The letter Z, by itself, has an element of finality about it. Z is the end. In a way, Z represents the ultimate: There is nothing beyond Z. At the same time, it possesses an energy: The very hard-edged shape of it suggests a bolt of lightning, a kinetic shot of electricity carried through the air, destined to shock the senses and illuminate the darkness. Z has no soft curves to suggest a compromise; it is on or off, yes or no, all or nothing. Z may be the end, but everything about it—its shape, its sound, where it lives within our alphabet—suggests that it's not going down without a fight.
We suggest that Rich Madlangbayan of Oxnard, California, can relate. Once upon a time he had two cars in his fleet: a clapped-out S13 with the Nissan RB power crammed under the hood that you now see here, and a lovely '72 240Z. (Ownership of a previous Z, a '78-vintage 280Z, whetted his appetite for vintage J-tin, though the onerous post-emissions legislation in California meant that he was limited in what mods he could perform. Hence the '72 seen here.) "I got tired of choosing which car I wanted to drive—the fast one or the nice one," he tells us. Aww, poor baby. Someone call the waaaaahmbulance. But the answer made itself apparent fast enough: Simply make the nice one fast. "Fast is relative," Rich says modestly. "But it's pretty quick."
Damn fast it is. No, it's not Godzilla's own RB26DETT, with two turbos and seemingly infinite wells of power; rather, it's the kissin'-cousin twin-cam RB25DET, rated at 245 hp to start. Before tuning, that's a solid hundred horses more on what this era of Z was born with—and with fuel injection instead of all those fiddly carburetors. Mix in 8.5:1-compression Wiseco cylinder slugs and 27 psi of boost from the Garrett GTX3076R turbo, and Rich has seen 436 rwhp on the chassis dyno when it was installed in his old S13 (he says it's an older build, but Rich is wise enough to know when he has something good, and leave it be). Even assuming the power has stayed the same, dropping that particular motor into a chassis that, apples to apples, weighs about 400 pounds less, can only guarantee that the scenery will blur that much faster—a difference that Rich can feel in the small of his back every time he tickles the throttle.
Making the power sounds easy. Dropping the RB straight-six into a space where an L-series straight-six was pulled? Not so much. "The RB slipped right in for the most part," Rich tells us. "Obviously, when you're swapping a motor from a different car, you are bound to hit a few obstacles. The oil pan was a problem because it's a front sump and the crossmember hit it; to solve it, I cut it along the flange, flipped it, and rewelded it, so now it's a rear sump. Also, I had to extend the oil pickup. Oh, and I had to teach myself to weld." Aaaah. Obviously, some new usage of the tern "slipped right in" that we have not yet encountered. The five-speed manual also slipped right in, although it required a new custom driveshaft to connect to the beefed-up Subaru rear diff (and its attendant 3.9:1 final drive).
Inside is the blend of street and race that you might expect. A bolted-in rollcage, of course. A distinct lack of sound equipment—"the sweet sound of an inline-six is my soundtrack," Rich tells us. A full complement of modern gauges and...power windows? "I put them in at the same time I did the power locks and power steering," he says. "Someone rolls up next to you at a light and wants to talk, and you can't reach across the cabin and roll down the window in time. Power windows just make it easier."
Beyond the 'cage stiffening things up, Rich rethought his Z's suspension: coilovers, inch-thick sway bars, 12-inch four-wheel disc brakes on all corners, and 18x12.5-inch wheels (rare four-hole rebarreled NISMO wheels) have made this machine the autocross terror he wanted it to be when he started. But it's evolved since then—it has slowly transformed out of the grimy racetrack scene and into the show-car realm. "A year ago, I wanted to change up how it looks," Rich says. "I went with the flares and wheels, and for reasons of time and cost, neither of which I had, a buddy of mine wrapped it for me. I really wasn't looking to do shows, but when I was done, I took it to AutoCon and it won. Since then, it's kept on rolling, and it's turned into a show car, I guess." The tone is one of vague bewilderment, rather than pride: Rich seems surprised and humbled by all of the attention his Z is receiving.
Rich has chipped away at this Z over the course of seven long years. "The mechanical stuff came first, then the bodywork," he tells us. "It just went in stages. I don't have unlimited funds, so I just kept working away at it. I didn't have a deadline to get it done. I'm not a pro car builder, and everything on this car was trial and error for me. It was built in my home garage, with limited tools. I don't have all the knowledge or skills, but I was willing to try and not be afraid to make mistakes. Some of my welds look like crap—I didn't even know how to weld when I started, but I did it all myself." Not that he's going to let stubborn pride declare it good enough: "It could always be better."
To that end, Rich swears that it's not done. "It just keeps evolving," he tells us. "The future will bring more carbon-fiber parts. I'm thinking about a Gulf-livery paint scheme, maybe a better head unit, a full 'cage, carbon-fiber dash and console, and door panels. Maybe I'll build an RB30 for it. Everything depends on funds.
"It's my first build," he concludes, "but it won't be my last." For some, Z is the end. For others, like Rich Madlangbayan, Z is only the beginning.
So how did the Z get its name?
The story of how the Nissan Fairlady sports car got its name, with the president of Nissan being so taken with a performance of My Fair Lady on Broadway, with Julie Andrews in the Eliza Doolittle role, is well known; so are the (admittedly apocryphal) stories that Mr. K greeted boatloads of Fairlady Zs at the docks with a flat screwdriver to pry off all of the Fairlady nameplates. We all know this coupe as a Z-car. But where did the Z nomenclature come from?
There are multiple theories, all shrouded in mystery. Some say it's nonsense, just a cool-sounding name to distinguish the new coupe from the outgoing roadster and eliminate confusion. One states simply that because Z comes at the end of the Roman alphabet, it denotes a certain "ultimate" status—a step beyond the '60s roadster (sold here as the Datsun Sports 1600 and 2000) and into a higher class of car, duking it out with higher-end sports cars thanks to the six-cylinder engine. Another is that all of Nissan's sports car models were given the internal code of Z via the design department, in part because Nissan's growing model line had used all of the other Roman letters; the concept that became the 240Z was known as Maru-Zetto, or Circle-Z, at the time of its development. But there is another theory, one hinted at by Mr. K himself when the new car launched, and one that the life-long pacifist wasn't terribly comfortable expounding upon—one based in successful Japanese wartime tactics.
Let's go back into history during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. It was an ugly little turf skirmish that had global ramifications for decades to come. The Russian fleet needed to reach the port city of Vladivostok, located in Russia but near both the Chinese and Korean borders; this meant either going the long way around Japan, adding untold days to a trip that already took 18,000+ miles, or it meant navigating one of two routes between the Korean peninsula and Japan: the narrow Korea Strait, or the larger Tsushima Strait, which edged closer to Japanese territory. By February of 1904, Japan had had enough of Russian ships cutting through their front yard and engaged the tsar's fleet.
The Battle of Tsushima occurred just 15 months later, in May 1905, and was led by Admiral Togo Heihachiro from the bridge of the flagship battleship Mikasa. Before battle, Togo hoisted the internationally recognized Z flag, which acted as a silent announcement to the Japanese fleet: The Empire's fate depends on the result of this battle. Let every man do his utmost duty.
Tired, outgunned Russian boats, with crews suffering from low morale after so much time at sea, were no match for the larger, swifter, better-armed Japanese fleet. It was a bloodbath: more than 10,000 Russian troops killed or captured, and two-thirds of the Russian fleet, including six battleships, sunk. Japanese losses amounted to 117 killed, 500 wounded, and three torpedo boats lost—still terrible, but a pittance by comparison. The first defeat of a European power by an Asian one in the modern era, this battle destroyed the Russian navy, which helped destabilize Europe and sent the continent headlong into World War I. The victorious Japanese military was feeling its oats, falling for the might-makes-right theory of superior firepower and stronger ships, growing in power until the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941.
So what does this have to do with the Datsun Z? Well, it is known that Yutaka Katayama, father of the original Z, was sent to America as a sort of punishment for his radical, outside-the-box thinking in 1960. Less known is that Mr. K's older brother, a fan of Admiral Togo, gave him a Z flag as an inspiration to do well once he touched down on foreign soil. Maybe it worked: Mr. K's success has become the stuff of legend. When he became president of Nissan in North America a few years later, he asked for a sports car tailored to the American market; much to his delight, such a car was already being developed. Katayama-san saw the development of such a car—the Maru-Zetto—as a matter of national pride, and it is said that he drew inspiration from the Z flag, and its "let every man do his utmost duty" message. The Z car, revolutionary in its day, carries that message even today.