Building The Ultimate, Respectful Evolution Of A Japanese Icon, In England
Photography by Will Broadhead
The term “restomod” has been a contentious one for a while, and while the overall quality of the cars that fall under that wide umbrella has increased, so has their prevalence. Such that these days, slotting the topic into a conversation about cars will inevitable raise brows and cause eyes to roll in the same way that mentioning café racers will in motorcycling circles. The problem is, the idiom is applied so wantonly that it almost becomes a bit of a joke, a caricature of the ideas that fueled the original movement. So, if you’re going to engage in a restoration and wholesale modifications of a much-loved automobile (or bike), you’d better make sure it’s bloody good. And it needs to be even better than that to stand out.
There is a company doing just that in the north of England, with an iconic Japanese sports car: the Datsun 240Z. I visited the company before, back in 2018, to test drive and report on their first press car, and since I’m still consistently telling people how good it was, I was naturally excited to have a chance to visit MZR once more to take the current iteration of their machine, the MZR50 Anniversary Edition, out for a spirited test across the Yorkshire Moors.
Rather than leave more than good enough alone, the team is constantly developing the platform. Since I last saw them, Rahail and the rest of MZR have not stopped in the quest to make everything on the Z better—better performing, better looking, better to live with. It is an organic process for these guys, and although they do sell these things, one gets the sense that they don’t consider this source of income as “work.” They take a holistic approach to the process, leaving no element untouched; start at item A, make item A better, then improve item B to cope, and so on and son on. But at the heart of all this improvement is a well adhered to mandate to never lose the essence of the original car—anyone can make an old Z outrun a new one, but to do so while keeping the soul intact is a much harder trick to pull off.
This car, the Anniversary Edition, does indeed pull it off, and it began out of a desire to do something special to celebrate the 240Z’s fiftieth birthday back in 2019. The starting point was the car’s appearance, but every change feeds back into the car as a whole, with function and form both following each other.
“We wanted to come up with something that was stylish, but it had to have practical considerations as well,” says Rahail, “We wanted more presence and a better stance, but not something that was miles away from the original. I guess we tried to create something similar to what Nissan might do if they built the 240 today.” Speaking practically, the wider arches accept wider rubber than the original bodywork could house, while the shell of the car was redesigned in such a way to help accommodate higher-performance suspension setups, enhancing the chassis’s communication between the road and driver. The MZR car sits 30-40mm lower as well, lowering the center of gravity and adding to the tried and true aesthetic punch of “lower and wider.” It’s altogether more competent on the street and better looking in the garage. It’s a serious step up from the original 240Z, but with enough subtlety and evenhandedness in the build to not render it a bloated parody of what it started as.
The anniversary car is very impressive under the skin, and better still is the fact that it eschews a modern crate motor or something similarly anachronistic for a 3.0L stroker version of the straight-six engine, which boasts a revised camshaft, enlarged individual throttle bodies, sequential injection, and an all-new ECU to manage it all. Along with the smaller supporting mods, the result is more power, more torque, but it’s not an exponential increase that overpowers the chassis. It’s also tuned for better day to day usability, the increased low-range torque being especially pertinent for real world driving.
The improved power plant sends its power through a new six-speed manual transmission before a motorsport-grade limited-slip differential rated for 600bhp, which leaves plenty of headroom for reliability, as well as saving a heap of weight over the original diff. In fact, there is weight saving happening throughout the build, with lighter alloys and composite materials employed inside and out.
The suspension and brakes are also uprated, and along with a custom steering rack there is a whole load more adjustment to be had to dial the car in, a process that is constantly ongoing, and with the awful British roads as a test bed, they have the perfect place to get it right for any conditions.
So, does it work? The answer to that is, of course, yes. It works. I’d even say it’s a big step forward from the first MZR machine I drove. The original was easy to handle out of the box, but the anniversary edition is more confidence inspiring. The clutch is perfectly balanced, not too grabby but far from lazy and lifeless, while the brand-new drive-by-wire throttle is brilliantly responsive while also remaining a progressive feel—there are no on-off tendencies that plague so many hot-rodded classics.
I’m up to speed very quickly, and the new steering rack responds to my inputs and corrections with wonderful accuracy, with no dead spot in its action and the chassis maintains a resolute connection with the asphalt, which was quite greasy following some rain showers earlier in the day. Every so often there is a little bit of understeer, part of the character of the original 240, but it’s only slight, and the feedback through the controls lets you feel it coming and adjust accordingly. Then there is the engine. It’s the kind of motor that compels you to change gears perhaps more often than necessary, just to hear and feel it that much more. The inline-six is symphonic thanks to the brilliant intake noise from the trumpets mixing with the exhaust notes coming through the lightweight headers and center-exit pipes.
The result is an extremely capable car that doesn’t go overboard. It’s much faster and grippier, but it doesn’t mask the essence of the original car, instead enhancing what was already there, like a beautifully engineered building renovation. The architects of these MZR cars are masters of their domain, and while they could clearly build a Franken-Z with more power and bodywork than a modern supercar, their reverence for the 240Z has produced something much more interesting. They are not resting on their laurels, though, and they have a version with a fully composite body in the works.