Updated: Nov 19, 2018
"There are two schools when it comes to old Datsun Z's; the purists, who want every detail to be period appropriate and stock, or the other guys. Gerald McClellan is one of the other guys..."
Back in the 1960’s, Nissan of Japan began development on a car that would turn American sports car fans on their heads. It was a controversial project with Nissan Japan and was plagued with hurdles from its inception. A partnership with Yamaha, to develop the engine for this car, would only result in a revision of that very engine being used in the famed Toyota 2000GT rather than in a Nissan. Emerging changes in emissions and safety in the United States would complicate the project and set back the timeline.
Inner tension and disagreement within the walls of Nissan Japan would eventually lead to the man heading up the project, Yutaka Katayama (otherwise known as Mr. K) being asked to step away from his position, to move to America, and to set up shop to import an offshoot brand of Nissan that Americans had never heard of. It’s stories like this that always end in a ridiculous overcoming of adversity and typically make history. Such is the classic case here with what Nissan’s Development team dubbed “Project Z”.
The 240z debuted in America in October of 1969 and was an instant hit. Its long hood and bulbous cockpit were, no doubt, inspired from the Jaguar E-Type and the Ferrari GT cars. Costing only a fraction of it’s inspiritors, the car would go on to be one of the best selling sports cars in American history. This was a Japanese sports car completely designed for Americans, and Americans only.
It’s only fitting that the Z stills invokes disagreement among its trusty followers and there are two schools when it comes them; the purists, who want every detail to be period appropriate and stock, then there are the other guys, where anything goes. Gerald McClellan is one of the other guys.
Meet The Man
Gerald grew up in Texas with a father who loved all things machine. His dad collected cars throughout his youth and wrenched on helicopters for a living. Naturally, by means of the genetic highway, the itch to tinker was passed along to Gerald. He received his first car from his Grandfather at age 16; a 1978 Datsun 810 wagon. He would, almost instantly, begin customizing it. His affection for cars would eventually take him to school to become a Toyota factory mechanic which would then lead him to his current position working for Nissan’s development team in sunny Arizona.
I met Gerald on Facebook through a referral and had no idea who he was, nor had I ever seen any of his prior builds. I shot him a message and we began corresponding. He sent me a picture of his car in its latter years, dusty and faded, sitting disgracefully under years of Arizona dust. He proceeded to tell me the story about how he came to own it.
He got a tip-off from a friend of his who had seen the car for sale. It was being sold with a sister 240z. Pondering the purchase for a bit, his wife, Sarah, convinced him to hurry out and purchase the cars since he had always been talking to her about building one (every man needs a wife like Sarah!). As quickly as he could, he reached out to the lady selling them and scheduled to meet up with her to take a look at the two Z’s. One was a 1974 260z and the other a 1973 240z. Understanding what a great deal it was he purchased the two cars. The 240 had very little documentation but the 260 had original documents showing that it was from, and lived its entire life, in Arizona. He decided to sell the 240 to a co-worker of his and actually made $500 more from selling that single car, than he had paid for both of them. He went straight to the drawing board and began bringing the 260z back to life.
Fast forward 3 years; I met Gerald via a referral on Facebook who said to reach out to him because he owned a beautiful Z. I messaged him and we agreed to meet up at a coffee shop a week later. We planned to meet up on a Saturday when I’m usually at car shows with my 6 year old daughter so this had to be no ordinary Z.
I pulled into the parking lot and maneuvered through a sea of mundane commuter cars. As I rounded the lot I spotted his 260z; backed into a parking space right in front of the door to the coffee shop. His Z stood out like a beacon of light, yet, strangely, it seemed to fit in perfectly. Sort of like when you were a child hunting for Easter eggs; you know what you’re looking for and as soon as you see it your heart drops. The egg is out of place in a field of grass, yet it still seems perfectly normal to find it there and it excites the hell out of you. That’s how I felt seeing his Z in-person for the first time.
I parked my mundane commuter and walked over to his Z. I did a quick walk-around then popped inside to introduce myself and grab a coffee. I ordered my usual; a tall dark roast-black. We headed out front for a proper introduction to the car and then headed out to the shoot location in the Ahwatukee foothills.
Persimmon was his paint color of choice, which is the Z’s original color from the factory in 1974. Adorned with two large white circles on each door, the inevitability of racing numbers in those empty spaces hearkens the excitement of watching it obliterate its competition on the track. Could it be autocross-bound?
Polished aluminum-lipped Equip by Work Type 01’s protrude, perfectly, from the works-style fender flares with Toyo Proxes R888 205/50 ZR 15’s hugging 9” wide wheels in the front while the rear is outfitted with 225/60 ZR 15’s hugging a 10” wheel. The 4-spoke Work wheels are the wheels that Datsun couldn’t dream of engineering for this car during the development of it. They fit it like a glove and, somehow, make an almost perfect car more perfect. Besides the fender flares the only aero work that departs from factory is a front splitter from Skillard.
The ride has been tuned by a proper set of Stance USA coilovers and the brakes, while still manual, got an upgrade courtesy of calipers from a Toyota 4x4 and rotors from a Z31 300zx in the front and a disc brake setup from a Maxima in the rear.
Gerald kept the interior in its stock configuration with the exception of a set of custom gauges from Speedhut and a billet shifter that rises from what lies beneath the transmission tunnel. The factory steering wheel, which looks like wood (but isn’t) has been brought back to life and gives the black interior the perfect amount of petina and color. This is a driver’s car and the interior reflects the 44 years worth of enjoyment that’s been had behind the wheel of it.
Under the hood lies the heart of a lion. Cradled, perfectly, inside the stitch welded engine bay is an LS1 that lays down 325 horsepower. The LS1 is paired up with a T56 transmission, an aluminum driveshaft from Shaftmasters, 3.90 gears and an R200 differential out of a 280Z. The roar from this beast is delivered through a custom 2.5” stainless exhaust with a single resonator.
As the sun set we talked shop, clicked away photos, and countless people driving by stopped to compliment Gerald on his car. It’s beautifully built in great taste and it goes like hell! What more could you possibly ask for? It’s cars like his Z and people like him that fuel me to do this.
I packed up my gear and Gerald roared off into the sunset. I was left contemplating how Mr. K would feel about Z’s like this one and it struck me; this car was designed for Americans and, as Americans, this is what we do! We throw big engines in little cars and we don’t care what anyone thinks about it. This is exactly as it should be; Mr. K would be proud.
Photos: Ryan Grimes @the_real_ryan_grimes
Location: Ahwatukee Footahills