A birthday look at a groundbreaking sports car from Japan

Amid the auto anniversaries this year, the one we’re about to note is very significant. The Z-car was never Nissan’s biggest-selling vehicle, and was never intended to be, but its reception by eager buyers was strong enough to vindicate Nissan’s decision to build it. The origin’s of the Z-car date to 1961, when Nissan – then Datsun – undertook a redesign of the sporting Fairlady, which the Z-car was always dubbed in its home market. The unshakable hero of this story is Yutaka Katayama, known in the Nissan world simply as Mr. K, the first president of Nissan’s operations in the United States. He was determined to create a halo car that would allow onlookers to overlook its Japanese origins, which were viewed less than charitably in those years. The original Datsun 240Z of 1970 completely transformed the public’s understanding of what an affordable sports car could be, and also what the Japanese auto industry was capable of creating. In that sense, it absolutely qualifies as a landmark car. It fully deserves the 50th anniversary review of its history that’s just been published.

Nissan Z: 50 Years of Exhilarating Performance fully compiles the story of this legend from Japan in words and photographs. Authored by Pete Ewanow, a professor at Cal State-Fullerton who once worked in Nissan’s engine program for the then-Indy Racing League, has compiled a 176-page hardcover narrative on the gestation and evolution of the Z-car, from the days when it was simply known internally as the Nissan S30. The text covers the full story, including Nissan’s early years in the U.S. market, and follows it straight through to the current Z34, which we know here as the Nissan 370Z. It’s a comprehensive-but-readable story that incorporates all of the engineering and design changes in the Z-car’s lifespan. We especially liked that it intimately spotlights not only the career of Mr. K, but also three racers who were both instrumental in establishing the original Z’s bona fides as a true sports car, Bob Sharp, John Morton and the late P.L. Newman. If you respect this important sports car, you’ll want to read the book, which is published by Quarto.

Family-friendly features highlight changes for 2021 Nissan Rogue

If you haven’t spotted them, you’re forgiven, but be sure to take note that Nissan has been on a tear of late where a revived product lineup is concerned. A little quietly, the Japanese giant headquartered in Tennessee has fully redesigned five models for the coming model year, including the Altima, Versa, Sentra and Titan full-size pickup. To that list now comes the Rogue midsize SUV, riding on an all-new platform that incorporates an equally new Vehicle Motion Control system that’s going to be offered on Rogues with Intelligent All-Wheel Drive and Drive Mode Selector optioning. The system can singly brake individual wheels to optimize the Rogue’s cornering line, operating in one of five all-wheel drive modes. Underneath the (very appealing) new sheetmetal treatment are new electric power steering and a new independent rear suspension setup that incorporates multiple locating links.

The auto industry has swiftly come to understand that in 2020, technology sells cars, especially the kind that allows passengers to remain wired while in transit. To that end, the Rogue will incorporate no less than three interior digital displays, including a new heads-up display for the driver, which will pass along critical vehicle information. An intelligent Around View monitor will allow drivers to see the Rogue’s entire perimeter, with customizable displays. Google Maps and Waze are parts of the package, along with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Bluetooth connectivity. Available extras will include Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist, incorporating steering assist and adaptive cruise control. Three trim levels will be offered, along with a new Platinum edition that incorporates quilted seating with leather accents. The standard engine is a 2.5-liter DOHC inline-four with direct injection, whose output has been boosted by 11hp for a total of 181 with an accompanying torque boost. The Rogues will be at your dealership this fall.

A Palmetto State BMW benchmark

When some of think about BMW, we naturally envision its roots in the mountainous German state of Bavaria. Little mental pictures of Tyrolean hats, lederhosen, huge steins of lager and platters of wurst come to mind here. Today, it’s beneficial to understand that BMW is first an automaker, producing prized specialty cars for discriminating drivers, and they don’t always come from the Fatherland anymore. For the past quarter-century, a large part of BMW’s history has been written in the highlands of Spartanburg County, South Carolina, where it operates Plant Spartanburg, which is actually located in the city of Greer. Just this week, BMW achieved a milestone as the South Carolina assembly plant rolled out its 5 millionth vehicle, an amazing achievement when you consider that right or wrong, a lot of people still automatically associate the company with the mountains of Germany.

The benchmark Bimmer turned out to be a BMW X5 M Competition SUV in Toronto Red, powered by a 617hp twin-turbo V-8, outfitted with a Silverstone Full Merino leather interior. Given its significance, the X5 will remain on site at Spartanburg as part of BMW’s historic vehicle collection. The plant’s dedicated products include SUVs and BMW coupes, and now, more than half the vehicles BMW sells in the United States are South Carolina-produced. During its existence, Plant Spartanburg has turned out 411,620 new BMWs, firmly establishing it as BMW’s highest-volume assembly plant, with 11,000 workers on staff. One little-known statistic is that nearly 70 percent of the plant’s overall output is exported for sale in other world markets.

Ford, VW join forces on EV trucks

This is huge. We reported last year that Ford had made a major investment in Argo AI, which is developing self-driving systems for the coming generation of autonomous vehicles. Last week, Volkswagen independently bought its own stake in Argo AI last week, which was immediately followed by the announcement that Ford and Volkswagen have jointly formed a long-term alliance to develop new commercial vehicles, with an emphasis on electric and self-driving conveyances. It’s not a merger between the automotive titans, but instead an effort for a major sharing of expenses in acquiring these technologies, in an industry pounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global economic crisis. The first goal of the partnership will be to produce a medium-duty pickup for Volkswagen, probably based on the new Ford Ranger – does anybody remember Ford and Mazda doing something similar that begat the B2000? – that Volkswagen will sell as the Amarok by 2022. The next will be creation of an electric city delivery van based on the current Caddy sold by Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, as shown below.

Following those vehicles, Ford and Volkswagen will then unveil a 1-ton cargo van designed by Ford, and Ford will introduce an all-new electric vehicle for the European market by 2023, based on Volkswagen’s MEB platform for EVs, which is also shared by Audi, SEAT and Skoda. The partners expect to sell up to 8 million of the pickup and new vans, including about 600,000 of the MEB-platform vehicles. Ford has already announced its intentions to produce all-electric versions of its Transit van and the F-150 pickup, America’s biggest-selling vehicle of any kind, likely by 2022. Late in April, Ford pulled the plug on plans to produce an electric SUV with EV startup Rivian, but Lincoln is still pursuing a possible technical alliance with that company.

Bubba Wallace makes a stand

From the outset, we haven’t reported much here on NASCAR doings, mainly because any number of sites that cover the racing series full-time already exist. But it’s hard to let the past week’s events in top-tier stock car racing pass without some mention. We all know what’s been going on in the country of late. NASCAR has one active African-American driver, Bubba Wallace, and before the most recent event at Martinsville, Virginia, he spoke out. Wallace, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports, became an obvious interview subject as the nationwide debate about race, privilege and injustice continued unabated. He made a heartfelt, forceful plea for NASCAR to ban the longstanding practice of allowing Confederate flags to flutter during its events. To a lot of people’s great surprise, NASCAR did precisely that two days later, in time for Wallace to race with Black Lives Matter graphics adorning his car, as this team photo shows.

It’s difficult to adequately express just how pivotal a change this represents for NASCAR. It was born in 1947, at a time when pro-level sports in the South largely didn’t exist. For most of its history, NASCAR has played almost exclusively to white audiences. At one time, a Darlington race featured an actor dressed as a Confederate soldier, who leaped atop the winner’s hood waving the stars and bars as the driver turned into victory lane. Flying the same flag while tailgating at races became a rite of passage for many NASCAR fans. During its formative years, NASCAR had one regularly competing black driver at its top level, Wendell Scott. Despite a profoundly low-budget operation using largely hand-me-down equipment, Scott passed a faltering Petty to win a dirt race at Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963 by two laps. Scott wasn’t credited with the win for two years, and as far as I know, was still waiting for his trophy when he died in 1990. The story goes that race organizers feared letting a white race queen kiss a black winner in front of an all-white Florida crowd. But times, and NASCAR, have indeed changed. During Brian France’s tenure as NASCAR’s chief, he urged fans to furl Confederate flags during races, and it’s not clear how the organization intends to enforce the outright prohibition. One backmarker in the truck series has already declared his intention to quit NASCAR over the ban. But if you look at Wallace’s car, you will note that two of his normal race-day sponsors are McDonald’s and the U.S. Air Force. Those are organizations that are fully, publicly, committed to social change in today’s America. We assure you, those voices speak loudly in the world of big-time auto racing. And the past week has made it clear that NASCAR embraces those goals as well. Today, Wendell Scott is enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, which will announce its 2021 class of inductees next Tuesday, and a state historic marker proclaims his birth in Danville, Virginia. Bubba Wallace is now the second African-American with a NASCAR win to his credit, in the truck series. I’ve met him; he’s a rock-solid driver with the potential for many more wins. This is a story with a potentially very positive outcome.

Musings about Mopar’s foray into the NHRA Pro Stock gunfight

You simply can’t effectively enjoy Chrysler history without examining its history in the world of drag racing. That subject can, and has, inspired any number of historical books on the cars, teams and engines that did battle for Mother Mopar during the heady muscle era. There’s enough raw material and sheer historical sweep to allow for some deep angling for facts, images and anecdotes about Chrysler and drag racing. This is one such effort. It’s a project to tell the story of Chrysler’s entry into the then-new NHRA eliminator category of Pro Stock, viewed through the lens of a team that did most of the brand’s most critical technical development work. Read it, and you will immediately come to appreciate that Chrysler’s Motown Missile is a veritable font of overlapping, highly detailed information on Mopar’s effort to be competitive in the open factory warfare that Pro Stock enabled.

Subtitled “Mopar’s Secret Engineering Program at the Dawn of Pro Stock,” this is essentially the tale of three people: Engine builder Ted Spehar, Chrysler powertrain engineer Tom Hoover, and owner/driver Don Carlton, who got the program on track before he died in a 1977 testing accident. The narrative is an in-depth, profusely illustrate saga of continuous research and problem-solving, both at the track and in the halls of Chrysler design. We’ll leave the story for the author, historian Geoff Stunkard, to lay out, but will tell you that this an enormously detailed insider’s account of trying to begin an entirely new racing program from scratch. In 176 softcover pages, the author makes clear his familiarity with and emotional attachment to the saga and its participants. It immediately becomes clear that Stunkard has nearly boundless, intimate knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject; technical sidebars emcompass everything from air-scoop evolution to early aerodynamic research that didn’t involve the use of a wind tunnel. We were pleasantly surprised to see the great Brooklyn racer Ronnie Lyles in these pages, and learned that his power came from Randy Dorton, who went on to head the engine operation for Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR before dying in a tragic plane crash. This is really good stuff, and any drag enthusiast will love it. The book retails for $36.95 from CarTech, which publishes a range of excellent titles on drag racing history.

Roaring through automotive history with a genuine car guy

It’s worth noting in our current situation that we still occupy a place and time where you can unquestionably, indisputably, carve out your own path in life. Yes, that’s still true. As proof, let’s study the biography of my friend and fellow Floridian Marty Schorr, a guy who literally has done it all in the worlds of automotive journalism and public relations. A native of the Bronx, Marty experienced the most glorious era in American performance history, both as a magazine editor and PR professional. This guy lived during a time when the U.S. auto industry maintained fleets of muscle cars, some of them actual engineering prototypes, inside Manhattan garages for Marty and other scribes to flog at will, on the street or the strip, and available for the whipping just by picking up the phone and calling up a manufacturer’s rep. That’s an incredible notion, I realize, but Marty lived it all the way. Today, he’s a social butterfly amid the car world on the Florida Gulf Coast, the author of numerous books on Detroit’s insane performance years, a car collector, and practitioner of online journalism. I’m very proud and grateful to know Marty. He’s the real deal and absolutely one of the good guys.

Born in the Bronx, Marty served in the Army Reserve in the early 1960s, picking up a 1961 Pontiac Bonneville with a Tri-Power 389 as his daily driver. As a member of a Yonkers car club, he’d already rumbled around in a rodded 1940 Mercury convertible sedan, of all things, and later in a 1949 MG TC powered by a full-house Ford V8-60 flathead. He was elected as the club’s publicity director, which brought him in touch with the editors of car magazines, many of which were then headquartered in New York City. That triggered his desire to write about cars and photograph them, even though he only owned a six-buck Kodak at the time. In October 1960, Marty was offered the job of editor at two magazines then published by Magnum-Royal Publications in Manhattan, Custom Rodder and Car, Speed and Style. He was further named editor of CARS in 1965, whose title Marty changed to Hi-Performance CARS, in the process hiring Fred Mackerodt as managing editor and my fellow East New York native, the late Joe Oldham, as staff writer. This was the Murderer’s Row that covered the muscle, drag and yes, street-racing scene in the New York metro area during the 1960s. A cover of the magazine shows Marty’s own hot rod, atypically powered by Ford via a Cobra small-block.

The magazine was a deep-down dive into the world of American high performance, tales told with both enthusiasm and irreverence. A big part of the job involved track-testing muscle cars to acquire real-world performance numbers. In other words, Marty and company drew regular salaries for testing Detroit’s fastest at the track, to prove empirically just how fast they really were. This shows one such test session from at the immortal Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey.

Marty department Magnum-Royal in 1973 to establish Performance Media Public Relations, which he still operates today, while also putting out magazines like Chevy Action and Vette for other publishers, plus doing a series of books. Before that, in 1967, he began collaborating with Joel Rosen, a racer and AHRA national record holder who became a business success by founding a speed shop, Motion Performance, that specialized in shoehorning big-block Chevrolet engines into everything from Chevelles to Vegas, usually obtaining the engines from Baldwin Chevrolet, just a few doors away on Sunrise Highway in the eponymous Long Island town. Here’s one such stormer, which effectively countered General Motors’ reluctance at the time to put mega-inch engines in smaller cars.

Hi-Performance CARS began sponsoring Baldwin-Motion in drag racing, demonstrated by this 1967 image of Rosen launching a 427 Camaro at New York National Speedway in Center Moriches on Long Island, where the magazine did a lot of its track testing. This was truly crazy stuff. Today, documented Baldwin-Motion cars with known histories are highly prized by collectors of vintage GM muscle cars. Marty produced catalogs and other materials for Baldwin-Motion while he was growing PMPR, a process that led to Buick selecting to handle public and media relations from Maine to Florida, a post held from 1982 to 2000. If you wrote about cars during these years and knew Marty, you were guaranteed some memorable experiences. One of mine was attending a Buick V-6 performance seminar at Phoenix International Raceway that featured rides with NHRA Super Stock legend Kenny Duttweiler, who ran a twin-turbo Regal T-Type in the doorslammer wars, and the late Scotsman Jim Crawford, who led the 1988 Indianapolis 500 with a stock-block Buick turbo V-6 over a horde of cars with Cosworth-Chevrolet power until losing a lap in the pits near the end. Some wonderful things happened during the Buick turbo years, including the McLaren-massaged, one-of-547 Buick GNX, which Crawford and I got to hot-lap at the Phoenix happening. Marty even let me drive a new Roadmaster sedan away from the event, which I used to make my first visit to Death Valley, amid a rare riot of springtime flora.

If you’re ever in or around Sarasota, Florida, you might be able to take part in one of Marty’s luncheon gatherings for car guys, which drew significant numbers until coronavirus worries interrupted things. Find out about them and keep in touch by going here. Marty’s other site, Car Guy Chronicles, deals with more conventional automotive news and features, including a recent entry on one of my heroes, E.J. Potter, the Michigan Madman, a guy who realized it was cool to smoke his way down countless Midwest drag strips astride a Harley powered by a built small-block Chevrolet V-8. Let Marty know who sent you.

Porsche pulls the plug on its factory effort in IMSA

We live in a world where normal expectations have a tendency to be seriously bent with little warning. More proof arrived this week when Porsche, the most successful manufacturer in the recent history of international sports car racing, announced that it’s withdrawing from the factory-based GT Le Mans class of the WeatherTech IMSA Sports Car Championship following the conclusion of the 2020 IMSA season, which resumes next month at Daytona. Like virtually every other automaker, Porsche has seen its commercial fortunes crater amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a reality that the Weissach firm said drove its decision to pull back from IMSA. The development wasn’t wholly unexpected: Last month, Porsche disclosed that it wouldn’t be bringing its IMSA teams, fielded by South Carolina-based CORE Motorsports, to the rescheduled 24 Hours of Le Mans in September, reducing its involvement in the Sarthe’s GTE Pro category from four to just two examples of the 911 RSR. Porsche did add that it intends to go out at IMSA by successfully defending its 2019 GT Le Mans title, and that it will continue to support customer who campaign the 911 GT3 in IMSA.

“The decision to halt our factory involvement in the IMSA series was not an easy one for us,” emphasises Fritz Enzinger, vice president of Porsche Motorsport. “With a view to the current corporate situation in connection with the coronavirus pandemic, it is only logical for Porsche Motorsport to make a contribution to coping with the economic fallout. We’ve openly discussed our exit with all involved. At this point, we’d like to convey our sincere thanks to Jim France and the colleagues at IMSA for their understanding. Porsche belongs in endurance racing. We will work hard to ensure that this is only a temporary Auf Wiedersehen.”

It’s been a rough few months for sports cars, both in IMSA and those involved with the FIA World Endurance Championship. Chevrolet recently announced that it won’t be taking its new, mid-engine Corvette C8.R to Le Mans, and the global scene is still coming to grips with Aston Martin’s decision to pull out of the forthcoming, enormously promoted Hypercar prototype class. For its part, Porsche is already on record that it’s exploring a possible foray into IMSA’s new LMDh prototype class, which is expected to replace the existing DPi category, formerly known as Daytona Prototype, in 2022.

Through the lens, from rock royalty to racing eminence

Imagine growing up in one of music’s greatest eras of artistic expansion, being a collegian and being armed with a camera. Try to fathom capturing that sort of greatness on film, while it was happening, from the front of a stage during a landmark concert. Then think of being into cars and racing, not just music, and having the shooting skills to participate in motorsports photojournalism during some of racing’s most acclaimed, consequential years. Do all that, and you’ll be someone like my longtime Hemmings Motor News collaborator John Rettie. Born in London, and now living near Santa Barbara, California, John has witnessed and photographed both rock music and racing at a close personal distance that most of us can only speculate about enviously. John is a second-generation car enthusiast whose father once owned a 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans, and had a article published in Autocar, the British motoring journal. His father’s grandfather was a highly respected Scottish editor of legal documents who once served in the House of Lords. So cars and journalism are both firmly planted in John’s DNA. In 1970, John was studying civil engineering at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and was a photographer for the student newspaper, covering a variety of rock concerts on campus. He was one of just two photographers at The Who’s show on Feburary 14th, 1970, which was recorded live and released as the Live at Leeds album, which many critics still consider the greatest live performance in rock history. This is an image that John captured during that unforgettable concert. Note that the late Keith Moon is behind the drum kit.

By that time, John had already made his first trip to the United States, embarking with his photo gear on a one-month Greyhound bus trip across the country. He returned the following year, also 1970, and managed to get credentialed as a media member for the famed Can-Am and Trans-Am racing series. He sold his first racing image that year, a shot of Richie Ginther attacking the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca in a Porsche 914/6. He struck up a friendship with the British racing historian and motoring journalist Jeremy Walton, who helped him find assignments. Before long, John was a full-time motorsports photographer and magazine journalist living in the United States, having transitioned away from rock music, in part, due to the stultifying egos that dominated that world. At the same time, he operated a British-based business for performance Volkswagen parts and a Los Angeles-based public relations agency. John also served as technical editor for Hot VWs magazine, was West Coast bureau chief for Ward’s Automotive, and launched J.D. Power’s first automotive website. He is experienced in reviewing cars, photo gear and computers, and has served as president of the California-based Motor Press Guild three different times. But I know him best as a highly traveled racing shooter. One image he captured was this 1970 image of the great Dan Gurney pitting his Plymouth ‘Cuda during that year’s Trans-Am round at Riverside. It was the Big Eagle’s final race.

John, whose website allows you to peruse – and acquire – many of his famed images, which include any number of fascinating historical vignettes. For example, as we’ve noted, John did a lot of work involving high-performance Volkswagens, which led him to cover the Sports Car Club of America’s Formula Super Vee series, which was powered by water-cooled VW engines and was then a key part of the IndyCar career ladder. As a demonstration, John provided this 1982 image of a very young Michael Andretti working quick Super Vee laps at Riverside.

Around here, the next image carries even more weight, as great at Michael Andretti’s career has proven to be.

This photo, likely from 1978, shows the late Tim Richmond hot-lapping a Lola T620 Super Vee at the Milwaukee Mile when he was beginning a transition from Supermodifieds and USAC Sprint cars to his goal of IndyCar racing. Richmond won the Super Vee round at Phoenix. Richmond climbed the mountain, and was named Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year in 1980 after placing ninth in the race. But after several vicious crashes, Richmond jumped to NASCAR, where he became one of the 1980s’ great stars, winning 13 times in seven seasons, mostly for Hendrick Motorsports. I got to know him a little bit. Shared a couple of Old Milwaukees with him in the garage area at Pocono after one race. I’m fond of saying that if Richmond hadn’t been claimed by complications from AIDS in 1989, and had managed to finish his career on track, there’s no way that Dale Earnhardt would have won seven NASCAR titles. Richmond was that good, and racing is poorer for his untimely passing. The Eastern Motorsport Press Association inducted Richmond into its Hall of Fame in 1995, one of the few organizations to do so, likely due to the circumstances of his death, which is really unfortunate.

Sad news: Hershey is canceled

It’s a combination of Woodstock, the greatest flea market you’ve ever experienced and the entire sweep of automotive history stretching back for more than a century. In the automotive world, it’s got a one-word name: Hershey. It’s a decades-old rite of autumn in rolling central Pennsylvania, attracting some of the world’s finest historic motor vehicles of every imaginable stripe, literally anything for a collector car you could ever hope to buy, and an annual crowd over its multi-day run that often approaches a quarter of a million eager souls. And this year, it’s being canned due to COVID-19. The Antique Automobile Club of America, which presents the extravaganza each year, announced that health and regulatory realities associated with the pandemic will make it impossible to hold this October, at least in its traditional form.

This photo was grabbed by Web Editor Daniel Strohl of Hemmings Motor News, which has a big annual presence at Hershey, during last year’s gathering. Here’s what we can learn from this image: First, this vendor space likely represents about 1/1,000th of what’s available to shoppers, everything from complete cars to every imaginable part for them to collectibles such as vintage cans of lubricating oil, among countless other things. Secondly, if you’ve never been to it, Hershey sprawls across multiple color-coded fields adjacent to the Hersheypark theme attraction. I’ve never attempted to guess at the acreage involved, but it’s huge. According to AACA CEO Steve Moskowitz, Hershey was in jeopardy from the moment the first restrictions on gatherings in Pennsylvania were announced. Even under the most rosy possible rules during the pandemic, events in Dauphin County, where Hershey is located, crowds of more than 250 attendees would have been prohibited, even in October. Officially known as the Eastern Division Fall Meet, Hershey is presented entirely by AACA volunteers that nearly rivals an army for sheer size. The distancing restrictions, and the huge necessary workforce, left the AACA without options. This will mark the first time in its 65-year history that the old-car blowout, which has endured lousy weather, recessions and even the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, has been canceled outright. The AACA does still intend to present its annual Grand National up the road in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in July; a website has been established for announcing changes in the Hershey scheduled, since Steve said the week’s signature event, its annual car show on Hershey’s final day, might yet be salvaged. Regardless of all this, Hershey – and it will resume – should be experienced by every car enthusiasts at least once. At Hemmings, there’s a favorite phrase that captures exactly how unpredictable and vast the finds at this event can really be: “Only at Hershey.”