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It’s a hard job building a car for the USA, at least for a foreign marque.
Almost every manufacturer has tried to break into the 20th century’s largest car market, but the list of flops and exits is extensive. Rover, Peugeot, Citroën, Renault and Suzuki are just a few of the big brands to try, and fail, while Fiat and Alfa Romeo have only recently returned.
It’s a balancing act between adapting to American sensibilities, and yet still offering something different enough to tempt buyers away from the native products.
When Datsun sought to break into the US market via a sports car in the late 1960s, there was one obvious marque to both take inspiration from – and, if possible, to try to replace: Triumph.
Stretching back to the ‘export or die’ days of the 1950s, Triumph was one of the key players in the post-war British sports car boom in the USA, its larger-capacity TR models proving a particular hit – especially once the TR250 (badged TR5 in the UK) arrived with a 2.5-litre straight-six in 1967, just as the Austin-Healey 3000 was being discontinued.
By 1969, the lessons from nearly two decades of selling TRs to Americans were put into practice with the TR6, Triumph’s greatest success yet.
The engine, carried over from the TR250, was large enough to avoid embarrassment in the ‘bigger is better’ automotive culture of the States, and also capable of decent power output through simple carburation.
Triumph wouldn’t take the high-tech fuel injection it offered in Europe to the USA because it was difficult to make it meet Californian emissions standards.
Even if that hadn’t been the case, Triumph’s American distributors were always conservative about new, potentially high-maintenance technology.
Just a few years earlier, the TR4A had been built with two different rear-suspension systems to allow a simple, leaf-sprung variant to continue to be sold in the States after European cars switched to an independent rear end.
It’s easy to blame this on undiscerning American buyers, or a Stateside suspicion of complexity, but, in fairness, if you lived in a country where your local Triumph dealer might be hundreds of miles away, you’d likely insist on carbs the mechanic down the road could work on, too.
The TR6’s styling was an evolutionary step, courtesy of a top-and-tail by Karmann, with the centre section coming straight from the previous TR5 – itself a continuation of Giovanni Michelotti’s shape for the TR4.
Nevertheless, it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful examples of reheated bodywork in automotive history: up-to-date for the dawn of the 1970s, and surprisingly coherent.
Taking advantage of the demise of the Healey 3000 and developed from the TR250/TR5, the TR6 confirmed the blueprint for a successful sports car to sell in America. There was just one problem: others were taking notes, too.
Datsun didn’t make its debut in the USA with the 240Z: the firm had showed up a decade earlier with the 1000, a car borrowing large amounts from contemporary Austin models, including a licence-built A-series engine.
It was soon updated as the Datsun 1200, but the two cars notched up only 1464 Stateside sales.
Their successor, the 411, did little better, though the 1600 Roadster of 1965 did prove a niche alternative to the dominant MGB and Triumph TR4. By the late 1960s however, Datsun had much greater ambitions.
In the 510, the firm finally had a saloon with a large enough engine to be a serious contender to the VW Beetle, which was dominating the market for compact economy cars. But it’s hard to grab magazine covers, make a name for yourself and attract sceptical customers with a small family sedan. That’s where the 240Z came in.
As Triumph had shown, the key to achieving high volumes in America’s sports car market was an engine of decent displacement and simple construction.
While it was primarily sold in Japan as a 2-litre car, the Fairlady Z, the export-model 240Z was offered with a 2.4-litre straight-six engine from the start, and it’s no coincidence that the Datsun’s L24 unit shares many fundamentals with the Triumph ‘six’.
Both are iron-block, single-cam, reverse-flow engines with saloon-car ancestry, and there’s only 95cc between them. For all that, though, they feel very different on the road.
The Triumph has the much more primal engine: it’s an occasion just getting it started.
It hunts and splutters as you prod at the throttle while simultaneously fiddling with the choke to find a happy idle with the Lucas fuel injection (retrofitted to this car, which was originally supplied to the USA).
It was the TR6’s smaller stablemate that received the Spitfire name, but you’re soon put in mind of a piston prop-plane when firing the TR6 into life.
The Triumph engine is a long-stroke, undersquare pushrod motor in the classic British tradition, which only adds to its lumpy, old-fashioned feel.
That’s thanks to siamesed bores that forced a longer stroke when increasing capacity, and it delivers great gobs of torque as a result. The TR6 accelerates in noisy bursts and squirts, rather than fine positioning of the throttle.
A sewing machine rather than a warbird is brought to mind when starting the Datsun. It’s much less dramatic, but feels remarkably modern in comparison, firing instantly and straight away settling to a perfect, quiet idle.
The overhead-cam engine’s saloon-car origins are a bit too obvious at low revs, when the fan roar is the loudest component as it whooshes rather than growls along.
Even if it’s a bit aurally dull, the Datsun motor pulls with truly impressive force from low revs, and it does it utterly without fuss, the smoothness and linear nature of the engine putting you in mind of BMW’s great ‘sixes’.
Thankfully, it gets a lot more exciting at higher revs, when the engine really starts to sing as it rises to a satisfying, paper-tearing snarl.
The smooth power delivery continues all the way up the rev range, which is lucky because, thanks to its oversquare design, the Datsun has to be revved harder to access its healthy power and torque than the Triumph, which only really offers more noise – an enjoyable soundtrack, it must be said – above 4000rpm.
Thankfully, the Datsun has a similarly sweet and easy gearchange, allowing you to keep the engine where it’s happiest at will.
Perhaps inevitably, thanks to their very different gestations – the TR6 a long evolution of a 1950s car, the Datsun a clean-sheet design – the two offer disparate, yet equally valid, ideas of what a sports car should be.
The Triumph poses a challenge to its driver, but as a result it makes even a 30mph drive feel like an occasion. Along with that lumpy power delivery, the firm suspension makes the TR jump and patter over every bump.
The smaller wheel fitted to this car accentuates the heavy steering, and the helm is so direct and sensitive to nuances of the road surface that you have to hold on tight to avoid being knocked off course.
Hustling the TR6 down a typical British back-lane is an absorbing, adrenalin-filled battle, like being strapped to the back of a rocket over which you only loosely have control. You know it’s going to be a bumpy ride and it won’t be entirely predictable, but it will be huge fun.
In the Datsun, meanwhile, it’s far easier to transmit your will to the road. A much larger steering wheel is your interface with the challenger from Japan, yet it feels more telepathic and doesn’t try to jump free from your grasp.
Everything in the Datsun – the progressive power delivery, slick gearbox and direct steering – provides its pilot with a sweetly balanced starting point from which they can explore the capabilities of the car.
It is more softly sprung – especially this US-market example, which still sits on its softer Stateside springs – but it isn’t soggy to the point of being roly-poly in the corners.
It’s firm enough to offer tight control and response, yet comfortable enough to shield the driver from the worst of the road surface, and to keep the tyres in contact with the Tarmac at all times.
The 240Z remains remarkably composed when hitting bumps mid-corner, and feels chuckable and secure – more like a 1980s car than one born in the ’60s.
It doesn’t need to be tamed or strangled, and will be as sporty as the driver desires – whereas the Triumph only does white-knuckle rides.
A big part of these differing personalities lies in the car’s body styles.
The well-reported danger that the US might be planning to ban convertibles in the early 1970s no doubt swayed Datsun to make its new car a coupé rather than a drop-top, but it also adds to the Z’s refinement.
The roof eliminates wind noise and buffeting in the cabin, and makes the monocoque Datsun much stiffer.
The Triumph has a separate chassis, so doesn’t suffer scuttle shake in the modern idiom, but the body itself is always rattling on top of its frame, and never feels totally solid. Yet having a top robs the 240Z of the TR6’s extra degree of fun-factor.
Though both cars proved roaring success stories, each of those tales featured a very different ending.
Nissan has just released its seventh-generation Z model, albeit not for Europe, while Triumph struggled to maintain the TR6’s market share with its TR7 successor, and ceased to exist not long after that car’s demise.
The two models pictured here don’t just represent the handing over of the US sports car market from Britain to Japan, but also a generational shift in sports car expectations.
The Triumph is completely focused, built for sheer excitement, and its drawbacks wouldn’t have mattered to those seeking such old-school thrills.
The Datsun, in contrast, is for the kind of buyer who wants their sports car to do a bit of everything.
It’s more practical and flexible, yet no less of a driver’s car – and mustn’t be confused with its 1980s successors, which did undoubtedly lose some driver appeal in the pursuit of usability.
Yet its relative modernity next to the Triumph makes it more able to take on daily duties, and to tackle long drives.
Nowhere are their opposing characters more obvious than from within the cabins.
Datsun clearly decided to follow American trends, with styling that immediately puts you in mind of a C3 Corvette with its deeply cowled dials, steeply raked dashboard and central stack of black plastic – though the quality of the switchgear leaves you in no doubt this is a Japanese classic.
It’s not just American in appearance, but in operation, too, with proper ventilation controls, five interior vents, a well-located stereo and, behind them all, comfortable, full-sized seats.
Though small by modern standards, the 240Z could still claim to be a ‘proper’ car to a 1970s American buying public, with a usable trunk to boot.
The Triumph is much more traditional, with just two eyeball vents in the timber dash (walnut on this car) that for many buyers would have been a point of pride over the Datsun’s soulless plastic.
The TR6 does major on that olde-worlde charm: beyond the wooden fascia there are the various licks of chrome on door furniture and instrument bezels, while its classic Smiths dials are real centrepieces, both clear and beautiful – and far prettier than the blocky gauges Triumph later adopted in a cost-saving move.
Little effort has been made in terms of ergonomics, however, and while the TR isn’t uncomfortably small, it is tight inside – especially for the elbows.
For all their obvious differences, both of these sports cars remain as compelling today as they were in period, but the fact that the TR6’s successor was a closed-cockpit coupé, with a moulded plastic dashboard, five-speed gearbox and much more relaxed road manners shows that even Triumph had seen which way the wind was blowing.
The 240Z’s greatest trick was not just showing that sports cars could be refined, reliable and comfortable, but that those things didn’t need to come at the expense of performance and fun.
On the billiard-table surface of a circuit, these two remain remarkably closely matched, but out in the real world there’s no doubt that the 240Z is the quicker car from point to point.
The adrenalin junkies who have kept cars in the mould of the TR6 popular long after they have gone out of mainstream production prove that this automotive cacophony still holds a unique appeal.
But the future was clear: since its demise, no large-volume manufacturer has built a car quite like the TR6, yet all of them – Triumph included – have strived to create an answer to the 240Z.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to: Arun Ltd, 240Z owner Len Walsh and Fourways Engineering
- Sold/number built 1969-’73/156,078
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 2393cc straight-six, twin Hitachi carburettors
- Max power 151bhp @ 5600rpm
- Max torque 146lb ft @ 4400rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear MacPherson struts
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 13ft 7in (4140mm)
- Width 5ft 4in (1625mm)
- Height 4ft 2½in (1283mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2299mm)
- Weight 2284lb (1038kg)
- 0-60mph 8 secs
- Top speed 125mph
- Mpg 24
- Price new £2288 (1971)
- Price now £20-50,000*
- Sold/number built 1969-’76/94,619
- Construction steel chassis, steel body
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2498cc straight-six, Lucas mechanical fuel injection
- Max power 150bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 164lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear semi-trailing arms, lever-arm dampers; coil springs f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 12ft 11½in (3949mm)
- Width 5ft 1in (1549mm)
- Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 4in (2235mm)
- Weight 2473lb (1122kg)
- 0-60mph 8.2 secs
- Top speed 119mph
- Mpg 18
- Price new £1536 (1971)
- Price now £15-30,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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