying the awakened Z, during the spring of 2006 John figured that it was time for some upgrades–specifically to the suspension, as the car still rode on its original springs and bushings. He found a set of Euro-spec springs that sounded perfect, since they promised a stiffer rate with no change to the ride height.

They didn’t work as hoped, of course, so the car wound up sitting a bit too high. That wasn’t the only issue, either: While doing the suspension for a second time, mechanic Kurt Thiel of Thiel’s Import Auto in Canandaigua, New York, noticed that it was time to deal with some of the floor patches that had been installed by the original owner. The rust was coming back.

Let’s do the work in the fall, Thiel said, when business would be slower. So on Halloween eve, John watched the car leave on a trailer for Thiel’s shop. And later that evening, John received some bad news: The mechanic had jackknifed the rig in order to avoid an accident, and the 240Z had smacked into the trailer’s fender. The left-side rocker panel and a fender were badly damaged.

“The 240Z suffered serious but non-fatal damage and would have to be repaired,” John recalls. “Imagine, after owning the car for over 26 years, never a dent, and the car was damaged when I wasn’t even driving it!”

A body shop was contracted to do the work, and John agreed to a complete respray in the original Safari Gold. “And while at it, I wanted to replace that old fiberglass wheel arch repair from the 1980s with new steel,” he adds. “To do the job right, the glass had to come out, so a new windshield, too.”

The project creep continued: When fellow club members heard that John didn’t plan to repaint the engine compartment, they offered to help pull the drivetrain so that the job could be properly handled. And while the engine was out, John decided to replace the original cylinder head with a fresh one. And while the head was off the engine, he had the bottom end freshened.

The work order kept growing. By the time the list was complete, it included rebuilt engine ancillaries, a new clutch, and a new heater core along with all new hoses, valves and controls. And since an inspection of the transmission revealed that the case was cracked, a low-mileage one from John’s stash would be installed along with a freshened differential.

“What I had now was a full-blown restoration,” he recalls. “And all I originally wanted was new springs.”

Time to Wait

On Christmas Eve of 2006, the stripped-down 240Z was sent to the paint shop. While it was there, the restoration work on the subassemblies continued.

Rubber bits were analyzed and replaced as needed. “Fortunately these parts are readily available both from Nissan and aftermarket suppliers,” John reports. “I discovered a company in Georgia called Z Car Creations that actually makes stainless steel fasteners for every application of the Z-car.”

Classic Tube supplied the needed lines for the fuel and hydraulic systems. A fresh fuel tank replaced the original, which had developed a crack at a fitting. The wiring harness was cleaned and rejuvenated by Z-car electrical expert Dave Wedein, while fresh carpet was ordered.

“My car still had its original bumpers, with the rear still sporting the circa-1970 AAA Honolulu sticker boasting its origins,” John explains. “The bumpers were rust- and dent-free, but over the years the chrome had thinned to the point where the underlying green tinge of the copper was beginning to show through.”

Rechroming both bumpers and replacing the rubber rub strips quickly became a thousand-dollar project, so John came up with an alternate plan using an extra set that he had stored away “I had all of the holes for rubber strips and overriders welded shut and ground smooth to give the bumpers a clean finish,” he says. Then he had them powder-coated in a sand black finish that would match the grille, tail panel and wheel centers. “My original bumpers would be saved for another day if and when I decided to do the rechroming,” he adds.

While work on the subassemblies continued at a brisk pace, the body work had ground to a halt. “The one thing I couldn’t control was the shop doing the paint and body work,” John admits. He was told to expect the car by April 1.

As it turned out, the shop was finally ready to spray primer that May, but then work stopped again–and visits to the facility didn’t yield any real answers. John had been quoted an attractive price, but there was no finish line in sight.

Time to Find a Lifeline

John started searching for someone to help finish the body work. What he found was not encouraging: Most shops were reluctant to finish a job that had been begun by someone else, while their quotes were two and three times John’s original budget. “To better understand my situation,” he says, “look in the dictionary under ‘rock and a hard place.’”

Fortunately he again found a sympathetic ear with Barry Brown, the owner of Riter Vintage Car Care. Brown said he’d tackle the job for a price that John says was manageable. The 240Z was rescued and trailered to his shop.

The initial prognosis was not good: The new metal wasn’t properly primed, the welding was substandard and, basically, the car was a mess. “Barry told me the sad fact that the work would all have to be redone,” John reports. “Either that or have the car rust out at the seams in a couple of years and have to do it all again anyway. I swallowed hard and pressed ahead.”

Barry explained that the body needed to be completely stripped so he could see what work needed to be done–plus he didn’t trust anything done by the previous shop. John’s friends and fellow club members helped with the task, regularly descending upon Barry’s shop, dual-action sanders in hand.

By early 2008, the car was stripped down to bare metal. Barry could finally take in the situation. The news was not great: The rear quarter panels, the ones that John had just paid to repair, needed to be cut out and completely replaced. Fortunately Barry had a supplier for good replacements. The front tips of the frame rails, as well as the floors, would also need to be replaced with good steel.

Time to Reassemble

“After nearly 18 months of hope, frustration, expense, time, blood, sweat, tears and disappointment, my 240Z was finally ready to be put back together,” John recalls. Fortunately, he says, he had had the foresight to bag and label every single part. Taking lot of photos showed where everything went.

John’s experts helped where needed. “Barry Brown had performed his magic with the paint and bodywork, hanging the doors and reinstalling the glass,” John says. “Installing the windshield is not a task for novices. The seal is a complex rubber unit that serves to hold the glass as well as the windshield assembly to the body. It must fit properly to seal. With Barry leading the way, it was done much faster than I thought.”

The front sheetmetal was also attached at Riter Vintage Car Care, while Kurt Thiel helped reinstall the mechanical components, including an 11th hour switch to a 280ZX five-speed transmission.

“Finally, Kurt did a front end alignment, inspection and road test, and the car was done,” John says. “I slipped behind the wheel of the 240Z as I had [been doing] for nearly 30 years. The look, touch and feel were very familiar. As I eased out the clutch and the car rolled down the road, a smile came to my face. Yes, this was my Z. I took the car home, detailed it and parked it in the garage it had left over 20 months before. All was as it should be.”

Time to Enjoy

Since the unexpected, total restoration, John has been able to enjoy the car. It’s won several awards, and he’s been adding miles to the odometer. He now serves as president of the Z Car Club of Rochester.

He says this restoration also became a learning experience, one that taught him he could do more than he originally thought. The other side of that coin: “I learned my limitations and respected others with talent to do the job.”

Most important, John says, “I also learned that doing one thing will set in motion a chain of events that leads to doing several things. I liken a car restoration to parachute jumping; once you leap, there is no turning back. And the parachute had better work!”


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Comments
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Flynlow
Flynlow HalfDork
4/4/18 1:30 p.m.

Thanks for posting this, I really enjoyed reading it.  Nice to hear about a normal guy getting through a troublesome restoration (long timeline, shop change, etc.).  Gives me hope for my own projects.

jeff090962
jeff090962
4/12/18 9:58 a.m.

Thanks for the great read David and it gives me hope that I might actually finish my 260Z project one of these years.  I did finally move into a new place last Saturday with an 850 sf garage so my poor Trans Am, Datsun and Lincoln LS can be united again under one roof with room to work on them.  Getting the rest of the shop stuff over to the house is this Saturday's project. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/24/18 11:27 a.m.

Thanks. That was a fun one to put together. 

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