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.
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.
February, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.