Redefining the Dream Car
Many of us car-obsessed people start early, contracting “the disease” as toddlers. I grew up in the 80’s and it seemed like an onslaught of influence every day. As an 80’s kid, I had Ferrari posters on my wall (was never really a Lambo guy myself), a fierce collection of hot wheels and matchbox cars, and had begun identifying oncoming headlights accurately before I was 5. I’m sure this sounds familiar to plenty of you reading this, and if it does you had a pretty great start into the hobby.
At that age, a budding car enthusiast is entirely about dreaming. It’s 10+ years before most will ever get behind the wheel, and usually longer until we will actually purchase a car with our own money. That reality is (figuratively and literally) two lifetimes away from a 5yr old kid so why not just dream big, right?
Having little grasp on the relative concept of money (other than the obvious relative comparisons like fancy sports cars were more expensive than normal cars like the 86 Buick Skylark my dad drove at the time) it was easy to go a bit crazy daydreaming about my automotive future without much restraint.
Over the years many greats came and went, but from about age four, the king atop the mountain for me was the Ferrari Testarossa. It looked like nothing else, with impossible proportions, lofty performance numbers, and was one of the fastest cars in the world at the time. As a child, things like engine-out service, insane running costs, insurance premiums didn’t matter - it had a blend of (then) futuristic aggression that was somehow ultimately classier than something like the rival Countach. It was 90% as awesome with none of the embarrassing showiness of the Lamborghini and I absolutely loved it. A perfect poster car for a child of the 80’s with reasonably understated taste. The Testarossa (and later 512tr variant) remained the top of the dream car tower for me for nearly its entire life cycle. I will draw the line with the exposed headlight 512M in the last year of production - that was a bad idea.
Fast forward a bit, and a second dream car of mine came into the picture. By age 10, I was beginning to understand that purely liking Ferraris were not enough (by a long shot) to own one. Perhaps it would behoove me to think a bit smaller - perhaps by constructing a “Tier System” of my dream car list. It seems very divergent to the whole concept of a ‘dream car’ - especially since there was NOTHING that “normal” people drove that remotely piqued my interest in a way that the exotic cars did. I mean, in those days I turned my nose up at a 911 because why care about a lowly Porsche when Ferrari existed? Sigh, kids are dumb because the adult in me pretty much ends my dream search with a Porsche of some sort.
Anyways, I vividly remember the moment the tier system started, and my life was changed forever. It was the 1991 Chicago Auto Show. It was the first time my parents had taken me, as I still maintain it’s FAR too crowded and congested for little kids to go to things like this on peak hours. But when I was 10 I was already smallish-adult sized, and it was on. I barely slept that night in anticipation of what was to come at the show (which I knew almost nothing about). I had no clue what such a show would be like. Would people be driving around? How many cars would there be to look at? 30-35 cars? Maybe more? Nobody had ever told me what to expect and I was just excited to experience it.
What I wasn’t prepared for, was falling in love for the first time. Sure, I saw a few hot exotics there that day, but the really high priced stuff is all velvet-roped and definitely isn’t there for kids like me to put their mitts on. We went around the show floor and oogled at stuff as one does. I ran around and sat in just about every car there (as I still do to this day) and went about our day. It was great.
But then, I saw it. Sitting not on a podium (as it would’ve been the previous year on its debut), but parked on the gray convention-center carpet at the corner of the trade show booth, was a Nissan 300zx Twin Turbo. Red with black leather seats, a t-top and at the time looked like nothing else on the planet. Remember, when this car came out the corvette was in the middle of the C4 era, Ferrari was years away from the F355, The Viper was just a concept car, the Supra and RX7 were still boxy, the NSX had barely made a splash at that time either… In that market, the 300zx was one of (if not the) best car on sale at the time. It was a major throw-down that left all the competition on the ropes and was instrumental in the wonderful 90’s sports car scene we all look back in awe to this day. By the end of it's life cycle, the rest had caught up a lot, but Nissan started the 90's sports car movement a lot of us still love to this day.
At the show, much unlike the Ferraris in the far side of the hall, this was just… right there. Door open, t-tops removed. The approachability of the Z32 there on the show floor mirrored the accessibility the car represented to the prospective buyer. I walked up and approached it cautiously as though it was some sort of trap. Surely the door wasn’t open… Ok, wow… the door was unlocked. I looked both ways as though I was expecting somebody already on their way over to correct my error and keep me from further investigation but to my surprise that guy never came. I got in, closed the heavy door with a thunk and was blown away by the interior just as I had been moments ago with the exterior. I couldn’t get over the angled slope of the dash. The stereo pointed up towards your head, not pointing straight into the armrest like in just about everything else I had ever seen. These cars were not the first to make a driver-centric dash (in a time where most things were a wall of cheap shiny plastic with chrome knobs) but Nissan made a “cockpit” that has barely ever been rivaled in my opinion. Everything fell right to hand, and felt special. It was something else.
I sat in that car for what must have been 10 minutes. I was soaking up every detail as though they were the last breaths I would take before a dive to the bottom of the sea. I realized it was not on the caliber of my beloved “dream car” Testarossa. I still didn’t really have much grasp of relative costs/affordability but I knew that $35k was a lot less than $130k. That HAD to be enough of a difference to make this obtainable one day. My parents were never ones to lie to a kid to make them happy today just to disappoint them tomorrow so when they said “someday you COULD have one of these”, it pretty much cemented it for me. This maybe wasn’t the #1 dream car, but it was something else. It was my FAVORITE car, and I was going to have one of my own.
The Idea of the “affordable dream car” was born and what a great car to kick the idea off with. The notion that my “favorite” car would be one that I may never get the chance to even SIT in seemed insane to my 10 year old brain. My FAVORITE car needed to be one I could have someday.
Years passed. I read every magazine article I could find on this technological powerhouse. I learned about cryo-treatment - something Nissan did in their quest for over-engineering to make sure the engine block could handle 2-3x the horsepower for their IMSA racing cars and therefore make the bottom end of the street car relatively bulletproof and overbuilt. What kind of 12yr old needs this kind of information? This guy, apparently. I marveled at the insight of having all the tertiary controls of the car (lights, hvac, etc) framing the gauge cluster so the driver wouldn’t ever have to move their hands more than a tiny bit from the wheel to operate them, then get right back to the business of driving. Man, I thought… This thing must be intense. I had filled myself with enough hypothetical knowledge of this car that I could have written a thesis and I had never even driven one.
Later, in the months leading up to me getting my driver’s license, it became clear that I had no chance of a Z32 to kick off my driving career. At that time the oldest one was only 5 or 6 years old and they were wildly expensive for a teenager with just a summer job. I would have to wait. In fact, I never even got the chance to actually drive one for the first time until I was 19 years old.
I found a 1990 non-turbo coupe for sale while I was a sophomore in college in 2000. It was clean, had just 60k miles on it and was (if I remember correctly) $7,000 dollars. I did the math and my job at a video store just off campus could net me enough to BARELY afford it. What I had not anticipated was insurance costs of such a vehicle as a 19yr old punk hailing from Chicagoland (land of the enormous premiums for unmarried males under the age of 27). At that time, It was going to cost me 70 dollars per month MORE than the car payment was going to be just to insure the car. I absolutely did not have that kind of money at the time. It seemed that my affordable dream car would have to wait a bit longer.
That first attempt and defeat was heartbreaking. It was truly the start of the ‘big picture’ in terms of cars, associated costs, etc. If I had any ignorance in the relative money/expense/etc before then I made sure I was WELL aware of the playing field after that moment. But I felt close. Well, closer at least.
This kind of cat and mouse game with cars happened over and over, and truthfully still does. I mean, we ALL shop for cars on a budget and if allowed 15% more would have an entirely different choice, right?
Over the next handful of years, I got close to buying a 300zx a couple more times but for one reason or another, the car eluded my grasp. Years passed, and while they became more affordable (and insurance rates went down as I aged), eventually they were either beat up and junk or they were mint and starting to go up in value to the point where I'd never buy a 16 year old car for the kind of money a clean one was asking. This Nissan became my white whale car.
To this day I STILL have never owned one. Truth be told, I don’t really WANT one anymore. I mean, with a magical garage that can hold a proper fleet, of course I’d buy one and LOVE it. At that point I’d be happy with a “rough” one for 6 grand just to have one and not be precious about it. But the reality is that in my years I have gotten into different types of driving and the things that I really like doing with my FRS (Tracking, AutoCross, DIY wrenching) are all things that I would not want to be doing nearly as much with a 300zx. So a handful of years ago I gave up on the original “affordable dream car” Nissan.
I still LOVE those cars though. When I see one, I still nearly break my neck to catch that sleek silhouette. It’s one of those cars that always looks like it’s going 130mph even when standing still. It was the first dream car in my life that was within reach. It taught me that while an Italian exotic on a poster is wonderful, an achievable dream car is far more exciting and motivational to have in your life. Trust me, owning the keys to a pretty cool car and experiencing it firsthand is far more fun than staring at a printed poster of any supercar.
Still, that special Nissan was the keystone into my automotive maturity. I promise you that a dream car within reach is always going to be much more exciting than one that seems impossible. Of course I still have my ridiculous “dream cars” in my life (which I’ll probably revisit in a later article), but I find grounded dreams infinitely more satisfying. I owe that realization to the z32 Nissan 300zx.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report on our YouTube channel - www.thecyclereport.com - The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.