The gritty crunch of rust under the tip of a screwdriver: it’s a sound many of us are far too familiar with, and it’s often the death knell of projects across the globe. The cancerous oxidization of steel and iron eats away at classic cars, often despite our best efforts, typically relegating them to junk yards or crushers. Only the most precious machines are saved from what most would consider “too far gone.” For Mike Helmrich, though, it’s a different story: a love affair with his 1974 Datsun 260Z proved to be worth his time and effort, yielding a car any Z fanatic would be proud to own.
Datsun’s Zs have absolutely elevated to the level of icon: introduced in 1969 as an alternative to the MGB-GT, the Z was met with resounding applause. Its stunning looks, low price, and incredible driving characteristics led it to become one of the best selling sports cars of all time. Unsurprisingly, 50-some-odd years later, the cars have a devout cult following of which Mike Helmrich is a self-proclaimed member. “The Datsun had everything I love about cars. Front engine, long bonnet, rear wheel drive, and nimble handling while maintaining a raw driving experience,” he explains. A bout with an AP1 S2000 at 19 years old set the stage for his love of Japanese cars, and the 260Z played the encore.
Mike’s particular Z was found on Ebay-Kleinanzeigen, a German Craigslist of sorts (and renowned amongst German car enthusiasts stateside for its utility in finding rare parts and wheels), listed by a Datsun specialist 700km away. Wasting no time, it was only 30 minutes after finding the ad that Mike and his father were in the car on the 12-hour journey to buy it. “The car was complete and seemed to be in a okay condition, it was even running,” Mike says. “Unfortunately it turned out to have a lot of rust.”
Where most would turn back, though, Mike pressed forward. As the son of a tool smith and as a machinist by trade, he knows a thing or two about working with steel. Following complete disassembly of the car and sandblasting of the chassis, Mike and his father tackled the extensive rust repair, but capped the work with something special: one-off fender flares for the car, hand built by Mike’s father. The final choice of paint color is Audi’s “Ibis White” for a clean, sterile aesthetic. Hood mirrors were fitted from a 280Z, a European front bumper was installed for a slimmed-down look, and a BRE rear lip spoiler accentuates the rear end, just to touch upon a few of the details.
The rest of the car received a similar tier of restoration, too. K-Sport coilovers, Wilwood brakes, T3 strut tower braces, and poly bushings lurk behind classic Watanabe wheels at each corner.
Inside the car, Mike has focused on simplicity. An OEM alcantara re-wrapped steering wheel plays the role of centerpiece, complete with a CNC’d horn button designed and made by Mike himself. Other self-made touches in the car include custom window cranks, a shift knob, and door cards. Cobra bucket seats offer added support, and are wrapped in Sparco seat belts.
Last but not least, of course, is the engine under the hood. Mike enlisted the help of another Datsun specialist to build his L26, complete with a 260-degree camshaft and a set of triple Weber 40mm carbs. Electronic ignition from 123-ignition helps to update the spark-side of the equation. For exhaust, gasses are pumped out through a custom 6-to-1 header and out through a custom stainless exhaust. Power is sent through a 5-speed Euro gearbox and out through the rear differential, also supported by custom reinforcements made by Mike.
The outcome, of course, is a Datsun to fawn over, and one we’ll never know if Mike fully anticipated when he bought the car several years ago. With more than 3,000 hours of work into it thus far, it’s finally ready for prime time, but Mike also promises the car is far from finished. As a labor of love, there’s still more to do, and seeing the progress so far, we can’t imagine Mike will leave any bolt left unturned.