From Z to Z: Back-to-Back In The 1978 Datsun 280Z And 2015 Nissan 370Z

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The past is a funny thing. The further we get from it, sometimes, the clearer it becomes. Or rather, certain things seem to draw into focus while others fade away, reshaping memory in the same way a spotlight draws attention on a darkened stage.

Contrast this against the immediacy of the now, an era where digital precision is celebrated, fetishized even, to the point where it can seem like the preservation and documentation of each and every experience that passes through our sensory channels renders playback more important than presence. This binary pursuit of perfection extends especially to the automotive realm, where computerized launch control systems guarantee repeatable, drama-free acceleration times and electronic stability management polices our post-apex throttle application to ensure clinically-correct, almost pre-programmed laps of any road course.

What happens when the past and the present tangle? How do we reconcile our memories of what driving might have once been with our current capacity to determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how accurate our misfiring neurons actually are? I decided to find out what I would see when we looking at this question through two very different, but genetically-linked lenses, each constructed from vantage points separated not just by time, but also philosophy.

Meeting Your Heroes

You could say that the 1978 Datsun 280Z was the pinnacle of first-generation Z car development. Its 2.8-litre straight-six had gained fuel injection along with a displacement bump from the original 240Z's 2.4-litre unit, making it one of the few vehicles from the 70s to stay ahead of draconian emissions regulations and actually improve its horsepower rating. It also closed out an era for Datsun, which was about to transition into the 80s behind the wheel of the ZX, a less sporty, cushier grand touring coupe that better suited the moustache and gold chains crowd predicted to be heavy influencers on the decade's car sales.

I've owned my Datsun for about five months now, plucked from a small town in upstate New York after a year of searching on Craigslist. I'd never driven one before I bought it - it was a leap of faith that a car with a Miata-like curb weight, rear-wheel drive layout, and simple mechanical needs would satisfy my craving for a classic that felt completely unlike the modern cars I drove day in and day out. Reasonably rust free and requiring no major repairs, the 280Z has become part of my small urban fleet.

Back To The Future

Datsun - now Nissan, of course - still builds the Z for the sports car faithful, and after an about-face in the early 2000s it's safe to say that a better balance has been struck by the current coupe between performance and creature comforts. In fact, the 2015 Nissan 370Z NISMO (by Nissan Motorsport's in-house tuner) isn't shy to shake your bones with its stiffened-over-stock suspension system, and attract eyes from passersby with its aggressive body kit, rear wing, and front splitter. You also get a bit more power from the 3.5-litre V6 under the NISMO's hood as compared to the base 370Z, and an automatic rev-matching feature for its six-speed manual gearbox.

I'd driven the current Z before, but it was about time the two of us got re-acquainted. Aside from a styling boost a couple of years ago, Nissan has been remarkably hands-off with the 370Z - even the NISMO - since it was first introduced in 2009, and as a result the car feels in some ways like a time capsule itself compared to more contemporary options.

Back-To-Back

The sound of the Datsun 280Z's big six feeding through a simple 6-1 exhaust header (a gift from a previous owner) mixes with the smell of vinyl out-gassing from the dash and seats and the cocktail of unburned hydrocarbons exiting the tailpipe, transporting you back to a decade when few, if any V8 engines were capable of matching the 2.8-litre mill's 170 horses. Engaging the clutch and sliding the five-speed into first gear is remarkably easy, a testament to the lazy feedback of direct linkages that have worn a groove through time while answering the call to action.

In contrast, the 370Z's push-button starter kicks its 3.7-litre mill to life with a flourish of mechanical chatter, only to sink into near-silence one idle is achieved. The only scent you bring into the Nissan's cabin is whatever cologne or perfume you happen to wearing, and the immediacy of the car's clutch - almost an on-off switch - makes it jarring to acclimate to after having driven its predecessor.

On the road, they both rattle, but for different reasons. The Datsun's interior panels and suspension bushings protest rough pavement with a litany of squeaks and bangs, letting me know I've got bolts to tighten and fasteners to fix in the near future. Still, the steering tracks straight, and the manual rack offers a running commentary on whatever surface it happens to be passing over. The 370Z's crash-bang comes not from the loosening effects of mileage and time, but rather the precise tolerances of its track-spec shocks and springs, which at times pinball me from the car's otherwise supportive seat bolsters.

In a straight line, it's no contest. Despite the 300 kilogram weight difference between the two, the Datsun's 170 ponies offer a Miata-like repartee to the Nissan's 350 horsepower and 276 lb-ft of torque. Still, with twice the power on tap the lack of fanfare surrounding the 370Z's surgical acceleration stands in stark contrast to the roar from the 280Z as it claws its way through the atmosphere.

Getting There, Versus Being There

Modern automobiles are increasingly robbing us of the ability to actually participate in the act of driving. The 2015 Nissan 370Z NISMO acquits itself of this charge better than most, largely by virtue of the fact that its older platform has yet to adopt the full range of performance-enhancing software essential for the acquisition of the cold, hard numbers that engineers and product planners wield like weapons of war in the pursuit of market share.

In 1978, Datsun was merely happy to be in the game. The Z car brought credibility to a brand in a land previously obsessed with cubic inches, and its phenomenal sales helped bankroll the metamorphosis into Nissan and a fuller range of showroom options. More to the point, the 280Z sought to deliver an experience, not a benchmark; the company's engineers had driven the Porsche 911 and Jaguar E-Type and thought, 'we can do this, too.' Rather than try to surpass or even match the top speed of the 930 or Jag's V12, it was the desire to stand alongside potential rivals with head held high, knowing that pilots would be able to unlock the same type of connected, passionate relationship with the Z that pushed Datsun to lofty heights.

The past might not always resolve into view with the kind of clarity afforded by the instant access to the ones and zeros that delineate modern life. When it does bubble up to the surface of our consciousness, however, it occasionally reminds us what we've lost in our pursuit of faster, bigger, stronger, back when we were happy, not because we had an app proving that we'd beaten the other guy around a track, but simply because we were right there, right then, in the game.

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