From A to Z
We relive Datsun's heyday with Mike McGinnis and his 280Z.
July 21, 2007 -
Words by Ben Hsu, Photos by Dan Hsu
y October of this year, fifty years will have passed since the first Japanese automakers arrived on our shores. For car buffs of a certain age, it's easy to assume that Japanese cars have always just, well, been
. After all, models exist specifically to suit American tastes, many USDM models aren't even sold in Japan, and US-built Accords and Camrys glide down Main Street as naturally as rivers flow into oceans. In fact, the industry journal Automotive News
reports that by all accounts, July 2007 will mark the first time that imports, by nameplate, outsell Detroit's Big Three.
But how did this come to be? For us younger J-heads, it's a question that's almost impossible to answer unless we seek the mountaintop wisdom of a Japanese car enthusiast who's actually lived through the intervening half century. Well, back when we were still strands of DNA floating around in our parents' loins, Mike McGinnis was embarking on a life long relationship with one of the best selling sports cars of all time, the Datsun Z. Over lunch at a nearby Applebee's and during a tour of Banzai Motorworks, his restoration shop in suburban Maryland, Mike kindly took us on a journey back in time to when, as a young mechanic, he witnessed the adolescence of the newly arrived car company.
It may interest you to know that, prior to the Japanese influx, not all the cars on American highways were land sharks. If you could see over the tailfins, you might occasionally spot a few bantamweights darting between the herds of boulevard cruisers. Though they came from Europe, the sportiest among them hailed from that other
island nation known for its politeness, odd food, and imperialist tendencies: Great Britain. Instead of thumping bass and baggy pants, import culture was defined by tweed caps and string-backed driving gloves. The English, with their Triumphs, Jaguars, and Austin-Healeys, were showing the world that a small engine did not equal a slow car, and doing quite a good job at it too. Even the first Chevy Corvette started life in 1953 as an American response to British roadsters.
McGinnis apprenticed at a garage specializing in these Old World autos. Cutting his teeth on SU carburetors at his 9-to-5 and autocrossing a Saab 96 in his spare time, he was no stranger to diminutive, nimble machines.
When his apprenticeship ended in April of 1970, McGinnis went to work for a small Maryland import dealership that carried Saab, BMW and NSU. Within two months, the owners dropped the NSU brand due to dismal sales. Even at steeply discounted prices, the remaining pristine TTs sat on the lot, less wanted than polio.
Unlike the automalls of today, however, back then the grand, art moderne showrooms made of curved glass and projecting rooflines were strictly the domain of the domestics. By contrast, import dealers were regular mom and pop stores, often selling several non-American brands out of a single, tiny three-car showroom. Out back, a similarly-sized garage housed the repair bays while strings of pennant flags decorated the front rows.
To hear McGinnis describe it, the scene was enough to make even Andy Griffith dewy-eyed with nostalgia. But, changes would soon come in the form of peculiar sedans bringing distant visitors to these little lots. Submitted for your approval: A Toyota Crown, wearing manufacturer plates, pulling up to the front door to unload a number of besuited Japanese men into the owner's office where they deliberate for hours, only to emerge and drive off again just as abruptly.
This same scene played out all over the country as factory reps traveled the countryside like Hoover salesmen in search of shops that would carry their wares. For a dealer with the foresight to take on what would soon become a golden Japanese goose, the carmakers were so keen on expanding that they gave away franchises at fire sale prices. After several such closed-door meetings, McGinnis's employers picked up the Datsun line, suddenly making his years of work on SU carburetors very valuable.
It made sense to go with Datsun over other imports like Toyota or Subaru. The 510 had debuted in 1968 to a monsoon of praise and the 240Z was in the midst of turning the automotive world on its collective doorhandle. Zs sold so quickly that buyers had to endure a four month waiting list, and salesmen who couldn't give away an NSU if the Hope Diamond was lodged in its grille could now just sit back and fill out the papers. Datsun was experiencing stupendous, Ultraman-like growth, outselling early arriver Toyota and fast gaining on the most popular import, Volkswagen.
This, and practically all of Datsun's success in the States, can be credited to the legendary Yutaka Katayama, who not only infused the most popular Datsuns - the 510 and Z - with their sporting natures, but also leapfrogged the European competition by a technique known as the mountain of 10,000 spare parts. You see, Mr. K conducted an industry-wide analysis of all the manufacturers and figured out that (surprise!) people hated waiting. While not exactly on par with a unifying string theory, the concept seemed to have escaped all the imports save Volkswagen, who boasted both an arsenal of extras spread out across the country and legions of happy customers.
Mr. K made certain that Datsun stocked enough reserves to zip any part to any dealership in the country within 3 days. By comparison, a BMW driver would have a minimum of two, usually six, weeks to contemplate life while riding the bus, and a Jaguar owner had eight weeks to take up knitting as his mechanic waited for the next boat to cross the Atlantic. Of course, the rest of the imports eventually either disappeared or corrected this oversight to the point of common practice, as evidenced by the absence of pitchfork-toting mobs at the doors of your local BMW seller. It also probably didn't help for Euro dealers to maintain a snobby environment with a crust as thick as the Oxford English Dictionary
Furthermore, in those early, wild west days of import ownership, Datsun's idea of a warranty was more like a suggestion, frequently approving major repairs well past the expiration date. Well, hold on. Let's try to put that in perspective: a typical warranty then lasted only 12 months or 12,000 miles
, or about the time it takes for your new Hyundai just to break in. Try pithy coverage like that today and you're likely to have a lawyer convention at your door, but that's why Datsun's generous extensions earned them so many loyal customers.
In fact, when McGinnis blew the motor in a 240Z racing at Daytona in the IMSA series, his factory rep simply asked, "How'd you like a new engine?" and chalked it up to another warranty claim. This serves to illustrate that 1.) you could have probably claimed your own personal Japanese chauffeur and gotten it, 2.) Datsun's meteoric rise pulled many former Big Three employees, like McGinnis's enthusiastic ex-Chrysler rep, stifled by Detroit into their wake, and 3.) those were the days. Attempt that now and Carlos Ghosn will personally come to your house to take the money from your daughter's college fund.
Despite all their successes, however, Datsun still found it difficult to make headway into big dealership chains. Only those like Studebaker on the brink of dodofication allowed Japanese marques to share showroom space in the hopes of bringing in some foot traffic. Instead, the prime domestics made a half-hearted attempt to start up their own import brands, and shoppers soon observed Opels cramping Buick's style and Simcas languishing beside Chryslers.
By 1972, however, Datsuns and the other imports sold so well that all but the staunchest American dealerships began to relent. With their volume, 510s, 1200s, Pickups and Zs flew off the lots quicker than startled pigeons as factories in Japan struggled to keep up with the feeding frenzy. Weeks passed with no cars on the lots to sell but plenty of irate customers.
Production didn't catch up until 1973, and Datsun even managed to keep the lines churning when the oil crisis raised demand beyond its already fever pitch. Unfortunately, to comply with the increasingly stringent Clean Air Act, Datsun revised the 240Z with a gremlin-prone induction system. 1974 fared no better when the 260Z debuted with a bigger engine but less horsepower than it's predecessor.
Not until the arrival of the Hitachi-licensed Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system on the 1975 280Zs did things improve. McGinnis recalls with amusement the Bimmerphiles, already fuming about the 510, furious that the same new-fangled system touted on their more expensive cars could be had in a lowly Datsun.
In 1978, McGinnis's father purchased the brown metallic 280Z that Mike would eventually come to own. It was the final year for the first-generation car before the debut of the 280ZX in 1979. By 1980, McGinnis had put a decade of Z car experience under his belt and knew every aspect of the cars so intimately that he could practically tell you the color of a car with his eyes closed. It was a new decade, disco was dead, and McGinnis opened the doors of Banzai Motorworks to devote himself fully to his passion.
Fast forward 27 years, and a couple of wide-eyed bucks are checking out a small, non-descript plastic box sitting on a Banzai Motorworks bench. So shiny and smooth, we gazed upon it with awe like apes eyeing a miniature monolith. The object, a heater box for a 1974 260Z undergoing a full restoration at Banzai, looked as if it had just emerged from a time machine, with not the slightest hint of drying or aging. Even the Phillips head screws holding the piece together had been sent to Vancouver to undergo a sacrificial zinc plating process in order match what had come out of Datsun's factory. All for a part that will, once installed, spend the rest of its life sitting behind the dashboard.
Well, that's the kind of obsession with detail that gets McGinnis's cars, if not a full 300 points, damn near to it from the car show judges. No fastener, no contour in the sheetmetal, and no sliver of plastic trim goes untouched. Many of the parts, long out of production, must be hunted down like treasures from an Indiana Jones tale, whether they be electrical connectors tracked down for purchase from the original supplier who made them forty years ago, or a complete set unused and unrotted period-correct tires culled from the spare tire wells of at least five different cars.
When McGinnis can't find the items he needs for a restoration, he makes his own: rubber grommets, braided radiator hoses, bumpers, boots, fuel hoses, plastic guards, stickers, metal identification plates and more. Even Nissan's mistakes are painstakingly duplicated, from the overspray on attached components when recoating the block in custom-mixed high-temperature blue paint that Datsun never sold to the public, to the slightly off-center printing of the P2 inspection stickers affixed to cars pulled off the assembly line in testing.
McGinnis's work is so exact that in 1998, when Nissan offered restored 240Zs for sale at dealerships in the Vintage Z program, they contacted him for many of the parts that, as the marketing department discovered, didn't exist in some hidden warehouse.
Sadly, like the cars and parts themselves, men like McGinnis are a dying breed. Although Mr. K's strategy of stockpiling parts provided spares for 38 years, they too are slowly disappearing. Just six months ago, parts that had been available for decades - windshield washer bottles, brake shoes - began disappearing off Nissan's parts list. And while its true that, given enough sweat, some items can be reproduced, unless you're ordering enough to populate a 24/7 factory, few suppliers want anything to do with you. That's why we're indebted to Mr. McGinnis, who has taken on the charge of preserving these cars for posterity, along with everything there is to know about them, from A to Z.