Peter Brock on the new Nissan Z-car | Column

Photography Courtesy Nissan

It’s hard to believe that 51 years have raced into the distance since Nissan USA’s now legendary president, Yutaka Katayama, introduced the startlingly beautiful 240Z to the American market. Prior to Mr.K’s tenure in America, Japanese automobiles were considered second-class import citizens to the then-dominant European stars. 

This first Nissan Z changed everything. It immediately took over on import sales charts as well as the race tracks of America, winning the SCCA’s prestigious national C Production title against established marques such as Porsche and Triumph.

The Datsun 240Z’s now iconic lines came from the deft pencil of Yoshihiko Matsuo, a passionate young car guy buried deep within Nissan’s design studio. He might never have achieved stardom unless his work had been recognized and brought to the fore by Mr. K’s sensitive vision and certainty that it was perfect for the American market. 

Indeed, it was K’s courageous belief in Matsuo’s design that overcame an uncertain and overly cautious home office management. By risking his career and position within Nissan to order an unheard-of quantity of cars built for American distribution, Katayama gained international acclaim and eventually legendary status within Nissan. 

The 240Z’s smash introduction in America resulted in sales far beyond the highly skeptical credulity of some in Nissan’s Tokyo office. In fact, Katayama’s brash predictions of the car’s success in America were so distrusted by some senior members of the board of directors that his ultimate sales success created animosity and corporate jealousy because of “loss of face” in succeeding while countermanding their directives.

In a manner that has always been difficult for me to understand–as the same thing has often occurred in other automotive companies–Matsuo’s design leadership and success were never fully recognized or internally appreciated for the potential value they could have given Nissan. Instead of his being granted full design control over the future of Nissan’s Z line, other designers were brought in to make aesthetic model changes that diluted the original’s clean, elegant lines. 

Yes, the Z’s subsequent engineering was improved over the following years with larger, more powerful engines as well as improved running gear and suspension, but the lines and detailing suffered, leaving Matsuo’s now classic first-year entry as the iconic symbol of Japanese automotive design of its era.

I had the recent honor of attending and enjoying the Z-car community’s annual ZCON gathering, held this year in Colorado Springs. There in the bright sunshine and crisp air of the Pikes Peak International Raceway, Nissan finally introduced its worthy successor to Matsuo’s original design: the new 2023 Z, which will have no numerical appendage to its official single-letter designation.

After months of less-than-satisfying internet teasers showing snippets of an unrealized bright-yellow “prototype” form purported to be the new Z, the final, finished production form appeared in a lovely shade of dark metallic blue that met with instantaneous mass approval from this highly opinionated Z community. 

All that was missing in Colorado was the new car’s designer, Alfonso Albaisa. He most certainly should have been there to bask in the glory of his new Z’s acceptance, but he had to head back to Japan after the car’s press unveiling earlier in the week in Times Square.

The fact that Albaisa was being publicly recognized by Nissan as the designer of the new Z was almost as unusual as the striking simplicity and brilliance of his design, which elegantly echoed Matsuo’s original while retaining its own special flair. 

Albaisa’s public recognition seemed counter to usual Japanese practice of focusing on corporate identity rather than the individual. Americans have always understood the importance of courage and individuality, and I’m sure Mr. Katayama, were he still alive, would have heartily approved of Albaisa’s corporate recognition as a new star in the world of automotive design.

The new Z, like Matsuo’s original 240Z, will be hard to improve upon, giving it classic status almost from inception.

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wspohn SuperDork
11/17/21 10:40 a.m.

Why do all of the Japanese sports cars (after the 240Z) look like bricks?  If they looked like front engined Ferraris surely they would draw a large buying public.  As it is they come across as lumpish creations that may be wonderful driving cars - I guess the advantage of driving them is that you are inside them an unable to look at the exterior?

And I don't exempt other Japanese manufacturers from my critique - with a few exceptions the blah styling is universal, but one if the exceptions is the Toyota/BMW Supra/Z4 joint venture, I don't call looking like transformer toys a big step up from looking lumpish.  

RacerJ New Reader
11/22/21 11:40 a.m.

I loved the 240Z.  When the 350Z showed up, I thought the front grille was so oddly square/rectangular, to be downright ugly.  Then I couldn't believe it when they kept it for the 370Z.  The joke was kind of on me when I finally realized that the 240Z had a rectangular opening.  

But, I'm going to put that back on Nissan - and say the joke is on them.  They obviously think that rectangle is the "design."  But, I believe the rectangular opening was really just a consequence of the beautiful design all around that space - kind of like the hole in a donut.  The donut hole has no choice but to be round.    

So when Nissan felt it important to carry over that "design" for the 350Z, I think it was a terrible mistake.  With latest Z, it almost looks now like it works.  But it sure didn't before now.

Automobilist New Reader
5/5/22 3:01 p.m.

Wow, finally a new Japanese sporty car that's not overstyled / dorky, AND should have good performance.  As a former owner of a couple Datsun 240Z's, and a nice 510, this design has the clean, pure lines that really work. 

Hopefully, not too many buyers will festoon them with a plethora of wings, flares, scoops & goofy graphics... 

5/5/22 3:46 p.m.

Love Brock.  He lived the golden age in the generation that was crazy about cars.  His knowledge is soooo deep regarding the history of the early and late 60's, clay models, muscle cars, aerodynamics, Datsuns, Shelby, he's done it all.

Further, he writes well for a motor head.  Kudos!  Love his articles. 

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