The 911 Formula: Did Nissan lose its way?

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The Porsche 911 has maintained the same basic body style since 1963

In 1996 Nissan held a Z-America rally and threw a party at its headquarters. The occasion? To ‘celebrate’ the end of the Z32 (1990-1996 300ZX) and to announce their factory restoration program for the 240z.  While the Z32 300ZX was a well performing car, especially in its 300 hp twin-turbo configuration, annual sales had dropped to under 3,000 units. Consider that 3,000 units was not even 1/10th of  Nissan’s Z sales in 1971. With sports car sales sagging in general, the future of the Z itself was in doubt.  In fact it would take until 2003 until Nissan sports car enthusiasts could purchase a new Z again, in the form of the 350Z.

With sports car sales sagging in general, the future of the Z was in doubt.

Z32 sales figures by year

1990-1996 Z32 300ZX
Year 2 seat NA 4 seat NA Turbo convertible Totals
1990 19,199 13,009 6,896 0 39,104
1991 5,017 7,367 6,150 0 18,534
1992 2,953 2,876 1,343 0 7,172
1993 4,058 4,147 1,694 2,475 12,374
1994 2,546 1,155 829 885 5,415
1995 1,724 905 707 292 3,628
1996 1,158 700 577 194 2,629
Last 300 171 51 78 0 300
Totals 36,826 30,210 18,274 3,846 89,156

Fast forward to 2016: it has been 20 years since the demise of the Z32 and the latest generation Z (350z/370z) has been in production for 14 long years.  As with the Z32, sales were strongest after initial introduction and then dropped precipitously.  The 350z (Z33) sales peaked in 2003 and then dropped every year after that. The Z34 peaked in its 2009 introduction year, but is currently selling about 7000 units per year.

Z33/Z34 sales figures

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While Z34 sales are not as low as the late Z32, the writing is once again on the wall and one must wonder if the Z34 series will end and what, if anything, will take its place.  While the Z34 is still a modern sports car, and performs well against others on the road and track, the Z33/Z34 were never fully embraced by the automotive press, or sports car enthusiasts in general.  To fully understand what has happened to the Z, one needs to both understand Nissan as a global corporation and the history of the early generation Z (1970-1978), as well as buyer demographics and generational trends.

The 240Z, when released in 1970, created a sensation. The car came exactly at the right time. The muscle car era was ending, Americans began buying imported cars for the better build quality and fuel economy. The existing fleet of sports cars, British and Italian, were not well built, not reliable and were still relatively primitive. Along came the 240Z with its sexy styling and strong L24 engine and it literally buried the competition. The Z was able to compete (in terms of handling and horsepower) with a much more expensive Porsche 911.  The only domestic sports car, the 1970 Corvette, was bigger, heavier, more fuel thirsty and more expensive. The Corvette might beat the Z on the drag strip, but the Z would give the Corvette fits on winding back roads. The Z in the 70s would quickly surpass Corvette sales.

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The first generation (S30) 240Z is now highly sought after and increasing in value

 

The S30 Z appealed to sports car enthusiasts; it was light at 2300 lb, it could be set up for the track or autocross, and the engine could easily be modified to make much more power. Moreover the Z was robust. It begged to be driven hard and pushed, and it would do so time and time again without breaking down.  The heart of the car, the L24 engine liked to be driven in the higher rpm range.  For the era (1970) the car could easily cruise American freeways at high speed and eat up curvy roads.  Then two things happened: safety and emissions regulations. This led to the larger heavier bumpers on the 260z and 280Z, as well as the dreaded flat-top smog carbs on the ’73-74.  The post 1975 S30 series though retained the fun and sporting elements of the 240Z, and kept the basic body style that its owners knew and loved.  The interior grew more refined, and the additional of true factory AC improved comfort. The 280z didn’t offer quite the raw experience as the 240, and the early Bosch fuel injection sometimes created throttle response issues, but it is likely that many 240Z owners traded in for a 280Z.

It begged to be driven hard and pushed, and it would do so time and time again without breaking down

Maintaining the basic body style is a fundamental decision in automotive design and marketing.  Corvette did not do it, and is now on the C7 generation. If Chevrolet had slowly evolved the C1 body style but retained it forever, it’s likely the model would have died.  How then has Porsche been so successful using the same basic body style in its 911? There are many differences between Porsche and Nissan and there won’t be enough time to detail all of those here, but I will try.  First, Porsche takes a fundamentally different approach to sales than Nissan. Nissan is  much more platform based and mass-market sales based car company. Porsche would be perfectly happy to only sell 5,000 units of the 911, if that is the number that they can produce and still maintain the quality and aura of the car. It also creates demand. Why is A Ferrari $250,000 and why are people willing to pay that much?  It is part exclusivity and part the fact that Ferrari only makes a few hundred or a few thousand of each model. You could think of it like a rare vintage wine or a limited run of gold coins from the US Mint. There will only be so many… better get yours now!  If Porsche produced 100,000 911s a year they couldn’t sell them for $120,000 each. They don’t want the 911 to be the Accord- leave that honor to their Cayenne and Macan SUVs.

The 911 of today has the same basic shape of the original in 1963. That is a two-edged sword- if you didn’t like the 1970 911, you probably won’t like today’s. However for the Porsche-philes out there, they won’t buy it if it departs from that original shape. It can be massaged and shaped of course, and the current 911 model underneath the skin shares very little with its ancestors.  It does share the rear engine 2+2 configuration, the sloping hood which allows for good forward visibility and the general driving experience. It is still a flat six and you can’t show off your motor to your friends unless you have a lift.  Despite modest sales, Porsche has built an army of loyalists who will always want a 911- used or new.

Yet, like the Z, the 911 was nearly killed. Porsche reached a critical point with the 911- it had been in production 15 years and there was a genuine fear that safety and emissions standards would force it out of the market. In 1978 Porsche made a foray into front engine cars with its 924, 944 and 928 models. These cars continued to around 1990 and were then discontinued, much to the satisfaction of the rear engine purists. Never mind that the front engine transaxle models were technologically superior, had near perfect  50-50 weight balance and more robust water cooled engines. The 928 was for a brief moment the Porsche flagship and with its V-8 engine, was the one of the fastest and most expensive production cars world wide. Could the 928 slay the 911?  Aside from a few memorable and humorous scenes from the movie Risky Business, the 928 is but a distant memory now. You can see a bit of the 928 in the Panamera sedan.

Why do I bring up Porsche in a Z article? Because Nissan had a very successful run with its S30 Z and loyal owners.  Nissan came to a cross road as well. They could maintain the original S30 body design or turn the corner.  Nissan didn’t just turn the corner- they turned the corner and got lost. The appearance of the 280ZX marked a shift. Soon, the Datsun name was gone, and along with it Yutaka Katayama was gone.

Where have you gone Yutaka Katayama?

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The 280ZX 2+2 with T-tops and automatic transmission

The very sporting nature of the S30 Z was virtually destroyed with this car. The 2 seater ZX kept some of the original lines, but the 2+2 flatted the roof and lengthened the body. The steering wheel and seats belonged in a Buick, not a sports car. Nissan thumbed their noses at the sports car enthusiasts, instead loading up their new luxury GT with more options. Which would you rather have, a car that handles, or “pre-flight” check out?  Nissan at this point, chose to chase sales over owner passion and killed off the elements that had made the 240Z a success. While sales of this disco-era car were strong, the opinion in the automotive press was not.  What followed (the Z31 300ZX) was worse: now the familiar headlight scoops were gone and the traditional L-series inline six was gone, replaced by a V-6.

Nissan_300ZX_Z31_2-seater_T-top

The Z31 300ZX sported an all-new V6 engine, but did it stir the emotions?

And what was Porsche doing during this disco-era? Did they replace the 911 with a bigger, wider car with squared off corners and acute angles? The 1977 Porsche 911 looks much like that from 1970, other than the more flared rear fenders.  Porsche took a much more incremental approach to the 911. The basic body style remained, they refined the bumpers integration, interior and continued enlarging the engine to make more power. And they typically offered a limited run of race oriented models for the enthusiast or weekend racers.  Porsche management made a conscious decision to produce what a 911 that the enthusiasts wanted, not what the marketing people and focus groups wanted.

MPA Porsche 911 74-77.jpg

1977 Porsche 911- The shape of the past, present and future

Porsche management made a conscious decision to produce what a 911 that the enthusiasts wanted, not what the marketing people and focus groups wanted.

The 911 of course would undergo a myriad of changes over the next 20 years, including changing to a water cooled engine, but they always kept the 911 body style and did not deviate from that. Any major departure was introduced as a new model (the Boxster/ Cayman for example). In contrast Nissan evolved its early Z body to the Z31, where it was barely recognizable and then with the Z32 they made a conscious decision to abandon it.

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The Z32 300ZX brought back excitement and performance to the Z

Finally free from the constraints of the S30 and some 20 years removed, Nissan design created something that looked quite good for its era. And it performed well, even beating the C4 Corvette in a head to head comparison.  Looking at the Z32 though you might never know that its heritage lies in the S30.  I almost bought a Z32 a few years ago; I’d had my 240 for many years, and was now older and wanted modern comforts like AC and ABS. I would still consider a Z32 in terms of an affordable sports GT. 300 hp in the early 90s was a lot!

The Twin-Turbo 300ZX was a performer, beating the C4 Corvette in a head to head comparison…

The current (I don’t say final because we don’t know that it will be the end) iteration of the Z is the Z34 370Z.  What is interesting is that the Z34 attempts to incorporate some of the design elements of the S30. If you’re an early Z enthusiast though, the styling elements are questionable. The lack of the wrap around front bumper, headlight scoops, the front indicator lamps (now part of the arrow shaped headlights) and bizarre rear tail lights won’t endear you to this Z34. The car has a heavy look to it, with higher sheet metal and the flattish roof slopes down rather than the graceful round curve of the S30. Sitting in the 370z is akin to being in a bunker.

 

The (Z34) 370Z

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The Z34 (370Z) recaptured some of the 240’s Mojo

The 370Z is powerful even in stock form, and while it won’t beat a C7 corvette (what will in that price range?) or the 911, it does have its followers.  But I don’t know that its created the passionate following of the S30. It does not have the lightness, the raw connected driving experience or the beautiful styling elements of the 240.  When  you walk in your garage you don’t hate what you see, but you also don’t love it like you do the S30.  Please don’t even get me started on the roadster version of this car.

Let the millennials buy the Veloster….

Today’s millennials may have different wants and needs of the automotive world. Porsche ignores these millennials: let them buy the Veloster. Nissan seems to court them with cars like the Cube and Juke. Where does this leave the rest of us who yearn for the modern version of the 240Z, with a twin-cam straight six?

So how does Nissan reconnect?  The S30 loyalists want something that is lighter, less expensive and more of a pure sports car. We want more of the original styling elements and the raw driving experience.  The Z was always the Nissan flagship. Who decided that it would be the GTR? I don’t know what Nissan is trying to do with the GTR.  Very few are sold and the American flagship should not be a car that is only revered in Japan.  Porsche has maintained a very successful 911 series with loyal owners and connectivity between the 50+ years of production. The Z is closing in on 50 years as well, but it remains to be seen if today’s Z buyer has any connection to the original S30.

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