The automobile that can still send millions of 50-year-old hearts fluttering back to days of black-light splendor became a museum piece yesterday, as Nissan brought a ceremonial end to its line of Z cars.
Launched in 1970 with the classic Datsun 240Z, the series helped elevate the status of Japanese autos in the United States and inspired a band of followers whose commitment somehow transcended the faux wood steering wheel, cheap vinyl flooring and copycat design features of the original models.
President Mark Lambert of the Maryland Z Car Club jetted to Los Angeles this week to join fellow enthusiasts from all over the country as the very last Nissan 300ZX rolled into the Petersen Automotive Museum.
Club vice president Paul Taylor of Gaithersburg could only swallow his envy yesterday as he imagined Lambert watching the celebrities -- TV's Craig T. Nelson, American Bandstand's Dick Clark -- and the lavish ceremonies -- a giant Z dropped from a crane, confetti cannons -- paying tribute to his favorite machine.
"I'm pretty envious," said Taylor, 45, who is the chief of policy for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "It's just a classic car, and it still looks good today."
Taylor's drop-dead perfect 1970 240Z, which sat for a while in New York's Whitney Museum as Nissan celebrated the car's 25th anniversary last year, is a far cry from the sinister black 300ZX that was enshrined yesterday in Los Angeles.
The difference may have spelled doom for what was once one of the most popular cars on the market. An original 240Z carried a base price of around $3,500 -- not cheap in its day, but affordable.
"It really was a breakthrough design, and that was probably what showed the world that Japan had the capability of making something as good as a Porsche for a lower price," said Phil Berg, a senior editor at Car and Driver magazine.
The 1996 300ZX, which Berg said is once again a magnificent car after a period in the 1980s of being "big, fat and ugly," retails for at least $38,000.
Besides the swollen price, the Z cars fell victim to demographics: The young bucks who once wanted speed and thrills "now have to buy four-door cars for their families," Berg said.
Sales have dropped from a peak of 86,007 280ZXs in 1979 to just 3,600 300ZXs sold last year.
"Unfortunately, we're just not selling enough to justify continuing at this time," said Nissan spokesman Bill Garlin. "Let's just say this was not the happiest decision we ever had to make. All of us love the Z car."
That's putting it mildly for Maryland's Z car enthusiasts, about 50 whom belong to the state's Z Car Club and scores more of whom have signed up for the global Internet Z Car Club. There are monthly meetings, occasional special events and yearly rallies.
Paul Tarantino, 50, of Columbia is still swooning over the 240Z he has been driving for 23 years. Now an information analyst at the Applied Physics Lab of Johns Hopkins University, Tarantino was just starting a career in the Navy when he bought his car in 1973.
"It was more fun than anything else I could afford to buy," he said. He and his wife have since acquired an 18-year-old son and two family cars, but Tarantino can be a young man again anytime he climbs into his Z.
"It's kind of going back to simpler times, maybe," agreed Taylor, the Maryland Z Car Club vice president.
The appeal of the car -- and it's primarily the pre-1979 models that stir the most fever among the faithful -- is a subject enthusiasts can debate at length.
"If you look at the visual side of the Z, it combines the visual elements found in the European cars that have maintained their mystique -- you've got the sugar-scoop headlight, and the real sexy curve in the quarter panel," said Michael McGinnis, whose Banzai Motorworks in Beltsville does about half of its business repairing Z cars.
'They're stone reliable'
"And, unlike the British sports cars, they're stone reliable. The bodies will just completely rust away but the mechanicals will still work," he said.
In fact, explained McGinnis -- and he is something of a regional Z car guru as technical adviser to clubs in two states -- the 240Z was a direct copy of all the best parts of the hottest cars of its day.
Now that its production days are over, McGinnis expects the early Z car to occupy the same niche that made it a classic: affordable style and performance.
"It will probably never be like the [Jaguar] XKE or old Porsches and command tremendous prices," he said.
"But they will continue to be held by a lot of people who value them and think their heritage is important and want to keep them going."
Pub Date: 8/29/96