When I called up to inquire if the ’81 Datsun 280ZX listed was still for sale, the kindly man with a British accent replied, “Yeah. The wife thinks I’m too old for it now.” I'd be lying if I said I didn’t detect a bit of reluctance in his voice.
Dave, the current owner of this classic Z-car, invited me to come and see his beloved Datsun despite my admission that I was not actually interested in buying it. And while earlier Zeds are becoming highly coveted collectibles (particularly the 240Zs), the later 280ZX has yet to be fully appreciated by the automotive cognoscenti.
This specific car however, is special, not for its rarity or collectability, but because it is the exact same car my father sold more than two decades ago – just months before I turned 16 and would begin begging for the keys.
By sheer luck, when perusing autoTRADER.ca for interesting machines, I stumbled upon Dave’s ad for a 280ZX of the same year and colour as my father’s former pride and joy. The wheels were different in the photo than I recalled, but seeing that the seller is located in Brantford, Ontario – the city my family called home at the time – meant it just had to be our old beloved Zed.
The Used Vehicle Information Package Dave had on hand as a part of the comprehensive paperwork for the car proved my dad had owned it.
Introduced for the 1979 model year, the 280ZX marked the start of the second generation of Datsun Z-cars and was a larger and slightly softer sports car than the Zeds that preceded it.
Still featuring the 2.8L inline-six that helped define the car’s personality (and dictate the classic long-hood, short rear profile), the 280ZX was no muscle car, arriving originally in ’79 with 135 horsepower. Sadly, like most vehicles of the era – sporting or otherwise, the engineering goal was efficiency first, power second.
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1981 saw a bump of ten ponies to 145, but that news was overshadowed by the introduction of the new turbocharged 280ZX with 180 hp, though the latter was available only with a three-speed automatic since Nissan worried the five-speed manual would be too fragile to hold up to all that turbocharged power.
Upper trim levels could be ordered with T-roofs, alloy wheels and air conditioning – this car has none of those (the wheels you see in the photos are aftermarket units, but the original steel wheels with caps will be sold with the car when it goes). A Knight Rider–style digital gauge package was also offered, but mercifully, not found here either.
When asked about his favourite aspects of this 280ZX, Dave remarked that it’s a comfortable car even for long drives and he also appreciates the smooth-shifting gearbox.
The raw simplicity of a very basic engine that any weekend mechanic wannabe could work on helps add to the Z’s appeal. A GL model, this one features crank windows and simple, fabric seats making it an all-round pure machine, especially by today’s standards.
Like my dad, Dave’s favourite aspect of the car is the appearance. While similar vintage Toyota Supras, Mazda RX-7s and even later Nissan 300ZXs look very “’80s” and angular, the 280ZX remains a timeless design that proudly recalls the classic Jaguars and Ferraris of the 1960s in its details.
Twenty-three years ago my father parted ways with this 280ZX for a few grand less than Dave is hoping to get now at $10,000. At that time, it had around 67,000 km on it; now there are just over 130,000. And despite a few panel creases from some windstorm damage last year, I was delighted to see dad’s old car still incredibly clean and obviously loved inside and out.
There’s something heartwarming about a machine so simple in its mission that’s brought joy to a number of people over a timespan of more than three decades. It’s not a classic Alfa or Mercedes, it’s just a small Japanese car of which hundreds of thousands of examples were built. And yet, how effortlessly this 280ZX fires up and how eagerly it runs is a testament to how much love has been bestowed upon it during its life.
It’s a part of my youth that I remember fondly – a few road trips with my dad and the thrill of being dropped off at school in a cool car. The only speeding ticket my mother ever received was when she was driving dad’s 280.
Perhaps most telling of just how important this car continues to be is hidden in Dave’s confession that if he can’t find the right buyer who will treat the car with respect, he’d rather not sell it all.
With that kind of love, maybe with a bit of searching, I’ll find dad’s old Z again in another few decades.