Building on the overall format the S30 “Z” cars had established, the 280ZX represented a complete redesign and new market direction for Nissan. Retaining only the L28 inline-6 cylinder engine and various driveline components, the new S130 280ZX was an all new design from the ground up.
The 280ZX (1979-80)
The 280ZX adopted suspension similar to that of the concurrent Bluebird 910, with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arm independent in the rear. The wheelbase was up from its predecessor (90.7 in (2,304 mm)) to 91.3 in (2,319 mm) for the two-seater.
The 280ZX’s body was redesigned with aerodynamics in mind. By closing in the open grille of the first generation Z-Car and through other improvements taken from wind-tunnel testing, the drag coefficient was reduced from 0.467 to 0.385, and the lift coefficient from 0.41 to 0.14. The new design had a lower center-of-gravity and near 50/50 weight distribution in both 2-seater and 2+2 designs. The rear of the car was stretched to accommodate a larger 80 L (21.133 U.S. liquid gallons) fuel tank. Overall, the new body design gave better fuel economy and high-speed stability (one of the known issues from the first generation Z-car).
Improvements were also made to braking, and steering. The 280ZX initially offered either unassisted rack-and-pinion steering, or Datsun 810-derived recirculating-ball with power assistance. A new power-assisted rack-and-pinion replaced the recirculating-ball steering system for the 1981 Turbo, becoming available on the normally aspirated models the following year.
It is a common misconception that the 280ZX’s L28 engine is less powerful than the L24 engine of the 1970 240Z: the difference is due to Nissan adopting the SAE net standard of power measurement, which resulted in lower power ratings than the earlier gross figures and added emissions. However, Nissan designers deliberately sacrificed raw acceleration for improved fuel economy in the 280ZX, so the early 1979 models rated at 145 hp (108 kW) actually had slower acceleration than the 240Z, largely due to increases in weight and emissions control strangling. This overall performance deficit was not addressed until the release of the 280ZX Turbo in 1981.
Early reviews of the 280ZX were mixed. Some lamented the transformation the Z-car had made to a grand tourer, while others appreciated the improvements in refinement, comfort, and overall market appeal. The sales figures soon proved the Nissan designers right, with the 280ZX becoming a sales success.
In 1979, Datsun homologated a high-downforce whale-tail type spoiler for the Datsun 280ZX by producing 1,001 280ZX-R cars. These cars also had distinctive body decals and ZX-R logos. These cars were identical to the other cars of this year with the exception of the whale-tail and decal package.
From 1980 onwards, the 280ZX was available with a T-bar roof (on both the 2-seater and 2+2 body shapes). The T-bar roof panels could be removed and stored in bags in the rear of the car.
In 1980, a limited edition “10th Anniversary” car was released. Available in either black/gold or black/red two-tone paint, these cars came with leather seating, and other special trim features. A total of 3000 of these cars were built; 2500 in black and gold and only 500 in the red and black.
The 280ZX Turbo (1981-83)
A turbocharged model (using the L28ET engine rated at 180 bhp at 5,600 rpm and 203 ft•lbs of torque at 2,800 rpm was introduced to the US export market in 1981. At the same time the Japanese domestic market received L20ET (2 L turbo) in both manual and automatic transmissions. Nissan’s concerns about reliability of their own five-speed transmission when combined with the additional torque of the 2.8 L turbo engine, meant no manual transmission was offered with the L28ET engine in the 1981 model year. Other export markets (Europe and Australia) continued to receive only the normally aspirated 2.8 L engine with manual or automatic transmission. This engine was considered too powerful to receive type approval by Japan’s Ministry of Transportation, who would only allow turbochargers to be installed in sub 2 litre-engined cars, and it was therefore never sold in its homeland.
The turbocharged 280ZX used a single Garrett AiResearch TB03 with an internal wastegate, and no intercooler. Nissan’s design philosophy at the time led to boost being limited to a sedate 6.8psi (0.47 bar), despite the lowered compression of the turbo engine (7.4:1 with dished, cast aluminum pistons). Additional changes over the naturally aspirated engine included a higher volume oil pump, an oil cooler on automatic models, and Nissan’s Electronic Concentrated Control System (ECCS).
At the time of release into the US market, the 280ZX Turbo was the fastest Japanese import in the American market.
The 1982-83 “Series II” Update
Nissan gave the 280ZX a face lift in 1982 with revised NACA ducting in the hood, new alloy wheels (14 in. 6-spoke alloys for non-turbo models, and 15 in. 4-spoke alloys for turbo models), a revised B-pillar garnish, new pin-stripe style tail-lights, and rubber bumper over-riders replaced the earlier model’s chrome and rubber items. Interior changes were minor but included new seat trim styling. The 1982 model also was the first to offer the popular voice warning system, which warned the driver when headlights were left on after the vehicle was turned off, if the parking brake was on while the vehicle was in motion, and many other warnings.
This facelifted model has since come to be called the “Series II” 280ZX.
Power steering became standard equipment with a new rack-and-pinion system, rather than recirculating ball. Changes were made to the rear suspension layout, which also meant the exhaust pipe now exited from the left, rather than right-hand side.
As in 1981 both turbo and normally aspirated engines were offered, but non-turbo cars now used the uprated L20E for the Japanese market or the L28E for the export market, which on the 2.8 L version, due to increased compression, were rated at 145 hp (108 kW) rather than the earlier engine’s 135 hp (101 kW). The naturally aspirated 1982 Datsun 280ZX boasted a 0-60 mph time of 9.1 seconds, 1.2 slower than the Corvette of the same year. The 280ZX Turbo manual had a 0-60 mph of 7.4 seconds while the automatic managed to turn out 7.1 seconds. That compares to the Aston Martin Volante with a 0-60 mph of 8.9 seconds and almost seven times the cost and the Ferrari 308GTSi with a 0-60 mph of 7.9 seconds. The only cars in 1982 to beat the Turbo ZX was the Porsche 911SC and the BMW M1, which were considered by most to be exotic cars. This info can be referenced in the R&T Guide to Sports & GT Cars 1982.
The (US market only) 280ZX Turbo was offered with a manual transmission; this was a Borg-Warner T-5 five-speed model (this was the first Nissan and Japanese car in general which used a non-Japanese transmission; the T-5 was also used, most notably, in the GM F-bodies and Ford Mustang) in addition to numerous other American domestic vehicles. The T-5 was only available in 1982 and 1983. The 1981 Turbo was only available as an automatic. Hitherto mainly sold in the US, in the second half of 1983, the 280ZXT Turbo also became available to Germans. It was the fastest, most expensive, and most powerful (with 200 PS/147 kW) Japanese car offered yet in Germany.
Spring rates and sway bars were revised, which largely addressed the handling nervousness of the early 280ZX Turbo, and reviews confirmed that the 1982 280ZX Turbo was the most sporting Z-car since the original 240Z of 1970.
The S30’s Racing Pedigree Lives On
The 280ZX proved successful in various classes of racing, particularly in the US. Significant results include:
- 1979 SCCA C Production Category (Bob Sharp Racing 280ZX)
- 1979 and 1980 IMSA GTU Championship (Electramotive Datsun 280ZX)
- 1982 and 1983 IMSA GTO Championship (Electramotive Datsun 280ZX Turbo)
The 1983 Electramotive 280ZX Turbo produced over 700 hp (522 kW), and reached a terminal speed of 140 mph (230 km/h) in the standing quarter mile.
The most notable driver to be associated with the car was actor Paul Newman, who raced with the Bob Sharp Racing team. He also helped to promote the car, even by starring in a series of commercials.
Previous Installments in the Our Fairlady “Z” Series