If you're going to blow a 280Z water pump gasket, what better place to do it than under the banner of the International Z Car Convention?
I don't smell it until the cool-down lap - that old enemy of anyone who dares to take a 40-year old car on a race track on a hot summer's day. It's the familiar, bittersweet tang of vapourized antifreeze, wafting through the open window of my Datsun 280Z as I float down the back straight at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP a.k.a Mosport). Frantic, my eyes shoot towards the temperature gauge just in time to see it begin its slow, inexorable climb into the red. I shut off the engine and coast off the racing line, pulling into pit-lane facing the wrong way and praying that the thin trail of coolant I'm dropping behind me hasn't completely fried my engine.
That being said, if you're going to blow a 280Z water pump gasket like I did that hot August morning, what better place to do it than under the banner of the International Z Car Convention, where you're virtually guaranteed to find a spare lurking in someone's paddock-parked race trailer?
ZCon is a five day festival celebrating one of the most popular sports cars to ever come out of Japan, and for 2016 it just happened to be hosted in Toronto, Ontario by the Ontario Z Car Owners Association. Welcoming all six generations of Z, from the original Datsun-branded 240Z that first arrived in North America for the 1970 model year all the way up to 2009's Nissan 370Z, it's the largest gathering of owners on the continent.
I arrived in the city the day before, piloting my own 1978 Datsun 280Z down the 500 kilometres of highway 401 that separate Montreal from Toronto's Westin Prince hotel that was serving as the ZCon base of operations. Pulling into the parking lot in the early afternoon I found myself surrounded by Z cars of every possible description, having interrupted the Z Car Club of America's first official judged car show. The ZCCA acts as the overall sponsor of the Convention, which sees individuals drive from as far away as Texas to participate. Sprinkled throughout the original, customized, and in some cases police-liveried Datsuns and Nissans awaiting official scrutiny I can spot plates from Ohio, New York, Vermont, and even Alabama, showing just how devoted the Z car faithful are to keeping the flame alive.
It's a passion that has not only endured over a great many decades, but also one that helped break open the affordable sports car market in both the United States and Canada. Long before the Mazda Miata arrived on the scene, the Datsun 240Z and its first-generation model mates the 260Z and 280Z provided proof that affordable performance didn’t have to feature big cubic inches to be a magical driving experience.
Lightweight and offering a robust straight-6 engine wrapped in styling that borrowed from both Ferrari (250 GTO) and Jaguar (the E-Type), the Z would smash sales records before gradually evolving into a turbocharged GT car in the '80s and '90s. By the time of its early-2000s rebirth the 350Z and the 370Z that followed found themselves up against rivals like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe and the Subaru BRZ - direct descendants of the Z-car's spiritual DNA - along with versions of the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro that had diverged from their original muscle roots to embrace the handling and versatility sought after by modern buyers.
More than anything else, however, it's clear to me that the Datsun and Nissan Z cars have evolved into something more than merely cool vintage cars representing a bygone era. While ZCon features its fair share of trailer queens and 100-point restorations, these vehicles are outnumbered by the Zs that served as a blank canvas for the ultimate expression of their respective owner's personal taste. The tech inspection line at the track that morning revealed 700-horsepower, twin-turbo 300ZX's nose-to-tail with '70s models sporting LS V8 conversions and turbo setups of their own. Such a low mass platform seems to attract the attentions of engine swap experts like moths to a flame, and conservatively, it seemed like perhaps one third of the pre-1990 Z cars attending the Convention had traded their original guts for something with a little more fire in the belly.
And it doesn't stop there. Want Lambo-doors on your 350Z? You got it. How about the kind of wide-body aero that would make a Japanese Bosozoku fan blush? Make sure you don't trip on that front splitter, then. For every 'black gold' 10th anniversary '82 280ZX parked behind the Westin Price there were at least two Z cars featuring paint, body, and chrome work so perfectly executed that you'd swear it came from the factory - if product planning happened to be run by Han from Tokyo Drift, and not the venerable designers Toshio Yamashita (who penned the 300ZX) or Randy Rodriguez, the Canadian behind the 370Z's smooth lines. Each of these important figures in Z history were present and accounted for at ZCon 2016, alongside motorsports luminary Steve Millen, who has won more races in international competition from behind the wheel of a Nissan than anyone else.
As for my own gasket woes back at the track? In the space of a half an hour I not only had a brand new seal in my pocket, but also two offers of a replacement water pump plus all the labour I needed to complete the repair before the day was over. It's often said that car people are among the most generous, and that sweltering August afternoon just north of Toronto certainly proved the point well. No one at ZCon 2016 was going to be leaving one of their own behind, no matter how far they had traveled or how dirty their hands had to get. It's this kind of attitude that keeps Z fans coming back for more year after year, and the farther we get from that distant 1970 starting point, the bigger the family seems to grow.