5 July 2016

Performance with passion: Z Car Garage

The Z Car Garage hides amid a nondescript combination of light industrial buildings and unadorned apartment complexes in San Jose, Calif. The specialty Nissan shop may be obscured, but it is a gem.

Step inside and ZCG founder and Datsun fanatic Rob Fuller can be heard chatting about the Japanese six-cylinder sports cars with unparalleled excitement. Maintaining the shop with the help of his talented social media manager, Alvin Gogineni, and a small team of dedicated mechanics (who also happen to be enthusiasts), Fuller has built his reputation via quality work in the saturated world of performance shops.

Fuller’s love affair with Datsuns reaches back as far as he’s willing to admit. In his early days as an automotive enthusiast, he took a liking to Datsun 510s. After purchasing his first “dime” in 1994, in a “totally disassembled” state, he got straight to work. As his knowledge and experience grew, Fuller began wrenching on his friends’ 510s, too. His reputation increased too, so much so that he was simply addressed as “Rob 510 from Atlanta.” He smiles recalling how popular roaring domestics were during his high school days. Always cheering for the underdog, Fuller never felt comfortable playing in that world.

Over the years he wrenched in exchange for labor credit, sometimes for free. Ultimately, Greg Scott, owner of a Santa Clara, Calif., based Z shop, contacted Fuller and offered him a job.

“In 1998,” Fuller says, “I came here with $200 and my tools and worked at Greg’s Z shop until he retired.” It was then, in April 2004, that Rob opened what is now known as Z Car Garage.

Although its exterior doesn’t merit comment, inside is a Datsun lover’s dreamland. In every corner live builds in various states of completion, each one possessing a unique story. Nearly all have sentimental backstories and Rob is the first to acknowledge this.

The cars shot during my visit to ZCG were all special for different reasons. It would take an encyclopedia to document the wonders beneath each bonnet in the shop – from completely stock L24s (the Datsun 240Z’s stock engine) to The Behemoth – a 240Z built by ZCG with an intricate OS Giken TC24-B1Z twin-cam cylinder head atop an L-series block. Fuller sees each Datsun as “a blank canvas on which you get to paint your picture.” And while we could discuss engine specs and numbers all day, it’s the passion behind ZCG that completes this story.

As a vintage automotive enthusiast (or simply “young person,” as I’m often called), I have immense respect for people like Fuller and his staff. To not only restore classics, but also discover and develop their beauty further, is something truly special. “These cars are very obtainable,” he explains on a ride in his Sahara Gold 240Z, dubbed Mrs. Butter-Z. “This is what an L-series can be.” There’s no V-8 swap, no meticulous engine bay wire tucking, no flashy bits in the cockpit. It was an original S30 (the Datsun 240Z first generation’s internal code) equipped with a nicely buttoned up L24, refreshed suspension and five-speed transmission conversion. Pretty simple overall, but the car is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

Towards the end of my visit, I happened upon a photo album in the lobby while photographing the entrance. “That’s the story of Z Car Garage,” Fuller says, smiling. He isn’t exaggerating; inside are photos starting from day one. The shop’s entire build process is documented, from painting the walls and fixing up the lobby to installing lifts and the first customer cars. Accompanying those photos is a series of ZCG customers’ portraits and their cars. Fuller names each of the owners and recounts exactly what work ZCG performed on their cars as we flip through the book. From the shop’s first 240 on, he remembers them all.

“The people are one of my favorite parts,” he says. “A lawyer, doctor or construction worker can all share the same passion for the Z.”

The philosophy guiding Fuller, his team and the shop are simple: Through quality work, they push to maintain the inarguable expression of joy and personality that comes from driving Z cars.

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