COAL: 1996 Nissan D21 Pickup – Hands On A Hardbody

In my last COAL story, I touched on the rise and demise of my 1998 Ford Ranger thanks to some quickly changing traffic conditions. My roommate picked me up from the accident and life went on. Thankfully work and school were all just a short bike ride away but I recognized I would need a vehicle again soon, so I started looking right away. As you may recall from my F-150 post, I was amazed by the array of vehicles Arizona had to offer and I really liked the compact truck offerings of the Japanese brands. I liked the Tacoma and Toyota “Pickup” but they sure held their value. Since I would be buying this one out of pocket, I thought Nissan’s D21 “Pickup” aka “Hardbody” should be considered, too – especially at ~75% of the price of a Tacoma. I found a Craigslist ad for a 1996 Hardbody 4×4 and the seller generously offered to meet me on campus for a test drive.

I told the seller to drive first then I’d try my hand behind the wheel. The seller drove like a bat outta hell! She said the truck CAN move quickly, you just have to keep the revs up. Goodness, no need for that, I felt! When it came time to swap drivers, I’m sure I put her to sleep with my driving style. The truck drove very well – the 2.4 liter 4 cylinder was not overly powerful but adequate and the 5-speed manual transmission shifted well. The only thing – the odometer was broken, which is common on these trucks. She said the odometer broke four years prior and estimated it had around 100,000 total miles on it. I liked what I saw and wasn’t in much of a position to be picky, so I paid her ask of $4,000 for the truck and dropped her off back in Phoenix.

A bit blurry but here’s the truck very shortly after I bought it. The toolbox was removed and the wheels exchanged for some stock alloys in short order. I liked the factory graphics but they were missing from the passenger side bed due to an earlier accident, so I removed them completely for consistency.

The Nissan Pickup as it was called, also went by its internal designation of D21 and by the marketing name of Hardbody. Since the early 80s, with the previous generation “720”, Nissan/Datsun trucks were manufactured in Smyrna, Tennessee for the US market – no doubt an effort to avoid the Chicken Tax. The D21 was a successful truck for Nissan, selling millions of examples and could be had in a variety of drivetrains, transmissions, cab types, trims, etc. The Pathfinder SUV was heavily based on the D21 pickup and Nissan surprised Toyota by bringing a 3.0L V6 to these small pickups in the late 80s. Toyota scrambled to react to this market segment of a more powerful compact truck and it took a year or two before they had their own V6 – resulting in the weird stopgap engine, the 22R-TE (turbo). I always admired the D21 for its rugged good looks, reasonable size and stellar reliability record (especially with the KA24DE 4 cylinder).

The truck served me really well those last several months in Arizona and soon enough I was packing up to head to Iowa. On the highway the truck turned higher RPM (relatively) at speeds, which I wasn’t a fan of. I never bothered to look up the axle code but I’ve heard rumors that some of the last 4×4 Hardbodies got the super low gearing NISMO rear diff. No idea if that was true or even if this had a limited slip, all I recall is it felt like it was screaming at anything above 65MPH. Any highway travel in the truck was typically at a fairly relaxed pace as I did not like to push it.

The first fall back in Iowa. You can see the nice factory alloy wheels and the clean look without the graphics. In this picture, it appears I was doing my patented leaf mitigation process – load up the truck and cowboy around town until they’re gone (our town does not have yard waste or a dump so…)

Back in Iowa I wasn’t driving much as school was taking a good portion of my time. Also, I worked at the Vet College south of the main campus so between classes I could ride my bike over to work and back far quicker than I could drive or wait for the bus. This was my first four-wheel-drive vehicle so when the snow flew that first winter, I was absolutely blown away by the difference it made. My roommate had an ’81 4×4 Toyota pickup and we’d drive around in the deep snow trying to get stuck. Even with crappy highway tires we couldn’t!

The Hardbody was damn reliable but there was one instance it left me on the side of the road. One early spring morning I had the wild idea of driving up to the Iowa/MN border to buy a bike off Craigslist. As I was about 30 miles out, the radio died. Then about 10 minutes later the lights flickered off and maybe a mile or two after that the truck died altogether. Thankfully I was on the phone with my dad this whole time and he called it as an alternator failure. He also looked up area repair shops and summoned a tow truck for me. What a guy, who needs OnStar?! The bike folks kindly met me at the shop and maybe even dropped a few bucks off the price for sympathy, best I recall. Not long after that I was rolling south again.

Some other quirks over the years, the plastic timing chain guides were shot so it would rattle for ~3 seconds on startup but at no other time, the aftermarket alarm system was annoying as hell and would go off occasionally but I never disabled it and the CV boots were ripped. I tried using replacement split boots/hose clamps but that never fit right and just threw the grease all over the inner fender well. Oh well – they never bound or made that clicking noise but then again, I rarely ever used 4WD or had the hubs locked.

Immediately after my first full year at ISU I took an internship at an urban/community farm in Albuquerque. The truck (slowly) hauled my minimal summer belongs down I-35 and over on I-40 without complaint and once I was there on the farm the truck was a godsend for myself and the farm. None of the other interns had their own vehicle with them that summer so I’d give folks rides to and from work, haul farm supplies and equipment, take produce to market, etc. I was glad to lend it out its services, it was so thrifty and never asked for anything. One memorable time – I put a dent in the passenger side front fender using a Ford 8N tractor and a tandem axle flatbed trailer in the farmyard. Swing wide, sweet chariot! Ooops.

As the summer came to a close it was time to head northeast for the fall semester, my last before graduating. I’m not sure if it was the allure of all those rust-free southwestern cars, the eclectic characters I met that summer, or the permanent patchouli radiating from a certain young lady farmer from New Hampshire I’d taken a shining to but the truck was to be laden with a 4 wheeled hitch hitcher from Springfield, MO onward (topic of the next COAL). The Hardbody pulled the whole ensemble through those Missouri hills and home so well – I was shocked. It was like nothing was back there. The magic of the KA24DE, I guess. What an engine!

Image cropped to protect the originality of future COALs (Any guesses? Let’s see them in the comments!) I assure you not a drop of Grain Belt was consumed until I got to my final destination.

The truck continued to see me through graduation and onward amazingly well. December 2009 was not a good time for a recent graduate to be looking for a job so I laid low and stuck around town as I applied to countless positions. The Vet College took me back for a while after graduation because my boss had a mild heart attack and after that, I got in with an ag company that I’m still with 11 years later. I kept the truck for a few more years, even concurrent with other vehicles since it was paid for and never asked for much.

In 2013 I was living in an apartment complex when I got an unsolicited offer to sell it. I recognized the guy when he’d come around from out of town – his ex-wife and children lived in the other end of my building. He (also named Sam) had some story of nostalgia – said he had a truck just like this when he was younger, and he wanted another to keep for memories. I told him I would sell it once I used it one last time to get my project car back from my parents’ house since it was my tow vehicle. I think I suggested the price, which looking back a few years later, was way too cheap. I did not base the price on any research, just a totally off the cuff number. I put new GL4 gear oil in the trans for him in an attempt to address third’s issue but that did not seem to help the issue and off it went.

Towards the end of my ownership some of the paint was flaking off down to primer on the doors and getting into third gear was sometimes mildly notchy, requiring a double clutch.

A few months after I sold it, I called him just to see how it was treating him – mostly hoping the transmission wasn’t getting worse. His reply? “Oh, that truck? I sold it a month ago. Made a lot of money.”

Looking back on this truck I have nothing but pleasant memories. It took me where I needed to go and was very affordable, reliable transportation for the six years of ownership. I hope it’s still running around somewhere making someone happy. It likely is.