GRINDING GEARS: Remade old sports cars might be the best new sports cars

Everybody likes a two-for-one deal.

And they don’t come much better than Aston Martin’s current bulk buy, which gets you not only a brand new DBS GT Zagato, but also a brand new 1960 DB4 GT Zagato, hand-built with the same crafting techniques used a half-century ago.

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The new-old Zagato is a bit peppier than the original, with a 380 horsepower straight-six fitted to a four-speed gearbox. The body is a blend of digital assist for precision, and hand-hammered aluminum panels, the two working together to create a high-quality luxury good.

There are, as I see it, just two teensy problems. First, you can’t actually drive your DB4 on the road, as it is about as in-line with current emissions regulations as smoking a cigar in a maternity ward. The second is that Aston’s two-for-one deal is not actually such a deal at $8-million for the pair.

However, there’s more going on here than the initial impression, which is that rich people are so tired of piles of money cluttering up the closets that they’re simply setting fire to it. What Aston’s created here is called a continuation car, and it’s not uncommon. Jaguar does something very similar. And, last year, Porsche put out a single refreshed Porsche 993 turbo. It sold for $3.4-million. Drat these drifts of inconvenient money!

Clearly, if you’re running a specialist manufacturer, it makes sense to rummage through the archives and see if there’s an old car that you could start building again. Aside from the clear profit margins, it’s a good way to draw attention to in-house factory restoration programs, something that’s becoming more widespread throughout the industry. Even if you, like me, aren’t within a country mile of affording any of this stuff, I suppose it’s nice to see that craftspeople will be employed in learning old techniques of car manufacture.

Further, if you’re a student of automotive history, it’s neat to see a few more rarities get out on the market. Off the top of my head, the last run of Porsche 959s that Porsche made as a special request, and the handful of Lamborghini Miuras that were made for special clients like Walter Wolf were the last of breed and also the best, and having a few more of them around means more are preserved.

It all sounds vaguely interesting, and best limited to boutique car-builders, and people who have enough garage space to buy something they might never drive. No real application for the rest of us, right?

But as the sheets came off the 50th anniversary Nissan 370Z at this week’s New York International Auto Show, I couldn’t help thinking of the mid-1990s, when Nissan did pretty much the same thing for ordinary folks like you and me. And I think it’s time they consider doing so again.

In 1996, the Nissan 300ZX was on the way out, with no clear heir to the throne in the works. Purse strings were tight, too tight for the huge development costs of coming up with a brand-new car. So Nissan didn’t: they came up with a brand-new old car.

Starting in 1997, if you’d been quick on the draw (and lived in the U.S.), you could march down to your local Nissan dealer and take delivery of a 1972 Datsun 240Z, complete with new-car warranty. I did my last column on why the 240Z was such a special machine, but the quick recap: a proper sports car that proved Japan was an automotive manufacturing force to be reckoned with, an instant fan favourite that has a lasting legacy, an icon that’s prized by collectors today.

You had to be really lucky to get one of the 35 cars that Nissan painstakingly restored and sold for US$25,000 (two more were kept by the company), but the publicity generated was huge. For more than a year, Nissan looked like they still cared about the Z, even though it would take another half-decade before a new Z arrived.

It was a stroke of genius, and one that didn’t cost the company too much. The cost of the warranty and restoration was slightly above what the cars sold for, but Nissan more than got their money’s worth.

Today, the Nissan 370Z is looking a little long in the tooth, and there’s nothing on the horizon. Over at Mazda, the MX-5 is doing well, but as for the rotary engine that saved the company in the 1960s, engineers are still messing around with range extenders. There’s no RX-7 replacement coming soon.

Over at BWM, the M2 is probably the closest you can get to the original spirit of the company, but it’s hard for enthusiasts to get excited about things like the X7. Most hard-core Bimmer fans will tell you that the company seems to have lost its way a little.

And as for Acura and Honda – the Civic Type R and NSX are great, but the latter hasn’t really been the halo car that people were wishing for. Likewise Subaru’s WRX and STI are still fan favourites, but are a bit elderly in car terms, and not as pure as the originals.

So what if all these companies went into the archives, picked out a past icon of their brand, and went and did a limited run of them. What if you could buy a brand-new, fully refreshed RX-7 twin-turbo, or a sparkling blue 2004 STI, or an NSX restored in Acura’s Performance Manufacturing Center, right alongside the new version?

Would all these turn a profit? Probably not, but the impact of having them in flagship stores and in the news would be huge. It might make people start caring about modern classics too.

And, if Mazda’s fledgling first-generation Miata restoration program is anything to go by, it’d be good for ordinary owners too. As part of their restoration efforts, Mazda went into their catalogue and started making new parts for the Miata, available right from the dealers. You can get everything from a brand-new top to hard-to-find plastic bits that hold the side windows in the track.

Everyone seems puzzled about how long autonomous cars are going to take to get here, and companies are hedging their R&D dollars carefully, wary to waste them on sports cars. But the fun stuff is what gets people excited about cars in the first place.

Continuation cars can preserve that excitement. Nissan could start by selling a few restored 300ZX twin-turbos again. It’d be an effective way to show that they still truly care about the spirit of the Z.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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