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1972 Datsun 240Z - Bucking the System

Going through loopholes to build the car California doesn't want him to have

Aaron Bonk
Sep 19, 2016
Photographer: Patrick Lauder

California. Beaches as near as the mountains are far, home to two world-class cities, and an overall bastion of good tacos. It's the same state where you having the wrong exhaust system can get your S13 impounded and where a root canal's less invasive than some bi-annual smog checks. Mob around in a heavily modified Japanese car in this state and you'd better be incredibly sneaky or a stickler for rules.

1972 datsun 240z bre style rear spoiler Photo 2/13   |   1972 Datsun 240Z Bre Style Rear Spoiler

Johnny Tran tried being sneaky, the results of which had him and the handful of Nissans he's owned in more trouble than any grown-ass man's got the patience for. "I was getting pulled over all the time, and other cars were getting pulled over for no reason, getting harassed by cops, and getting sent to the state referee," the San Jose native says about one of many crackdowns the state issued some 10 years back. "I wanted something smog-exempt that would keep me under the radar."

Johnny got things half right. His '72 240Z isn't about to fly underneath anybody's radar, and that's OK, because it'll do it while following every bit of the state of California's bureaucratic-ridden, modified-car minutiae, the most important of which is the rule that says that just about any car sold before 1976 is exempt from almost all of this nonsense.

Which is exactly what led Johnny from a string of late-model 240SXs to Datsun's 240Z, a car he knew little about, had no idea what engine he'd stuff into it, and was precisely what he had to have. "I've always had love for Nissans," he says. "I think the rear-wheel drive [layout] and their styling [is what] got to me."

1972 datsun 240z mazworx built sr20det Photo 6/13   |   After blowing up three motors on the track, this version is a 400-whp bored-out SR20DET built to last by Mazworx!

It's the 400-whp, bored-out, and Mazworx-built SR20DET swap Johnny went on to drop into the Z that's reinforced that love, though. It's an engine combination that beat out the eight-cylinder GM engine he'd initially contemplated and that's outlasted the other three SRs he's had swapped into place and subsequently blown to bits at the track. "I've blown three fully built SR20DETs before [giving] up and deciding to lean on Mazworx," he says about the string of failures that've each proven their unworthiness.

The engines have yet to replace themselves, but Johnny's got the next best thing: brother Sunny Le, owner of Tech3 Performance, who handles most of the Z's dirty work. "By no means am I a grease monkey," Johnny admits. "I leave the work to the guys who know it best." The planning, the parts sourcing, and the driving, however, that's all Johnny. "I have a passion for aftermarket parts, and [I] can talk parts, mods, and builds all day," he assures. "But I have no desire to wrench."

1972 datsun 240z techno toy tuning camber plate Photo 7/13   |   Suspension upgrades such as the Techno Toy Tuning control arms, tension rods, and Stance coilovers allow this Z to be very capable on the track

It's the driving that's always appealed to Johnny's sensibilities anyways, beginning some 12 years back when he bought his first car, an S13. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into," he says about his first track day at nearby Thunderhill Raceway Park not more than a year after picking up the car. "It was amazing, and I was hooked." It's that experience that, for Johnny, has led to a whole lot more days driving the car and a whole lot less of it sitting in donut shop parking lots vying for stance cred.

That doesn't mean Johnny's given the finger to how the car ought to look, though. Things like the car's Japanese-only fender-mounted mirrors, its custom paint, and its Work Meister CR-01 rims make you think this Z's destined for an auditorium full of judges doling out points for JDM trinkets and stretched-on tires, but look closer and its Wilwood brakes and six-point 'cage reveal its true purpose.

1972 datsun 240z wilwood four piston caliper Photo 11/13   |   New calipers, rotors, and pads from Wilwood ensure Johnny's Fairlady can handle the abuse at Thunderhill.

"It is a Datsun, after all," is how Johnny rationalizes how often the car's driven both on the track and on the street. "I drive it more than [half] the time," he says, acknowledging the Miata that gets him around the rest of the time but also giving a nod to the R32 GT-R he's in the process of putting together.

There are few places that present more challenges to the modern-day car modifier than California. With ambush-style, roadside emissions tests; cops who know the differences between things like an SR20DET and an SR20VET; and punishments that are often unbefitting of the infraction, it's a rough and tough place for a kid with some lowering springs and a muffler on his Nissan. "I decided to park the car and give cars a rest for a while," Johnny says about the result of his frustrations with the system some 10 years back. But then he got smart, found the loophole, and built the car he'd always wanted, this time in accordance with the very policy makers who'd discouraged him the last time around.

1972 datsun 240z nardi classic steering wheel Photo 12/13   |   1972 Datsun 240Z Nardi Classic Steering Wheel

"My intent was to build a smog-exempt track car that I could [drive] on the street," Johnny says about his initial plan that, if you live anywhere other than California, might sound entirely reasonable. "I think I've done just that."

1972 datsun 240z zg fender flares Photo 13/13   |   1972 Datsun 240Z Zg Fender Flares
By Aaron Bonk
364 Articles
1972 Datsun 240Z - Bucking the System
Tuning Menu
Owner: Johnny Tran
Hometown: San Jose, CA
Occupation: IT Manager
Engine: Mazworx-built 2.2L SR20DET engine; McKinney Motorsports engine and transmission mounts; 90mm Darton ductile-iron sleeves; CP Pistons 9.0:1 pistons; Manley Turbo Tuff connecting rods; ACL Race Series main and rod bearings; Mazworx main studs, rocker arms, timing chain tensioner, valve cover breather; ARP head studs; Cosworth head gasket; custom S14 oil pump and timing chain cover; TOMEI Stage 3 Pro cams and solid lifters, oil pan; ATI Super Damper; ISR Performance intake manifold, pulleys; ported cylinder head;; Supertech 1mm oversized valves, springs, titanium retainers, guides, and seals; BLOX velocity stack and intake cone; Garrett GT35 turbocharger; dual TiAL 44mm wastegates and Q blow-off valve; BlackTrax front-mount intercooler; Spoolin Performance intercooler piping, exhaust manifold, downpipe, dump tubes; Tech3 Performance ceramic coatings throughout; 3" exhaust piping; Vibrant Performance resonator, muffler, silencer; Aeromotive inline fuel pump, fuel pressure regulator, fuel pressure gauge; Earl's fuel filter; Clean Injection fuel rail; Siemens Deka 850cc injectors; modified gas tank; custom AN fittings and steel-braided lines; Koyo aluminum radiator; dual electric cooling fans; Mishimoto thermostat; custom radiator overflow tank; CXRacing oil catch can
Drivetrain: S13 transmission; Competition Clutch twin-disc clutch; WRX STI R180 limited-slip differential; MSA solid differential mount; Driveshaft Shop axles; custom driveshaft; ISR Performance short shifter
Engine Mangement: APEX'i Power FC D-Jetro and AVC-R; Painless Wiring harness
Footwork & Chassis: Stance Suspension coilovers; MSA front sway bar; Techno Toy Tuning front and rear lower control arms, tension control rods, outer tie rods; Arizona Z Car steering knuckles; Energy Suspension bushings
Wheels & Tires: 15x9.5" Work Meister CR-01 wheels; 225/45R15 BFGoodrich g-Force Rival tires
Brakes: Wilwood 12.3" rotors, four-piston calipers, pads; Russell steel-braided lines; 280ZX master cylinder
Exterior: MSA carbon-fiber hood; ZG fender flares; Xenon urethane air dam; JDM fender mirrors; Fairlady Z fender emblems; HID conversion; BRE-style rear spoiler; ZCC tow hooks
Interior: BlackTrax six-point rollcage; Bride Vios III Low Max Gradation seats; Corbeau harnesses; Nardi Classic 330mm steering wheel; MOMO steering wheel hub adapter; NRG Innovations quick-release hub; GReddy GREX shift knob; flocked dash; MSA driver-side floor pan; Techno Toy Tuning C-pillar bar; AutoMeter Phantom tachometer, speedometer, water temperature, boost pressure, oil pressure, air/fuel ratio, and programmable gas gauges; Stuart Warner digital tachometer with shift light
Thanks You: Sunny Le and Tech3 Performance; Carzwerk; Spoolin Performance; BlackTrax

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