The Nissan 300ZX (also known as the Fairlady in the Japanese Domestic Market – learn more here about the origins of the Fairlady name) is one of the most legendary Japanese performance cars of the 1990s.
While cars like the Toyota Supra Mk4 and Mazda RX-7 seem to sit at the top of the pack in terms of the “JDM legend” cars – the 300ZX was no slouch in its day and remains a compelling proposition as a possible classic purchase.
Like many of the other 1990s Japanese performance hero cars (such as the Supra and 3000GT/GTO) the 300ZX was available in a top specification with a twin turbo V6 engine, or with a naturally-aspirated/non-turbo V6.
Prices for turbocharged 300ZXs have always been higher, starting from when these cars were sold new, and especially so now that classic car prices have skyrocketed.
If you want to buy a 300ZX, limiting yourself to a turbo example only will mean paying a lot more money and having more limited choice/selection.
Let’s say you find a great example of a NA 300ZX, can you then turbo a non turbo 300ZX and make yourself a ‘top spec’ car for less money?
In this edition of Car Facts, we dive deeper into the pros and cons of turbocharging a non-turbo 300ZX.
Table of Contents
Why Would You Want To Turbo A Non-Turbo 300ZX In The First Instance?
At the end of the day, the NA 300ZX is still a great car. While you don’t get all of the performance and bells and whistles, you still get a superb car and more than adequate performance for everyday use (and you’ll save money on maintenance, insurance, and speeding tickets in the process).
So why would you even want to turbo an NA car in the first place?
There are a few good reasons to consider doing this:
- You’ve found an NA 300ZX in good condition (better than what you could buy on a ‘pound for pound’ basis versus buying an actual TT car) and you want to upgrade it to try and make a better turbo 300ZX than you’d otherwise have been able to purchase.
- You’ve managed to pick up a cheap “project car” and want to see what you are able to achieve with it.
- You want to have the fastest car possible for your money. An NA 300ZX just isn’t enough for you, and you have that ‘need for speed’. ‘
- You want a body style that was only available in your market in NA form, but also want the turbo power. For example, ‘slicktop’ (hard top as opposed to targa roof) option was only ever sold in the US market with the NA engine option, whereas the equivalent JDM “Fairlady” was available from the factory with the twin turbo engine, although this was admittedly rather rare.
Can You Turbocharge A Non-Turbo 300ZX?
Yes, it is possible to turbocharge a non-turbo/NA 300ZX, by modifying the NA engine to retrofit a turbocharging setup to it.
There are numerous examples you can find online on forums, YouTube, blogs etc of enthusiasts who have turbocharged an NA 300ZX.
However, this is easier said than done. Do not go into this process assuming that it is a simple undertaking, because it is anything but.
There’s more to turbocharging a 300ZX than slapping a couple of turbos on (remember that these were ‘twin turbo’ cars – at least if you are wanting to recreate as much as possible the “original” setup of the turbo cars).
NA engines have different compression ratios and various different components, all of which need to be factored in if you are looking to upgrade to a turbocharged setup, and which are made even more complex if you want to recreate the proper twin turbo setup. The NA engine is just not so well set up to handle boost (as opposed to some other cars that handle boost very well).
There is some great content on the Nissan/Infiniti Car Owners’ forum – and other sites – about this very topic, where the consensus view tends to be that any form of turbocharging on an NA 300ZX – while possible – is a big undertaking and probably not worth the effort in most instances, unless you are really dedicated and ideally able to do much of the work yourself.
This single quote sums it up well:
Bottom line, find a clean low mileage TT. (from this thread)
If you are really dedicated to upgrading your NA 300ZX to be turbocharged, then you should start by consulting this excellent, comprehensive guide by Z1 performance. It goes into great detail about exactly what an NA to TT conversion entails, particularly focusing on differences and similarities between parts. Considering that these guys “do it for a living” you should check out their recommendations and advice first.
Consider A Twin Turbo Engine Swap
If you really want to upgrade your NA 300ZX to be turbocharged, the best option is probably going to be to undertake a full engine swap. Most advice found in the research of this article is that properly modifying your NA motor ‘piece by piece’ is simply more hassle than its worth for most enthusiasts/owners, relative to doing a swap.
If you have a non turbo car and you want it to be twin turbo, then the swap is your best bet.
For example, you might be able to find a donor car that is no longer roadworthy due to rust, body damage etc and then swap out all the required components (not just the engine, but wiring harnesses and other items)
However, this can ultimately still wind up costing you more than you might think, and probably more than the cost of buying a stock twin turbo example once all is said and done. In researching for this article, I don’t think I stumbled across a single post on any forum or blog where the owner said that their turbo conversion cost them less than buying a stock TT 300ZX. This doesn’t mean the process wasn’t worthwhile for them (as there are other reasons to do a conversion ranging from car availability, to personal preference and interest, to simply wanting the challenge of doing something like this) and almost every one stressed the importance of doing an engine + other required component swap rather than a piecemeal upgrade.
Even that linked Z1 Performance guide above says that their process is to do a swap, and that any other way of adding turbocharging is not really worth the effort and cost.
Consider NA Upgrades To Maximise The Potential Of Your Existing Engine
One other thing to consider if you have an NA 300ZX and want to make it faster is that there are a number of upgrades and improvements you can make to your existing engine/drivetrain setup, in order to produce more power.
Compared to swapping out to a factory twin turbo engine, or adding aftermarket turbocharging, it might be cheaper, easier and more reliable in terms of long-term durability to simply upgrade your existing setup.
Basic intake/header/exhaust upgrades, and possibly even an ECU upgrade/tune can help to free up power and make your 300ZX perform better with less complexity and cost than turbocharging.
You could also look at weight reduction modifications, suspension/handling upgrades and a whole host of other improvements to make your NA 300ZX a real monster that could keep up with a stock turbo car, while being less complex and challenging than an aftermarket turbo job.
In all honesty, if I already had an NA 300ZX (i.e. I wasn’t on the market for a new car, where buying an existing stock TT car was an option) this is the path I’d most likely go down. I’d much rather see how far I could push an NA motor within my budget than muck around with a turbo conversion … but “you do you” as the saying goes.
How Much Does It Cost To Turbo A 300ZX?
The honest answer – if you haven’t already guessed from reading the rest of this article – is that it will cost you more than you probably think to turbocharge a 300ZX.
Typically I’ve seen figures ranging from $6-10k quoted by users on 300ZX forums and discussion boards, with around $8-10k being most common.
Z1 Motorsports in their NA to TT conversion PDF linked above say “we do it for around $8750 if you have a 5sp NA” – although it’s hard to image that prices haven’t risen for this type of work in recent years.
Some have ranged much higher, although this may be due to not only converting to a turbo motor but also making other substantial upgrades and modifications in the process. Z1 Motorsports even say that it is “easy to get up to $15-20k quickly” when turbocharging an NA 300ZX.
You might be able to bring the price down by tinkering yourself and sourcing used parts, but if you are planning on paying a pro, then you should probably budget around $10k, perhaps even more to be on the safe side.
The cost to turbo a 300ZX brings me on to my next point …
Buy Turbo From The Outset
If you’ve already got an NA 300ZX, then your options – as outlined above – are basically to:
- Modify the NA motor to take a turbo setup (easier said than done – remember that there is more to it than just bolting on a turbo or two, at least if you want your car to make it down the road without blowing up)
- Swap in a twin turbo motor from a donor car, or at least the front clip from a turbo car (still easier said than done, although more achievable than option one and the recommended pathway for turbocharging)
- Modify the NA motor to make more power (which is what I would do if I had an NA 300ZX) – while you won’t get the benefit of forced induction, you can still build an impressive performance machine with less complexity and hassle.
However, if you are in the active research phase and looking for a 300ZX, then it’s really worth considering trying to stretch your budget to buy a factory twin turbo car from the outset, if that is what you truly want.
In researching for this article, I found numerous posts across different forums, discussion boards etc all claiming the same fundamental message – that it is better to just go out and buy a twin turbo 300ZX if that is what you really want to buy (including posts from owners who sold their NA cars to re-buy turbo ones, all of whose seemed to indicate this was a good move).
While you might not be able to secure a concours condition 300ZX twin turbo within your budget, if you look at the total “project cost” it might be more affordable – and a heck of a lot easier – to buy a higher mileage and/or worse condition 300ZX TT and then work to restore it back to better condition than it would be to buy a nicer NA 300ZX and then turbocharge it.
There is more than one way to skin a cat (as the saying goes) but if a twin turbo 300ZX is what you really desire, then it’s important to rule out in the first instance the possibility of securing one within your budget, even if that means buying an example that needs some work; chances are that work will still be easier and more straightforward than the work involved in the turbo conversion process.
Make sure to consult our Nissan 300ZX buyer’s guide for more information on how to find a great 300ZX – whether that is a twin turbo car, or an NA one. You’ll also learn the differences between US market cars, JDM cars and other variants that were available.
Conclusion – Turbocharging A Naturally-Aspirated 300ZX
To recap, it is possible to turbocharge a non-turbo 300ZX (i.e. add turbos to a NA motor). In effect, modifying the existing engine that is in your NA 300ZX.
However, most experts and 300ZX enthusiasts agree that a better option is to do an engine swap, swapping in a twin turbo engine into your NA car.
The stock, NA 300ZX engine isn’t particularly well built to handle much boost, so by the time you modify and strengthen it to the level required to make turbocharging worthwhile – and add the turbo(s) – you are looking at probably more complexity and cost than sourcing a factory twin turbo engine and dropping that in. Many people who want to boost their NA 300ZX don’t bother to properly sort the “strengthening” work, and this is why aftermarket turbocharged cars can often have reliability issues.
Ultimately you need to make the call on what you are looking to achieve, and what your budget and capability to do this work is. For example, if you’ve got an NA 300ZX and a decent budget to work with, as well as the technical chops, then you might be happy to simply tinker away until you get the upgrade sorted.
Just about anything is possible with deep enough pockets and sufficient motivation and expertise (or the ability to pay other people to do it).
What do YOU think about turbocharging a non-turbo 300ZX? Is this something you’d bother doing? Maybe you’ve already done so, in which case we would love to hear more about your experience, what you would do differently next time etc – just leave a comment below. If you have a turbo-ed 300ZX, then feel free to send it in to our ‘Readers’ Cars’ submission inbox by emailing email@example.com – we would love to feature your car on our site.
Don’t forget to read our comprehensive Nissan 300ZX buyer’s guide and model history here, for more information on this great Japanese classic.