Final Drive: 1977 Datsun 280Z

“Thirteen years this thing sat in our garage. But I just couldn't let it go.”

This is Larry's Z. It's a Bimini Blue 1977 Datsun 280Z, delivered in September of 1976. It's original, it's immaculate, it's beautiful – but babied? Coddled? Kept indoors and polished? No.

When the ultimatum came, Larry reached for his chequebook and bought the Z. Then he went back to work.

“I don't believe in putting them on a pedestal,” Larry says with a chuckle, “You put this kind of dough into something, you better use it.”

Larry Lazzari is my neighbour, and the story of his Z is exactly the sort of thing that'd have Yutaka Katayama smiling and nodding his head in understanding. The late Mr. K. – widely considered to be the father of the 240Z – spoke often and earnestly of the importance of the connection between man and machine, and his message wasn't only intended for gearheads. His vision was to celebrate motoring, not just the aspects of racing and competition, but the way a sports car can make you feel. “Love cars. Love people. Love life,” Katayama is famously quoted as saying. He made Datsun a success in North America, and is hugely missed.

The bright blue Z first entered Larry's world as a company car. Employed in the finance sector, he drove the car for two years until it had been depreciated down to about half the original cost. He was given the choice of giving up the Z and stepping into something shiny and new, or pulling out his chequebook.

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Over the years, I've chatted with plenty of owners of classics, and most of them can boast long and varied car histories and oceans of knowledge built up over the years. Real gearheads, you know? But once in a while I come along something a little more unusual – not a guy who loves all cars, but a guy who loves a car. The one. The perfect machine. The right fit.

When the ultimatum came, Larry reached for his chequebook and bought the Z. Then he went back to work. In fact, after our little mountaintop photoshoot, he'll be commuting off downtown in his 280Z again, just as he does 365 days a year, spring, summer, winter, and fall. You'll note the car doesn't have collector's plates: even though it could roll right into any classic Japanese car show and pick up more than a few blue ribbons, Larry has no interest in that sort of stuff.

He likes the thumbs up he gets from folks, and he gets a kick out of seeing people ignore an Audi R8 and stare at the skinny-tired classic instead, but he's not a car-show guy, nor a gearhead, not really even what you'd call a Datsun fan. The other car in the garage is a butter-smooth Lexus sedan, the long-distance touring appliance preferred by his wife. They're a well-to-do couple; Larry could easily pick up a classy daily driver, plonk his 280Z into semi-retirement and drive it only on the sunny days. This is not the kind of car owner Larry is, and that's not really the way he drives either.

“I have to take it easy through the corners,” he says, “I don't want to lose the hubcaps.”

These are the concerns of period-correct 1970s motoring, and the 'caps really do fly off, just as they might do in an episode of Starsky and Hutch. The Z once lost one on the curving off-ramp of the Lions Gate bridge, and given how hard the originals are to find, Larry takes the bends up Cypress without too much sideways stuff.

But on the straights he has no difficulty at all stirring up that big inline-six and catching up to my modern Z, a 2016 370Z. There are forty years between these two cars, but the 280Z looks like it rolled right off the same assembly line yesterday.

In 1984, the 280Z got stolen, and was missing for a month. Just when all hope was lost, it turned up missing the seats and the shifter, but mostly intact. After knocking heads with ICBC, who opted to replace the sport bucket seats with more basic options, the 280Z malingered for more than a decade. It sat in the garage collecting cobwebs and rusting. Once, Larry's young nephew wrote “Wash Me” on the back glass in the thick dust there.

Then, one day, Larry decided it was time to drag the Z out on the road again. After talking with a friend in the neighbourhood, he found a mechanic via word of mouth, and a body shop guy via the same route. To get the car back to running condition wasn't going to be cheap, and stopping the rust dead in its tracks was even more costly in both funds and time spent.

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“This was never a financial decision,” Larry laughs. As somebody who manages capital and investments, pouring money into a car-shaped hole in the ground seems to fly in the face of reason.

We leave the new Z sitting on the top of Cypress and go out for a quick romp down the mountain. “Took me a while to get used to this again,” Larry says, motioning towards the gear-shifter for the four-speed manual. The 280Z has a bit of a whine from the differential – apparently there's a part to be sorted out there – but other than that it's a tight-as-a-drum time capsule. The 2.8L six purrs contentedly in the creamy way only a straight-six can. Even with the power-choking emissions requirements of the 1970s, it still makes about 150 hp, which is plenty of poke for the light chassis and skinny tires.

Larry's Z has been back on the road as a daily-driver now for coming on two decades, and while there have been little downtimes here and there for repairs to bubbling paintwork or other annoyances, it's been a constant companion. He doesn't do long distances with it any more, as his wife prefers the ride and space of the modern car, but Monday to Friday, rain, sleet, or shine, he cranks up its straight-six and cruises over the Lions Gate Bridge to work.

As that's where he's off to now, I follow along in the 370Z, watching the odd double-take from the pavement at our red-pill, blue-pill convoy. The 280Z looks comically small on the road next to SUV juggernauts and the long Tesla sedans that are the current darling of the West Vancouver elite.

“All I know,” Larry jokes, “Is that you put gasoline in one end, and you drive the other.”

The truth is, he's got a better understanding of what can be truly special about a car than most people who might know how to rebuild a carburetor or have endless reams of automotive trivia memorized. Larry was lucky enough to come across a proper gem when he drove it for the first time four decades ago, was smart enough to not let it go, and was just romantic enough to recognize that you can sometimes spend good money on what might look crazy to an outsider.

This is Larry's Z. He puts in gas and it moves him. It's just what the man whose dreams and determination made this car possible would have wanted.

“Thirteen years this thing sat in our garage. But I just couldn't let it go.” This is Larry's Z. 4/24/2015 10:28:54 AM