At the Dawn of the Rising Sun

Toyota 2000GT
If the Honda's engineering ingenuity and the Mazda's rotary engine blazed the trail for their makers' futures, then the 2000GT is the perfect example of why Toyota -- and Lexus -- are where they are today.

In fairness, some of the credit goes to Yamaha, which assembled all 337 2000GTs and developed the DOHC cylinder head that bolted to the Toyota Crown sedan's 2.0-liter straight-six block. The car's design was done by Toyota, and styling that appears a little overwrought in photos is beautiful in person. With shades of the Jaguar E-type in its complex curves, the backbone-frame 2000GT looks much like a Lotus Elan underneath. Ironically, it's the tall Lotus-style rear suspension towers that necessitated the upward kink of the rear side windows -- and in the process created one of the most beautiful greenhouses of all time.

Thanks to a windshield that curves noticeably away from the seats, the interior feels airy once you're inside, at least if you consider that the 2000GT is three inches lower than a Miata. The big problem is getting in and out -- it takes a considerable amount of body origami, despite door cutouts that extend forward well past the base of the A-pillars.

Unlike the other cars' black, no-frills interiors, the 2000GT has a detailed, rosewood-adorned cabin (a credit to Yamaha's piano-building expertise). Tasteful use of chrome, wood, and stitched fabrics creates an atmosphere that is more understated but just as elegant as a period Rolls-Royce. The handbrake lever, which extends straight out from the dash, feels like it weighs fifty pounds and rides on ball bearings. There are defroster elements in the rear glass so thin that they're almost invisible. Keep poking around and you'll notice that even the hood pops up with silent dignity.

The GT is no less impressive to drive. It feels in every way like a substantial V-12 grand tourer, with a smooth ride, steering that's as accurate as a modern car's, and power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes -- the latter a first for Japan. The five-speed's shifter is positive and the clutch perfectly smooth in its takeup. The straight six calls attention to itself only in its harmonic upper register, and the cabin is so quiet that the loudest sound you're aware of is a faint gear whine transmitted through the metal-and-rosewood shifter. Even in the company of these other amazing cars, the Toyota is a standout -- but it's hard to imagine what a shock it was to 1960s America, which thought of Toyota as a producer of only cheap knockoff basic transportation. That shock value alone is enough to explain why the 2000GT is the first collectible Japanese car to achieve Italian-exotic values.

Nissan Fairlady Z432
If it was the Toyota 2000GT that grabbed the attention of car enthusiasts worldwide, it was Nissan's Z that pried open their wallets. It took Chevrolet a quarter century to sell 500,000 Corvettes -- Nissan moved that many Zs in a decade. More important, the Fairlady Z, or Datsun 240Z as we knew it, was the final, fatal shot that killed the mainstream British sports car. Sized appropriately for big American frames, it was sculpted like an Italian supercar and stuffed with reliable, modern technology. It had a fixed roof in place of the leaky British canvas top, and it had the performance to brush aside all of its competition. And that's exactly what it did.

The Z's visual similarity to the 2000GT often results in accusations of copied designs, but in fact the two cars are only tangentially related. Initially, Nissan hired Albrecht Goertz, who penned the BMW 507, to consult on the development and design of a rear-wheel-drive sports car to be codeveloped with Yamaha. Nissan and Yamaha eventually broke up, leaving Goertz without a job and putting the Z in the trash bin.

Yamaha then formed the partnership with Toyota that resulted in the 2000GT -- and the world's exuberant response prompted Nissan to revisit the Z project. The similarities between the cars, both visually and conceptually, can't be denied -- but they are likely no more than the result of three companies thinking the same thing at the same time.

Besides, the 2000GT cost two and a half times as much as a base Fairlady Z -- they were hardly competitors in the marketplace. The 240Z sold in America used a SOHC 2.4-liter straight six derived from an old 1960s Mercedes-Benz design. It was a simple but effective engine and, attached to a four-speed manual, delivered both the performance and the driving experience that American customers wanted. Japanese buyers could choose between two six-cylinder engines that slipped under their country's 2000-cc tax ceiling. The first was shared with a luxury car; the other was plucked straight out of a race car to create the Fairlady Z432, of which 419 were built.

Four valves per cylinder, three carburetors, and two camshafts -- hence the Z432 name. The 1989-cc six was Japan's first mass-produced four-valve-per-cylinder engine. It was developed originally by Prince for the R380 race car, and it made its debut almost simultaneously in the Z432 and the first Skyline GT-R. It produced 160 hp, nine more than the U.S. engine despite having seventeen percent less displacement. Similar output, yes, but totally different personality: the incredibly short-stroke, party-animal six doesn't wake up until the old 240Z engine goes to bed -- its seismologist-special torque curve smooths and swells at five grand, and from there to the 7400-rpm redline, it's all cocaine and wasabi.

To your ears, it's the full fury of Godzilla -- a tremendously deep, mechanical symphony so rich and complex you'll think that the engine breathes through the world's largest saxophone reed. That tiny stroke means the straight six is all bore -- a suspicion confirmed when you see that the 2.0-liter engine essentially takes up the entire length of the engine compartment.

It would be fourteen years before another normally aspirated Z matched the Z432's power output, but that car, the 300ZX, weighed 30 percent more -- and its low-revving six was nothing like the Z432's track-sourced fireball. The fast, lightweight Z432 was, and remains, the definitive king of the Z cars. Like lesser Zs, the Z432's unibody is a bit quivery, and its simple, straightforward cockpit is nothing particularly special, especially after you've been sitting in a 2000GT. The shifter is nice, but it can't compare with the S800's, and at idle, the quiet lope coming from the vertically stacked exhaust pipes doesn't sound as cool as the Cosmo's raspy, poppy snarl.

But the Z432 is a livable, soulful sports car, and it's easy to understand how and why the Nissan Fairlady Z put to rest the popular insult that the Japanese could make only cheap, chintzy knockoff transportation. One drive in the Z432 -- or any of these four cars -- and you'll wonder how on earth Japan ever got a reputation for building soulless appliances. And if you think the Subaru BRZ and the Scion FR-S have questionable ancestry, all you need to do is look back to the automotive dawn of the land of the rising sun. These four cars explain it all.

Wow, this seems like something more suited for Motor Trend Classic, but then I never really look at Automobile. Nothing against you guys, it's just MT gets higher visibility on stands. Automobile still has some great quality, though. If the specs of the cars were listed in table form on this page it'd be even better.
I am surprised that you didn't involve the Datsun 1600/2000? And, there were several other early 2 seaters that never made it across the ocean. My neighbor had one of the first 240 Z's to reach our shores.... what a revelation! And, I believe it cost him $3795? I've really got into "Vintage" in recent years, and after driving a vintage car/ motorcycle you have a clear understanding of why the enjoyment is so much better .... You instantly know the enjoyment of NOT driving a Taurus/Camray feel vehicle. The engineers have had a field day making vehicles safer and more dependable, but at the same time removing ALL the personality of the vehicles. That's why I've got a daily driver, but I also have personality in my garage that cost less to repair and $200 a yr to insure.......thank you Grundy! Thanks for reminding us about fun little vehicles! Get one, drive it, and smile!
Good read, and those are some beautiful little cars.
You forgot the Datsun 1600 which gave its Italian contemporaries the Fiat 124 Sport Spider and the Alfa-Romeo Spider some competition.

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