COAL: 1985 Nissan Sentra Wagon: Basic Blue


I’ve touched on my family’s history with wagons in previous installments, but I’ll add a little more color in this one before putting the subject to bed. As I’ve mentioned, my father was a committed wagon aficionado, with a succession of full-size Fords from the late 60’s through to the early 80’s. So was my extended family.

A holiday trip to my grandparents’ farm was always on the schedule, and when the whole family was in town, the front yard was filled with a fleet of wagons, each representing a wing of our extended Irish family. My uncle Neil was a Dodge man, probably due to his experience as a police officer, and until their fourth child was born, he drove a huge Fuselage-bodied Coronet wagon with a police engine which he swore had an extra hidden gear: Warp Drive. Later, he traded it for a series of full-sized conversion vans.

My uncle Dave was a Chevy man, and always drove a clean, corporate-looking offering from GM, updated every two years–usually a Caprice variant. He stuck with wagons until the bitter end, but never made the jump to minivans, even with three boys. I have respect for that.

Aunt Mary had a Pinto wagon, I think, in the years between getting married and having my second cousin. I don’t remember much about it, other than it was probably green or brown and much smaller than the other wagons.

My grandfather ran his painting business out of a series of beater wagons, none of which were near road-legal and always crammed with the tools of his trade. The last one I remember being on the road was a Chrysler of some kind, eaten away from two decades of New York road salt, so that the driver’s door only stayed shut when the seatbelt was tied around the grabhandle.

Image: Curbside Cohort. Not my grandfather’s Chrysler, but you get the idea.

I wanted another wagon, because I was doing a lot of hauling for marching band and as the construction foreman for the drama club. After the VW accident and the Subaru trying to kill me, I drove my parents’ cars around for a while until another cheap vehicle turned up in the impound lot: an ’85 Sentra wagon.


Image: Flickr/Dave_7. Looking at these pictures I’d forgotten how gigantic the bumper plastic is.

It was a tired example leased by a heavy smoker, which probably explained the bank declining to reclaim it and the fire-sale price we got it for. Blue over gray, it had been in a minor front-end accident at some point, enough to bend the hood and wrinkle the driver’s fender but not damage the frame or engine. After we bought it, I spent an entire weekend scrubbing the nicotine off the plastic bits, shampooing the carpeting and headliner, and fumigating as much of the stink out of it as I could. This was only partially successful, because I would scrub the plastic until it was gray, and within a half an hour it would turn brown again.

Image: Gaze upon that luxurious interior…

This was the first automatic I ever owned, and that took some getting used to. As I recall Nissans of this generation were decontented to the point of Soviet austerity; I think I had a speedometer, blinkers, windshield wipers, and perhaps a defroster knob, and that was it. I had to remove a blockoff plate to install my third-hand Blaupunkt deck, and run my own speaker wires along the door sills under the carpet. The door cards were thin plastic vacuuformed over cardboard that I could have poked a finger through. The carpeting was thin and wore easily. Where the Subaru was a solid, luxurious roller skate, the Sentra was a scrawny, noisy slug.

Image: The pictured model is swank; I only had a speedo and gas gauge. 

My Dad sourced a used silver fender and primer black aftermarket hood, so I spent a weekend pounding out the mounting points enough to get the fender lined up with the bumper and get the hood to close. I got it close, but because everything was pushed to the side, I was the only one who could get the hood latch to release. We never did repaint it, so it looked pretty ghetto in three colors, but it ran, and it was mine.

Image: Look at how cheap those door cards are! 

It served me well the rest of that winter and through the spring. It had a 1.6 liter engine with a three-speed automatic, and got excellent gas mileage at the expense of being an absolute dog, but that was mostly OK with me. The Nissan E16 engine put out 70 horsepower from the factory, but like the Subaru, lots of hard lease miles subtracted at least a quarter of those.

It was geared completely differently from the Subaru, so the Nissan engine with equivalent power on paper felt like someone chopped two of the cylinders off in practice. The upside of this was excellent gas mileage, which was OK by me. I could haul drywall and plywood and drums and friends. I wasn’t racing anyone. I was saving money for college and knew that every dollar I wasn’t putting in the tank would get me farther away from the middle of nowhere.

Image: Flickr/Dave_7. Almost exactly my Sentra, minus the red pinstripe.

That summer was a lot of work punctuated with a lot of fun, much of which I can’t remember. I drove it and a bunch of my friends to Jones Beach, and all I remember of that trip was how slow it was on the highway and how long it took to get the four of us, sunburned and slightly hung over, back home in traffic on I-684.

In the fall, as we firmed up college plans and I got ready to head to art school in Baltimore, I emptied it out and gave it a final wash, and we sold it to help pay for tuition. If I remember correctly, Mom and I drove to school in yet another Caprice Classic wagon, loaded to the gills with my stuff.