Grudge Match

By Scott Lear
Apr 9, 2012 | Datsun, Mazda | Posted in Buyer's Guides , Product Reviews , Features | From the Dec. 2008 issue | Never miss an article

Imagine an office packed full of employees who are hopelessly infatuated with cars. Magnify the horror by making it an office that produces a pair of sports car magazines, then throw in some Florida humidity. You’re visualizing the home of Grassroots Motorsports, and it’s no place for the automotively disinclined.
The walls are clad with car art. The desks contain traffic jams of die-cast models, and the shelves are sagging under the weight of automotive books and magazines. Every ride to lunch in the press car du jour becomes a rolling review.
GRM staffers lack the mechanism needed to shut up about cars. However, since we all share the same sickness, none of us know that we’re broken. Luckily, we don’t all love the same cars—if we did, our office would be a boring place to work. Each of us has our own pick for the best car, making for some heated discussions at lunch.

Get Ready to Rumble

As we begin our 25th year of publishing, we’re starting to think back on how this all started. If our publication’s entire existence could hinge on one car, you could say that the Datsun 240Z got it on track—literally and figuratively. If it weren’t for the Datsun 240Z, there would be no Grassroots Motorsports magazine.
A little history lesson: Before launching the magazine, Publisher Tim Suddard ran his first-ever autocross in 1982 at the wheel of his beloved 1966 Shelby GT350H. He did very well, but came in second to a Datsun 240Z. Realizing that the Datsun was the car to have, he soon picked up his own. Then he decided that he already knew enough about autocross to launch a magazine dedicated to the sport. The 240Z came to signify the magazine; it was our first project car and even appeared on our debut cover, back when we were still known as Auto-X.
One of the first real challengers to the 240Z was the then-new Mazda RX-7. While there were some obvious differences between the cars—one had a rotary engine, the other a straight-six—the Mazda did a good job of picking up where the original Z-car left off. In the little world of our magazine, this was the first changing of the guard.
A few years ago, Tim picked up another 1970 Datsun 240Z and, lo and behold, we now have a first-generation RX-7 in the fleet. The time had come to move this rematch from the lunch table to the track. We shoed each vehicle with identical Nitto NT01 tires and headed to Central Florida’s Ocala Gran Prix for another face-off.

In the Yellow Corner: The Killer Z

We all tease Publisher Tim Suddard about his fickle car loyalty: Whatever he’s purchased most recently is also, coincidentally, the best car ever made. It’s the curse of being an open-minded car guy. While his current passion depends on which day you talk to him, there’s no denying that the Datsun 240Z has a permanent place near the tippy-top of his very long list of favorites.
That first Z left the Suddard stable in the late 1980s, but in the years following its departure, Tim always kept his eye on AutoTrader and the classifieds for a replacement. In 2003, the launch of our sister publication, Classic Motorsports, gave him an excuse to start looking in earnest for another 240Z project—it only took him until 2004 to find one. Thanks to Bob Pinkowski, a friend of the magazine, Tim got his hands on a rust-free 1970 Datsun 240Z with its original paint.
This 240Z became a Classic Motorsports project, which means it enjoyed a variety of cosmetic and performance upgrades. The original paint was restored, the interior got some love, and the suspension was revitalized. More recently, Balanced Performance rebuilt the engine while installing a hotter cam, adding more than 30 horsepower at the rear wheels. It might be approaching 40 years old, but this Z still has the moves of a much younger sports car.

Forever Young

The 240Z might hail from the 1970s—not a great decade for sports car enthusiasts—but this first-year 240Z narrowly escaped the heavy bumpers and power-choking smog provisions that would hamper later Z-cars. As a result, if you’re shopping for an early Z, spending more on a 1970 model is a good investment. This version is generally the fastest and the most desirable despite being the oldest.
Hopping in the 240Z is a noticeable step back in time. The seat belts lack auto tensioning, and the shoulder belt must be attached separately to the lap belt bracket. A manual choke lever in the center console helps the carbureted engine idle when cold. There’s no power steering, the brake pedal requires considerable force, and the ultra-skinny wooden wheel feels quite alien compared to that of any modern automobile.
Simplicity does have its advantages, especially in the case of the 240Z’s low weight. Even with the relatively huge straight-six engine under the long hood, the Z-car undercuts the RX-7 by a hundred pounds. Closing the doors produces a horrible tin-can sound thanks to the ultra-thin sheet metal, but when the car’s all buttoned up it feels well constructed, even over bumps.
Actually, thanks to the ample torque of the six-cylinder engine and the addition of a five-speed manual from a later 280ZX, Tim’s Datsun is a fantastic highway machine. Millimeter-precise steering gives confidence, and the inherent balance of the straight-six makes for smooth thrust at any rpm. There are no buzzes or rattles to betray its true age.
Deduct points for the pitched-forward vinyl seats, as it’s nearly impossible to keep your butt from sliding forward inch by inch as the miles wear on. The seating position is very low, and as a result the doorsill is surprisingly high for a classic car. Even a tall driver would have trouble resting an elbow out the window while cruising.
On track, the suspension upgrades and grippy tires showed why the Z-car was a serious threat at autocrosses and road races in its day. It understeered moderately but predictably, allowing us to crank out extremely consistent laps; we racked up several that were within a hundredth of a second of each other. The torque from the upgraded engine made corner getaway a dream, but we were a bit surprised to find that the back end was rather reluctant to step out under full throttle. A dose of oversteer at the right moments would have made for faster lap times.
The brakes didn’t have enough force to lock the Nittos, but we didn’t experience any fade, either—only a bit of pedal sag toward the end of our stint. Even though our Z-car is armed with a later model’s five-speed transmission, the shifter still had very long throws, and the three-two downshift took time and a bit of concentration. Overall, the car’s on-track performance was on par with many modern sportsters, and mechanically it didn’t miss a beat all day.

In the Blue Corner: The Rotary Revolution

Greg Voth is one of the newer faces at the GRM office, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for with Mazda RX-7s. It’s difficult to keep track of exactly how many first-generation RX-7s he owns, since he’s always selling them and then zipping off to strange and exotic places to pick up another one. The current count is three, two of which run well enough that they’ve shown up in the office parking lot. Greg’s love of the RX-7 started in high school when his auto tech class received a 1985 model as a donation. “We tore into that. It piqued my interest since I had no idea what a rotary motor was,” he says. “I got to drive it around the high school a little bit, and I decided to start looking for one. I was fascinated by the engine.” Lured by the magic spinning triangles and their epitrochoidal path, Greg saved his pennies until he turned 16; then he bought a 1984 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE in Tender Blue for $2400. Unfortunately, one of his friends totaled that car during his high school graduation week. Greg found an identical replacement a year later for about the same price. It had 180,000 miles on it then, and he used it as a daily driver for three years. He autocrossed the RX-7, took it to a few rallycross events, and even hit the track at Summit Point, W.Va., with NASA at the occasional HyperFest. Shortly after he joined GRM, the high-mileage rotary engine lost a side seal and a corner seal during an autocross. The wounded rotary belched oil everywhere and ran like crap, but it still carried him home more than 100 miles from the event. Greg took advantage of the Mazdaspeed competition discount to buy replacement parts. He had Pettit Racing rebuild the engine with RX-8 rotors and RX-7 Turbo rotor housings; these were actually the least expensive parts of their kind in the catalog.

Epitrochoidal Adventure

Unlike the early Z, which is most desirable in its debut-year trim, the first-generation RX-7 got better with age. Introduced for 1978 with a 1.2-liter rotary, the FB-chassis RX-7 peaked in the final two years of its production—1984-’85—with the more potent 1.3-liter GSL-SE models. These cars bumped horsepower from 100 to 135 while featuring front and rear disc brakes plus a limited-slip differential.
Jumping from the revolutionary-for-its-time 1970 Datsun 240Z to the then-modern mid-’80s RX-7 shows how far the genre had progressed—and also how little it has advanced in the two dozen years since. From the wheel to the shifter to the dash materials and seat belts, there are surprisingly few tangible differences between this 1980s RX-7 and any modern affordable sports car. Replace the RX-7’s massive equalized tape deck with a touch-screen navigation system, add a button for turning off stability control, then throw in a dozen airbags, and the distance from then to now is all but covered.
The RX-7 is technically a mid-engined car, as the rotary block is so small that Mazda was able to package it entirely behind the front wheels. This gave the RX-7 excellent rotational dynamics at the test track. The tail of the Mazda came around eagerly under throttle—unlike the understeer-prone 240Z. As an added perk, the RX-7 was fairly easy to control in this tail-out attitude.
Considering that Greg’s RX-7 was burdened with weight-adding amenities like air conditioning, cruise control and a glass moonroof, the Mazda still weighed in at a fairly svelte 2415 pounds with a full tank of gas. The RX-7’s suspension felt softer than the Z’s, with more pitch and roll to magnify the sensation of cornering and braking. Plus, the brakes didn’t require as much force as the Z-car’s.
Compared to the Datsun, the Mazda was up on weight and down on power and torque. Even so, the later car managed to post quicker—though admittedly less consistent—lap times. Credit goes to the handling and high revs allowed by the built engine. With Greg’s blessing, we ignored the stock 7000 rpm redline—and the silly buzzer—and wound it out to 8000 rpm lap after lap.
On the drive back home from the track, we found the RX-7 to be a fairly competent highway machine. The steering had about an inch of sloppy dead zone travel, but Greg assured us that a rack-and-pinion upgrade is pending to replace the OEM recirculating ball design. The more modern safety gear and heavier doors made the RX-7 feel safer than the Z, and the interior was nothing to complain about. The Mazda came equipped with decent, grippy, cloth-covered bucket seats featuring surprisingly robust side bolsters.
We had to pick the right gear in order to keep the little torque-challenged rotary spinning. Fortunately, the RX-7’s gearbox was simpler to operate than the Z’s. Greg’s extremely light flywheel and clutch setup sacrificed some smoothness when we left stoplights, but it didn’t ruin the driving experience by any means. If you’ve never driven a rotary car, add it to your to-do list, as it’s quite a lot of fun.

No Cease-Fire in Sight

Declaring a winner in a head-on battle between two very cool cars is always difficult. It’s even harder when you have to work with the guys who own the cars. Admittedly, the decision is made considerably more simple when one of the cars is owned by your boss and the other belongs to the punk new guy.
The stopwatch doesn’t worry about getting fired, however, and around our test circuit Greg’s Mazda RX-7 was undeniably the quicker and more nimble car. Its neutral balance in mid-corner and tail-out handling under throttle made it more fun at the limit, too. Once Greg installs the MegaSquirt setup and gets his rebuilt engine to reach its full potential, he’s expecting power figures very close to those produced by Tim’s Z. That should make the Mazda one heck of a sports car.
In nearly every other situation, however, we preferred the Datsun. Thanks to the worked-on engine, it sprints away from stoplights. The slop-free steering is a delightful companion that comes alive on twisty roads, and the built-in understeer provides a bit of a safety net against boneheaded outcomes.
Finally, those extra 14 years of history make the Z enough of a classic that you’ll meet plenty of new friends and former Z-car owners wherever you go. Plus, you’ll feel that much cooler getting there.

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