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Building the ultimate grip'n'drift Datsun

Datsun 260 Z (1974)

17/04/2013 10:57 |  Comments: 

Contributing editor

One of the founders of our mother site, Quiet, self-restrained, self-taught car pro, who designed much of the mechanics in his Datsun 260Z track car, affectionately named ’Aardvark’. Karotta is one of the best-known car testers on TV in Hungary, a skilled drifter and the former managing director of Totalcar too. Now off to other, even more important duties within the big company, he still is a senior contributor to the mag when he can find the time.

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When I bought it, I had no idea what I wanted to do with this car. I just had to have her. In the years gone by, it turned from a hobby car to a wreck with a tree growing through it. And now it’s shaping into a real race car…

It's been more than a decade since on my way home from work one evening  I first laid my eyes on that impossibly long-nosed silhouette of this particular S30, a 1974 260Z, parked leisurely on the sidewalk. It wasn't love at first sight. In fact, I'd been in love since early childhood with my brown Datsun toy sports car, an all-time personal favorite. But living in post-socialist Hungary, this unexpected encounter was my first chance to see one in the flesh. It was for sale too.

God, I was excited. I saw the weird hand-made nose. I knew that the reason behind such customization could easily be accident damage and lack of proper spares. Yet I bought her the next day. For a lot more money than I had. But I had to have her. Meet Aardvark, my super-long nosed Datsun 260Z, named after the ant-eating hunchback mammal of Africa.

Remember that part about paying more than I could afford? After owning the car for a year or so, it became clear that a ground-up restoration was unavoidable. Yes, it did look decent from a distance, but behind that protruding snout there were crumpled chassis members and mechanical issues. And bad, deadly structural rust too. I was 25, working 14-hour days on what later became Hungary's most popular car website, and lacking time and money, I parked her in a friend's backyard. I wanted to assemble the parts for period-correct modifications: triple Webers, tubular manifolds, fender mirrors, the works. I've managed to source a set of badly battered but original front panels, but nothing else. And then I got bitten by the drift bug. So I blew my money on an AE86 instead and hit the track. The rust slowly munched away on my beloved Aardvark.

In 2009 I was about to get married. It was time to get sensible. Settle down. But a visit to my friend's yard shocked me with the sight of a sapling growing through the dead body of my old Z. I just couldn't take it. I decided there and then that no matter what, I'd bring her back to life. Yes, it took me 8 years of neglect and bad conscience to finally kickstart the project. But these 8 years have also made me smarter. By now I knew that a mere restoration was off the agenda. Terminal rust made that financially unfeasible. Worse, I haven't matured into a decent classics guy. I still feel the most alive on a racetrack, battling against the clock or against the rear tires. So there was only one way ahead: to turn Aardvark into an all-out race car. One that will look and sound period-correct, but that can take the mental abuse of competitive Time Attack and drifting.

I didn't know the exact path my project would follow but I sure as hell had a vision. I used the gorgeous, sensual, yet wildly bad-ass IMSA GTU 240Z and 260Z racers that dominated the US tracks in the seventies as an inspiration. I wanted curvy hips and muscularly round buttocks. I wanted the silhouette, sound and soul of a bygone era brought to today's race tracks without the fragility and complicated maintenance associated with historic racers – especially in Europe, where the S30 is so rare it's nearly extinct. So I had to build my own shell and my own car underneath. One that I can still proudly call a Nissan Z.

By accident, a friend stumbled upon a set of JDM Hayashi Street wheels in a rural junkyard, hand-painted in offensive yellow. I got those. Then I met a team of super talented guys who were experts at making fiberglass bodykits for cars. They loved the project as much as I did. They were ready to help out, but only if we could start immediately, for their schedule was packed. We spent millions of hours discussing the shape, sculpting it from rough slabs of styrol, then from plaster. For long months the shell was shaped, re-shaped, then lovingly hand-sanded, caressed exactly to the way I wanted. Then the molds were made. This – building a shell before any mechanical work has been carried out – is so stupid it hurts. But this is how we did it.

I wanted an all-fiberglass exterior. Partly to save weight, but mostly for easy repair. This way I'd have the molds, and if (when) I eventually broke something, it's only a matter of hours to cheaply reproduce the part. This affected my new wheel choice as well. First it was determined that, in order to run the brakes required for a modern TA, we needed 17 inches or more. As I feel that big wheels are ungainly on old cars, I considered that to be the maximum.

I hopelessly lusted after old school JDM wheels, but the vintage items are too small and the moderns simply unattainable. Remember, I'm from Eastern Europe and we don't have supply channels from Japan. As the car will spend all of its time riding kerbs, hitting walls and falling into ditches and gravel traps, I needed wheels that I can replace if broken. Hence the Rotas. Trust me, I'll be here to tell you if they are any good. Or bad. They'll get the worst – yet possibly some of the most stylish – stress tests ever.

Some 13 months after the work on the bodyshell was started, we had a semi-finished roll cage installed with the S13 suspension preliminarily fitted. It was about time to get serious with the fabrication. That was when the 2011 megathrust earthquake and the following tsunami hit Japan. The utter destruction shocked the whole world. We, as lovers of Japanese automobiles and admirers of the culture felt terribly moved.

It was decided, that in an upcoming classic cars show, our magazine would organize a mini-exhibit of Japanese exotica, ranging from the minuscule Honda Z600 and S800 through the iconic Mazda RX-3 to the S30, among others. Hell, we'd even build a recreation of a Yaki-imo [sweet potato] selling minicar to raise money for charity. Now, there are not many vintage Japanese cars around here, so we absolutely needed mine on our stand. That meant that we had to abandon all the metalwork, to quickly have the FRP shell painted for the show.

This sad occasion has led me to the final design of the livery. The base color is white, a traditional Japanese racing color. The side view is meant to evoke the rising sun and the flag of Japan. The top view is the Hungarian tricolor of red-white-green. All in all, the exterior wanted to symbolize the friendship of our distant nations and our sympathies for those struck by the catastrophe. The painting and final assembly took the best part of two sleepless weeks.

Please note that at this point Aardvark was a barely rolling empty shell. We had no means to adjust ride height or “stance”, we just wanted to show to the people that these kind of cars once ripped the tracks of distant countries and ruled the races of the free world. The black vents on the sides are functional, they aid engine and brake cooling and smoke evacuation. Some of you may notice that the B-pillar (the door window rear frame) is gone, and instead, the whole Lexan side screen is one single, undivided unit. This is the way I wanted it to further emphasize the lithe beauty of the Z.

I have to say that the visitors just seemed to love what they saw. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, in a country where the vast majority of people had no idea that such cars ever existed. People learned at the show that indeed there was such a thing as vintage Japanese/American racing scene – it's just fantastic. After the three days of the show, it was time to finally build a car under those FRP panels. The size of the task? Well, I'll talk about that later.

Thanks to:
My wife Diana for still not divorcing me
OMG Visuals for the bodyshell and the forthcoming film
All the friends and supporters

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