Where’s the next 240Z, RX7 or Miata?

Posted on August 20th, 2002 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Where’s the next 240Z, RX7 or Miata?

It’s a long time since here in Australia we’ve seen a breakthrough Japanese car. And, since along with the US, Australia is one of the largest markets for Japanese manufactured (and, more confusingly, cars manufactured in overseas but Japanese-owned factories), the breakthrough cars we see here are pretty well what others also see.

Once, in the dim distant past, Japanese cars were regarded as a joke: despite having a domestic manufacturing industry that pre-dated WWII, Japanese cars were pedestrian right through the 1950s and early 1960s, often being modelled on UK products – which in turn were nothing fantastic. Datsun may have been founded in 1931, but thirty years later their cars were uninspiring. Toyota started making cars in 1935, but not products with any marketing, styling or engineering excellence. Of course, being part of the losing side in WWII certainly didn’t help things…

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In fact you need to fast-forward to the mid-late 1960s before there is even a hint what was to come in Japanese car-making excellence. It was in 1968 that Toyota built the pictured MF10 model 2000 GT. With a twin cam six cylinder engine, four wheel independent suspension and 110kW at 6600 rpm from its 2-litre engine, this was a car unlike any other Japanese design. Throw in four wheel discs, triple Solex carbs, and a top speed over 220 km/h. In fact – apart from the swept capacity of the engine – it was in many ways more Jaguar than Japanese. Despite setting three world records and 13 international records it sold only in very limited numbers.

And the late Sixties was when it really started to happen. Datsun designed two seminal cars: the 1600 (510 in the States) sedan and the 240Z coupe. Both had four ingredients that proved vital to success: independent suspension, a SOHC alloy-head engine, immense durability, and a low selling price. While at the time of its 1968 release the boxy 1600 wasn’t regarded as a particularly sporting car, that soon changed when it went rallying and road racing. On the other hand, the 240Z (in many ways the same mechanical ingredients but add a beautiful body and two extra cylinders to the L-series engine), was always a sports car. And yes, while the open-topped Datsun 2000 had preceded the 240Z, it simply didn’t have the market impact of the later car.

In fact it’s illuminating to look at what was on sale here in 1973. The 240Z ($4940 and 151 SAE horsepower), Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV (probably even prettier and certainly with better handling and brakes – but a whopping $6895), BMW 2002 (need to go up to the Tii model to get the similar power to the 240Z, and the Tii cost $7935…), Fiat 128 (cheaper but well down in power), Triumph Stag (even with its little V8, still only around the same power as the Zed but an eye-watering $7884). No wonder the 240Z created a whole new market for sports cars!

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It was also a time of Mazda’s marvellous on-going experiments with the rotary engine. In 1973 you could buy the RX2, RX3 and RX4; the R100 had already come and gone. But each of these cars was also available in a piston-engine version, showing how cautiously Mazda needed to tread. To be brutally honest, rotary engine cars were a flop… until the 1979 release of the RX7.

In just the same way as the 240Z had been a breakthrough car, the RX7 both created a renewed market for small sports cars and – almost incidentally – rescued the rotary engine from the scrapheap. Datsun Zed drivers hated the RX7; it represented a slap in the face every time they saw one quietly pass by. (In those days no-one was fitting loud exhausts to RX7s; most were sold by dealers who placed little emphasis on the fact that it had a rotary engine under the bonnet). The reasons that the Datsun drivers didn’t greet the RX7 with enthusiasm were two-fold: suddenly the SOHC engine (grown by now to 2.8 litres in the 280ZX) was technically pass√©, and despite the RX7 having only 77kW (against the 280ZX’s 90kW) the RX7 won all of the contemporary comparisons – and the compared cars also included the Alfa Romeo GTV and Porsche 924!

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And it was Mazda that in 1989 again set not just Australian sporting car drivers – but also those across the Western world – alight with the release of the MX5/Miata. Based on the driveline of the humble 323 (though of course reorientated north/south and driving the rear wheels) its development was occurring at just the same time as Ford Australia engineered the Capri – also based on 323 (or Laser, if you like) mechanicals, but in the case of the Capri, keeping the driven wheels at the front. At the time, no-one had any inkling of how important one car would prove to be – and of how little long-term relevance to anything the other would have!

But Mazda pulled a stunning rabbit out of the hat: without doing anything technically fancy (ie, expensively) they developed one of the best-handling cars ever, and one well within the market reach of nearly everyone. The world had forgotten reliable, cost effective and scintillating open-air fun: the Miata reinvented the genre.

And there have also been some other breakthrough Japanese cars over that time: the Lexus LS400 shocked the trad Euro luxury car builders out of a moribund complacency (pity Lexus hasn’t done much exciting since), and in terms of technology, the Japanese approach to mixing engine management and turbocharging elevated the playing field to another level. (And the Skyline GT-R? Really, for all its publicity, it had little commercial impact – perhaps it’s indicative that the electronic four-wheel drive system of the humble current model X-Trail represents the consumer-level use of that driveline technology – more than 13 years later!)

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But since the Miata, what other hugely important sporting cars have come from Japan? Not the Hondas NSX or S2000, not the Supra twin turbo nor the latter versions of the RX7. Will the next breakthrough sporting car be the RX8, that bizarre incarnation of four doors and a new breed of rotary? Or will it be the pictured Nissan 350Z, a car that – like the original – keeps the price down by using passenger car mechanicals in a new package?

My money is on the Nissan – but it will be your money that really counts.

3 Responses to 'Where’s the next 240Z, RX7 or Miata?'

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  1. doctorpat said,

    on September 18th, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Just as the 240Z was the reinvention of the E-type, but cheaper and more reliable. And the RX7 was the reinvention of the 924, but cheaper and close to as reliable, and the MX5 was the reinvention of the MGB, but cheaper and more reliable, and the LS400 was a Mercedes S class…. I think we have to wait for something that until now hasn’t been practical, but can be made so.

    There have been attempts. The NSX was a Ferrari 348, but cheaper and more reliable. But not cheap enough.

    The GTR was a Porsche 959, and it was cheaper, but it was four cylinder versions of the same thing (WRX, Lancer) that made it to the big time.

    The Supra twin turbo was an Aston Martin, a Porsche 928, a Ferrari 612, and it did rather well in the markets where it was released. But not here.

    I would put my money on something nobody has tried yet. Maybe a Honda Lotus Elise. Or a Lexus Shooting Brake. A suzuki Morgan three wheeler…

  2. Andrew said,

    on May 21st, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Yes, the 350z is a return to what the zed cars are all about. The z32 tt was a capable performance, but even the non-turbo version sold in Australia was close to $90k (in 1990 dollars). The z33 is a performance bargain.

  3. Wave said,

    on October 4th, 2008 at 2:17 am

    The 350Z is a very nice car but I don’t think it will change the world. To add to doctorpat’s suggestion, I think that if the Japanese manufacturers were going to reinvent something else and make it cheaper, then the Ariel Atom would be a sensational idea! There are plenty of very similar track-focused cars available which are all generally hand built and therefore very expensive. I’m pretty sure that the Atom is well on the painful side of $100,000. I see absolutely no reason why Honda or even Toyota couldn’t build an extruded space frame with a Civic/Corolla drivetrain at the back for around $30,000 or maybe even cheaper! At that sort of price range, sales numbers would be massively increased and perhaps it could become fairly common to have a weekend fun car. The key is being able to do a fun ultra-lightweight car as cheaply as possible so that regular people can afford to buy one as a second car. Make the future of sports cars lighter, not more powerful!