Meet Mrs. Butters, A Datsun 240Z With Patina, Personality, And A Perfect Mechanical Package Underneath It All
Photography by Naveed Yousufzai
Being a car enthusiast in the Bay Area, one is afforded plenty of opportunities to meet some incredibly cool and likeminded people. The diversity of car (and truck and bike) culture to be found here always amazes me, and through a mix of social media and “real life” events, I’ve been able to meet racing drivers, historical figures of the industry, chief engineers at the cutting edge, and representatives from practically every nook and cranny of the automotive landscape. Some people leave more lasting impressions than others, and is the story of one of the coolest out there, Rob Fuller— better known as guy behind Z Car Garage.
Rob is what you might consider an Z enthusiast first and a Z shop owner second. He is interested in and knowledgable about more than just Nissans and Datsuns, but the sheer passion for these vintage Japanese sports cars and their kin has defined his life path. When he’s not out at the historic races flogging his period IMSA Z, he may be out on a fun run with me and a few other of our driving buddies, taking advantage of the best local back roads, enjoying the beautiful Northern California scenery as it passes in a blur. You’ll also be likely to find him at his shop, dyno-tuning a fellow racer’s DeKon Monza—which I can attest to being a very memorable aural experience—but the one car Rob still takes immense pride in, despite having an impressive collection of vintage race cars and street cars, is this yellow dollop of happiness that he refers to as the “Mrs. Butters Z.”
I would typically go about putting my conversation with Rob into my perspective to share with you, but Rob has so much love for Zs, and this one in particular, that it only feels right to deliver his words verbatim.
Naveed Yousufzai: Let’s start with your background with cars—how did it all start?
Rob Fuller: I grew up in Duluth, GA, which is a small suburb of Atlanta. When I finished high school, I had purchased a 1978 Civic CVCC 1500 with a five-speed in it, and this Honda led me to immerse myself in tinkering with cars. I dug it because it was different compared to all of the car my friends grew up with, Chevelles, Mustangs, and Novas mostly. I thought it was pretty cool to have something a little different from what the norm was, and this is what made me start to fall in love with Japanese cars.
NY: Why not Hondas still today? What brought you to Datsuns and Nissans instead?
RF: While owning the Civic, I purchased one of my first automotive magazines which had a segment dedicated to the Datsun 510, called ‘Datsun 510: Cult Car Of The ’90s.’ The article went on to describe all of the neat things that made 510s special, like the independent rear suspension, rear-wheel drive, and the 50/50 weight distribution. It all sounded awesome, so I had to find out for myself, and so I managed to buy my first 510 on August 13, 1994. It was completely disassembled, and over the course of a year, I rebuilt the entire car.
NY: Joining the cult is probably the best decision you could’ve made in hindsight I would think. What was the correlation between the 510 and becoming Z obsessed? Just a natural progression into sporting Datsuns?
RF: As the times progressed, I made a name for myself among the Atlanta Datsun crowd with my 510, and eventually landed my first mechanic job at a local Z shop called Z Service Unlimited of Atlanta. The shop was focused on servicing and maintaining Nissans in general, but with the large local Z community in full effect, Z-cars of all ages frequented the shop. The owner also had a race car that I managed to get behind the wheel of every now and then, all of which contributed to my love for the Z-car, and by 1998, I purchased my first while also moving out to California to work at another well known Z-focused facility, called Z Car Shop, until the owner retired. By 2004, I opened up Z Car Garage.
NY: And what happened to that first Z of yours?
RF: I named it GO GA Z. I did a 2.8-liter swap, five-speed, and an R200 limited-slip to begin with, but it has seen so many changes since then. It’s been L-series powered, L28ET-powered, RB25DET-powered, and even OS Giken TC24B1-powered. It’s seen every racetrack in Northern California. But because of its countless engine swaps and testing parts on it, I stopped driving it over time and it eventually was being used for development purposes only. It was retired from daily and street driving duties, which made me start driving some of my other Datsuns and Nissans in its place.
NY: Ah, so that’s how Mrs. Butters Z came into the picture?
RF: Well, I got this letter in the mail from an old-timer named Whit. The letter read ‘Hello my name is Whit, and I’ve known about you for a long time and I always told myself if I ever restore my Z-car, I would bring it to you guys. She’s been sitting for a long time and I’m really into boating. My wife said ‘boats or Z-car’ and I’m picking boats. This car has been special to me. I bought it brand new, and it’s been in my life the whole time, no matter what was going on, it was always with me.’
So I knew right away, based on that letter, and the fact that he had developed pictures of the car for me, that he cared about and gave attention to detail. It takes effort to write a letter and communicate how you want the torch carried on, so I called him, we spoke, and my wife Meghan and I went up to look at the car who would become Butters.
NY: It must’ve been a magical moment for you guys, and a bittersweet one for the owner.
RF: We got there, he opened the garage door, and there was this Safari Gold Z with steel wheels but no hubcaps, and it was just sitting. It had various scrapes and dents but as I got further into it I realized that it was a fairly unmolested car. The majority of the original bits and pieces were still intact, making it the most original Z-car I would have owned at the time. So Whit and I made a deal, I got the car back to the shop, hooked a battery up to it, and found that everything worked minus the engine. So the only logical thing to do was remove the engine, but that’s where things started to get a little crazy.
NY: I like where this is going…
RF: We put in a three-liter from another project first, but overall left her untouched. That lasted for a short while until we decided to use the car for R&D purposes.
NY: What made you make that decision?
RF: Z Car Garage has always made components that allowed us to pick up where the aftermarket left off. But I could never figure out how to perfect these parts and make them to scale for the masses so that I could allow people all around the world to experience what we had to offer. We’d been making parts since 2005, but really starting innovating after having Butters. Since the GO GA Z was retired, we started using Butters to develop our in-house brake system, our perfectly specced Panasport wheels, our CD009a six-speed swap, and even our coilover system, all of which can now be attained and fitted to any Z-car in the world. Mrs. Butters Z has allowed us to not only develop these parts, but to fine tune them to ensure they do everything we want them to do in real world scenarios. We use Butters to prototype, revise, and finalize before we launch. She’s become invaluable to us for that reason, and an important member of the Z Car Garage family.
NY: It sounds like Mrs. Butters has lived more than one life already, between its original owner and its current role.
RF: I have let you know, as Butters received these components and the recipe was coming together, she became one of the most impressive Z-cars we’ve done. It’s because we can still chip away at her, make those small tweaks here and there, always iterating and improving. She’s always willing to go that extra mile for us.
NY: Why not fully restore the car at this point?
RF: Well now you’ve got this very serious Z-car, unrestored and wearing her original patina, dents, scratches, and so forth. It’s actually one of my favorite parts, because when you see Mrs. Butters Z in a parking lot, she strikes up a conversation between two people that may have a Z story or connection to share. And when you drive her, it’s a totally different story than it would be if it was mint. You’re not overwhelmed with having to worry about damaging the outside of a six-figure Z. It’s a car that was hiding out in someone’s side yard, under a cover for nearly 20 years, that got pulled out and received the full ZCG treatment underneath all of her originality. She still does what she’s supposed to do, just like any other Z we mechanically restore. And the only way to really understand that is to drive her, which is why I love tossing the keys to potential customers who are looking for the full treatment. It allows them to experience everything that they will have out of their own car without me having to say a word. It’s helped Butters develop her own reputation, too.
NY: And I can attest to that from numerous enjoyable firsthand experiences, which I must thank you for again. I also have to ask, how did you land on the name Mrs. Butters?
RF: At the shop, Josh, who is my longest running employee, is family to us. When he first saw it, he was like ‘Man that car is so cool. We’ve got to give it a fitting name, like Colonel Mustard.’ I thought it was a bit odd, but understandable, and then Meghan chimed in, saying ‘No, it’s like butterscotch, it’s Mrs. Butters!”
NY: Maybe one day you’ll find another in this color and make a couple out of them, Mrs. Butters and Colonel Mustard. Getting back to the car itself, though, how does she compare to the rest of your collection?
RF: Honestly, I try not to compare them, and maybe that’s why I have so many… Each one offers me a particular experience, whether it be a smell, a feeling, a memory, or just the touch of a certain steering wheel. I think its kind of like how parents don’t want to compare their children to each other. They just want to enjoy them as individuals—who rank orders their kids?!
NY: Fair enough. So, are there any plans for Mrs. Butters Z in the near future? It seems like she’s pretty much dialed in, but I know about everlasting project cars.
RF: I don’t think it’s a goal to be ever ‘done’ with Butters. To me that means ZCG would be complacent and stop evolving. I think we are going to love her for who she is, but also change her as many times as we can, without losing sight of her soul. I definitely wish that she can be restored one day, but I don’t think it’s really appropriate right now. For the time being, the combination of patina and perfect mechanicals is very enjoyable from an ownership perspective, and professionally, she keeps making people into believers of the work we do. It’s hard to ask for more than that.