"I was a teenager in high school when the datsun 240z began to appear on the streets in the early 1970's. They were unlike anything else on the road at the time."

LARRY’S 1977 TURBO 280Z Words by : Steve Cucinotta Photos by : Steve Cucinotta, Charlton Ochoa and Joaquin lee

Back in September we attended the nurotag homecoming show and met a very interesting dude. His name was Larry. He had this immaculate Blue 280z parked at the farthest end of the parking lot outside of the MACC. It was in the shadow of some massive trucks and not very easy to spot. I spotted a sliver of it peeking through the parked cars so Joaquin and I headed over to get a closer look. We were awestruck to say the least. Almost instantly we were taking pics. As I was swapping lenses Larry walked over. He asked me if I was some kind of professional or something. I looked at him and said yes I am, here’s my card. We’d love to do a feature on your Z.

"In 1979, I got my first Z car: a 1971 240Z"

Fast forward to December, we got our chance. I was up at 4am preparing my gear. Yes this was the big time, I had to make sure all was in order. I was out the door by 5 and on my way to the shoot. I met up with Charlton and we scouted the area. All was good save for a gaggle of runners. I’m a runner and even I’m not that into running to be out at 5:45 in the morning! Luckily they were already running by the time Larry pulled up.

We found our spot and got to work. About 5 minutes in Joaquin showed up. Next thing we knew all three of us were snapping pics of the car. It was like a feeding frenzy! During the shoot we’d take breaks and ask Larry about the car. He was a wealth of knowledge and has a great sense of humor. We thoroughly enjoyed working with him on this feature.

"After selling my two previous Datsuns, I immediately missed having a sports car, so I knew there would be another."

Why a Datsun?

I was a teenager in high school when the Datsun 240Z began to appear on the streets in the early 1970’s. They were unlike anything else on the road at the time...agile performers, pretty peppy in the acceleration department, exotic looking and thousands of dollars less to purchase than new Corvettes and Porsches. Several of my buddies had Z cars in the 70’s, and I felt it was just a matter of time before I got my own, and in 1979, I got my first Z car: a 1971 240Z.

When and how did you first get the car? And what year was it?

The car I have today is a 1977 280Z that I got in July 1992. After selling my two previous Datsuns, I immediately missed having a sports car, so I knew there would be another. My cousin’s girlfriend had the 280Z but wasn’t driving it, so I bought it, and it was delivered on the back of a truck from South Carolina in July 1992.

What condition was it in?

The car was a runner - had about 78,000 miles on it and was stock except for the aftermarket wheels. I would not say the car was abused, but it was showing its age - the clutch slipped, the paint (originally light blue metallic) and carpets were faded, and rust was everywhere. Rust is a big problem with the first generation Z cars. At the very least, the car was complete and wasn’t hit anywhere.

How many Datsuns did you own before this one?

This is my third Datsun. The first was a 1971 240Z I had from 1979 to about 1983. I sold it because I got tired of driving an hour to work and another hour from work to home in a car with a manual transmission. Important note to anybody who’s listening: do not sell your first cool car. If at all possible, put it away somewhere, and hang on to it. I can’t tell you how many people at a car show stare at this car and recall their first Z car and how they regret selling it.

Same goes for hot rod and muscle car guys. When you buy your first dream car with your own hard earned money, you’re gonna miss it when you sell it. Moving on, to replace that empty feeling after selling the 240Z, I later purchased a 1981 280ZX with T-tops and no turbo. I had that car for only six months, but realized the 280ZX cars (from 1979 to 1984) were not as sporty as the first generation Z cars. I knew that I would get another first gen Z car at some point, and that has led me to this car that I purchased in July 1992.

How long have you been building the car?

I began working on the car almost as soon as I got it. The car was stock with no performance upgrades. The first thing to do was pull the engine and start removing the gooey rust preventative coating that was sloppily applied all over the engine compartment. It was ironic that the coating (a non-hardening emulsion that was a popular way to prevent rust) didn’t seem to stop the rust in this case. The car has evolved with changes and improvements over the years, and the last significant change came in September 2012 when I installed the billet aluminum rear suspension, aluminum driveshaft, new heavy duty u-joints and rear wheel bearings.

"I can troubleshoot and fix just about any system on the car so that I am less Dependant on outside help."

You mentioned having to take it to several shops and eventually you did all the work yourself. Can you elaborate on how that came to be and everything you’ve done to the car?

This is a sore point for me, but I will try to avoid sounding too negative. When I got the car in 1992, I was perfectly content to have “professional shops” work on the car to carry out my vision. A Z car specialist was to build the motor and tune the car (they went out of business in 2004 or 2005), a body shop was to strip the car, perform all bodywork and paint it. Various other “pro” shops would provide parts and services to make the car complete.

To keep things short, by 2005, I had had enough of the delays, the violated promises that were implied and the great expense for substandard work or numerous missed deadlines. I am not without recognizing that this is a nearly 40-year old car and that most performance shops have never worked on a first gen Z car. I got fed up and decided, out of the need to keep my sanity, I would have to assume control over every aspect and not depend on others for the success of the build.

Since 2005, I have rebuilt the motor, learned how to install and tune the Electromotive TEC-3r fuel management system, bought the tools to measure and set camber, caster and toe. I can troubleshoot and fix just about any system on the car so that I am less dependant on outside help.
The engine is a turbo block from a 1981-1982 turbo Z. It has been bored and stroked to just under 3 liters. The “trick” setup from the 1980’s was to overbore the block from 86mm to 87mm, install a diesel crank from a diesel Maxima and install 240Z rods to get the displacement up from 2.8 liters to 3.0 liters. That method is followed in this car. The head is an aluminum turbo cylinder head known as the P90 head, which has been mildly ported and fitted with stainless steel valves.

The forged pistons are from J&E, have a ceramic coating on the tops, and are slightly dished to give a compression ration of about 8.1:1. The turbocharger is a hybrid T3 turbine/T4 compressor. The exhaust manifold is a stock cast iron turbo manifold that has also been ceramic coated on the outside. The cam is a mild regrind of a factory turbo cam. The intercooler is a polished piece from Spearco.

Fuel is managed by a host of sensors and the Electromotive TEC-3r laptop programmable fuel computer. A Bosch fuel pump feeds the 550cc fuel injectors. Ignition is also handled by Electromotive. The intake manifold is the stock cast aluminum intake manifold that was cut open to allow access for a sanding drum to be passed through the intake runners to smooth airflow. It is not the prettiest thing, but it does help. A high volume oil pump, Centerforce clutch and stock Datsun 5 speed transmission with a short-throw shift kit round things out.

How much horsepower/torque?

I have not had the car on a chassis dyno since I built the motor. The motor that was assembled by “others” made a best dyno pull of about 295 horsepower and 360 ft-lbs at the rear wheels. It promptly kicked out the head gasket. I rebuilt the motor in 2007 using all new pistons, new cam, new turbocharger, new swing valve assembly. The car should get closer to 350-400 horsepower at the wheels with the new parts but until I make the time to get on the chassis dyno, I don’t have actual horsepower/torque numbers.

How long did it take to build the motor?

The motor took about three months to build. I had never built an engine before, so I had to acquire specialty engine tools and read and reread engine building manuals specific to the Z car. I also have a full time job, so work on the engine came as life permitted. But the engine was built in my two-car garage. So far, since 2007, I have run the car hard every now and then and haven’t kicked out a head gasket or melted a piston. I have on one occasion blown silicone couplers off of intercooler pipes. That’s been corrected.

Which custom shade of blue is the engine block color?

I painted the block long before the car went to the body shop. It was a Dupont Imron color, often used in fleet paint jobs. When the car went to Custom Coach (the body shop), I asked them to shoot the car with the same Imron color. For whatever reason, Custom Coach came up with a unique formula that was close but not identical to the Imron color on the block. They call it “Custom Coach Blue,” and it has its own formula. You have to really look to notice that the engine block color and the color on the body are not identical.

Who did the body work?

Custom Coach in Ft. Lauderdale did the bodywork.

Why did you decide to go widebody?

Flared wheel wells came about for two reasons: I liked the look of the flared bodywork on the IMSA GT race cars from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Also, to put the wide, fat tires on the car, it was necessary to either weld wheel tubs into the rear of the car or install flares. Since I preferred the look of flared bodywork, that’s the direction I wanted to go. I have seen a few fiberglass “wide body” kits available for this car but they did not inspire me.

Early on in the build, I found steel flares for the front and rear wheelwells in a catalog. I bought them, and when I mocked them up on the car, they looked great. Custom Coach had to heavily massage the flares to make them appear right. Also, steel rocker panels had to be fabricated to tie the front flares into the rear flares and a steel rear decklid spoiler was welded into the car so that it would blend into the bodywork instead of appearing to be a part that was glued onto the bodywork.

Although it appears as a widebody “kit,” all of the parts are steel-welded into the car. Nothing is mass produced. There is no other like it. The steel flares that I bought years ago from the catalog company are no longer available. The only fiberglass on the car is the Kamenari front airdam, the front bumper and the hood bulge on the hood that aids in venting the heat from the turbocharger. The rest is steel, one of a kind.

The wheels are three-piece aluminum wheels from Complete Custom Wheel in Daytona Beach.

What size and style are the wheels?

The wheels are three-piece aluminum wheels from Complete Custom Wheel in Daytona Beach. I think this style of wheel is appropriate for a sports car. The front wheels are 18 x 8” with 225mmx40x18 Bridgestone Potenza tires. The rear wheels are 18x10.5” wearing 295mmx35x18 Bridgestones.
"I like the simplicity. The Momo steering wheel feels good in the hand, as does the aluminum shift knob. The seats are reasonably comfortable and just sitting in the car gives you an idea that this is not a plush cruiser. This is more like a weapon of mass ticket accumulation."

Tell me about the interior.

The interior is pretty bare. The aluminum dash is simple and covered in a textured powder coat. The door panels are simple panels made from aluminum and also powder-coated. The door pull/armrests are original. I got lucky because they are in good shape, no cracks. Carpet is new but only goes from the firewall to the seat mounts. From the factory, the cars come with a carpeted rear deck, a headliner and lots of trim panels. I have removed all of that in order to lighten the car.

There is a minimum of sound-deadening material also, so it gets kinda noisy inside. The seats are from Sparco. They are a one-piece fiberglass shell with thin padding and a nylon blend cover. There is no back adjustment, but they are more comfortable than you might think. The two of them together weigh only slightly more than one of the original factory seats. There is no air conditioning, no heat, no stereo, no bluetooth, no interior lighting, no cupholders and no air bags.

Driving the car is like driving a toaster oven. A very fast toaster oven. The ride is stiff but not jaw rattling. You feel and hear everything the road and engine are doing. This car was not built to have the conveniences of a modern day performance car.

At a recent car show, one of the judges asked me if I was finished building the car. I did not know what he meant. He said that since the interior had no carpets in the back, no trim panels or headliner, the judges thought the car was a work in progress. It did not occur to me that gutting the interior like a race car would be perceived by others as a project that had not been finished. Anyway, the car won 1st place in the modified category at that car show.

What future plans do you have for the car?

The car is fun to drive as it stands now. I like to say that the party’s just getting started at 8 psi of boost. The VBC (manual variable boost control) is set at 15 psi. Unfortunately, sometimes gearheads are not satisfied. I am interested in more power. Right now, I am nearing the upper limit for what the rear suspension/clutch/transmission are able to handle reliably. My plans now are to install a twin turbo V-8. That will force the upgrading of the entire car from the radiator to the rear suspension. I have already purchased subframe connectors and have bought a MIG welder.

With some guidance from a buddy, I am learning how to MIG weld, so that I can install the subframe connectors on my own. The Datsun unibody was not meant to handle the power I have in mind. This buildup will take some time since I have a full time job. Just as the first version of the car was always evolving, so it will be with the upcoming version. But at least this time around, most of the work will be done in my garage.

I have already built an engine, installed brakes and suspension parts, tuned a fuel injected, turbocharged car, chased and fixed numerous gremlins. The biggest barrier I have to overcome now is the mental hurdle of taking a perfectly good, award winning car and taking it off of the streets for the next few years while I juggle my normal life with building a custom hotrod. But I think I may be close to being at ease with that decision.