Wichita, Kansas, August 2018 - My Japanese Unicorn by William K Ohlmeyer Jr.
I’m just another car guy! I don’t chase cars for a living; I have a semi normal day job, I wear comfortable shoes, but I developed an obsession for which there is no cure. My obsession comes in every make, model, and style. Honestly, a heroin habit would be far cheaper; there I found myself, deep into my usual late night ritual of scanning the online auctions and local marketplace for car bargains! An ad for a 1974 Datsun 260z caught my eye because they misspelled Datzun…The ad claimed 10K original miles and said the car has not run since 1982 and needed “put back together,” but was stored inside. The ad further claimed “mint condition” and “original tires,” the owner was also “FIRM” on the asking price. I was intrigued by the tone of the ad and I liked the car’s gold paintjob and period correct classic slotted keystone wheels and so I responded with the usual questions…for additional photos and whether or not the engine turned freely. I was also curious as to why it was in storage for so long?
The owner informed that he did not have any additional photos but said the car belonged to his uncle, a Navy doctor who purchased the car new, with the dealer installed optional wheels back in 1974. After the car developed carburetor problems, (pretty common on the 260z) his uncle placed it in storage intending to get back to the car, when he died…The owner went on to report that 13 years ago, he and his father drove to California in order to retrieve the car from storage and that it has now sat in his shop ever since. Fascinated by the story I asked if I could come by and look at the car. We agreed to meet the following week. Frankly, I expected to see a rusty bucket with a rolled odometer and trashed interior. In 36 years of buying and selling a variety of cars, I had grown extremely skeptical of these kinds of ads, promising the world and delivering money pits and bondo mobiles. The 260z is a somewhat rare find in the first place. It was only built for one year and is a kind of in-between model bridging the gap between the beloved 240z and the more modern 280z. The 260 looks just like a 240 but is bogged down with California emissions resulting in less horsepower, a bland driving experience, and thus less interest from car guys. This 260 is only of interest to me because it could be the lowest mile original example of a 260z in existence; outside of a museum.
My drive to the small town of Hesston, Kansas, just north of Wichita took about an hour. My anticipation and skepticism grew on the drive and I convinced myself that this car was going to be a piece of junk, worth half of what the owner was asking. I found myself meeting the owner in front of his house and exchanging the usual pleasantries. I made my way to the back of his house and into a darkened shop full of scrap metal and old rusty equipment stacked from floor to ceiling. I had to wade my way through the jagged piles into the back of this dank building. I was brushing the cobwebs off my face and struggling to see guided only by the light of my cell phone and a bit of hope when I saw the car for the first time. It was covered in dirt and grim from years of sitting but looked to be 100% original. As I ducked down to take a look behind the front tires I could clearly make out the words “Made in Japan” still visible on the original factory Toyos. Behind the tire I saw what looked to be a brand new spring and shock tower; only they weren’t “new,” they were 45 year old original springs and shocks. I could still make out the word “Datsun” printed on a sticker on the shock tower. Everything wasdirty of course but it was all I could do to hide my excitement when I saw the original factory muffler shining back at my iPhone camera light.
At this point I was speechless. Completely convinced I was looking at a Unicorn I squeezed between the car and the shop wall to take a look at the rocker behind the door. It was as smooth as glass. It looked the way it did when it rolled right off the assembly line. No Bondo. No repaint. All original. Perfect. In all of my years of buying and hunting for cars I have never seen a used Z car in this kind of condition this except in a museum. I opened the hood to reveal what looked like a brand new engine covered in years of dust. I had to have this car! There was no turning back, I wasn’t going to leave this man’s property until we struck a deal. Even the interior smelled like a brand new car…it was surreal. The missing air filter and bumper parts were laying tucked away in the hatch that still lifted with the force of brand new 45 year old struts. I carefully opened the driver’s door and squeezed in. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I noticed the intact factory stereo and the perfect plastic dash with no cracks or fading. It looked like it had just been freshly assembled then stored away from the damaging elements.
As I crawled out of the car, the owner began to complain about how other respondents to his ad were trying to beat him up over the price but that he was not going to budge. I casually stated to him that I would pay his asking price and come back with my trailer in the morning… It was that moment the expression on the owners face changed and he started to express second thoughts about selling. My mind started to race as I thought to myself, did I give off a desperate vibe? Do I have some kind of “tell” in this poker game of Unicorn sales? It was clear the owner did not expect an offer as he went on to inform me that he didn’t ask his wife if he could sell the car…my heart sank. I quietly said goodbye to the Unicorn and headed home to await the dreaded “wife’s decision”.
The following week was pure agony! A truly emotional roller coaster ride. Was I in detox from my car addition? Was I going through withdrawal? I just couldn’t get the Z off my mind. I checked in with the owner daily and he gave me a myriad of excuses why he had not yet decided to sell the car. In the meantime, he added that he was being flooded with “other offers.” I thought this deal was all but dead and I tried to move on. I did all I could to focus on my day job and push the Z out of my mind. It was over a week before I eventually heard from the owner again. At last he decided to let the car go…INTO MY GARAGE! My head started spinning and my mind racing as I quickly put a plan together to trailer the car to my mechanic’s shop in Newton. It had been a little over a week since I first laid eyes on a mint original low miles 260z and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get the car onto the street. It was walled in!
The next day I found myself in route to Hesston Kansas, trailer in tow. When I arrived at the owner’s house I saw that he had already begun to break the Z out of its decade long prison sentence. The wall was coming down!
I could finally see what I had purchased in the sunlight and it was everything I had hoped it could be. We pushed the Z out of the shop and into the street where I pulled it up onto my trailer. I could tell that the car had its original paint and plenty of luster. A paint correction was going to be in order but what I really wanted to know was, what kind of shape the car was in mechanically? The owner had drained all fluids from the car but kept oil in the engine which did turn freely.
He had big plans to bring the car back to life and relive the good old days through what was now clearly a rare find. I had no doubt in my mind that this car was a 10K mile survivor. After loading it on my trailer I was off to get a second set of eyes on my prize! I figured that I would calm down and my mechanic would bring be back to reality, down from the car heroin high I had been riding over the past week. I was wrong! My mechanic was just as excited as I was and simply fueled my addition when he exclaimed “I can still read the factory inspection stamps!”
It only got crazier from there. Most Z’s have problems with rust and so the first place people look at is the battery box because rust prone vehicles combined with corrosive chemicals equals’ trouble. What I found was stunning. Under a layer of dust, the battery box looked brand new. There was absolutely no sign of corrosion anywhere except on the bottom edge of the front lip. Very minor surface rust was visible and first on my list of what I am sure to be many repairs that will be needed in order to get this car back on the road and looking great! The good news as far as the body goes was that this is the only corrosion that I could find.
Everything else looked new and original right down to the shock towers, the radiator was glossy and looked new, interior looked new, factory undercoating had few signs of wear and zero rust bubbles. Did I mention that it still smelled like a new car? I even found the first owner’s registration cards, owner’s manual, warranty card, and the front bumper still had a Department of Defense sticker on it.
I was so excited I actually thought the car would fire right up but alas it was not to be. My mechanic and I hooked up a battery and with the exception of one small light on the dash, nothing happened when I turned the key. And so it goes, the long process of meticulously rehabilitating every system in the car to make it a safely running, driving, and stopping 45 year old antique sports car. What will the next chapter hold for this Z car?
Let the rehab begin!!