During the 1980s, one of Nissan’s advertising taglines was “Major Motion” — cheesy to be sure, but looking at the company’s products with hindsight, Nissan did move majorly up the chain of respect in many consumers’ eyes over the course of the decade. I happened to come across four 1980s Nissans this summer, and given our recent feast of JDM treats here at CC, I figured it would be good to look at some North American offerings as well. Grouped together, these cars tell an interesting story of Nissan during the 1980s. None of these cars was by itself revolutionary, yet together they contributed to a remarkable transformation of how the public viewed Nissan’s products.
Nissan’s North American lineup underwent quite a makeover during the 1980s. Entering the decade being called Datsun, the company was shaking its image as purveyors of oddball designs and a perpetual runner-up to Toyota and Honda. Nissan sought to be more mainstream, trendsetting and technology-laden… and largely achieved this goal by the decade’s end. These four cars each tell a small part of this story.
Had I realized that Curbside Classic has never run a full-length article on the 1980-83 200-SX (known as the S110), I would have taken more pictures of this example. A somewhat overlooked car, this sports coupe helped bridge the gap between Nissan’s bizarre 1970s styling and its trendier 1980s models. It almost seems that Nissan was testing the waters with this car regarding the company’s future direction, particularly in the crucial North American markets. The SX was a well-designed car for its time – with angular lines that for once showed that Nissan could successfully interpret emerging styling trends.
Incidentally, I came across this example in Lebanon, Missouri – a city of 14,000 people that probably has the highest ratio of curbside classics on the continent. Of course, being in the middle of the Midwest (30 miles from the United States’ geographic center of population), most older vehicles there are of domestic makes, so it was surprising to see a 40+ year old Japanese car. But this one’s going native, sporting wire wheel covers from Ford products (Thunderbird on the front; Cougar on the back). Yet somehow these misplaced wheel covers don’t look too out-of-context on this car. Like many successful designs, this one could masquerade as several types of vehicles… a sporty car, a personal luxury coupe, a grocery-getter… you name it.
While the 200-SX’s design looked current, its underpinnings were somewhat less inspired. A 100-hp. 4-cylinder engine and live axle rear suspension were certainly acceptable by early 1980s standards, but driving dynamics weren’t this car’s strong point. Styling, fuel economy, value and build quality were instead the SX’s strengths, and it turned out those were just the things that people craved most at the time. While not a revolutionary car, and not the only ingredient to Nissan’s 1980s success, the S110 contributed more than its fair share to shaking off the company’s 1970s weirdness.
Since the S110 proved successful, Nissan stayed on course with its successor, the 1984-88 S12 200-SX. Styling-wise, this was a logical evolution, placing Nissan at the forefront of what had become a significant market for sports coupes.
Of my recent Nissan sightings, this 200-SX notchback is my favorite, in part because I spoke with the owner, who told me that he’d bought this car new, and that this SX has clocked over 525,000 miles. The owner happens to be a magician, and magic is probably useful to know if you’re driving a car with a half-million miles on it. While I was talking to him in the parking lot, he demonstrated some (impressive) magic tricks, and then proudly showed off some of his car’s own tricks. For example, it talks, and the dashboard lights can switch from orange to green – a detail that I’d long forgotten. I’ve rarely met a better match of car and driver.
Most 200-SX’s sold during the 1984-88 model run were hatchbacks, so finding a notchback was quite a treat, even though I think the hatches held the styling edge among this pair. While I’m typically a fan of notchbacks, this generation of SX looks better to me as a fastback – though I prefer the trunked version of both the predecessor and successor of this generation.
As was common for 1980s sports coupes, base models weren’t exactly fast, though Nissan added considerable performance credibility with the turbo model, and later in the model run, a V-6. When the S12’s time was up after 1988, it must have been hard to believe that only a decade had passed since Nissan was selling the seemingly alien-inspired S10 200-SX as its sports coupe offering. If that’s not major motion, I don’t know what is.
A rung up the 1980s social ladder was the 300-ZX – this one being a 1985 Turbo, complete with T-Tops. When this car debuted for 1984, Nissan’s transformation into gadget-laden urban chic was complete; upscale suburbs were teeming with these cars in the mid- and late 1980s. Purists may have scowled that the original 240-Z’s legacy had been thoroughly compromised, but this car had more enthusiast qualities than its ungainly 280-ZX predecessor. The turbo model developed 200 hp (just 5 hp shy of an ‘84 Corvette), sending it to 60 mph in under 8 seconds.
Nissan sold over 70,000 300-ZXs per year in the US during 1984 and ’85 before the concept became stale and sales plummeted. But for a while, this car was on the top of the world – lots of gadgets, swoopy good looks, and a quick turbocharged engine. Nothing says “mid-1980s performance” quite like a 300-ZX turbo, and Nissan gladly used that association to uplift its whole model line.
Our final car for today is not a sports coupe like the others, but a sports sedan. Well, not quite a sports sedan, but close enough for marketing purposes. This 1988 Maxima GXE served as a flagship for Nissan in its pre-Infiniti era. I spotted this particular Maxima occasionally on my morning commute several months, and after several sightings was finally able to get a good shot of it. Then one day I saw it broken down by the side of the road, and afterwards didn’t see it for quite a while. Given that string of sightings, I worried that someone had bought a cheap older car, and then was unprepared for the unavoidable problems. But just last week I saw the Maxima again, so maybe my pessimism was misplaced. I hope it continues to ride the highways in 1980s style.
Nissan tried to cover all bases with this 1985-88 generation of Maxima. Sports sedan? Yep… it had the 300-ZX’s V-6 engine and styling that was more exciting than a Cressida. Luxury car? Yep, buttoned upholstery and “rich Saxony carpeting” (whatever that was). The following generation of Maxima became more genuinely focused as a sports sedan, with Nissan likely sensing that there was greater demand for sports sedans rather than trying to outdo Buick with fancy carpeting. It was this Maxima generation, though, that firmly established the brand’s ability to sell mainstream, premium family cars… something that Nissan capitalized on in the decade that followed.
Few manufacturers can achieve such a complete transformation – both in its products and its perception by the pubic – as Nissan did in North America during the 1980s. No longer viewed as an eclectic collection of oddballs, Nissan was very much a mainstream marque by the decade’s end. And while no single car was completely responsible for this change, each of these four (along with many others) played a significant part. Major motion, indeed.