15 May 2014

Rising Sons: Three Japanese sports cars that made cheap fun exhilarating

Who doesn’t love a bargain? Sites like Amazon and Overstock.com exist because of their bang-for-the-buck factor. The same applies to cars. Over the years, Japanese manufacturers have been adept at offering incredible performance on the cheap. Three cars in particular used that formula to score major victories in America. Along the way, the Datsun 240Z, Mazda RX-7 and MX-5 Miata changed the way we think about sports cars.

Japanese automotive history, abbreviated

Following World War II, the Japanese automotive landscape was a stark contrast to our own. Three-wheeled truck production picked up where it left off pre-war, but automobile production was an insignificant part of the country’s mobility, with privately owned cars nearly non-existent.

Buoyed by a “miracle” stew of economic factors, including American engagement in Korea, as well as bold heavy industrialization efforts, Japan’s economic development soared. And with it, the race was on to create small, affordable cars for the home market and beyond. The biggest beyond was America, and by the late 1950s, diminutive sedans like the Datsun PL210 and PL310 began to appear on the West Coast.

There was nothing thrilling about early Datsuns — not against the likes of the ’59 Cadillac, an entire crop of cool ’63s, and scads of sexy European imports. The PL310 could have been mistaken for something out of England, only smaller, and tall, horsepower- hungry Americans paid them little mind. But Datsun had its foothold, largely thanks to the efforts of future Nissan USA president Yutaka Katayama, or “Mr. K.” Through his input and creative marketing, the company’s American lineup evolved throughout the 1960s, with a sophisticated range of cars, including the Pininfarina-styled 410 and the popular 510, which paved the way for the fledgling carmaker, thanks to its low cost (under $2,000), intelligent engineering and practical styling. Datsun’s simple but effective Fairlady roadsters grew up too, from 1,000 cc to 2,000 cc, and would set the stage for Japan’s first mass-produced international two-seat blockbuster.

The Z

The 240Z has its roots in a 1964 design penned by Albrecht Goertz, stylist of the BMW 507 roadster. That project, the 2000GT, was a failed joint venture between Nissan and Yamaha — not to be confused with Toyota’s own quite similar-looking and ultimately successful 2000GT joint venture with Yahama.

More importantly, the Z owes its existence to Mr. K, who had spent enough time studying Americans and their driving habits that he continued to push for an affordable, lightweight, well-engineered, appropriately sized, U.S.-specific GT.

The 240Z combined the elegance of a Jaguar E-Type, the performance of a Porsche 911, the reliability of an atomic clock and the price of a cup of coffee. The Z was a smash hit from its debut in early 1970, and demand quickly outstripped supply. Priced at $3,526, the Z’s “personal GT” segment competitors at the time — the quirky Opel GT and the archaic MGB GT and Triumph GT6 — weren’t in the same league. Its real-world competitors occupied a higher plane, because the Z’s sonorous 151-horsepower straight-six, fully independent suspension and perfect weight balance matched Europe’s finest, at nearly half the price.

Datsun had long invested in racing to improve its street cars, and the Z proved no slouch. In the States, Brock Racing Enterprises and Bob Sharp both successfully campaigned Zs in SCCA C Production, while Zs would also prove their mettle in rallies and off-road events like Monte Carlo and Baja, including victory in the 1973 Safari Rally.

As with every car produced in and for America in the early 1970s, changing emissions and safety standards intervened, but not before 160,000 Zs had been built and sold in only three years. The 240Z gave way to the 260Z in 1974 and the 280Z in 1975, though both were heavier, less perfect versions of the original. Before that, however, Road & Track said it best in its January 1970 review: “We expect Datsun will establish a market of its own, one which will force other makers to come up with entirely new models to gain a share in it.”

In the case of the first Mazda RX-7, that’s exactly what happened.

Dial R for rotary

In 1960, Mazda entered into a technical partnership with German carmaker and Wankel rotary flag-bearer NSU. The Japanese firm was drawn to the tiny engine’s simplicity and great power potential and quickly developed a 982-cc twin-rotor design, as well as an attractive hand-built car, the Cosmo Sport, to house it. Though the high-revving Cosmo, which entered production in 1967, never made it to the U.S., by 1970, Mazda and its rotary-powered R100 and RX2 coupes and sedans began to navigate U.S. roads, along with conventional piston-engine counterparts.

Mazda’s 1973 RX3 sedan was the first car to pass the coming Clean Air Act emissions regulations for 1975, and the company planned to be 100 percent rotary by the middle of the decade. Seeing Mazda's success, several foreign and domestic automakers were full speed ahead on their own rotary programs. Then came the first OPEC embargo, which spoke directly to a chief weakness of the rotary at that time: It was thirsty. Almost overnight, the Wankel rotary lost its spin, and Mazdas languished in U.S. ports as sales plummeted. By 1977, the rotary seemed all but dead, and Mazda clung to life in America through sales of its compact piston-engined GLC, or “Great Little Car.”

Despite the sales decline, Mazda was determined to make the rotary work in a sports car designed to take advantage of the small packaging allowed by such a tiny engine. In doing so, Mazda engineers were able to give the 1978 RX-7 a dramatically pointy nose while placing the engine behind the front axle, which Mazda dubbed “front mid-engined.”

The RX-7 used an updated version of the carbureted 12A twin-rotor found in the RX-3. And like the twin-rotors before it, the RX-7’s engine loved to rev, quickly and quietly, all the way up to 7,000 rpm. More importantly, Mazda had addressed the gremlins that had plagued earlier engines. A new apex seal design and material decreased wear and improved longevity, while fuel consumption was improved to about 22 mpg. With 100 horsepower from just 1,146 cc, coupled with a solid chassis offering 50/50 weight distribution and a simple, effective suspension, the 2,400-pound car was quick and nimble.

At a bargain $7,000, the RX-7 had few rivals. Datsun’s Z car had become the bloated, expensive ZX, Porsche’s 924 couldn’t match it for price or performance, Toyota’s Celica Supra hadn’t figured itself out yet, and while the $10,000 Corvette beat the RX-7 from the stoplight, an extra thousand pounds ended the race at the first turn.

Like the 240Z before, the RX-7 was campaigned extensively. Initial success came at Bonneville in August 1978, where Car and Driver technical editor and Hagerty columnist Don Sherman piloted a prepared RX-7 to a record 183.904 mph. The following February, factory cars claimed a class 1-2 at Daytona (and 5th and 6th overall), and by season’s end in 1980, the RX-7 had captured IMSA’s GTU manufacturer’s title.

Before its 1986 redesign, nearly 379,000 first-generation RX-7s were sold in the U.S., a massive success for both the car and its engineering. Two more generations would follow, as would the most successful sports car of all time, with nary a rotor in sight.

Return of the roadster

In an era where car models come and go, it’s astounding to think that the Mazda MX-5 Miata has been around for 25 years.

Its 1989 introduction was a bit of a risk — a two-seat, rear-drive roadster where few had existed in the American marketplace since the MGB’s exit a decade earlier. But by doing so, Mazda capitalized on a niche that domestic brands like Saturn and Pontiac would only catch on to 20 years later. By entering the American market at the perfect time — when we were begging for attractive, practical performance whether we knew it or not — the Miata merely followed in the footsteps of the RX-7, 240Z and countless British sports cars that preceded it.

Mazda fitted the 2,100-pound Miata with a twin-cam 1.6-liter four derived from its 323 compact. Horsepower is a wonderful thing, but plenty of people will argue that it’s more fun to flog a small sports car at the top of its rev band, and that’s exactly what drivers loved about the 116-horsepower Miata. The roadster featured a tight chassis and a turning radius the size of a glazed doughnut, and throws on the five-speed gearbox were short and precise. Nothing could touch it in the sub-$14,000 range.

The Miata honored the very best of Spartan, open-air motoring, and base cars eschewed non-essentials like power steering, power windows or a/c. Those options and more could be added, along with a removable hardtop, but they did nothing to detract from the essential experience. And people beat down the doors of Mazda dealerships to get one. Demand exceeded supply, and buyers paid accordingly. Many 1990 cars are still on the road today, with odometers often reading upwards of 300,000 miles.

Though displacement, power and amenities would grow in the ensuing years, including a power retractable hardtop, the Miata hasn’t lost its raison d'être. To date, nearly a million have sold, making it the best-selling sports car of all time. And like all good minimalist sports cars, the Miata is a favorite on race tracks; in fact, it is the most-raced car in history. The fourth-generation car is expected next year and will share its structure with a similarly sized all-new Alfa Romeo Spider.

None of these three pioneering Japanese sports cars will ever achieve prices like the million-dollar Toyota
2000GT, but then again, why should they? Each was an inexpensive, mass-produced car. More importantly, each was a pure, no-excuses performance experience that never failed to kick sand in the face the competition. You won’t find a more reliable formula than that.

Rising Prices

Japanese cars have long been overlooked in the valuation discussion, largely because of their sheer numbers. The only real darling — and true blue chip — among them is the 1967–70 Toyota 2000GT, of which just 337 were built. Values have soared in the last four years, going from about $350,000 for a good one up to the million-dollar mark in recent public transactions.

Beyond the 2000GT, Japanese cars represent outstanding value for the performance, though rarity of good, rust-free examples is beginning to enter the equation. Datsun 1500 and 1600 roadsters are a great alternative to their MGB counterparts, with prices holding steady in the same $18,000–$25,000 range for a great driver,
while the final iteration, the 2000, can hit $40,000 for the best ones.

The Acura NSX, meanwhile, is gaining collectability status quickly. It is also the most potent agent of the bang-for-buck maxim typifying Japanese performance cars, and $35,000 will put a huge grin on your face.

Arguably the prettiest Japanese car is the 1993–96 RX-7. A world-beater in its own right, but still too new for classic status, prices are flatlined at about $20,000 for a great, unmolested example. And that’s the key here, because so many have been fast-n-furioused. Find a clean one, take care of it, and watch it appreciate.

As for our subject cars, early Miatas are just achieving minor collectability status, but they are still dirt cheap, with great, low-mileage ones available at about $7,000 and drivers for less. First-gen RX-7s roughly fall into the same range, while the 240Z now regularly climbs above $20,000 for a good one.

To see more images from our Japanese sports car shoot, go to hagerty.com/risingsons.

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