25 YEAR CLUB: Z32 Nissan 300ZX

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On July 10, 1989 the Z32 Nissan 300ZX went on sale in Japan. Now, 25 years later, the Z32 300ZX is officially a Japanese nostalgic car. Twin turbos, dual intercoolers, 300 horsepower and starship-worthy sheetmetal made a very strong impression on your young editor-in-chief, so much so that you could say that without the Turbo Z, there’d be no JNC. We commemorated the occasion by driving the most original turbocharged example in the USA, if not on planet Earth. 

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Growing up in 1980s Texas meant that I was fed a steady diet of Detroit iron or, if you went to a private school, European status barges. My father had owned a succession of rusty muscle cars and the posters on my bedroom wall featured the rides that would’ve populated the horseshoe driveways of drug kingpins on Miami Vice. In fact, I think I even saved up my own birthday money to buy the original Justification for Higher Education. Give me a break, it was the 80s.

Car & Driver February 1990 Nissan 300ZX vs CorvetteFebruary, 1990. A fresh new issue of Car & Driver arrived in our mailbox and on the cover was the wildest Japanese car my young brain had ever processed. “GODZILLA” was plastered across the front in all caps, which is, I guess, an appropriate nickname before anyone knew about the R32 GT-R. It was put up against and beat the gold standard of sports cars at the time, the C4 Corvette. My Detroit-centric adolescent mind was blown. Sure, naming it after the most powerful thing to come out of Japan was cliche, but it shows how all-obliterating the 300ZX really was.

Nissan knew they had something special, too. When the car came stateside, they hired Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, Black Rain and Alien to put his trademark visual style on a SuperBowl commercial for the Z32. In it, a driver is chased by assailants behind ever-more-powerful vehicles in a strange sci-fi dream sequence — first motorcycles, then an open-wheeled race car, and finally a fighter jet — but the Turbo Z outruns them all when the Turbos. Kick. In.

The ad only aired that one time, pulled after concerns about the depiction of excessive speeding and the encouragement of street racing. It didn’t matter, though. The message had already been broadcast loud and clear — the future was here.

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Scott, the top science fiction director in the world, had been able to capture Japan’s essence in his films in a way no other Westerner could at the time. It was no longer the land of temples, kimonos and bonsai gardens. Modern Tokyo was Cybertron and Coruscant combined, an ever-expanding network of skyscrapers, rails and expressways, all heading towards the future. Japan built cars for the future. Japan was the future.

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Even without Scott, it would have been obvious just by looking at the car. It employed Super-HICAS four-wheel steering in its handling. It delivered world-class performance from a supercar-like twin-turbo powertrain. And, it was the first production car designed completely in 3D-modeling with the help of a Cray II supercomputer.

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Sculpted with the express purpose of cheating the wind, Toshio Yamashita used the Cray II to streamline the body with millions of simulated air molecules. The result was uniquely Japanese, sleek but minimalist. Unencumbered by vents or swoopy curves, it made those styling cues — oh so prevalent in the era — look like stylistic crutches. The 300ZX wasn’t trying to be beautiful; it simply was because of its purity of purpose.

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Take one of the Z32’s most distinctive features, for instance. While every other sports car of the age settled for complex pop-up headlights to adhere to government height regulations, Yamashita bent over backwards to develop a complex reflector lens and projector system to preserve a smooth, fixed-light design. The headlights went on to live a life of their own, illuminating the road for the Lamborghini Diablo and Nissan R390 GT1 Road Car, but anyone who’s dared to work under the hood of a 300ZX TT knows why it was done. In an engine bay packed tighter than a torso full of organs, motorized lights simply weren’t possible.

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The heart of the Z32 was Nissan’s VG30DETT, developed originally for the stillborn Nissan MID4-II in which it generated 322 horsepower. For the Z32, the aluminum head, 3.0L DOHC V6 was detuned to a “mere” 300 horses. Even so, it was still the first car to get smacked down by Japan’s Ministry of Transport for being too powerful. Nissan voluntarily pared back the ponies, unofficially starting the Gentleman’s Agreement that limited Japanese auto manufacturers’ cars to a 276-horsepower (280PS) maximum output for much of the 1990s.

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Nissan in fact was getting ready to unleash a trio of 300-horsepower cars, the other two being the Skyline GT-R and Infiniti Q45. Today we know the stated Japanese horsepower figures to be superficial, but in any case there was no such limit on exported cars and the USDM 300ZX TT was sold unapologetically with 300 charging horses.

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Nowadays, Nissan uses the same basic V6 across its entire lineup and most of Infiniti’s as well. Platform sharing abounds. Back in 1990, though, their activities would’ve been considered pure insanity by today’s industry standards. Still high from the Bubble Economy, Nissan had simultaneously developed not one, but three flagship cars, each with entirely different drivetrains. Excesses like the Z32’s twin-turbo V6, the R32 Skyline GT-R’s twin-turbo straight six and the Q45’s naturally aspirated V8 nearly bankrupted the company.

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In Japan Nissan sent the R32 Skyline into motorsports battle. The Z32 served as the American gladiator. It is perhaps best remembered for twice clinching the IMSA manufacturer’s championship, along the way winning the 24 Hours of Daytona and the GTS-1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the same year, 1994.

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Nearly 40,000 Z32s sold in 1990 in North America alone, giving the Nissan Z the record for the best-selling sports car in history. It still holds that record today. No one knew it at the time, but the party would come crashing down a few years later as Japan’s Bubble Economy finally burst after 40 years of uninterrupted prosperity. At the same time, SUVs ousted sports cars the image vehicles of choice, and US sales dropped to fewer than 2,700 per year.

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By 1996, Nissan had nothing lined up to replace the 300ZX, so not only did it kill the Z32, but it killed the Z nameplate in the US altogether. Poof. Twenty-six years of history, gone like that. In Japan, the Fairlady Z lived on until 2000, but then it too was summarily dismissed.

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Before Nissan put the last nail in the 300ZX’s coffin though, they produced 300 final edition cars. This one was painted black and they were completely identical to the other 90,000, except for a tiny, serial-numbered badge on the center console. For this article Nissan USA, during what must be some inexplicable lapse of judgement, let us drive one of these limited cars, the only one left in their collection.

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I was too young to buy one when it was available new, but slipping into bolstered leather in what is essentially a brand new 300ZX Twin Turbo instantly reminded me of why I fell in love with Japanese cars in the first place. It has that unmistakable feel of the Bubble Economy Japanese sports coupe. I was scared to push the priceless car hard, but I could tell with the tightness between every moving part that it was over-built and fully capable of summoning unlimited, lag-free and glass-smooth mechanical power at a twitch of my toe.

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How can a loop around Nashville compete with a lifetime of longing? My time was all too short but I was honored to have been the one to put the 200th mile on the odometer. Yes, this virginal Fairlady had fewer than 200 miles before I sullied it. Now it has a bit more.

The legacy of the Z was so powerful that — in what is sure to be an advertising first — Nissan continued to feature it in award-winning commercials after it had been discontinued. Instead of a futuristic dreamscape, however, these starred a GI Joe-type action figure speeding through a house full of toys to woo a Barbie-esque babe away from her forlorn beau. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest car ads of all time.

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For the young me living in a JNC wasteland, though, it wasn’t the Scott spot, the toy story, or even the ad that showed nothing but a flat out run on a banked track that stirred my heart. No, none of those put an iron-clad grip on my imagination as much as “If I Had a Z.”

In this one, a narrator dreams up his perfect Z, switching colors while envisioning a smoky burnout, a cross-country drive, and a teleport to Germany’s mythic Autobahn, passing Porsches and shooting towards Alpine off-ramps. It ended at sunset, the Z’s streamlined silhouette against an orange sky at the end of a pier, while the unseen narrator sighs, “Too bad you can’t drive to Europe.”

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To my impressionable mind it conjured visions of grabbing a Z and tearing down the first interstate out of my podunk town, Thunder Road-style, into a newfound world full of Japanese machines.

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42 Responses to 25 YEAR CLUB: Z32 Nissan 300ZX

  1. Ant said:

    As per my comment the other day on the DSM, another car whose curvy 1990s form seems at-odds with the reality of it passing the 25-year mark.

    I was never keen on the Z32 when I was younger. My allegiance fell firmly with the NSX and RX-7 among Japan’s pseudo-supercars, rather than Supras and 300ZXs. The shape has aged well though, particularly in the spec of the car photographed above.

    One of my earliest motoring memories is 300ZX-related too: I had a Matchbox 1:64-scale diecast of the car. In metallic green, with a hot pink interior and yellow/pink rip-style graphics down the side and over the hood. It couldn’t be more “90s” if it tried.

  2. mrbill said:

    Even as a die-hard Nissan fan-boy, I had never really wanted a Z32. All its complexity and cramped quarters (under the hood and elsewhere) held me at arm’s length.

    This article has changed that.

    It was, and is, an impressive machine. Maybe one of these days I can find, and afford, a clean one for myself. I’m sure it’ll be hard to find.

    • StevenB said:

      There are plenty of them still on the road, some better, some worse for the wear. I found a 1990 with 72,000 miles last year which had been modified by the 2nd owner to over 400 RWHP. Z1 Motorsports in Carrolton GA has a, hold onto your socks, 1000 RWHP Z32. There is a strong Z community in the US today and many examples of Z32 TT models. The car is simply timeless!

    • Ben Hsu said:

      This is the highest complement possible. I’m honored!

  3. Nigel said:

    Awesome today and awesome back then !!

  4. Dankan said:

    The Z32 ignited my love of cars, Full stop. I was nine, and we were out pumpkin shopping when my dad handed me the October ’89 issue of Road & Track to shut me up in the back of the car (someone at work had given it to him). The issue had a road test of a Ferrari Testarossa, coverage of that year’s Le Mans classic, the French and Canadian GPs, and as a centrepiece, a comparison between a Porsche 944S2 and the naturally aspirated version of the 300ZX. If you can find it, I think it might still be one of the best bits of car journalism I’ve ever read. And by the end of that article, I didn’t want the Ferrari, I didn’t want the Porsche, I wanted that 300ZX.

    And I still do.

  5. Geoff said:

    I’ve had two dream cars, an S30 and a Z32. I have made both of those happen in my life in a 1971 240Z and a 1992 300ZX twin turbo.

    The reality of living with them is every bit as good as I ever imagined it would be, and I’ve had both of them down to the welds and back.

    Thanks for this article.

  6. alvin said:

    great writing Ben!

  7. zeke21 said:

    Completely false regarding all of the last 300 produced for the US market were painted black. Nearly every color available in 96 was available on the last 300. In fact the only model not included in the final 300 were convertible models.

  8. steve said:

    One thing not mentioned is that Nissan finally figured out how to make a 2+2 version that looked as good, if not slightly better (to me, anyway), than the 2-seater version. I loved the look of the Z32 from the very beginning but as usual, the timing was off. I had just started a new job so I couldn’t afford one and to make things only worse, I knew the insurance would kill me.

  9. Bernd Deve said:

    Thanks for the site, Ben. Still loving my ’93TT after 20+ years. I can’t recall seeing that limited release “dream” commercial before. Didn’t miss too much, since it was a bit lame 🙂

  10. mister k said:

    poof! was not a slight on the z or the history… nissan was in a dire financial situation in the years following the bubble, and that unhealthy state was further compounded with the excesses of the past (the z32 notwithstanding)

    you could say the z32 marked the end of the old nissan
    the new nissan today is much healthier but very different than it was 25 years ago..

  11. xs10shl said:

    I still remember when when I first saw that Barbie Z commercial – Super bowl, I think. Totally confusing what was going on until the quick under-legs drive and shot of “Mr K” smiling. I was like “OOHHH!!! YEAH!!!! YEAH!!!!”

    In 1990 I had no Zs. And now I have 4 Zs. Ads must have worked.

  12. Censport said:

    I wondered why you didn’t push the car that day. Now I know: You’re more of an adult than I am. 😀 I remember clearly, as the boost propelled us along the downtown loop, glancing over at you and saying “I’VE GOTTA HAVE ONE OF THESE!”

    What a machine. Every bit as impressive as the low-mileage original R-32 GT-R I drove from Adachi to Daikoku this past spring. Nissan may have overextended themselves during the bubble, but maybe that’s what bubble economies are for. They showed us what they were capable of building. And damn if it doesn’t leave an impression 25 years later.

    25 years ago, I spent my work days driving around in 964/911s, 944 Turbos, and 928 GTs (and the odd 500E, 500SL, or 600SEL). Do I want any of those cars now? Nah. R32 or Z32? Yes please.

    Also, I remember watching you on the photo shoot that day. I was trying to learn from observing someone whose work I’ve admired for years. Well, when I wasn’t hiding behind a column, trying to stay out of the picture. It’s great to not only see how the photos turned out, but also to see them paired with a story of equal caliber. Awesome work, sir.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Thank you, Chris! And yes, that was a most memorable day. I’ve had the privilege of being around, in, and behind the wheel of many incredible cars, but that was one day I will never forget. My favorite car from the Justification for Higher Education poster was the 928. The 928 S4 was my favorite when I had that poster, but after discovering the wide world of Japanese cars it doesn’t even crack my top 25.

  13. Bt jackson said:

    It wasn’t the Cima that was part of Nissan’s 300hp trinity, but the g50 Nissan president/infinity q45. The y33 Cima would be rebadged as the fy33 2nd gen q45.

  14. Anderias said:

    I love my 1995 z32TT I don’t think I can ever part from it even though I have a 2012 650i convertible but the Z still has a different style of driving to it, great Article thanks.

  15. R Jacobs said:

    I once had a drive in a 300ZX Fairlady, the driver pushed the car to it’s limit of 180 miles per hour! That, till this day, remains the fastest I have ever been in a car. I live in South Africa and to us 180mph equates to 289km/h.

  16. John M said:

    Enjoyed the article, pics, and commercials. To me, the red Z32/GI Joe-like/Barbie-like/Mr. K-like/Van Halen commercial is the (T) top car ad I have ever seen.

    I still remember the first one I saw in Japan in 1990 and the Z32 remains one of my favorite car designs.

    For the final 300 in the U.S., I agree that they were not only black, but the last one was. I still enjoy watching the video of the retirement ceremony at the Petersen Museum in 1996 when it was presented to Morrie Sage. They had Zs from various years, Mr, K, and the host was Dick Clark, also a former Z owner.

  17. Jake said:

    The Z32 was the car that got me out of American Muscle as well. I grew up in a small farm town in West Michigan. I drove a diesel F350. When I went to college I met up with some guys in laughable little turbo 4 bangers. And MR2? A Subaru with an sex disease? Wait Subaru is Japanese, not Australian?

    The very first time I ever saw a Z32 I thought it looked like a Cadillac El Dorado. Gross.

    Then I looked more and more. Two turbos has to be better than one, right? I was fascinated with the idea, but I wanted a Dodge Stealth. Because ‘Murica. Then I researched more and more and found the Z to be a better option in terms of reliability and the fact that you can change the spark plugs without removing the engine (though that’s about the only thing).

    Today, I own a white Z32 TT with only 88,000 miles.

    Thank You, Mr K

    http://i.imgur.com/rOZag.jpg

  18. jschrauwen said:

    Actually it’s 26 years.
    The Z32 was released in Japan and Australia in 1989 while North America continued with the Z31 an extra year to 1989.

  19. nthuZis1 said:

    I was 18 yrs old in ’89 when I saw a white 1990 Z32 on the showroom floor at a local Nissan dealership. A salesman was going over the features with a professional guy (he had on a shirt & tie) describing the chip resistant rocker panels as I thought to myself “I’ll never be able to afford that!”). Seven year’s later I was the proud owner of a low mileage 1990 Z32 NA the same super white as the one I saw on the showroom floor in ’89! This explains my username: nthuZis1!! The Z32 TT has always been my ultimate dream car.

  20. SF said:

    I have owned a handful of very low mileage Z32 Twin Turbo’s including one of the last with less than 1k miles on it. This car was waaaay ahead of its time and still relevant today. I still have my 1991 Super White Twin Turbo tucked away with less than 15k miles, which I plan on driving as my classic sports car when I’m an old man.

  21. Wayne Thomas said:

    Now, you can get your own V8 powered 450ZX.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0mpI8xLn2k

    I won’t promote the LSx swap when Nissan already makes a competent V8.

  22. James said:

    I grew up in small town in Missouri that had a couple Chinese restaurants. One of them was run by a family and they clearly worked hard all day every day. One of their sons was in high school, and I guess he made enough money at work to buy a 300ZX Turbo, complete with a giant wing on the back. I think it blew everyone’s minds everywhere he went, as no one else in the town of 5,500 had one. This was the mid-90s, so American muscle was the most prevalent (though there were also a couple memorable Eclipses and Celicas in town). Anyway, I was fortunate to take a spin in it once and thought it was so cool and seemed crazy fast (though I think he only took it up to 40 in a 25mph zone). To this day, it’s the most memorable cool car from my teenage years.

    Loved the article—thanks!

  23. Barbara said:

    I have this magic car it’s red But unfortunately I have to sell it to pay unforeseen circumstances So it’s for sale Is anyone interested in buying it off me?

  24. Barbara said:

    i have a Red Nissan 1996 300ZX Twin Turbo Fairlady Auto 6 Cylinder Coupe A1 condition i want to sell

  25. Barbara said:

    This is Barbara retuning your email my car is a Japanese import it’s been stored in the garage the whole time I’ve owned it it has 11200 klm on it Its in brand new emmaculant condition Inside and out It has professionally sprayed black wheels with a red z this was my design there’s no other car on the road with my wheels They are so cool. I was wondering if anyone knows how much I would be offered for my car Do you have any idea?? I e driven my red z to QLD & back twice to visit my parents I love it Its like a dream to drive

    • Barbara said:

      This is Barbara retuning your email my car is a Japanese import it’s been stored in the garage the whole time I’ve owned it it has 11200 klm on it Its in brand new emmaculant condition Inside and out It has professionally sprayed black wheels with a red z this was my design there’s no other car on the road with my wheels They are so cool. I was wondering if anyone knows how much I would be offered for my car Do you have any idea?? I e driven my red z to QLD & back twice to visit my parents I love it Its like a dream to drive

    • Barbara said:

      This is Barbara retuning your email my car is a Japanese import it’s been stored in the garage the whole time I’ve owned it it has 11200 klm on it Its in brand new emmaculant condition Inside and out It has professionally sprayed black wheels with a red z this was my design there’s no other car on the road with my wheels They are so cool. I was wondering if anyone knows how much I would be offered for my car Do you have any idea?? I e driven my red z to QLD & back twice to visit my parents I love it Its like a dream to drive My red Z car is an automatic

      • Barbara said:

        This is Barbara retuning your email my car is a Japanese import it’s automatic its stock standard it’s been garaged the whole time I’ve owned it it has 11200 klm on it Its in brand new emmaculant condition Inside and out It has professionally sprayed black wheels with a red z this was my design there’s no other car on the road with my wheels They are so cool. I was wondering if anyone knows how much I would be offered for my car Do you have any idea?? I’ve driven my red z to QLD & back twice to visit my parents I love it Its like a dream to drive

    • Barbara said:

      This is Barbara retuning your email my car is a Japanese import it’s automatic its stock standard it’s been garaged the whole time I’ve owned it it has 11200 klm on it Its in brand new emmaculant condition Inside and out It has professionally sprayed black wheels with a red z this was my design there’s no other car on the road with my wheels They are so cool. I was wondering if anyone knows how much I would be offered for my car Do you have any idea?? I’ve driven my red z to QLD & back twice to visit my parents I love it Its like a dream to drive

  26. Barbara said:

    This is Barbara retuning your email my car is a Japanese import it’s automatic its stock standard it’s been garaged the whole time I’ve owned it it has 11200 klm on it Its in brand new emmaculant condition Inside and out It has professionally sprayed black wheels with a red z this was my design there’s no other car on the road with my wheels They are so cool. I was wondering if anyone knows how much I would be offered for my car Do you have any idea?? I’ve driven my red z to QLD & back twice to visit my parents I love it Its like a dream to drive

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