It's often said that cars can bring people together, but that's something of a misnomer. In reality, it's the passion that people have for and invest in their cars that draws them not just to the collections of metal, glass, and gears that roll on down the highway, but to each other. Without that human spark, even the most gracefully designed classic automobile would be about as interesting as a beautifully executed kitchen appliance – and when was the last time you bought tickets to a refrigerator show?
That animating energy was definitely in the air at the 2016 International Z Car Convention, which was hosted this past August in Toronto, Ontario. For the first time, ZCon would include a full day of track driving at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (née Mosport), a draw that pulled Z fans from as far away as Texas and Alabama, and which saw me bridging the 500 kilometre gap between Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto in my own 1978 Datsun 280Z coupe.
Of course, not everyone hailed from such distant locales; the Z Car Club of Ontario was heavily represented at ZCon 2016, which is how I ran into Charlie Osbourne. Now in his mid-70s, Charlie has owned numerous Z cars over the years, including an unbelievably low-mileage 1980 10th Anniversary ('black gold') Special Edition 280ZX and a 1970 Datsun 240Z that turned out to be the 126th example ever built (which he still owns and drives today).
Osbourne actually tracked down several of his cars using autoTRADER.ca, but he admits that he accidentally entered the world of Z cars decades ago when his daughter picked up a 1972 model that he ended up parting out once its true Swiss-cheese character was revealed. After cycling through a few more parts cars, Charlie realized that there was a huge opportunity out there for anyone who was able to reproduce high-quality replacement floors and supports for Datsuns. Being a machinist by trade, and with access to CAD software at his workplace (an unheard-of luxury in the early 80s car community), he soon built a thriving business supplying not just owners but also several highly-regarded Z specialty shops, a venture he plans to maintain through his current 'semi-retired' status to keep supporting the Z car community.
I was also far from the sole Quebecer at ZCon 2016, and it was just as common to hear French as it was Japanese or Korean amongst the Datsun and Nissan fans at the gathering. Kevin Tan drove his 1995 Nissan 300ZX from the West Island of Montreal, another autoTRADER find that he located in New York state six years ago. The fulfillment of a teenage dream, Tan's car happens to be a 525 hp twin-turbo model tuned by racer-turned-performance-guru Steve Millen (who was also attending ZCon as an honoured guest) for the Z's 25th anniversary.
For every gleaming big-budget restoration or speed shop show car on the ground at the Westin Prince hotel that served as ground zero for ZCon, there were, of course, an equal number of home-built hot rods, like the one belonging to Albany, New York's Kayla. With her father following along in his own Datsun, Kayla's 280Z featured street-warrior looks and a naturally aspirated 2.8L straight six with boosted compression and a late-model five-speed transmission feeding an aggressive 3.90:1 rear gear ratio. All built by her own two hands, the car held its own on the track at Mosport despite still going through its shakedown period.
To my surprise, some of the people I met at ZCon 2016 were accidental pilgrims. On the closing night, coming to the hotel from dinner, I parked beside a man pulling luggage out of the trunk of his 350Z convertible. I thought nothing of it in the moment – we were both surrounded by Datsuns and Nissans – but he walked over to introduce himself and ask me if I was part of the convention. I told him I was, and he smiled under his Calabogie hat and went on to say that he had no idea that ZCon was even a thing, and that he had just driven from Ottawa in his Z to the Westin, his usual stop in Toronto when in town on business. It took him about 30 seconds, he said, to realize that he was among his people. He also remarked on his luck that parking is free for Z cars this week, rather than the usual $20 a night. A double-win.