I’d been searching for a long time. Nine months of serious looking, preceded by a spring where I’d toyed with the idea of adding a Datsun Z car to my driveway as a fun driver / potential track car. I’d almost snagged one back in September, only to be a week too late with the phone call to the seller. That Oregon-sourced, 2.8-liter and five-speed-swapped car disappeared right from under my nose.
Since then, I’d vacillated between the two poles that I think define anyone’s quest for a classic car. First, there’s the excitement of the hunt, the thrill of scrolling through endless Craigslist postings and eBay listings with the determination to find a gem that had somehow been passed over by other like-minded enthusiasts. It becomes an obsession: surely, out there in cyberspace, there lurks that elusive intersection of price and condition that qualifies as a deal, or rather, fits in whatever budget you told yourself you’d stick to (with your fingers crossed behind your back, of course).
Then, there’s the depression, the despair, the black hole that gets deeper the more time you spend online trying to find what you are now almost convinced doesn’t actually exist in real life. Each rust-riddled S30 hulk that you come across only increases the doubt in your mind that somewhere in the northeastern quadrant of the United States or Canada there might be a Z car that hadn’t had its rocker panels used to store road salt for the better part of three decades. ‘Wouldn’t it just be easier to buy a Miata?’ says that familiar voice that mocks your web browser’s search history and unanswered text messages to sellers who disappear overnight like snow on an April morning. Yes of course it would, you answer testily.
But I didn’t want a Miata. Or an E30, really. I loved the 95 R Package that I owned, and miss driving it after the flood waters stole it from me before I was ready to say good-bye, but this time around the sports car carousel I wanted something older, something even more direct, something that had nothing in common with the over-insulated, comfortable, and modern automobiles that I drove on a daily basis. I wanted the smells, sounds, and style of a coupe that didn’t know it was setting the tone for the next stage of Japan’s colonization of American consumer habits. I wanted one of these pieces of East Asian history before anyone in North America started to seriously collect them and thereafter pegged the price of reasonably clean, rust-free examples to the same unobtanium scale that has made even the rattiest of Porsche 912s unreasonably expensive to buy.
That’s what lead me here. Standing there in a disused garage with a ‘For Sale’ sign on the door in upstate New York, with my father and his open trailer parked out front and older gentleman named Russell waiting patiently, I probed the ’78 Datsun 280Z for rust, listened to its engine turn over and growl, and did my best to ignore the squeal of the car’s clutch in second gear. I knew I’d found what I was looking for. So did Russell.