It was a life changing experience, coming across that pearl white 300ZX Turbo one warm summer evening. It was the first car that I ever photographed with a zoom lens, staving off boredom waiting for some fireworks to start. The Nissan Z cars had already been well established for a generation by the time I shot it on that July night back in the early '90s. This car, however, etched itself into my psyche in an instant.
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Related GalleryNissan Z32
The early '90s were a time of great promise for buyers of overtly sporting cars. There were incredibly capable (and horrifically uncomfortable) new F-Bodys growling around, the RX-7 was in its third generation and sported twin sequential turbochargers, Toyota was still building the Supra, and everyone was dumping big old helpings of high-tech into their performance cars.
Contemporaries to the 300ZX were cars such as the Mitsubishi 3000GT and the aforementioned RX-7. Both the Nissan and the Mitsu had 4-wheel steering setups, turbocharged V6 engines with four valves per cylinder, and the 3000GT also had all-wheel drive that offered the advantage of traction yet with the handicap of weight. The Z32 version of the Nissan Z-car was the né-plus-ultra of its series, and until we got the 350Z it was the final gasp of what started out as the 240Z way back when.
Street parked neatly with its standard T-tops stowed in the cargo area, the particular Z that caught my fancy some 15 years ago shone like a diamond along a thoroughfare lined with late-70s Malibus, Stanzas, and the occasional slightly-sporty-but-mostly-dorky Turbo Probe. That pearl white exterior was complemented nicely by a tan-hued passenger compartment. At once, the lines were clean and purposeful without being flamboyant, almost reminiscent of a Porsche 944 but not in the direct-lift way that the second generation RX-7 was. The looks have aged well, and given the choice between a 1995 300ZX Turbo and a 2005 350Z, I'd pick the '95 on looks alone.
I keep coming back to the scene of the Z on the street in my formative years, because it's the same type of story you'll get from a Baby Boomer, only they'll be reminiscing about the first time they saw a split-window Corvette. These early-90s-near-supercars occupy the same status for some of us. You can't argue with all of the accolades that the Z32 received, either. Buff-books happily showered the Z32 with praise and positions on many "best-lists."
The 1990 300ZX was a clean-sheet rethink of what had become more of a pleasantly capable GT by the time the R31 300ZX came online in 1983. The R31 heralded a new V6 powerplant, the VG series V6; the first Nissan bent-six that made us swoon. The VG was in everything from the Maxima to the Infiniti J30. Wearing dual overhead cam cylinder heads for 1990, the VG30DETT nestled down under the sloping hood of the 300ZX. Fed by twin turbochargers blowing through a pair of intercoolers, the three liter engine pounded out 100hp/liter. Even now, 300 horsepower isn't anything to sneeze at, but at a time when the Z28 was laying down 275 horsepower from an LT1, a 300 horsepower V6 was heady stuff.
Technology was all over the '90 Z cars. Two-position variable valve timing, which advanced the intake cams at low engine speeds, smoothing out the idle and offering improved torque. All four wheels steered, either via the hydraulic HICAS system, or the much lighter electrically-actuated Super HICAS setup that appeared on later models. After the Buick Grand National terrorized roads everywhere with a single AiResearch huffer hung off the 231 V6, the 300ZX gets our vote for baddest of badass turbo V6 cars that you stand a chance of ever buying. A quick check of eBay shows prices in the $5-12,000 dollar range for something that's not a basket case. The good thing about the Zs is that they're popular, so there's lots of aftermarket and enthusiast support, unlike some other more esoteric choices.
The Zs weren't a screaming bargain, ringing up for around $30,000, a sum that still remains more than I want to spend on a car and entirely out of my reach when I was in high school. That price bought you a car that was attractive, able to run with the big dogs and well assembled. The 300ZX Turbo was and is a well-rounded package for the money. There were better handlers, faster competition, even competitors with more seductive lines, but the Z did just about everything well, and it was liveable, too. Besides, the Z had one of the best car commercials ever, with Barbie jilting Ken for GI Joe in a Z, set to Van Halen. That right there likely sold a good many Zs.
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