COAL: 1983 Datsun Maxima – Long Life, Sudden End

It was 1988, and I was working as a word processor at a bank in Scotts Valley, California, back when word processor was a job title rather than just a type of software. My 1978 Celica was serving me well, but I had been vaguely thinking about upgrading to something newer and more interesting to drive. Datsun’s top sedan proved to be a worthy replacement, and it delivered many years of service, first to me and then to my brother before it finally met a dramatic end.

When I had purchased my Celica some years earlier, the cars in my budget at the time generally dated to the late 70s or earlier. Several years later, and with a bit more to spend on a newer car, models from the early to mid-80s were now available, opening up a number of intriguing choices.

I started scanning the newspaper classifieds and picked up copies of several used car guides, including the well-thumbed one below which I still have.

I wanted something with a locking trunk, as I often transported things like electric guitars and amplifiers and had never been comfortable leaving them in the hatchback of my Celica. At the time I tended to focus a little too much on spec sheets and had it in my head that my ideal next car should have independent rear suspension and rear-wheel drive. A used BMW might have been a logical choice, though my memory of the frequent repairs and expensive maintenance on both a roommate’s 2002 and 1974 Bavaria once owned by my family made me leery of the marque, and in the 1980s, the 3-series BMWs had a connotation as a yuppie car that didn’t really fit with my self-image (I was younger then, and frequently drove to San Francisco & San Jose to catch punk shows…)

A short stint working at a used car lot after college had exposed me to numerous later-model cars, and while many of these were unremarkable 80s GM iron, I had the opportunity to drive a number of newer Japanese cars and found them surprisingly good — a second-generation Supra made an exceptionally strong impression. A ride in a coworker’s Cressida through the Santa Cruz Mountains revealed surprising road manners for a luxury sedan. A friend had picked up a CRX, and spoke highly of it, though the abbreviated 2-seater seemed tiny and I was still coming around to the idea that front-wheel drive wasn’t a potential repair headache.

Not my Maxima, but a very similar one

I came across a first-generation 1983 Maxima with a “for sale” sign outside a local auto body shop. I was already inclined toward Nissan products and had very fond memories of my family’s Datsun 1971 510. On paper, at least, it seemed like the Maxima might be a larger, plusher, more powerful Datsun 510. The third-generation, front-drive Maxima had just been launched with a “4-Door Sports Car” advertising campaign and I wondered if its rear-drive predecessor might also incorporate some of those qualities.

Though only a few years old, the Maxima was for sale for a quite reasonable price for a 5-year-old car. It was $4,000 if I recall correctly, about a third of the car’s original list price, but still more than I’d spent on a car up until then. I noticed it had the 5-speed, uncommon for a first-generation Maxima, but far more appealing to me than an automatic transmission. As I was looking it over, the body shop owner greeted me and explained that he’d purchased the car at auction had repaired collision damage to the two passenger-side doors. He took clear pride in his work and showed me where the repairs had been made. They were almost undetectable other than the pinstripes on both doors being a slightly different color than on the rest of the car. It also was approaching 100K miles — in years past, auto values tended to drop substantially once mileage approached six figures, even if the cars were still in solid shape. Handing me his card, he said to give him a call if I’d like to take a test drive.

The first-generation Maxima checked all the boxes for me – it had rear-wheel drive, 4-wheel independent suspension, a locking trunk, and an inline-6 that was shared with the Z-cars (albeit a 2.4 liter rather than a 2.8 liter that the contemporary 280ZX sported). The miles and collision repair seemed to account for the relatively low price although neither were red flags for me. I made a trip to the local library to check out reviews in back issues of various automotive and consumer magazines — all were encouraging. I still, though, was torn on whether the Maxima was the right next car for me, or even if I really needed to get a new car.

I always liked seeing the “Nissan OHC” valve cover when I popped the hood. Though other than fluid checks and basic maintenance, I didn’t spend much time under there.

I decided it couldn’t hurt to at least take the car for a test drive. When I spoke to the body shop owner he suggested I keep the car for a few days, drive it, and let him know what I thought. It was a surprising offer, but I took him up on it and took the Maxima on a very extended test drive. It outshone the Celica on my commute to work, which was over Highway 17, a curving mountain highway. The Celica was no slouch, but the Maxima felt more confident in the turns and had noticeably more power.

It was also in general a very pleasant car to drive. In numerous big and small ways, the Maxima just seemed newer than my Celica. The Celica was far from archaic but the Maxima, despite being built only 5 years later, had numerous mechanical and design features that made it seem from a different era. It had EFI rather than a carburetor, cast alloy rather stamped steel wheels, digital radio rather than pushbutton, and power windows rather than hand crank. There was also a more solid overall feel that’s hard to quantify – probably a combination of less cabin noise, better road feedback, and even little things like how the doors sound when they shut or the materials used in the interior.

Pillow-top bucket seats — with side bolsters.

I’d also found my Celica a bit cramped on longer drives with more than one passenger. The Maxima’s interior was roomier than the Celica’s and well-appointed. The pillow-topped grey velour bucket seats definitely were of their time and evoked an American rather than European vision of luxury, but they were supportive and comfortable, and the backs had small side bolsters that braced one through curves in a decidedly un-brougham fashion. The dash, thankfully, had the analog gauges rather than the optional digital ones Nissan offered. There was also a trip computer integrated into the digital clock which was interesting but which I ended up rarely using. More amusingly, it was among the 80s cars that had voice warnings. If the door was ajar, lights were on, or the fuel was running low, a female voice would provide a verbal warning. At the time, I assumed that this was done via some sort of computer-generated audio, but I’ve since learned that the source was actually a tiny phonograph. I can still remember the alarmed-sounding “Lights are on!” warning if I left the lights on and opened the passenger door. There was, thankfully, a button on the console that could mute such warnings.

Nissan’s door-open warning was “left (or right) door is open”. Contemporary Chryslers said “a door is ajar” allowing owners to ask “when is a door not a door?”

Driving the Maxima for several days was a great way to sell me on the car and unusually for me, I took it to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. I was somewhat disappointed when the inspection didn’t seem all that more involved than one I could have done.

After some soul searching, I decided to buy the car. The body shop owner had a nearby car lot handle the paperwork. I was, at the time, used to buying cars from private parties, generally only for a few hundred dollars, so paying sales tax and registration on several grand was a bit of a shock for me. I sold my Celica in the local classified shortly thereafter.

In the 1980s, Nissan was rebranding from their old Datsun name in the US.  The Datsun Maxima was introduced in 1981 as the top trim level for the redesigned 810. 1983 was the last year for the Datsun brand in the US, and by then the base 810 was gone from the lineup leaving Maxima as the only US version. The ad from 1983 below lays the groundwork for the name switch.

By 1984, the cars were sold as Nissans, but note “At Your Datsun Dealer” in the ad below.

Mine carried a “Datsun By Nissan” badge on the trunk and Datsun logos elsewhere. For 1984, the cars were badged as Nissans but still carried a small Datsun logo on the trunk lid alongside the Nissan one.

The suspension on my Maxima didn’t show any obvious signs of wear and it handled well, but I have a tendency to look for things to fix even when nothing’s broken. Sometime after the car turned over 100k miles, I started wondering if perhaps the struts were getting a bit soft or the suspension worn, and was also curious if I could further sharpen the handling. I believe I was partly inspired by an article in a Car & Driver back issue about a project Maxima. Swapping in a 2.8 turbocharged engine was above me, but the suspension upgrades seemed fairly straightforward.

I took it to a performance suspension shop in Berkeley for a going-over. The suspension was in good shape, but the struts, though far from shot, could stand to be replaced. They recommended gas-charged ones from KYB as a cost-effective upgrade. They also put in stiffer polyurethane swaybar bushings, and with this work and a fresh alignment, the car drove nicely. Body roll seemed reduced and the ride was firmer but still quite pleasant. It already had good quality radials on the stock 14” rims, so I stuck with the factory wheels.

The Maxima, by the way, shared numerous chassis components including struts with the 280ZX, though I’m not sure if that reflects well on the Maxima or poorly on the ZX.

It was at this chassis shop, incidentally, when I noticed a then-new Mustang LX with a 5.0 V8 motor among the other cars in for suspension work. I was aware of Fox-body Mustangs but up until then, I hadn’t really appreciated that the Mustang II’s replacement, particularly the V8 ones, had been through a remarkable evolution since its 1979 introduction. This was the first time 5.0 Mustangs had shown up on my personal radar of interesting cars, and I would end up owning one some years later.

With the tightened suspension and smooth-shifting 5-speed, the Maxima was a very pleasant and enjoyable daily driver. I had been looking for a car for long drives, and it really shone in that capacity. The 400-mile drive from SF to LA was relaxing and composed, it would loaf along in 5th and had more than adequate passing power when I dropped it into 4th. The EFI was unfazed by the 7,000-foot elevation changes involved on a trip to Lake Tahoe or Reno – I recall driving an older, carbureted car over the Sierras and being alarmed by the drop in power at high altitudes.

A photo of my Maxima taken not long after I bought it

It proved to be very reliable, routine maintenance was simple, and I don’t recall having any mechanical issues while I owned it. The only thing I recall breaking was the factory cassette player, which was mounted in the center console separate from the AM/FM head unit. A local stereo shop pulled both and put a DIN stereo in place of the head unit, filling the hole where the cassette player once lived with a rectangle of wrinkle-finished black plastic.

I owned the Maxima for about 2 years. After living in Santa Cruz after college, I had decided to relocate to San Francisco. In my new location, I no longer needed to drive to work, and, in fact, lived just 4 blocks from my first job there. I was parking the Maxima on the street in San Francisco, not driving it all that much, and it seemed like break-ins and random minor damage to parked cars were a frequent headache in the city by the bay. The Maxima started feeling like a nicer car than I needed.

Not long after my move to SF, my brother was planning a move from Berkeley to LA and needed a car (he was using a Yamaha 550 Seca motorcycle as his main transport then), and I sold the Maxima to him not long before he departed. My next few cars in San Francisco were cheap beaters that I had no problem parking on the street.

My brother owned the Maxima for the next 17 years, and it served him well. Every so often it would need a repair — often wear items like a new clutch, brakes, or driveshaft u-joints, and on phone calls with my brother, we would discuss whether it was worth fixing or if it was time for another car. His budget was such that any replacement would be a slightly newer used car, and our conversations usually ended with the decision that sinking a few hundred more into a car that was a known quantity was a better bet than buying a newer but still used car of unknown provenance.

The Maxima soldiered on but got a bit ratty-looking later in life. Years of parking lot dings and minor scrapes had taken their toll, and the once-shiny maroon paint was faded and the clearcoat oxidized. The rough appearance was not necessarily a drawback for him, as he worked in South Central LA, where auto burglaries and car thefts were common. His car, however, was never targeted.

The Maxima, after over a decade and a half of LA driving.

Under my brother’s ownership, the Maxima accumulated prodigious miles and finally came to a spectacular end. Heading down a steep hill in Palos Verdes, he lost his brakes. While pumping them, he saw flames coming out from under the hood. The handbrake cable had broken some years before and he had never bothered to fix it, but he was able to downshift and bring the car to a safe stop. The fire department showed up to extinguish the blaze, and the car, no longer drivable, was towed back to my brother’s apartment. This was in 2007, a bit before cell phone cameras were ubiquitous, but my brother happened to have a digital camera on him and I’ve included some of his photos below.

The above photo was taken immediately after the fire.

The car had accumulated 294,880 miles at that time. Not quite 300k but still impressive.

Discussing it with my brother, we speculated that some sort of underhood fire (either electrical or from a broken fuel line) may have melted a brake line or the master cylinder, but it’s anybody’s guess what actually happened. At any rate, this was the end of his car. Below is the engine compartment, post-fire.

The fire damage was substantial and the car had, at long last, reached the point where it didn’t make sense to fix it. The Maxima was towed from his carport to a salvage yard – he snapped the photo below as it was being hauled away.

My brother replaced the Maxima with a used, mid-90s Honda Accord coupe, also with a 5-speed, in a very 90s teal green. He still drives the Accord and much like the Maxima, it’s racked up substantial miles over the years.

Like many of my daily driver cars in the time before ubiquitous digital photography, I only have a few photos of the Maxima from the two years I owned it. The lead photo and the one below were both taken on a visit to a friend’s cabin near Lake Tahoe. In a sad turn of events, this cabin was destroyed in the 2021 Caldor fire. When I came across the photo of my old car in front of his family’s cabin, it gave me pause to realize both had met their ends in separate fires.