They may no longer be the shed-find bargains they once were, but we reckon early Datsun Z cars and Toyota Celicas still offer solid value for money. They're both an iconic shape that went on to spawn whole series of toys for their respective manufacturers and still look good today. While some parts have become tricky to find, they still represent a good project for anyone getting into restoring and reviving classic cars. Mechanically simple, they hold no ugly surprises and the reward at the end is a genuinely good-looking toy that has world-wide appeal and will hold its value.
The new kid from Toyota had a tough time when it arrived in Australia. The locals with their six-cylinder engines said it wasn’t macho enough to succeed here, the Italians just sneered that it couldn’t match their heritage.
However it was the poor old Ford Capri that took the biggest hit. Realising this hot-looking hardtop from Japan was going to make its mid-sixties shape look pretty damn ordinary the Capri handed over its class leader crown and by 1973 was gone from our market.
The first Celicas were very much the fore-runners in a trend towards, smaller US-style Hardtops. Nothing else of its size on the Australian market came with pillarless two-door styling, yet within a few years we had similar designs from Datsun, Mazda and Subaru.
The Celica was expensive when pitted against local models like the six-cylinder Torana and even V6 versions of the Capri. However Toyota’s sights were set on the emerging ‘personal car’ segment where style and features were bigger selling points than how quickly you could screech away from the traffic lights.
Of course the TA22 Celica wasn’t without fault. Performance from the single-cam 1.6 litre was a bit lacking, particularly noticeable when it was teamed with automatic transmission and the steering via a clunky old recirculating ball system wasn’t sporty at all.
The stuff that made Celica buyers feel like winners included full carpeting even in the boot, a standard five speed manual gearbox, reclining seats and clever ventilation. The styling undoubtedly made the TA22 look exclusive and worth its $3600 asking price – $650 dearer than a GTR Torana.
(Note: concours cars will demand more)
Change was afoot behind the scenes as well. In 1973 the Toyota factory displayed a Celica with a 2.0-litre engine and fastback styling that would immediately be dubbed the ‘mini Mustang’.
The RA28 Celica was officially known as the Liftback and didn’t make its Australian debut until 1977. This version incorporated a 1975 restyle but arrived here with just the single overhead camshaft engine. Some overseas markets managed to snare the 100kW twin-cam and cars that have been retrofitted with that engine certainly are a lot sharper in performance than standard Celicas. RA23 versions of the coupe sold here after 1976 also had the 2.0-litre engine.
In 1979 a conventionally-shaped Celica twin-cam became the unlikely hero of that year’s Bathurst 1000 enduro. Fitted with a bulky and performance sapping ‘Racecam’ the Celica driven by Peter Williamson and Mike Quinn put viewers inside the car on its way to winning the Class C trophy. The Celica took back-to-back Class C victories, though the second time it was Graeme Bailey and Doug Clark behind the wheel, knocking off Alfa GTVs and Triumph Dolomites.
By then though the RA23/RA28 cars were gone and had been replaced by the bulkier, slower and (today) less-desirable RA40.
Not many years ago it was easy to find early Celicas in our market, with the majority being the ‘Mustang’ shaped Liftbacks. Numbers of available cars have been waning for a while and we suspect that is largely because current owners just do not want to sell.
When they do, $25-30,000 is the usual asking price and that is a lot less than the amounts being paid by mainly US-based collectors at Japanese auctions. Cars in the typical Australian price range are virtually non-existent and those at in the A$30-40,000 range are generally rubbish. Sourcing a good early Celica from Japan can cost $40,000-plus and that doesn’t include freight or local charges.
Early-shape TA22 cars spent years being ignored and undervalued and are now very scarce. Where a rusty or damaged Liftback was probably saved from the crusher there is every chance a basic hardtop was not and they are now hard to find.
Owner Ash Miniken and his dad have spent their lifetimes building cars of all different origins. From Minis to the odd Aussie classic, with some Euros in the mix – but the Celica is a relatively recent love affair.
“I had kind of gotten a bit over the car scene around 10-15 years ago, things were a lot more segregated back then”. That was until he went to a little annual car show called Classic Japan.
“I just loved that there were Nissan guys talking to Toyota guys, talking to Honda guys, talking to Suzuki guys… that culture that was there in the Japanese car culture really shone through”.
The inclusive atmosphere of the vintage Japanese community really resonated with Ash, who promptly joined the Toyota car club and became one of the key organisers of Classic Japan.
At the same time, Ash’s then-partner had the same model Celica, and as he was rebuilding the engine for her – he began learning and researching – and began to get the inkling to find one of his own.
“Another guy in the club actually built this car, had just resprayed it… He had got it to a good level, I just thought it had so much more potential.
“I always kept saying, if you ever want to sell it, just let me know, I’d love to have the opportunity to have a chat with you”.
Six months later the owner and Ash were at a show where the owner said he was thinking of selling it. A week later Ash went for a drive and the rest is history.
“Certain parts are getting harder to find, but talk to the clubs. Someone will always have parts sitting in the garage," he advises.
It was unkindly said during the 1960s that Japanese car makers pinched every good idea they had from Europe or the UK. In the case of their 240Z, Nissan’s designers certainly borrowed elements of the most beautiful car in the world when penning their sports coupe. All they left out was the unreliability.
The Z with its swoopy profile was devised by designer Yoshihiko Matsuo, following on from development work undertaken during the 1960s by former BMW designer Albrecht Goertz. Matsuo is on record as recalling that much of what he did was in defiance of a conservative management but the result was stunning.
From any angle, the two-seat 240Z was and is a great looking car. Not sensuous in the manner of Jaguar’s E Type but with obvious influences including the elongated nose and inset headlights. In common with the E Type, Nissan adopted sensible hatchback access to the luggage platform.
Nissan already had the perfect engine for a sports coupe; the grunty 2.4-litre straight-six that powered big Datsun 2400 sedans. With some tweaks to the valve train and a pair of side-draft carburettors the 240Z engine in stock form delivered 112kW. With mild modifications, a lot more was available. Adding to performance and practicality were a five-speed gearbox and independent rear suspension.
The Z was announced late in 1969 and Australia saw its first cars a year later. All were five-speed manual but later arrivals included a smattering of three-speed automatics. At almost $5000 the 240Z cost more than a typical V8 Aussie muscle car and was way more expensive than the similar-sized Ford Capri V6.
That didn’t stop Datsun in Australia selling hundreds of ‘Z Cars’ every year or stop the model building a strong following among enthusiasts who enjoyed weekend motor sport. Sadly for Nissan, there wasn’t a major motor-sport category in Australia that allowed the 240Z to really demonstrate its giant-killing character.
The situation was different in the USA where 90 percent of Zs were sold. In hotly-contested Sports Car Club of America events, the Datsun consistently won its class against the likes of TR6 Triumphs and Porsche 911s. An aptitude for rallying allowed the Z to achieve world prominence, with two wins in the tough East African Safari and a string of European successes.
Put it down to cost saving but the only deficiency in 240Z design was drum brakes at the rear where a European brand would have found the money for discs. During the 45 years since the last 240Zs were built, owners have leapt into the breach and adapted rear discs from other Nissan models and other brands including Volvo.
Finding more performance is easy. A 2.8-litre engine with Weber carburettors replacing the originals will give the Z a decent increase in urge. However to keep up with modern machinery on the track or in tarmac rallying, a professional turbo set-up seems the way to go.
Looking at movement in Z values during the recent past it is plain that movement during the past five years has been more vigorous than at any time in preceding decades.
The cost in 2013 of an excellent, near-stock 240Z was $25-30,000. We did note at the time though that outstanding cars being sold in overseas markets had reached $50,000.
Usable cars can still be found here in the $30-35,000 price bracket but these represent a bit of a risk. Some were ‘restored’ 25 years ago and when buying in at that level you really don’t want to outlay a further $30K dealing with any nasty surprises like chasing and rectifying concealed corrosion as well as having to deal with any serious mechanical gremlins.
At the top of the scale and sometimes priced at more than $70,000 are ultra-modified examples or near-stock show winners that come with a boot-load of trophies.
Big money is also being asked for Japanese-spec Fairlady Zs but these represent a risk and perhaps best avoided until the market decides on their collector status.
We first featured this car, owned by David Tolman, in 2015 (issue 372) “I had a 260Z originally and still own it," he explained. "When you own one of those I suppose you end up wondering what a 240 is like. I’m really big into originality, so it was hard to find a 240Z that wasn’t modified. Eventually in 1995 I purchased this one.
“It was nice and original and it looked tidy because it had a respray, but it didn’t run very well and needed an engine rebuild. I thought I’d do the engine and then drive it around for a while, but once you have the engine out you might as well do a restoration. You know how it goes.
“A friend who’s a panel beater did the bodywork. Once he stripped the paint off it, we found it was full of bog and once you stripped the bog off it was full of rust. It was a bit of a nightmare, but we persevered.
“I ended up buying another car – one that was damaged, that we could use to cut out panels. I think the two doors on this car are off it. So it’s essentially made up from two. It took about five years, just taking our time.
“I’ve always liked Japanese cars. My first car was an old Toyota Corona shovel-nose and since then I’ve been hooked on them.
“It’s nice to drive and it looks good. The performance is pretty good because it only weighs just over a tonne.
“My wife Karen likes Zed cars, and we have several: a 240, some 260s, 280s and 300s, plus Toyota Corollas and now a C3 Corvette.”
The TA22 hardtop weighed only 970kg - the Liftback 100kg more – so not much metal there to resist impact damage or rust. Trying to locate second-hand sheet metal for any pre-1990s Celica is a nightmare and decent parts if they do exist won’t be cheap. A pair of doors, unsold at $800, were the most promising find. One Australian vendor with a yard full of ratted cars claimed to have most parts but you do wonder if they would be any better than those you’re trying to replace. Lights and chrome body embellishments aren’t too difficult to source or especially expensive. Decent bumpers needing chrome cost $50-150 each. Also available are reproduction build plates – not compliance! – for early Celicas and other Toyotas.
If finding body panels for old Celicas is a chore then tracking down mechanical components is a relative delight. Local searches turned up basic items from various sources however the US market is a treasure trove for keenly-priced parts. Around A$1200 buys everything needed to recondition an engine including new pistons, bearings, timing gears and chains, a waterpump and gaskets (but not valves or the crankshaft). Engines that blow smoke and rattle at start-up need a bottom-end rebuild. Accelerate hard in second gear then lift off to check if the car jumps out of gear.
NUMBER BUILT: 290,000 (approx) 1971-76
BODY: all-steel integrated body/chassis, two-door coupe
ENGINE: 1588cc & 1964cc overhead camshaft four-cylinder with single carburettor
POWER & TORQUE: 76kW @ 6000 rpm 137Nm @ 3800rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h 13.1 seconds, 0-400m 18.2 seconds (1600 manual)
TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual or three speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar (f). live axle with coil springs, Panhard rod & telescopic shock absorbers (r).
BRAKES: disc (f) drum (r) power assisted
TYRES: 165SR13 radial
Simple coil spring and strut suspension didn’t do great things for Celica handling but did make maintenance very simple. Tauter springs and uprated shock absorbers are available however going too far will destroy the car’s ride and character. Look at the front tyres for uneven wear; a big hint that suspension components are past their prime. Bouncing from the front means new strut inserts are needed but that’s not a big job. You can upgrade the brakes but remember to improve the tyres as well to ensure the improvement can be transferred to the road.
Celica seats were quite often discarded early in the cars’ lives and replaced with something more comfortable. If they are authentic, check the frames aren’t bent or cracked and that the recline/tilt mechanism locks. Dash cracks are unavoidable and replacements seem to be unobtainable in Australia. Not so the kits of body rubbers for TA22 and RA23 models or new carpet sets. Check the hood-lining for stains indicating water is seeping past window rubbers. A Malaysian supplier advertised stocks of genuine Celica switchgear plus numerous other parts.
Cars restored during the 1990s can be displaying the consequences of low-cost repairs. Lumpy welds, filler and water leaks are among the symptoms. Feel inside the wheel-arches for poorly-finished filler and inspect window surrounds for bubbling. Check floorpans for rust and be wary of a hatch that is difficult to close or is letting in water and exhaust fumes. Some parts including door skins and rust repair sections are available but big panels like the firewall and turret must be remade. Doors that droop might need new hinge pins. The mounting points might also have weakened due to rust. Reproduction bumpers are available at prices of up to $1000 each, but investigate quality before buying.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION iSix-cylinder Nissan engines are simple and very durable. Listen for valve train rattle (not too serious) or low-frequency bearing rumbles which will involve a rebuild. Underbonnet accessories can mostly be replaced or repaired, however items like genuine carburettors and the electronic ignition are difficult to locate. Installing a brand new set of Weber carbs, linkages and manifolds costs less than $2000. The five-speed gearbox is durable but wear eventually manifests so listen for whining/howling and drivetrain clunks. Powerful cars will need a limited-slip differential and uprated halfshafts.
Z Car steering was vague from the outset, however more than 20mm of slop at the wheel, binding or cracking noises at low speeds are not normal. Owners who have altered springs, bushings and shock absorbers have doubtless altered the original car’s ride/handing balance and not always for the better. If it bounces a lot on relatively smooth roads then shock absorbers are needed. For a car that will spend a lot of its life in competition there are plenty of specialists offering lots of trick components for sensible money. Disc/drum brakes work okay but for track/rally use get a rear disc conversion kit.
240Z dash-tops will frequently come with moulded mats to conceal cracks. Reproduction plastic is available as are fascia panels and replacement centre consoles. Reproduction door trims are available, as are window runners and other door internals. Overseas suppliers have replacement seat vinyl in kits or individually and new moulded foam inserts for under $200 each (plus freight). Make sure the trafficator and headlight/wiper controls aren’t broken as replacements from overseas cost $7001200 each.
NUMBER BUILT: 156,076
BODY: steel integrated body/chassis two-door coupe
ENGINE: 2393cc overhead camshaft six cylinder with twin side-draft carburettors
POWER & TORQUE: 112kW@ 5600rpm, 198Nm @ 4400rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h: 9.1 seconds, 0-400 metres 16.7 seconds
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
SUSPENSION: Independent with Macpherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); Independent with coil springs, struts, trailing arms (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) drum (r) with power assistance
TYRES: 175/70R14 radial