It is an enduring, sleek design that debuted in late 1969 and spawned a line of cars that lives on to today. This coupe was a huge hit worldwide and put Japan on the sports car map. Of course, we are talking about the iconic Datsun 240Z, and sadly, its designer Yoshihiko Matsuo, passed away last week in Japan. He was 86.
To characterize the impact Matsuo’s 240Z had on the world back in the 1970s, it was as if Datsun had launched the Sony Walkman of the car world or the Nintendo Gameboy of the gaming field. By 1973, the 240Z had sold around 150,000 units in the U.S., making it the most successful Japanese sports car ever, until the Mazda MX-5 arrived in 1989.
Matsuo entered Nissan in 1959 and soon gained attention among company management for his input on the Datsun 410. As recognition of that talent, he was put in change of a design team in the late 60s that was tasked with styling the Datsun 240Z, called the Fairlady Z in Japan.
The reason for its huge success came down to inspired design, superb performance and handling and a competitive price. And perfect timing. In 1970, no rival had looks and specs like the Datsun and for just $3,500 (around $23,000 today). Critics argued it borrowed styling hints from the E-Type, 911 and Daytona, but to the market, the 240Z had a look all its own. And for the price, at least twice as much engineering had gone into the car’s creation.
The coupe employed a 2.4-liter inline-six-cylinder engine that produced 150 horsepower at 6000 rpm, boasted a 7000-rpm redline and had disc brakes and independent suspension all round. Seeking to compete head-to-head with established European sports cars, Datsun priced the new 240Z within $200 of the British MGB-GT in the U.S., a five-year-old design that showed its age.
For the 240Z project, Matsuo and his design team were responsible for the car’s exterior styling, but they also had to design it with production in mind. This meant thinking through how components were constructed and what materials made up the parts with the right balance between performance and cost.
Considered one of the most beautiful cars to even come out of Japan, Sports Car International in 2004 placed the 240Z at No 2 on its Top Sports Cars of the 1970s, behind the Ferrari Daytona. The Z won multiple titles in SCCA racing in the 70s with drivers including actor Paul Newman taking the wheel. Its wide-ranging appeal meant the 240Z broadened the acceptance of Japanese cars beyond their econobox image.
“We are all saddened by the loss of Yoshihiko Matsuo,” said Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan senior vice president of global design. “He was an incredible designer and influencer who created the original 240Z and other Nissan vehicles. What he and his team created in the Z was a revolution of design that expressed Nissan’s DNA in one vehicle.”
In the mid-70s, he left Nissan to establish his own design consultancy. In his later years, Matsuo often traveled to the U.S. and other countries to participate in Z car conventions. I will remember my times chatting with the softly spoken Matsuo about those early days in which he and the first-ever Nissan USA president Yutaka Katayama had to push reluctant Nissan bosses to green light the 240Z project.
The 240Z DNA Matsuo created back in 1969 lives on in the 370Z of today and the proposed 400Z, which is expected to surface by next year.