Nearly five decades after it ended production, the original Datsun Fairlady Z, also known as the 240Z, is still one of the most beloved cars Nissan has ever built. Introduced in 1970, the 240Z, along with its younger siblings the 260Z and 280Z, immediately took the American market by storm. Incredibly, by 1990, Nissan had sold more than 1 million Z-cars in the U.S..
While the Z line went on to produce some legendary cars, like the 280ZX and 300ZX, we’re going to focus on the original S30 generation. That means we’re comparing the 240Z vs 280Z today. The 260Z was right in the middle, so we’ll also cover that one too. Previously, we’ve looked at the ‘90s-era Nissan Silvia 240SX S13 vs S14, but now we’re going back to the ‘70s with the Datsuns. It was the time of Led Zeppelin, the oil crisis, and of course, the legendary 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z S30 coupes.
Nissan and Datsun S30 History
With the Nissan Z-car now about to begin its seventh generation with the 2023 Nissan Z (RZ34), it seems like ages ago that the line first debuted in 1970 with the first generation S30. After previewing it at the Pierre Hotel in New York City in late 1969, Nissan began production on the first 240Z that October, and at the time they were still selling cars under their Datsun label. In Japan, Nissan badged the car as the Datsun Fairlady Z. However, stateside and in the rest of the world they called it the 240Z.
The name came from the 2.4 L inline-six L24 engine Nissan put under the hood, which pumped out 151 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels. The engine was a single overhead camshaft (SOHC) design, and had a pair of round-top SU carburetors licensed to be manufactured by Hitachi. Nissan switched out the round-top for flat-top carbs in 1973, the final year of the 240Z.
The car weighed barely 2,300 lbs, so even though the engine was small and under powered, the 240z could still go from zero to 60 mph in just 8 seconds. Three transmissions were offered, either a three-speed automatic, or four and five-speed manuals.
The Series I-IV 240Z
Nissan built the “Series I” 240Z from October 1969 until February 1971, and the “Series II” lasted from February through August ‘71. Nissan produced the “Series III” from August ‘71 through September ‘72, and made the “Series IV” from September ‘72 through September ‘73.
The most obvious exterior differences between the Series I and II is, the Series I has a 240Z badge behind the quarter window, and the moving of exhaust vents from under the hatch on the Series II. The exhaust vents, though aesthetically popular, were widely complained about for letting exhaust fumes into the cabin. This was at a time when catalytic converters were not yet mandatory, making the vents basically poison inductors for the cabin. The Series III and Series IV mainly featured interior changes to the dashboard and console, as well as to the exterior bumpers.
Nissan was selling around 50,000 240Z cars a year in the U.S. by the time the 260Z came around.
From the Datsun 240Z to the 260Z
After 1973, Nissan retired the 240Z and put the 260Z in its place for the 1974 model year. The new name reflected the engine’s increase in displacement, as Nissan stroked the L24 from 2.4L to 2.6L. They dubbed the new engine the L26, but initially in the U.S. it actually made less power than the L24. This was because increasing U.S. emissions restrictions hamstrung Nissan for the first half of the 260Z production for the 1974 model.
Originally, Nissan tuned the L26 to make 165 horsepower, but that had to be dropped to 140 horsepower in the U.S. because of emissions. However, midway through the 1974 model year, Nissan figured out how to make the 165 horsepower version emissions compliant, and began selling that version to U.S. consumers, too.
Strangely, in the U.S. the 260Z only lasted for one year, 1974, whereas in Japan and Europe Nissan continued selling it until 1978. The transmission options were the same, but curb weight increased more than 100 lbs in the 2-seater coupe over the 240Z. New for 1974 was a 2+2 (two front, two rear seats) coupe configuration, that sat on a wheelbase nearly a foot larger than the 2-seater.
The exterior largely stayed the same with the exception of new taillights and bigger bumpers. However, the interior got several upgrades to the climate control system and dashboard. A reinforced chassis and rear sway bar also improved stability and handling significantly.
The Datsun 280Z Arrives
For the U.S. market, Nissan brought out the 280Z beginning in the 1975 model year, with it lasting until 1978. Inside the 280Z was a bored version of the L26, the 2.8L L28. The L28 featured fuel injection for the first time in the Z and made 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. Nissan also gave the 280Z a new N42 cylinder head that featured square exhaust ports, and the fuel injection system was a Bosch L-Jetronic system. Nissan introduced the Bosch system as a way to help boost fuel economy and reduce emissions. In 1977, Nissan fitted a new head with poorer flowing round exhaust ports.
The standard coupe and 2+2 configurations were both available, as were the same three transmission options. The 280Z also got new bumpers to comply with increasing safety restrictions. The 280Z weighed even more than the 260Z, putting it nearly 600 lbs heavier than the original 240Z.
The last 280Z rolled off the production line in 1978, to be replaced for the 1979 model year by the now legendary 280ZX. Nissan kept the same L28 engine from the Z, slapped a turbo on it, and put it in the new ZX. From 1970-1978, Nissan sold more than half-a-million Datsun 240Z-260Z-280Zs, proof of their incredible popularity. It’s relatively rare to see one on the streets today, and pristine ones go as high as $70,000 – $90,000 at auction. Still, they can be found out in the wild occasionally, and it is definitely a treat when they are.
Nissan 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z Specifications
|Model Years||1970-1973||1974 (U.S.)|
|Aspiration||Natural Aspiration||Natural Aspiration|
|Displacement||2.4 L||2.6 L|
|Block/Head Material||Cast Iron, Aluminum||Cast Iron, Aluminum|
|Bore & Stroke||83 mm × 73.7 mm||83 mm × 79 mm|
|Horsepower Output||151 horsepower||139-162 horsepower|
|Torque Output||146 lb-ft of torque||137-157 lb-ft of torque|
|Fuel System||Fuel Injection|
|Block/Head Material||Cast Iron, Aluminum|
|Bore & Stroke||86 mm × 79 mm|
|Horsepower Output||170 horsepower|
|Torque Output||177 lb-ft of torque|
Identifying a 240Z vs 280Z
Considering the body styles for the 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z were all the same, it can be a bit hard to tell the difference between them for untrained eyes. We’ll go over some of the basic things you can look at to tell 1) the difference between models and 2) what kind of condition they are in.
The first place you can always try to look is just behind the front wheels on the side. Many of them have badging right there signifying 240Z vs 280Z or 260Z. However, people will swap these out depending on the market, so it’s important to be able to look at other things to be able to tell the 240Z vs 280Z, too.
Identifying a Series I 240Z is probably the easiest. The distinctive 240Z badge behind the quarter-window is the most obvious sign. Besides that, the two rectangular exhaust vents located below the hatch window are also dead giveaways. The speedometer starts at 20 mph on the Series I, and the windshield visors are a little bit smaller vs the Series II.
On the Series II, Nissan relocated the exhaust vents to the side c-pillars and they are circular. The Series III design has the speedometer starting at 0 mph, adds a dash-mounted cigarette lighter, changes the layout of the console, and adds a seat-belt chime. For the final iteration of the 240Z, the Series IV, Nissan gave it steel headlight buckets, another new dash, and larger bumpers.
Identifying a 260Z
The 260Z is one of the rarest S30 Nissans available, especially stateside, making it somewhat easy to identify. Nissan only offered it for 1974 in the U.S., before switching to the 280Z a year later. The 260Z coupe shares the same exact body as the 240Z coupe, though as we mentioned there was now a 2+2 260Z coupe, too.
2+2s have a longer roof and longer quarter-window to accommodate the second row of seating. The rear seats aren’t standard rear seats, but are actually slightly undersized. The 2+2 versions are rarer today than the standard coupes, making parts much harder to reliably find. The 260Z also has rubber guards on the bumpers, adding a full six-inches to the car’s length.
The ZZZap 280Z and the Black Pearl Z
A 1975-1976 280Z will look almost identical to a 260Z, but in 1977, Nissan added crimped rubber bumper extenders and louvered hoods. Nissan kept the standard coupe and 2+2 configuration for the 280Z.
In 1977, Nissan also released the ultra rare ZZZap 280Z Edition that was available as part of the Special Decor Package. Unbelievably, in order to sell more ZZZap cars, Nissan actually created a 280 ZZZap” racing arcade video game. The game features a 280Z driving on a course with a nighttime scenescape.
In 1978, Nissan released another special edition 280Z, the Black Pearl Z. Like the ZZZap, Nissan limited production to just over 1,000, making them very rare. You can see what the Black Pearl Z looked like in this 1978 Black Pearl 280Z commercial.
Nissan S30 Rust
By far, the biggest and most common issue with the S30 Nissan 240Z vs 280Z vs 260Z is going to be rust. By now, more than 40 years after the last 280Z was made, it’s not an exaggeration to say more than 90% of remaining Zs have rust. Many buyers have to shop for years and years before they find a solid rust free example they can use.
The main culprit is a lack of primer and paint on any of the spot welds. With no protection, these areas were havens for rust to start and spread. Common areas for rust according to Hagerty are the doglegs in the wheels, wheel arches, deck lid, shock absorber mounts, rocker panels, frame rails, floorboards, and battery tray. Unfortunately, Nissan used mainly sheet metal on the Z to cut costs, and because of that they weren’t building for longevity.
Datsun 240Z vs 280Z Performance
Performance wise, the 240Z vs 280Z are relatively similar. On paper, the 240Z makes 151 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque; the 260Z makes 165 horsepower and 157 lb-ft of torque; and the 280Z makes 170 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. While you might assume that the more powerful and larger displacement 280Z would be faster, that’s actually not the case. The added 600 lbs of the later models outweighs the modest bump in horsepower. As a result, not only does the car accelerate a little bit slower, but it also handles considerably worse.
The 260Z is somewhat in the middle of the two, as it adds a little extra weight to the body but also has a more favorable horsepower increase over the 240Z. It won’t handle as well as the 240Z, but it’s still an improvement compared with the 280Z, ironically.
For all generations, Nissan purposefully made tall gearing for the various transmissions in order to make cruising pleasant and to achieve the 122 MPH top speed. They also gave the car a close to 50/50 balance for weight distribution, which improved handling.
Nissan 240Z vs 280Z Reliability
For a car produced in the 1970s, the Nissan S30 series was very reliable. The Nissan L-series engines that powered the various 240Z vs 280Z cars are also considered extremely reliable. The fact that most S30 Zs on the road today are not swapped but are still running the L-series motors is pretty incredible.
If it wasn’t for the prominent rust issues that plague these Datsun era Nissans, there would be countless more S30s on the roads today. They were extremely popular in their time, with Nissan selling more than half-a-million Z cars in less than a decade. In the ‘70s, consumers loved how well put together the 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z were, not being aware of the rust issues in the future.
Overall, most people would regard the S30 series as generally reliable cars. Most of the complaints about it over the years have been, besides rust, regarding the clunky and loud suspension. Especially by now, many S30 suspensions are just completely worn out and suffering from corrosion. Part of this is a symptom of their age, but they have also been known to cause problems since before that was an issue.
We’ll put the badge of reliability on the S30 series, rust issues notwithstanding. Granted, if you buy one today don’t expect a problem free car with 2022 build quality, but for its time it is incredibly solid.
Datsun 240Z vs 280Z Legacy
Though it only had a limited eight year production run, the S30 Datsun 240Z, 260Z, and 280Z cars have some of the most significant legacies in Nissan history. Being the first generation of the Z, they are long sought out and highly collectible, with some examples going for nearly $90,000 at auction. Of course, there are also cheaper versions in the $20,000s, but those are likely going to need some TLC.
In its time, the S30 Z boasted formidable performance, producing between 150-170 horsepower. It could go from zero to 60 MPH in less than 8 seconds, and the 240Z was noted for its outstanding handling. Consider yourself very lucky if you have a S30 Datsun today, as even seeing one is a pretty rare occurrence for most people.
Do you own a S30 series Datsun car? What are your thoughts about the 240Z vs 280Z debate? Let us know in the comments below!