The Sleeper Z: The 1984-'89 Nissan 300ZX

When it comes to Z-cars, everyone wants the original 240Z. It’s viewed as the true athlete of the family thanks to its minimal mass and lightning-fast reflexes. Plus, it’s the one that made automotive history, displacing traditional European sports cars from their perch while scoring countless race wins.

What about the 1984-’89 Nissan 300ZX, the first real redo for the Z-car line? Today it’s shunned and ignored by the hardcore sports car elite, who view it as a boulevard cruiser or perhaps LeMons fodder at best.

What if we told you that the 300ZX offers more performance than you think? Way, way back in 1996, a little magazine called Grassroots Motorsports pitted the 240Z against a 300ZX. The test cars were prepared for SCCA Improved Touring S competition, and our drivers included the day’s best: Grayson Upchurch Jr., a supporter of the newer alternative, and longtime 240Z driver and tuner John Williams. We performed the test at Road Atlanta, back before they filled in the dip.

After his session in the 300ZX, Williams proclaimed it the slower sibling. Then we looked at the lap times: It circled Road Atlanta just as quickly as his trusted steed.

What the what?

The softness of the 300ZX, our drivers concluded, seemed to mask its speed. More good news for 300ZX fans: Its brakes were less prone to failure and its then-revolutionary V6 offered more torque.

The 300ZX didn’t take over the class, though, since it was the more expensive option at the time–funny how the tables have turned. The 240Z also offered more race development. Perhaps the final strike against the 300ZX’s racing pedigree was the prevalence of T-tops. Most cars came so equipped.

Looking for even more performance? Nissan also offered a turbocharged model– although like all other turbocharged cars, it was prohibited from the SCCA Improved Touring ranks, hence its omission from that comparo.

Fast-forward to today, and most 300ZXs have been unceremoniously driven into the ground. A few good cars do remain, though, and we’re going to call them off-the-radar Japanese collectibles. Find a good one and you’ll stand out.

Which one to buy? Our friends at Acadiana Sports Car Orphanage recommend a 50th Anniversary Edition car. “[They’re] fantastically equipped ’84 Turbo models that definitely look the part of an ’80s import street machine,” they explain, “fender flares and skirts, awesome black and gray paint scheme with gold trim, and decadent options that are truly from the ’80s, like a Body Sonic integrated seat/ subwoofer system.”

Roughly 5000 were made, they add, although they warn that some dealers slapped the same badges onto regularspec cars.

Their next recommendation is the Shiro Special, a stripped-down 1988 Turbo model with a stiffened suspension, limited-slip diff and traditional gauges.

Hagerty actually shows that prices are on the rise for good examples of the 300ZX, with the best Turbos on the planet now worth a surprising $20,000 or more. Closer to reality, we have seen nice 300ZXs advertised around the $5000 mark.

Shopping & Ownership

Zack Ard and Kyle Kehlmann of Acadiana Sports Car Orphanage tag-teamed our shopping advice.

The specified service life on the timing belts for the VG30 found in the Z31 300ZX is 60,000 miles. Unfortunately, this an oft neglected repair and is something that should be verified prior to purchase. Although not a terribly difficult DIY repair, the shop rate for it is pretty spendy. And since this is an interference engine, you’ll be having a much worse day if the timing belt gives.

A rear-end cluck is also a common occurrence in Z31s, and usually occurs when the rear subframe bushings and differential mount have failed or deteriorated. It usually occurs during shifting as the shock load causes a pronounced clunk or thud. Many people will inaccurately believe there is some sort of axle damage, but generally this is not the case at all. The subframe will require removal, and although replacement rubber parts are available through Nissan, most people opt to purchase polyurethane replacement bushings and a polyurethane differential mount.

It is an absolute testament to Nissan’s engineering staff that Z31s are still plentiful after the sheer amount of neglect many of them have been exposed to in the past 30 years.

Common running issues include sputtering, stalling and generally poor running condition. Once you have eliminated fuel as an issue, likely culprits can be traced to two different sensors that send outputs to the ECU: the cylinder head temperature sensor and the crank angle sensor.

These cars can suffer from the lack of dedicated aftermarket support for parts you may not normally think about on any car. For instance, the mounting gaskets for the external sideview mirrors are NLA from Nissan and have been for years. Over the past 30 years, they have become susceptible to cracking and disintegrating, causing massive leak points for water to enter the car and leading to an awful lot of wet floorboards. This is compounded by the fact that the ECU is housed in an interior kick panel against the passenger fender and below the glove box–a perfect spot for water buildup due to this issue.

For many years, people tried RTV and black tape with little success, and it looked awful in the process. Recently we were able to properly replicate the gaskets, and this has helped to eliminate the issue for many people.

Turbo cars had an in-cabin adjustable shock option that allowed you to change the settings in three stages. Unfortunately, the special fluid inside these specially built struts was deemed toxic by the EPA, and the manufacturer of the struts will not sell rebuilt components because the system was proprietary to Nissan.

If you wish to keep the adjustable suspension, the only recourse is to source working used parts. However, most people opt to switch to non-adjustable struts available from companies like KYB.

Adjustable coil-overs are now widely available for the Z31–a pretty recent development. There is a bit of fabrication involved to install them, but it’s pretty easy and offers a solid handling improvement.

Like many other chassis, the Z31 has an LS swap kit available for those who simply want to look like they’re running vintage Japanese steel. Dirty Dingo released LSX mounts for the Z31 last year.

Parts & Service

Acadiana Sports Car Orphanage

Motorsport Auto
(800) 633-6331

Z Parts Warehouse
(770) 926-6609

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View comments on the GRM forums
classicJackets Reader
6/7/16 2:27 p.m.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a Shiro model for sale, though I would absolutely love to be able to get one. The 50th anniversary models are still pretty cool and look much better than their average counterpart IMO. The turbo was fun too, and it was a quick feeling car (compared to what I was used to).

Tom_Spangler UltraDork
6/7/16 2:33 p.m.

A friend of mine had an 87 Turbo for years over two stints, one in the early 2000s and one in the last 5 years or so. Black with dark grey wheels and t-tops. Great-looking car, IMO, and such an 80s-tastic interior. I like them, but my bizarre tastes run more toward the 280ZX.

kanaric Dork
6/7/16 2:40 p.m.

These cars are so forgotten these days I see nice once for like $3000 and that's turbo models.

If you want bolt on aftermarket parts you pretty much have to get those parts straight from Japan because of it. I considered one seriously recently but researched things like that and turned it down because of it. Where I am I know no trusted people to do things like fabricate an intercooler and piping for example so aftermarket products are serious business.

You still have nistune available for engine management for this.

Non-Shiro turbo cars have a clutch LSD AFAIK shiro has the standard Nissan viscous.

z31maniac MegaDork
6/7/16 2:41 p.m.

Check the user name. Had an '88 NA through high school and first few years of college. Eibach springs, Koni Shocks, ST Sways, 240sx throttle body, Pacesetter header and full exhaust, sticky 225/50/16 tires on horrible tri-spoke wheels (they were on it when I got the car in July '98, I was a sophomore in high school.)

Electronic dash and climate control. Heavy, horrible rear suspension geometry under compression.

It was bulletproof though. I bought the car with 75k miles on it and drove it to 150k miles. I beat on that car relentlessly and the only thing it every went through was a clutch......and the craptastic 80s gauges/climate control failing.

White with ALL burgundy leather interior. Everything was burgundy. That was a really fun car to have in high school with the T-Tops.

MadScientistMatt PowerDork
6/7/16 3:04 p.m.

I recall taking a Challenged priced, non turbo example for a drive that I found sitting on a used car lot sometime in the early 2000s, and walking back to the dealership on foot when it died about a half mile down the road.

Still seems like they'd be an interesting budget performance build... or possibly a good candidate for an LSx swap.

racerdave600 SuperDork
6/7/16 4:30 p.m.

Back in the early '90's we had club member with one. What I remember most is the rear bumper almost hit the ground on autocross launches. Man it was soft.

Appleseed MegaDork
6/7/16 4:57 p.m.

Super bonus points for painting one like Prowl or Smokescreen from The Transformers.

mad_machine MegaDork
6/7/16 5:58 p.m.

My father had a white NA one.. it was a nice car, but I hated the gages

Robbie SuperDork
6/9/16 9:13 a.m.

I was sitting next to one in downtown (inside the loop) chicago traffic last night of all places. It looked great amongst all the taxis.

Fitzauto HalfDork
6/9/16 9:17 a.m.

I borrow a black 88 turbo for track days when my other cars are down. Good fun until boost comes on mid-corner and then it gets quite interesting.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports
6/9/16 7:26 p.m.
z31maniac wrote: White with ALL burgundy leather interior. Everything was burgundy. That was a really fun car to have in high school with the T-Tops.

We're the '80s awesome? Now that I think about it, my '82 Accord was all blue--inside and outside.

Trackmouse Dork
6/9/16 9:29 p.m.

They used these z31's quite a lot on the wangan in the 90's in the hey day of the bosozoku (for those that know that underground scene well...heh)

Also, I never bought the one I test drove due to the hilarious squat under hard acceleration, the poor geometry of the IRS is to blame. (More specifically, where the spring attempts to hold back the mighty fulcrum known as a lower arm)

Redesigned arms fix it. Stiff springs bandaid the issue. "Dat"

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