Rebuilt Race Car: The Multiple Lives Of A Datsun 140Z In South Africa
Photography by Robb Pritchard
A version of this story has previously appeared in Banzai Magazine
We all had our particular blend of dream cars growing up. Posters and magazine cutouts of Group B rally cars could be found on my bedroom walls, most of my friends had F1 cars on theirs, but in a little town called Middelberg in South Africa, Riaan Jacobs’ hero cars were a bit different from the norm. He’s been into Datsuns for as long as he can remember, and his collection has grown from a 140z he restored during college to the veritable shrine to the rising sun that describes his workshop today. A gorgeous 1969 2000 Fairlady Roadster sits next to a ’73 SSS 1600 powered by a 118 big-bore, which is adjacent to a near-complete 1970 Safari-winning SSS replica. But as stunning as all these cars are in their own rights, they are just the background to Riaan’s pride and joy.
Middelburg, a couple of hours east of Johannesburg, is a crossroads in the middle of the South African Highveld. Just a backwater of farming supply shops, most would say. But certainly not the first place you’d think of to find such a high quality collection of cars. Let alone behind the office of a toilets-for-hire company. But through a couple of heavy duty security gates I’ve come to see Riaan’s shark-nosed, duck-tailed 140Z race car. It’s special not just because it’s a homologated race car he can push around South African race tracks, it’s the actual car his hero Martin Richards built from scratch and campaigned to great effect for many seasons in the South African Historic Touring Car Championship. But it wasn’t as easy as just buying the car as it sits today. Far from it. It’s been a two-year-long labour of love to attain he glorious state it’s in now.
Almost all forms of classic motorsport are popular in South Africa, and big names of the touring car and sportscar championships of yesteryear often put serious money and serious effort into their retro machines, of which Riaan’s 140Z is a perfect example. The level of workmanship in this car goes far beyond what you might imagine on first sight. For example, to get the handling characteristics just how he preferred, Martin folded and welded the suspension arms out of sheet metal himself. The engine was also subjected to those same engineering talents. South African motorsport has a few rules that might sound a little strange, but as long as the engine looked the same as the standard road car version you could do what you’d like to it in the historic series. Technically, the cam had to be in the original place, the cylinders had to have the same firing order, and it needed the same inlet and exhaust positions, so Martin took a 2.2l Z22 Nissan block out of a pickup truck, and with a bit of highly skilled fettling, fitted an L-Series Datsun head to it. There were of course a plethora of smaller modifications put into it to support, but Riaan keeps them mostly a secret. That said, I did manage to get a bit of information out of him on that front.
The engine boasts Cunningham rods, an Iskyderian Racing cam, a 2x48mm Dell’Orto side draught carb with an original 140z intake, and a custom-made positive-pressure-creating air box. All of this meant that wherever Martin raced the car it was absolutely untouchable… so much so that it eventually ended up being a victim of its own success. Not only did Martin put his Class X rivals to shame, he upset some of the supposedly much faster Pre-’79 cars as well, to the point where the governing body decided to step in to look at ways to peg back the performance. The solution they came up with was to only allow a 15% increase in engine capacity or using the next available engine in the L-series line up. Losing the best part of 800cc didn’t impress Martin too much, and in protest he gave up classic racing entirely.
That meant with nowhere to race, the 140Z should have been for sale, so Riaan pestered his hero until he finally relented and Riaan agreed to a rather high price. But before he could get a transporter to Martin’s workshop, Martin changed his mind about some of the details of the deal… The engine he’d put so much work into could be used in something else, so he’d keep that, along with the gearbox, exhaust, prop shaft, radiator, dry sump setup, and the seat for good measure. What Riaan came away with after the gutting was not much more than a bare rolling shell, and a rough one at that. The body panels, after seeing years of on-track action, were so misaligned that Riaan could put his fist in the gap between the lights and front wing. He had plenty of experience restoring cars though, so it wasn’t much of an issue to strip it down even further to fix a few rusted patches in the floor. But painting it turned into an expensive disaster…
From its original fire truck red, Riaan decided to change it to white. There was a good reason for this. Datsuns, especially among Datsun fans, have a fairly legendary status in touring car circles in South Africa, and wherever they appeared in competition for that matter. One summer’s day in 1978, the works team lined up somewhere in middle of the grid for the Wynn’s 1000km, the South African equivalent of something like the Bathurst 1000 or the Spa 24 Hours if you reach a bit.
The big Group 5 cars like the BMW Batmobiles and Porsche K2s shot off far into the distance… but one by one they fell out—all of them. Somehow, and thanks to needing a lot less fuel and tire stops than the bigger, faster cars still in the race, the fleet of lower capacity Datsuns took an astonishing 1-2-3 finish. Like a pastor reads scripture on a Sunday afternoon, South African Datsun fans still hold this 40-year-old story as their holy text, ready to be recited at will. This was the car that Riaan decided he was going to make a tribute to.
So, once stripped to the bare shell, it was sent for a glistening coat of white. But when it came back the new color highlighted what a tough life the car had had as the misaligned panels still looked horrible… Riaan doesn’t do half jobs, so to make it right he stripped it even further, welded up the engine bay where Martin had cut chunks out to fit the remote oil filters & oil catch tank, cut out the front valance and radiator frame and made brackets for them that could be unbolted, and because the original wings had been subjected to so much abuse he took a pair of new ones off a donor body in the yard. The arches were cut out next, and after watching many old YouTube videos made his own bubble arches out of carefully shaped two-part expansion foam which he then used to make his moulds with.
The second time the shell was painted it look great, and he continued by refitting the refurbished suspension and so pleased was he with the work that he posted some progress photos on Facebook… But instead of praise and appreciation most of the comments were questioning why he was making Martin’s awesome and unstoppable mean machine that everyone loved to watch and hated to race against into a replica of another car. And that got Riaan thinking… and drinking… until he realized that the commentators were right. The car had too much of a history of its own to be just turned into a tribute of another. Also, the historic racing governing body changed the rules again to allow open engine builds…
It took two weeks to sand the shell down, again, and while Riaan was pestering Martin about how to make another 2.2 Nissan pickup/Datsun-headed hybrid, Martin decided it would be an easier life if he just sold the original branches and positive-pressure air box rather than trying to explain how to make them. Riaan has now fitted an L-Series head to a 2.2-liter pickup truck block as Martin did, but last I check is still waiting for the special ARE sump for the dry sump setup that the car used to run, which will drop the block by 2 ½ inches.
The car was still far enough along in its build that Riaan could take it to the Zwartkops Passion for Speed weekend a few years back for a full systems check and a run-in to test that his workmanship could withstand the rigors of the race track. The first day was mostly taken up with tracing a misfire back to something in the ignition that was acting up, but on race day we were treated to the sight of the Red Baron mixing it up with Mazda R100s and Datsun 240Zs again… although he wasn’t exactly at the sharp end, but with the engine sitting lower, the airbox being worth around another 10bhp and a fresh set of tires worth a second to boot, it will be back to where it was in terms of performance when Martin drove it. Then Riaan can start learning how to drive it properly. One day soon perhaps the South African spectators will enjoy watching it lap the field again and the other drivers in the class can start grumbling again too. Riaan hopes to give them something to complain about.