Four Hours with Mike & Martha: Sharing the 2023 Nissan Z with my First Grade Teacher and “Mr. Z” Himself

Heritage is an interesting concept in the automotive world. Some brands cling to it, specific models over the years have embraced it – well or to a fault – and other makes and models are all about looking ahead. The 2023 Nissan Z aims to fit squarely in the middle, with the press release claiming it’s “new and modern, yet still familiar.” I spent a week with a retina-searing Ikazuchi Yellow Z, and got to share it with a couple who’s been around since the first one.

I found my love of writing early on. As a first grade student, writing was perhaps my favorite activity in school, something that carried on at home and persisted as I got older. Others would dread writing papers; I saved that series of crises for math class and dove in to those big wide-ruled notebooks or ClarisWorks or Word with an eagerness. Mrs. Bell, my first grade teacher, would confirm that for anyone who asked.

jake first grade writing
I started reporting on electric cars at a young age. This has to be first grade or thereabouts…

We’re still in touch, a neat anecdote that comes from my mom being a kindergarten aide during my early elementary school days and becoming friends with Martha several years after I was in her class. The two of them, and a few others from those days, get lunch and catch up whenever they’re all in town. The growth of this website and community is something that’s come up in conversation, and something that Martha and her husband Mike follow given they both – but Mike especially – are into cars, as are their sons. They read articles, they’re curious about what I’m driving, and they’ve even been to the racetrack a few times to join in that fun.

I’ve wanted to bring some interesting car to their house for a while now – they live half an hour or so from me – but when I learned the 2023 Nissan Z was on my schedule, I knew that was “the one.” Mike is, effectively, Mister Z and this visit would be even more meaningful with this car.

2022 Nissan Z Proto Spec

Mike Bell spent his career in the military, flying planes for the United States Navy and landing them on ships with those long “arresting cables” that ensure you stay on the carrier once you land. He and Martha met young, and before shipping off, he bought her a Datsun 510 and ordered a brand new, bright red Nissan 240Z. The 240Z had been released a year prior, and he wanted one to be waiting when he got home. It was. 

The ’71 240Z was Mike’s only car for a long while. He had it shipped to other duty stations and just… drove it, as you do. It got hit in the early 1990s, while he was still daily-driving the car, and the insurance payout was enough to cover a full re-paint, at which point the ’71 became dark green. Since then, Mike’s Z has seen a wild amount of modifications and upgrades to make it more usable and comfortable, without going (too) overboard. And yes, he still has it.

mike martha old zs
The “old Zs,” a gray 1977 and dark green 1971

Other Z cars have passed through the Bells’ garage, including two 370Zs and a 1977 280Z that’s still sharing space with the green ’71. Mike has been the president of the Z-Car Club of Washington and is still an active member, as is Martha, over thirty years later. They’ve been to countless ZCON gatherings, Tail of the Dragon, and everything in between. There’s an old backlit Datsun Service sign hanging on the garage wall among all the spare parts and tools.

Mike also has Parkinson’s disease, and while he’s still sharp as a tack, his body is fighting him every step of the way. Parkinson’s is a frustrating, cruel disease that’s affected my family, too – we lost my grandfather to it when I was about twelve. And while I delight in sharing all of these cars with whoever I can, nobody’s next day is guaranteed. Mike and Martha simply had to see the Z. 

2022 Nissan Z Proto Spec

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled up. I’d never been to their house before and really didn’t know where it was beyond “kinda off this exit.” I made my way through the neighborhood in second gear, the metallic-highlighter paint sparkling in the sunset and exhaust emitting a low burble.

Rounding the corner to their street, I realized this was much more of an event than I’d anticipated. The freshly washed ’71 and ’77 were in the driveway, as were Mike and Martha, their boys, and even the grandkids. After a round of hugs and handshakes and hellos, attention turned to what I’d brought for show-and-tell. The kids and grandkids were all over the new Z, taking pictures and posting to Snapchat or whatever it is 17-year-olds do now (ugh, I feel old saying that).

2022 Nissan Z engine

Mike moved a bit slower, but made his way over to the bright yellow coupe, studying every crease and line of the exterior. He poked his head inside and compared it, somewhat, to the 370Z that he’d recently sold. He asked about the twin-turbo V6 under the hood and how it drove compared to the older naturally-aspirated models.

Comparisons weren’t just made to the 370Z. Mike wanted to pick apart the styling cues that were inherited from the early cars, and it was easy to discuss given the 1971 240Z sitting ten feet away. Seeing the two side by side, we agreed that it all mostly works stylistically. We both liked the retro “Z” badge on the thick rear pillars, pulled almost directly off of the ’71.

2022 Nissan Z Proto Spec

It was at this point Mike offered me the keys to his 240Z, with his son Matt riding shotgun. Matt is a local police officer and has been helping his dad keep up with the two old Zs for a while now. He knows the ’71 and the local roads inside and out. How could I say no? I slipped behind the wheel and we were off, with a “don’t worry about it, I’m with you” vibe from the passenger seat should I want to get up to any shenanigans.

The 1971 has been breathed on, with six individual carburetors controlling fuel flow to the highly-modified L24 inline six. Matt encouraged me to wind it out once we were away from traffic. There was no redline indicated on the tachometer. “It makes power up to about 8,000, shift a little before that,” he said.

Despite being a fifty-one year old car, the little Datsun felt relatively modern. I wasn’t going for “driving impressions,” really, preferring to just take in the experience that Mike had cultivated over 51 years of ownership and painstaking rounds of modification to make “a Z” more “Mike’s Z.”

2022 Nissan Z Proto Spec with Mike Bell

After twenty minutes or so, we made our way back to the Bells’ driveway and I stuck around for more fun conversation, mostly about driving, Nissans, and driving in Nissans, over a steak dinner. And then I had to get going. Our Rainbow Road Trackcross was the following day and I had another 100 people excited to see the bright yellow Z in person, in between heats competing with their own cars.

Trackcross was a success and the Z did indeed get a lot of attention. I think a lot of us enthusiasts can identify with the notion of cars as conduits to memories, memories that inspire a whole flood of emotions. The new Z, as with the old Z, is an emotional car by default. I was and am always most happy when I can share the cars I am loaned with others in the community. But the most special “share” in my week with the 2023 Nissan Z – and one of the best memories I’ve made with any press loan to date – was the four hours I spent with Mike and Martha. 

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