For a car that sold as well as the Z31-generation Nissan 300ZX when it was new, it doesn't get a lot of love these days. Early Zs, with their sugar-scoop headlight nacelles, sculpted hoods and tiny bumpers are kyu-sha darlings; the twin-turbo 300ZXs from the '90s have captured the hearts and minds who like their wings tall, their boost unending and their rides both fast and furious. Yet Nissan sold some 270,000 300ZXs in the States between 1984 and 1989, out of a total of 329,000 built for worldwide consumption. You'd think that enough are still clunking around that we'd see more of them out there.
Part of the answer might lie within the ZX's mission. The 300ZX was something of a reaction to the luxury-laden 280ZX that preceded it, a car that sold well but was widely considered by enthusiasts to have lost the plot. But even the new 300ZX, named Motor Trend's Import Car of the Year for the Season of Orwell, was festooned with luxury accouterments: leather seating, a digital dash (that talked to you, for heaven's sake), a cockpit-adjustable suspension and a healthy ladling of the sort of power and convenience options that would make your aunt describe it as "a nice car." Truth is, the ZX topped 3,000 pounds—and turbo or no, a ton and a half can take the snap out of what's supposed to be a sporting car.
Nissan, perhaps belatedly, realized this. And so, to offer a purer driving experience, in advance of the upcoming, ballistic twin-turbo model of the '90s, Nissan offered the Shiro Special (or SS, in Z31 lingo); Shiro being the Japanese word for white. The powertrain remained the same as other Z31s of the model year; 205 horsepower from three Garrett-turbocharged bent-six liters, a 137mph speed limiter, although Motor Trend saw 153mph in a Shiro that had the speed limiter disabled. So what did you get for your $26,099 plus tax, license and delivery (a cool $1,000 more than any other 5-speed, two-seat T-top turbo Z31 300ZX for the year)? A pearl white monochrome finish that extended to the 16-inch wheels (but not to the charcoal rear spoiler and side mirrors), hip-hugging, manually-operated, cloth-covered Recaro seats in a mandatory black interior, a limited-slip differential, a specific lower air dam otherwise only available on late European-spec Z31s, an analog gauge cluster in place of the popular digital unit, T-tops, manually-operated climate-control system (though air conditioning was still mandatory) and a suspension system that did away with other 300ZXs' cockpit adjustability but added stiffer shocks and springs (207 lb/in front and 224 lb/in rear) along with marginally-fatter sway bars on both ends (26mm in front, 25mm in rear). They were all the same. Only ever meant to be a limited edition, just 1,002 were sent to North America, barely five percent of ZX output for the year in North America.
So, to recap: no choice of color, no leather, fewer toys, no more power under the hood and it cost a grand more, to boot. If there's an upside, it was that the Shiro saved about a hundred pounds over the more luxurious versions, which, in conjunction with the beefier suspension, meant that the Shiro was the purest distillation of Z-car essence that had been seen in showrooms in a decade.
Among Z31 fans the Shiro is something of a holy grail machine, which is why Adam Vannieuwenhoven of New Berlin, WI hopped on this one when he heard about one for sale in Illinois, except for one small thing: he was working in Connecticut. So he took a chance: "There was no way I could personally go take a look at the car, but not wanting it to slip past, I purchased it sight unseen and had it delivered to my home in Wisconsin. Three months later, I finally got to see it for the first time. It needed some TLC, but overall it was in very solid shape, with all the Shiro Special features intact." Just the thing for tackling the twisties on Wisconsin's numerous country roads (end sarcasm).
Now, Adam's first car was a $235 '86 300ZX 2+2 that had a broken engine and transmission, and with zero previous mechanical experience fixing cars, he made it a reliable driver that his dad still takes to local area car shows. It also meant that Adam well understood that the Z31-generation ZX had—make that, has—virtually no aftermarket support. That meant either doing without, or doing it himself. The decision was simple: "As a recent college graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering," Adam tells us, "I was very optimistic."
How optimistic? He fabricated his own suspension. Oh, some pieces existed (springs and struts were as good as it got), but a whole lot of fabbing and figuring went into what applications would come closest. "[The Z31 message board] community members who have succeeded in these efforts could be counted on one hand. Their efforts required a lot of fabrication, and a lot of trial and error." The answer? "Z31 strut tubes come welded to the spindle, so no bolt-on bracket was going to work. The front suspension is a hybrid of Serial 9 Cressida lower spindle adapter tubes, Stance Subaru dampers with 150mm springs and a helper spring mated to a Stance S13 camber plate; we had to modify the chassis to make it fit. Serial 9 threaded tube was purchased since it contained the correct inner diameter to be a slight press fit to the Z31's strut tube outer diameter. Some cutting, pressing and welding later, the Z31 spindle now accepts a threaded damper body. S13 Silvia camber plates were found to work by just slotting a single hole."
Work was hardly over, though. "The front damper body would bottom out in the spindle before I got it as low as I wanted. I didn't want to sag the spring perch, so we used new, shorter Stance Subaru STI damper bodies; they were shorter but did not sacrifice the valving and stroke needed. We also created custom roll center adjusters in CAD to accommodate the new ride height while maintaining correct steering geometry and suspension dynamics."
And that was just the front. "Z31's have a semi trailing arm setup which already contains -2 degrees of nonadjustable camber and very limited toe adjustment at stock ride height. Lowering the car put us at -7 degrees of camber and 1" of total toe in." This, Adam indicates, was a non-starter proposition. "We removed the rear cross member, and the lower control arm tabs were extended and modified with eccentric hardware for some adjustment. The end results were -2.5 degrees of camber and spec toe, and much lower ride height than stock. An S13 lower mount could be used with a machined spacer, while we designed a custom plate (in combination with the stock spherical bearing) with the Z31's top bolt pattern." All this, and the Shiro-specific sway bars remained in place.
Things escalated from there. With a refined suspension in place that would force your brain out your ears in a turn, he needed a new seat. A Bride Gias chair was installed, with custom seat brackets, of course. Once he was held in place, he found he could corner harder still. The AutoPower four-point roll bar didn't come with any place to thread a safety harness, so Adam fabricated the spots, and black-wrinkle-powerdercoated the whole thing before installing. And yet, as extreme as this all sounds, Adam also found the time to get the cruise control and air conditioning working again. "It just makes the car much more enjoyable to cruise around in to local meets, on road trips or when I need a pick me up after a long day of work," he admits. Two years of fabricating, testing and sorting later, and Adam has things just where he wants 'em.
There are a number of positives here. For one, Adam has a Z31 Shiro that, despite only incremental power from a bone-stock V6 that's been given a three-inch exhaust and synthetic fluids, will outcorner just about anything he'll encounter on the road. Second, and perhaps frustratingly, the Z31 is starting to get some attention paid to it, by tuners and restorers alike: Stance now has a dedicated Z31 coil-over kit, and surely other upgrades are coming. Even so, Adam says, "While aftermarket support has increased, be prepared to cut, weld, fabricate and machine pieces if you plan on modifying. Even the simple things require a degree of dedication and ingenuity."
"Owning a car that requires a lot of thought, effort and execution in modifying is both frustrating and rewarding," Adam sums up for us. "Any idea, timeline or budget you set for yourself never really goes as planned; ideas become more complicated in execution, take ten times longer than you want and cost more than imagined. But when everything finally does come together, and you are able to climb behind the wheel and enjoy your creation, it is worth having a car you can call your own."
1988 Nissan 300ZX
Owner Adam Vannieuwenhoven
Hometown New Berlin, WI
Occupation Mechanical engineer
Engine Stock iron-block, aluminum-head SOHC 1988 Nissan VG30ET 12-valve turbocharged V6; K&N air filter with factory silencer deleted; 3" test pipe with 3" MSA after-cat exhaust and Sebring muffler; Hallman manual boost control
Drivetrain Nissan FS5R30A five-speed manual transmission, fully synchromesh; replacement Nissan OE clutch; modified Fidanza 71C shifter; ASCO poly transmission mount and Version 2 differential mount
Footwork & Chassis Serial 9 Cressida lower spindle adapter tubes, Stance Subaru STI dampers, 150mm springs and helper spring mated to Stance S13 Silvia camber plates; modified cross member for adjustable camber and increased toe adjustability
Brakes 12.76" 350Z track rotors; Wilwood Forged Superlite calipers with 150-8854K pads (front) and stock Nissan calipers with PBR ULT Ceramic pads (rear) with CAD-designed caliper relocation brackets; Wilwood front brake lines; Goodridge rear brake lines; ATE Super Blue brake fluid
Wheels & Tires 18x9.5" -10 (front)/18x11" -6 (rear) Weds Krazne LXZ wheels with brushed FR finish; 15mm front spacer; 225/40R18 and 255/35R18 Nitto NT555 tires; Project Kics R40 lug nuts
Exterior Proudear reverse cowl, twill-weave carbon-fiber hood; Gary Molitor TBO front lip; Silver Star HID headlight kit
Interior Bride Gias driver's seat and custom-fabricated bracket; TeamTech 4-point harness; Nardi 330mm Classic steering wheel; NRG S13 slim hub with quick release; CAD-designed and weighted one-piece shifter knob
Thanks You: My loving family for their support; my friends for their insight; Touge Factory; Arcadian Sports Car Orphanage; Swade Industries; T-Bone