Now that my parents had seen the promised land of Japanese quality with our 1983 Nissan Sentra, they were ready to jump in with both feet by ditching their second albatross, the 1979 Dodge Omni. However, the automotive climate in 1984 was very different than 1983. It was morning in America, and everyone wanted a Japanese car.
I’m not sure why 1984 would be so different from 1983 – at least in South Florida – but my parents had a difficult time finding a car, and Voluntary Export Restraints (VER) were the main reason. For those of you not familiar with VER, it was an agreement by the Japanese automakers, and supported by the Reagan Administration, to limit the total numbers of cars exported to the U.S. The goal was to give the U.S. automakers, who were mired in red ink and crappy product, some breathing room without imposing unseemly punitive tariffs. Here is a nice overview on the subject.
My wholly unsupported theory is that the worst garbage came out of Detroit between 1978 and 1983. Take a look at any issue of Consumer Reports from that period and note the number of sample defects on the American cars. There were so many defects on the 1979 Dodge St. Regis, some which caused the car to die or not start at all, that they bought a second to complete their tests. The number of defects on both cars was around 40. While this is an extreme example, there was definitely a huge quality gap between American and Japanese cars. By 1984, the loans on most of those 1978 and newer cars had finally been paid off. Their frustrated owners, who vowed never to buy American again, were looking to replace them as quickly as possible. Thanks to VER, however, there were only so many cars on the lots of those Toyota, Nissan and Honda dealers, and the window stickers had the letters “ADM” or “ADP” on them, typically followed by a four-digit number.
Even the captive imports weren’t hiding their parentage, as touted in the video above.
It was in these infested waters that my parents chose to swim. The car that they really wanted – the Mazda 626 hatchback – was too expensive, as that body style only came in the top trim level. Since they were having a good experience with the Sentra, they set their sights on the Stanza 4-door hatchback. They sat in a nice silver one a couple of months prior at the auto show and were impressed with it.
The Stanza was updated for its third model year, with a bolder cross-hatch grill, nicer steering wheel, and revised tail lamps. Most importantly, Nissan changed the engine from the carbureted CA20S to the fuel-injected 2.0-liter CA20E (thank you Wikipedia), raising its horsepower from 88 to 97 and one-upping both the still-carbureted Camry and Accord. Performance was quite peppy for its time, even with the optional 3-speed automatic.
So, off we went to the same Nissan dealer where we bought the Sentra, but there were no 4-door hatchback Stanzas on the lot. Another dealer had exactly one on the lot, which the salesman said was the one we sat in at the auto show. If that was true, then it had been sitting there for months. Dad figured there must have been a reason it hadn’t yet sold, and he had no desire to discover what it was.
If you’ve read the CCs on the Nissan Stanza here and here, the impression is that these cars didn’t sell very well which is correct. I don’t recall seeing many of any generation of Stanza on the road even when they were new. Nissan was most likely using most of their quota allotment to bring over the cars that were selling, like the Sentra, Maxima, 300ZX and truck. The few Stanzas that were available probably went for close to full sticker not because the Stanza was a great car, but because it wasn’t a Chevy, Ford, Dodge or Plymouth and was still less expensive than the Camry, Accord (even Marysville-produced ones) or aforementioned 626, all of which appeared to be going for full sticker or more. Please keep in mind that I’m describing a particular market at a particular point in time based on 36-year-old observations of a 15-year-old. Your experiences in your location may have differed.
A bit flustered, they went to look at some other cars. The direct competition was more than they wanted to spend. I do remember they tested the new Renault Encore (Alliance hatchback) and really liked the way it drove. Strangely, the salesman wasn’t that interested in selling them a car and based on what I’ve heard about the Alliance/Encore, did them a favor.
They also took a test drive in an Isuzu Impulse, for which I was fortunate enough to be along. The 1984 Impulse was, arguably, the nicest Chevette in the world (both cars sat on the same GM platform). With its slippery shape and “command center” dashboard, it was stunning. It wasn’t a fast car, with its 90-hp 1.9-liter engine, but it was fast enough for my parents’ needs. However, Mom and Dad felt that the rear seat in this rear-wheel-drive coupe was just too small for us. No matter how vociferously I claimed otherwise, it was still a no sale.
At this point, they were starting to get desperate, as the longer this process took, the more likely the Omni was going to need another expensive repair. They figured they needed to expand their horizons, so that’s what they did – test drove a Plymouth Horizon. I know what you’re thinking: Were they f**king crazy? After more than five years of hell with the flaky duo??? That’s what I thought when Dad told me about it. The Horizon (and Omni) did receive a handsome update for 1984, with Euro-inspired black trim replacing much of the chrome on non-SE models. With the optional 2.2 liter engine, the Horizon/Omni were in a class by themselves, and surely Chrysler would have the bugs worked out after seven model years? It ultimately didn’t matter, since Dad said the new one actually felt slower than our ’79 with the 1.7. Go figure.
Maybe it was time to consider the 2-door Stanza hatchback, so back to the dealer they went. Now, all of them were gone and while the sexy new 200SX caught their attention, it was less roomy in back than the Impulse. The dealer did, however, have exactly one Stanza with automatic and air on the lot. This was the top-of-the-line GL sedan in Gold Mist Metallic over Java Brown Metallic; a demo with over 6,000 miles and a severely scratched hood. The sedan was introduced for 1983 in GL trim only, which meant power windows, power door locks, a cassette player, and a nicer interior. “Power windows and locks? This car must be out of their price range,” I remember thinking, or I may have said it aloud. Dad, however, asked to take a test drive. Afterwards, to my amazement, we went inside to see if a deal could be worked out.
I distinctly remember Mom, Dad and me sitting at the salesman’s desk, and he slid over the paper with the price. It was over $11,000, and Dad just stared at it. In 1984, the Stanza GL had an MSRP of $9,099. Add automatic and air, and this was somewhere just north or south of full sticker for a high-mileage demo. The silence continued. I finally broke in with, “Aren’t you going to negotiate with him?” Dad shot me a nasty look, and I sat back. That’s because there was no negotiating, thanks to VER. I believe at this point my parents were just done shopping and, like many people, decided to go with the more expensive car and hope finances would just work themselves out, which they ultimately did. We picked up the car a week later after the dealer fixed the hood.
Why am I including this car on my COAL series? Since I did not have a car of my own after selling the Zephyr, I had plenty of wheel time in both this car as well as the Sentra. This is the car that I
failed took my driver’s test on, and this was the car that they told my sister she could not drive after they traded in the Omni, which she had been slowly destroying driving. If I can’t get my sister to write that one up, I will. It’s a good story.
Fortunately, the Stanza was a huge improvement over the Omni. One of my favorite features was the full instrumentation, with a big speedometer and tachometer surrounded by four smaller gauges on a grid-like background. It was fun watching the voltmeter flicker when the turn signals were engaged. Any issues with the car were primarily the direct result of the fact that I did spend quite a bit of time behind the wheel.
There was the time I was screwing around on wet pavement and ran head-first into my friend Todd’s Nova. No real damage to his beater, but there was some noticeable damage to the Stanza. After work, I was going to a concert at the Hollywood Sportatorium, so I just needed to get home, change my clothes, and leave again without anyone noticing, then I could say something must have happened after we parked. I had just started backing up when my Dad opened the front door to tell me something. Damn. I had to think fast. After acting surprised myself, he asked if I’d backed into the parking space at school that day. “Why, yes. Yes I did. Somebody must have backed out of their space and hit me!” Apparently, the exact same thing happened to my sister.
The main issue was finding a good independent mechanic for the routine maintenance and repairs or other items which may or may not have been my fault. It seemed whatever shop Dad tried, they ended up either screwing up the repair, screwing him, or both. He even had to sue one of them in small claims court, a case which he won.
(We had a nice discussion regarding independent mechanics during last week’s COAL. No need to bring it up again. In addition, thanks go out to SailorHarry for coming up with a good hypothesis for the CV joint issue and ExFordTech for his technical expertise.)
After a good five year run, the transmission started acting up, which may or may not have had something to do with the neutral drops I was prone to. Car shopping was a lot easier this time around thanks primarily to much higher VER quotas, which would be phased out completely in 1994. Dad purchased a fourth-generation Civic LX, which, surprisingly, had nearly identical interior dimensions to the Stanza. Unfortunately, it was only a couple of months later when Dad heard the gear whine in the Sentra and realized they would again have two car payments.
According to Michael Smitka’s piece about VER, the Japanese manufactures made billions in excess profits and higher overall prices helped bring American automakers back to health. However, that extra money – roughly $1,500 per car – came out of the pocket of American consumers like my parents.