Curbside Classic: 1982 Datsun (Nissan) Maxima (810) Diesel Wagon – Bitching Betty

(first posted 11/04/11)    This rather nondescript boxy wagon sitting on the street might not catch the casual eye, but it has quite a bit more a bit more history associated with it than average. Starting with the fact that it’s a diesel. It’s getting easy to forget just how massive the Diesel Boom was at this time. Everybody was piling in, and I’m still keeping my eyes peeled for a Tempo Diesel. But there’s more history than that here too. This was the first Maxima. And it came right in that muddle of Datsun becoming Nissan, as its rear badge “Datsun by Nissan” makes awkwardly un-clear. And then there’s its ultimate claim to fame: it was the first talking car.

It’s become a legend now, the little phonograph that announced “Fuel Level Low”, among its limited repertoire, and also known as Bitching Betty. Murilee Martin took one apart, (his picture above) and even posted a you tube video of it here. The Victrola was alive and well in the 1980s.

The Maxima replaced the 810, although in the first year (1981) they were still called 810, expect for the top line version. And like its predecessor, the Maxima was a Nissan Bluebird with a nose extension, to make room for the inline six that was (rightfully) deemed necessary for the US market. The classic L-series SOHC six had 2.4 liters in this application, fuel injection, and made 120 hp. Sounds modest by today’s standards, but in 1981, the Maxima was a relatively brisk car. Not to mention a solidly built and decent handling one.

The diesel was a 2.8 liter version, with all of 80 hp. Compared to the many inconsistent diesel efforts of the time, this one seems to have a pretty good rep. Some folks have logged very high miles on theirs. Too bad turbos were still not common on diesels; that would have really made this one attractive, and a serious threat to the 3 liter Mercedes turbo-diesel that ruled the oil-burner roost then.

The Maxima interior was pretty typical for a mid-grade Japanese car of the times. Not exactly brimming with atmosphere, but plenty of fairly high quality materials. Made for the long haul.

This first generation Maxima was of course the last with rear wheel drive, and enjoyed four wheel independent suspension. The result was considered to be quite competent, and the Maxima made a good impression. Datsun’s sporting aspirations were still a bit more on display than in cometitive cars like the Toyota Cressida. And as lots of Detroit sedans were going fwd, the Maxima’s rep as a sports sedan was not unfounded.

I’m not totally sure, but I suspect the Maxima wagon continued the Datsun tradition of a live rear axle in the wagon version, for maximum load capacity. With the diesel, it made a good lower-cost alternative to the then very popular W123 Mercedes 300TD wagon. And for hard core diesel aficionados like the owner of this one, it clatters on…and on.