Nissan sports cars can trace their roots all the way back to 1959. Offered as an alternative to similar models from Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Triumph, and MG, the first of these was the 1959 Datsun S211. Based on a small Nissan pickup truck, the S211 featured a 988cc inline four-cylinder engine. Considered more of a sporty roadster than a sports car per se, the 36-horsepower two-seater is nevertheless the grandfather of today’s Nissan 370Z sports cars. Made of fiberglass, only 20 examples of the Datsun S211 were ever built.
However, that car set the pattern for the first Nissan roadster to be imported to the United States. This model was the 1960 Datsun SPL212. Based, as was its predecessor, on the Datsun 223 pickup truck; it was the first Nissan to carry the “Fairlady” nameplate. And yes, the Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, inspired the name.
The P212’s power came from a 1.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine producing 47 horsepower. Its output was routed to the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. Some 288 examples of this car were produced between 1960 and 1961. Adding a set of dual carbs to the engine gave the 1961 version of the roadster, the SPL213, 59 horsepower. Nissan built 217 of these between 1961 and 1962.
Considered by many to be the first true Nissan sports car, the 1963 Datsun SP310 Fairlady 1500, was imported to the United States as the Datsun 1500. As you may have surmised from its nomenclature, power came from a 1.5-liter inline four, producing 77 horsepower. Remaining in production (albeit in a steadily evolving state) through 1970, it was ultimately called the Datsun 2000 and was getting 150 horsepower from its 2.0-liter inline four. The car featured a five-speed manual transmission, a 7,000-rpm redline, a top speed of 140 miles per hour, and was capable of returning 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
The Nissan Fairlady Z models replaced the SP310 based cars in 1969. The American version of that first Z-car featured a 2.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine fitted with a dual carburetor intake system. Known in the US as the 240Z, it offered 151 horsepower and was a runaway success. Some 45,000 units were sold through the 1971 model year. In 1972, Nissan sold more than 50,000 copies of the 240Z. Unfortunately, the ensuing years saw the model evolve into a steadily larger and more bloated Grand Tourer. By 1989, it was known as the 300ZX, and was similar to that original 240Z in shape only. The lithe and lively 240Z was completely lost—as was its original fan base.
When Nissan replaced the car in 1990 with the all-new 300ZX, the original concept was scrapped altogether in favor of a purpose built GT concept. With its near-exotic good looks, the new 300ZX was considerably more successful than its predecessor. In fact, it became one of the most desirable sports/GT cars on the market. The base engine produced 222 horsepower and 198 ft-lbs of torque. But the one to get was the 300ZX Twin-turbo. That model boasted 300 horsepower and 238 ft-lbs of torque. All of this goodness was considerably more expensive though. And unfortunately, the price continually escalated over the lifespan of the car. By the time it went out of production in 1996, exchange rates and other factors had pushed the price of the Nissan to nearly $50,000.
With Nissan in general in a slump, that was it for Nissan sports cars—until the company introduced the Z Concept five years later at the 2001 North American International Auto Show. Designed specifically to sell for less than $30,000, while offering 300 horsepower, the 350Z was a throwback to that first Fairlady 240Z of 1969. Ultimately offered in both coupe and convertible forms, it was extremely well received. As of this writing, the model has evolved through two generations to become the Nissan 370Z we know today in America.The Fairlady Z nameplate is still in use in Japan. With more than two million sold, the Nissan Z holds the record as the best selling sports car line of all time.