Here’s How My 1984 Nissan 300ZX Fared Running 3,567 Miles in Nine Days
In 2017, I got this Z for $100. I restored it only to abandon it, but now we’re back together and the car’s living its best life.
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I've been lucky enough to drive across the continental U.S. eight times now and each trip has been a deeply satisfying adventure. But the run I just completed, from Los Angeles to the Larz Anderson Auto Museum near Boston (and ultimately New York's Hudson Valley), in my '84 Nissan Z ranks in the top handfuls of driving experiences I've had in my life.
I pulled my Z into my Upstate New York workshop on Oct. 16. If you've been following me and The Drive on Instagram, you've seen a few visual highlights of this 3,567-mile road trip since I left LA on Oct. 7. It's not too late to look now either, of course! But I'll run through the context very briefly for those just joining us.
In 2017, I effectively inherited this 1984 Nissan Z from its original owner. With over 200,000 miles on its odometer and after years of aging in the sun, it would run, drive, and stop, but needed a lot of love to be roadworthy.
While observing isolation recommendations at the height of COVID panic, I started thrashing on the car in earnest and got it running gloriously. Not long after that, I had to abandon it myself, returning a year later to partially re-restore it and road trip across the country to my new garage via Japanese Car Day in Brookline, Massachusetts.
And now that the trip is complete, I'll run through highlights, lowlights, and big takeaways. Hopefully, we'll also be planting seeds of inspiration for more folks to take long cruises in their old cars. But if you don't want to do that, I hope to help you experience such a trip vicariously through this story!
An Odd and Awesome Coast-to-Coast Route
The most direct trip I could have taken would have been 3,208 miles at 49 hours of driving time, per Google Maps. I didn't end up going much further in distance (at 3,567 total miles) but I did spend something like 80 hours in the driver's seat chasing down fun roads and trying to avoid the country's biggest thoroughfares.
Route 64 in and out of Taos, New Mexico was the hardest on the car; with long climbs and a lot of high-rpm driving. But shuttling across the top of Indiana and Ohio from (Madison, Wisconsin to Hubbard, Ohio) on interstates was the toughest mentally. Just a long transit stage at highway speed; it took me something like 12 hours door-to-door.
Exceptional Driving Sections
- Angeles Crest Highway all the way to Wrightwood. Some car-obsessed people might be sick of hearing about how awesome CA 2 is from La Cañada Flintridge to Wrightwood. But it's a hell of an engaging road with incredible scenery. If you can avoid it on the weekends you'll be in better shape for traffic. Even on busy days, it tends to open up once you get north of Newcomb's Ranch though.
- Flagstaff to the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Nation, and Carson National Forest. Instead of taking the 40 from Flagstaff, Arizona to Taos, New Mexico I took smaller roads up near the Utah and Colorado borders. This brought me by some interesting little towns and rock formations including the mighty Shiprock (rock that looks like a ship) and Brazos Overlook further east.
- Routes 412, 56, and 50 through New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Southern Kansas. Largely straight-shot two-laners across wide-open expanses of agricultural land, this section was a great opportunity to reflect on the insignificance of humanity and feel like a little spaceship on its way across a great void. Huge sky, deep thoughts.
- PA backroads through the Allegheny National Forest and Susquehannock State Forest. If you've only seen Pennsylvania from the interstate, you can't appreciate just how beautiful this state is. I dedicated an entire day to winding my way through PA's secondary roadways and it was some of the best driving I got in all week. Lots of roads running parallel with rivers, fun elevation changes, wild elk(!), and spectacular fall foliage flying all over the place.
- Seligman, Arizona. Just a cool little living monument to old Route 66—I discussed this a bit in our mid-way trip update.
- Flagstaff, Arizona. One of my favorite towns in America. There's no shortage of interesting trinkets to acquire here, and the air smells amazing. Dirt roads in the area are also worth hitting if you have time.
- Taos, New Mexico. Tourist-friendly but a little too isolated to really get tourist-consumed. Amazing food, neat quintessential Southwestern architecture.
- Clayton, New Mexico. A tidy little junction town—I couldn't tell if it was largely abandoned, or just largely closed, on a Sunday afternoon but the gigantic Napa Auto Parts store looked promising. And there was at least one coffee shop still in business.
- Dodge City, Kansas. I almost dismissed Dodge City as purely a cargo hub when I rolled up, but no, it's just that the cheap hotel I found was tucked into one of the city's less-charming neighborhoods. Downtown was largely closed when I came through, but there appeared to be quite a few cute establishments.
- Madison, Wisconsin. Of course, I'm hardly the first to "discover" Madison, but for anybody who's wondering, it's a great little town with good bars and coffee.
- Hubbard, Ohio. I'm not sure if there's much to Hubbard beyond the Truck World Mall, but that's OK because Truck World rocks. I won't be staying at the Travelodge there again, though. The hotel's wifi blocks pornography which, in principle, offends me.
- Ridgway, Pennsylvania. This neat little town, like many others in the area, just seemed to pop up out of nowhere as I sliced across the region's rolling hills. Ridgway had a particularly compelling combination of a cute main street, a dedicated coffee shop, a well-stocked Napa Auto Parts store, and fine country dining. I stepped into a joint called Wilderness Trail for a burger and beer—the log cabin motif was fun, and around the edges of the restaurant a small electric model train took lap after lap as a pleasantly distracting little piece of decoration
- Williamsport, Pennsylvania. An online friend mentioned that this town has something to do with Little League baseball and I think I did see some kind of signage to that effect. But I was a lot more interested in and impressed by the apparent diversity of this town. I was pleasantly surprised to see a big range of faces after a couple of days driving by seemingly homogenous populations. Stayed over at a place called the Genetti Hotel which had the exact same aesthetic as Owen Wilson's character's office in Loki. If you haven't seen that—picture an aggressively analog idea of modernism from 50 years ago.
- Scranton, Pennsylvania. As a fan of The Office, I stopped solely to eat lunch at Alfredo's Pizza (which is referenced in the show) but the downtown area looked like it had a decent amount of action going on. I found a great Dollar Tree store to stock up on random junk next to the pizza place, which turned out to be pretty darn good.
Best of America, On This Route
- Best Cup of Coffee: Red Beard (Dodge City, Kansas). I skipped the fancy stuff and went straight for a cup of brewed dark roast. Then another one. Lovely rich coffee, cool modern cowboy ambiance.
- Best Hotel: Sagebrush Inn (Taos, New Mexico). This joint was a little rough around the edges but the water pressure was excellent and I loved the commitment to the desert aesthetic.
- Best Piece of Diner Pie: Westside Lilo's Cafe (Seligman, Arizona). I treated myself to a slice of coconut cream to celebrate my first night on the road, and these guys slapped a cinderblock-sized slab of butter and sugar into my to-go box. It was exceptional—I demolished all 10,000 calories of it late at night in my hotel room before passing out.
- Best Truck Stop: Truck World (Hubbard, Ohio). This place has it all, baby. Cheap tools, cheap hot dogs, solid diner food, loads of cool truck accessories, and if you somehow can't find what you need there's a Love's and a Waffle House across the street.
- Best Gas Station: Shell (Shonto, Arizona). This gigantic edifice in the middle of a wide-open plane looks like a space station. I appreciated the wide selection of snacks and large sun coverings.
- Best Auto Parts Store: A&A Auto Store (Scranton, Pennsylvania). This was the closest thing to an old-school speed shop I've seen outside Los Angeles in a long time. They had little miniature off-road bumpers and seat covers (as product displays) which I thought was cute, but they also were stocking lots of hoses and adapters and other odd things that would come in handy for anybody working on a custom car.
- Best Street Race: Hah, just kidding, I didn't race anybody. But on the very first leg of my trip, I spotted a red CRX quickly expanding in my rear-view on Angeles Crest. I pulled over to let him scootch by. When I get to the top of the mountain, who do you think was in that little old Honda? Stephan freaking Papadakis—one of the world's preeminent Honda guys and a bonafide O.G. tuner. He left before I could introduce myself but it was a real thrill to get passed by him.
The Z31 as a Road-Trip Car
The new-for-1984 Nissan 300ZX (also badged a Datsun, as it was the brand's "crossover year" from its old name to the one we know it now) was not critically acclaimed when it came out. But it must have been reasonably respected by the general public because I lost count of how many Gen X-aged men and women came up to me to say something like "that car's awesome," and then proceed to tell me about "that time" they got into some kind of mischievous hijinks involving a car that looked like my Z.
So if you're not looking to have conversations at every gas station, don't take a car like this cross-country. Otherwise, however, it's an exceptional choice.
- Seat comfort and seating position. The cloth seat on this car is adjustable to a remarkable degree; you can orient it almost any way you can imagine.
- Steering feel. This car's very communicative and lively in your hands; it's not what I'd call sharp but it is confident. Spirited driving is fun, cruising doesn't beat you up.
- Just enough power for passing. I wish my car was a turbo model; just a little extra scoot would go a long way. But as it sits, it's got enough juice to feel exciting when you're canyon carving solo. Passing people in a small dotted-yellow line section of road is possible, you've just got to be tactical about where you make your moves. And burping power out of the old VG requires a lot of downshifting. That's all part of the fun though, isn't it?
- Fuel economy and tank size. With an immense 19-gallon fuel tank and remarkable fuel economy, a non-turbo Z31 in good condition could theoretically go almost 600 miles without gassing up. I really did see 31 mpg on a tank of fuel and was seeing high 20s every time I divided miles-driven by gallons-taken on fill-ups.
- Cargo capacity. The hatch area behind the seats swallowed up a bunch of tools and trinkets and stuff of mine—I do not travel light and I love to collect crap on my adventures. But not only could I access all my stuff fairly easily, but I could also even still put the T-tops on top of my luggage without obstructing my view out the back.
- Cargo management. While a Z31 can carry plenty of things, the rear area's not very well organized. Luckily this is a problem I can rectify. Since I had so much fun road-tripping this car I'm sure I'll take it out for a long ride again, so before that happens I want to take some inspiration from the overlanding community and build some kind of cargo organization and T-top stowage system that lets me make the most out of the cargo area.
- Wind and window seals. Boy, is it loud on the bridge of this little starship! Most of my window seals are pretty much shot, so not only is my car barely waterproof, the sound insulation is largely compromised.
- Weak lighting. I was toying with the idea of getting those sweet Holley RetroBright LED sealed-beam light replacements for this trip but cheaped out. Now that I'm in love with the car again, it's an easy decision. I'll supplement that with a set of external Hella driving lights before the next big trip too.
Malfunctions I Had
Thanks to the apparent blessings of the car gods and fairly thorough preparation, I'm thrilled to report I had basically zero automotive issues on this trip. I barely even had to add any oil—about a quart over the entirety of the 3,500-mile mission.
The only thing that actually broke on this trip (as far as I can tell) was the speedometer. One day it just decided to zoom all the way around from zero, past its optimistic max reading of 145 mph, then back to zero where it stuck—indicating any speed above 1 mph to be, like, 200 mph. I'd like to fix it, and will eventually, but frankly, if I had to sacrifice any single gauge I'd give up the speedo as least important.
Road Trip by the Numbers
Full disclosure: Only the total mileage, hotel, and fuel spend I can substantiate as completely accurate, the other figures here are educated approximations and extrapolations.
- Mission duration: Nine days including one rest day.
- Driving time: 60+ hours
- General travel time per day: 10 hours
- Longest single-day travel time: 12 hours
- Mission distance (Newcomb's ranch to Larz Anderson museum): 3,349 miles
- Total distance (including shakedowns and deadheading home): 4,112 miles
- Distance driven on cruise control: 0 miles
- Spare parts and tools spend: $623.46 (mostly on tools I didn't end up needing)
- Fuel spend: $642.11
- Hotel spend: $690.72
- Food spend: $314.54
- Fuel economy (estimated average): 27 mpg
- Fuel economy (best observed; one tank): 31 mpg
- Preferred road snack: Peanut M&Ms
- Preferred in-car entertainment: Seinfeld (audio only), various K-pop, hair metal, the Office Ladies podcast, New Girl (audio only), my Extreme Hammocking chill vibes playlist
A Victorious Arrival at the Larz Anderson Automotive Museum
The Larz Anderson Automotive Museum is a beautiful space in Brookline, Massachusetts which is just west of Boston. Every year the museum hosts a whole calendar full of events, many of which are car shows themed by country of automaker origin (e.g. British Car Day, Italian Car Day, German Car Day, ...). When I realized its Japanese Car Day fell on a date that was also a reasonable return target for this trip, I thought that was a perfect impetus for our crossing.
The event organizers thought so too. I dropped them a line to say I'd be driving to their show from LA and Executive Director Sheldon Steele asked: "Do you want to park it inside the museum during the show?"
"I mean, that'd be amazing, but let me send you some pictures of the thing and I won't be offended if you decide to retract that offer after looking at them," I replied. Luckily for me, Mr. Steele has a sense of humor and an appreciation for cars that are still rough around the edges even though his museum is filled with mint-condition masterpieces. The museum did not retract its offer and let me park the long-suffering Z in their main hall. Plus, I got to give a little spiel about the trip and what I learned to some folks. Thanks again to those of you who made it to the event and said hi!
Next Steps for This Z
Now that the original pinstripes have lasted this long, I decided I just can't erase them and will resist repainting the car indefinitely. That streets-of-LA patina is here to stay. I will, however, be looking into getting the rust around the windshield taken care of before it spreads much more.
I already mentioned wanting to upgrade the lighting and add a cooler cargo setup. Other than that, I think I'd like to attempt to fix the sun-cracked dashboard, clean up the engine again, and of course deal with the leaky steering rack.
Now that the Z is safely tucked into a garage, its aging will slow down a bit. I won't run it when there's salt on the roads, but you better believe this car will be on adventures across state lines again this fall and as soon as next spring.
One More Photo Album
I took a few hundred frames on this trip, and of course, I wouldn't subject anyone to all of them but there were quite a few bangers I couldn't quite fit into the story here. You might see some of these pop up elsewhere around The Drive and our social media channels, but for those of you who scrolled this far, here's an extra batch of images from the road.