To many car lovers, Nissan's Z car is not only the first Japanese sports car, but the best. Now in its 25th year of production, Z lovers from around the country are participating in a rally whose route will plaster a giant Z across the United States. But as brilliant as the Z car's past is, the road ahead may be short.

The car's roots date to the heady days of the '60s, when Japanese automakers commanded little respect but lots of ambition. To the automotive world at large, it was surprising that Japan actually made something more than great transistor radios. To upgrade their image, Japanese automakers needed to produce a world-class sports car. This idea was what Nissan had in mind when came up with the Z car. What was envisioned was a GT car like a Porsche or Jaguar XKE, but at a lower price.

More than anyone, Yutaka Katayama, president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A., knew that performance was the key to establishing Nissan's reputation in the U.S. Long considered unconventional by Japanese standards, Katayama lobbied hard for the car. When the car finally arrived, Katayama was horrified to find that corporate headquarters had named it the Fairlady. Although weird car names are fairly common in Japan, he knew this would never fly in America. So Katayama dubbed it the 240Z, 240 for its 2400cc engine, Z because the car represented the last word in sport cars.

Introduced for the 1970 model year, the car sported 150 horsepower and a price of #3,526. It had an all-independent suspension featuring MacPherson struts up front, Chapman struts in the back. With a 0-60 time of under nine seconds and a svelte GT body style, the car sold so quickly that most buyers had to wait months to get one. A year after its intro, the Kelly Blue Book listed a used 240Z at $4,000.

To most eyes, this initial version of the Z is still the most appealing with its clean, taut, muscular lines. But for 1974, it was restyled. The overall size was increased 18 inches to accommodate larger doors and a newly introduced 2+2 version. Although there were now rear seats, only the young (those not yet capable of walking yet) and the young at heart (those not capable of thinking yet) dared venture back there. With the added weight and size, the engine's displacement jumped to 2.6 liters. But the horsepower fell to 139, due mostly to stricter emissions requirements. The engine grew again to 2.8 liters in 1975, and horsepower jumped to 149 with the availability of Bosch fuel injection.

While it's design was falling prey to ever-increasing amounts of size and weight, the sporty character held out with the addition of a five-speed manual transmission and 170 horsepower in 1977. But like its American competitor, the Corvette, the sports car quotient was dimming and its character was transforming into more of a luxury GT car, enhancing its popularity and pushing U.S sales to an all-time high of 86,007 in 1979.

That's not to say that performance was dying. Two years after the second generation debuted as the 280ZX, a turbocharged version was offered. An even larger engine was offered when the 300ZX went on sale in 1983. Two years later, actor Paul Newman won an SCCA national championship in a Z car.

It wasn't until 1990 that the car returned to its sports car roots. The flab was gone, and Nissan turned out a car with classic lines and an aggressive stance that hasn't aged a bit since its debut. Equipped with a 3.0 liter double overhead cam engine, the base engine developed 222 horsepower, capable of 300 horses with the turbocharged version.

By now the car was among the best-engineered in the world. And that's what makes this 25th anniversary of the Nissan Z car bittersweet.

In recent months as the yen has soared against the dollar, so has the base price of the Z car to over $35,000. As the price has risen, sales have fallen to ju t 4,836 last year. Despite the age of the current design, there is no definitive replacement in the works, according to reports in industry publications such as Automotive News. After the 1996 model year, the Z car's future is a question mark.

Whether it leaves production or not, the Z car's coming of age reflects that of the Japanese car industry over the last 25 years. From its origins as a low-cost sports car to its current status as a world-class automobile, the Z car and its performance heritage have earned a definitive place in the annals of sports car history.