In the world of collector JNCs, there is a hierarchy. Ultra-rare, highly sought after blue chips include the Toyota 2000GT, Mazda Cosmo Sport and Hakosuka Skyline GT-R. Continuing down through “affordable” classics like the Celica, RX-7 and 240Z, somewhere towards the bottom are cars that live in the shadows of the aforementioned. This is where the S130 resides, and cars like it are an absolute god-send for people looking for a JNC on a budget. The question is, was the S130 280ZX that bad?
To put it short, no. Is it as visceral as an S30? Also, no. Does it deserve the bad rap that it gets? That’s going to be a third nope. The list of grievances levied against the S130 reads longer than a record of war crimes committed by Sheev Palpatine. While a couple of them have some merit, many more are exaggerated. The S130 has its redeeming qualities, and is actually pretty cool in it’s own right.
You can do a lot worse than a car which takes the foundations from one of the best sports cars of the 1970s and utilizes them to create a grand touring platform. The car’s drivetrain is almost the exactly the same as the beloved 280Z, but with a more luxurious techno-futuristic interior and, later, turbocharging.
The S130 featured a softer ride, power steering and about 600 pounds of luxury fluff than the original 240Z. These combined to create a reputation of the 280ZX being bloated, but those same technologies make it much more livable today as a daily driver.
While the soft ride we could’ve done without, that is easily remedied with an aftermarket suspension. Features inside the car, especially after the mid-model refresh, made it particularly interesting. Items like a digital dashboard, T-top roof, and voice warning system made the car feel more like Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing rather than something produced on Earth during the early 1980s.
With power being extremely hard to make thanks to emissions regulations, Nissan invested heavily in aerodynamics. It was the first Z-Car to receive wind tunnel testing, the results of which were drastic. While S30 had a refrigerator-like drag coefficient of 0.467, the S130 cut it down to a greasy 0.385, an 18 percent drop. Nissan also acknowledged that safety bumper regulations weren’t going anywhere, so they leaned into them, integrating the bumper into an overall more streamlined shape that had a lower center of gravity than the S30.
Under the hood, Nissan stayed true to the L28E engine, with electronic fuel injection in lieu of carburetors. In naturally aspirated form, it made a modest 135 horsepower. However, these numbers were made to look lower than they actually were due a switch from gross horsepower to SAE net horsepower. In practice, that meant performance was slower than the 240Z from zero to 60 mph, but quarter-mile times were about the same.
The numbers stayed largely the same until 1981, when North America was granted the 280ZX Turbo. It featured a massaged L28ET that utilized an non-intercooled AiResearch TB03 turbocharger pressurized to 6.8 psi for 180 horsepower. This much needed boost completely changed the 280ZX and made it the fastest Japanese import you could buy. It’s 0-60 time was suddenly a Ferrari-beating 7.1 seconds, while the exponentially more expensive Magnum P.I. 308 GTSi was only able to manage 7.9 seconds.
The car was a relative let-down compared to the original S30 in the corners. That’s partially due to an extra 600 pounds of weight, but also a byproduct of Nissan going for a more luxurious GT feel to the car. The chief complaint was its mammoth amount of body roll. Many Z-Car fans said it “rode like a Cadillac,” but I’ll be the first to call that unfair. Frankly, every single 80s car had ridiculous body roll, and as much as there was, it still exhibited appreciably better handling that in a Big Three car of the era. The the S130 was the Americanized version the Z-Car, designed around our own perverse automotive penchant for driving down straight roads at 55 mph.
The car was more than a boardroom compromise though; its racing pedigree is longer than Manute Bol’s forearm. Paul Newman famously piloted the 280ZX to victory in the SCCA C-Production category during his career racing for Bob Sharp. While Newman was the most famous driver, the majority of the S130’s motorsports successes came from Electromotive’s program, with Tony Adamowicz taking the 280ZX to an IMSA GTU class win in 1981, followed by a GTO win in 1982 and 1983. This is in addition to Electromotive’s wins in 1979 and 1980 as well.
In Japan, although there were a number of well-built S130s, the most famous by far was the Mid Night Club Z. One of the fastest cars of the infamous Japanese street racing team, it was at its peak capable of maintaining 216 mph for nearly 20 minutes and made a staggering 680 horsepower out of a turbocharged and stroked 3.1-liter L-series. ABR Hosoki was the company behind the bodykit (which is apparently still for sale) and it’s rare to find a car that takes to aftermarket bodywork better than the S130.
Though much maligned in hindsight, the S130 was actually quite the “it” car when it was new. During the Mid Night Club glory days in the late-80s and 90s, this car would go toe-to-toe with the Yoshida Specials 930 Porsche 911. There was a manga and anime series you may know called Wangan Midnight that portrayed this rivalry, only switching the S130 for an S30 chassis. Today, the Devil Z, as it’s known, does the rounds on the Japanese show circuit completely unchanged from it’s days terrorizing the Tokyo highway system.
In addition to being robbed of the Devil Z role in Wangan Midnight, the car was also robbed of a much more famous role here in America as K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider. David Hasselhoff was instead seen in a third0generation Pontiac Trans-Am, an decision after GM swooped in with a sponsorship deal for the starring role.
In Japan, however, the car was much more prolific on the small screen. It was seen in Seibu Keisatsu as the machine gun-laden and gullwing-doored Super-Z, in addition to being immortalized as a Transformer as well.
An S130 gives you about 70 percent of the S30 experience at about a seventh of the price. The most common path taken with an S130 is to modify it in order to recoup that last 30 percent. A set of side-draft carburetors allows you to open up an NA engine, a custom built 2.5-inch exhaust lets the air out, and with a good muffler the L-series will sound properly mean.
For suspension, you can go all the way and weld in coilovers meant for an S13, or drop by Techno Toy Tuning for bolt-in coilovers, but unless you’re jonesing to put your stance pants on or set lap records, some basic lowering springs should suffice. The key, as always, is quality first.
To be entirely honest, the slightly sharper lines of the S130 really do it for me. The rear has a chiseled, muscular feel to it. Then there’s the chrome trim on the B-pillar that makes the car feel like a cyborg S30. The only aesthetic part of the S130 that I could live without is the standard front end, but that’s completely rectified with acrylic headlight covers. A lowered S130 has one of the best rear three-quarters of the late-70s. It’s not that the car’s ugly if left in stock form; it just has so much to more gain.
For the prospective S130 buyer, the best Concours-quality, fully optioned 1983 280ZX manual turbo will set you back around $24,000, but the overwhelming majority of 280ZXes remain in the $3,000 to $8,000 range. You can still find them below $2,000 if you are willing to do some digging or would settle for an automatic transmission or a 2+2 in less-than-stellar condition. The availability of inexpensive examples and a general renewed interest in 80s GT cars has led to the beginnings of a resurgence in popularity.
If you look at 280ZX as a standalone car, not as the successor to the 240Z, you’ll find that it’s a well-sorted GT that provided the first gasp of 80s optimism so desperately needed in 1979. While it would be crazy to call the S130 the next big thing, they have their own charm that many have begun to appreciate. With some love and the right parts, they’re diamonds in the rough.