If there is a Nissan that went Stateside and found a home there, it’s the Maxima. The nameplate was born back in the Datsun days specifically for the North American market, and it flourished there so well that production was eventually moved to Tennessee. But for the first couple of decades, the Maxima was tried on various markets, including the JDM. So here’s one Maxima y’all didn’t get: the hardtop sedan.
In the North American market, the Maxima name was launched in 1980 as a large RWD sedan and wagon based on the Bluebird 910, but modified to use a 2.4 litre (or 2.8 litre Diesel) straight-6 that few JDM cars ever had. In 1984, the Maxima switched to the new Bluebird U11 platform, which was FWD. Unlike the previous generation, this Maxima also existed on the eastern side of the Pacific as the “Bluebird Maxima,” a high-end 6-cyl.-powered version of the Bluebird.
Just like in the North American market Maxima (top left and bottom pic), the JDM Bluebird Maxima (top right) came as a pillared saloon and wagon. Unlike the American Maxima, which sported Nissan’s new 3-litre V6, the JDM version limited itself to a 2-litre version of the same VG engine – seen on quite a few Nissans in Japan by then, such as the contemporary Cedric/Gloria, Laurel and Leopard.
But there was another JDM exclusive, which was the hardtop I found in an open parking garage a little while back. And it is a real four-door hardtop, too – none of that later “pillared hardtop” malarkey. Back in the late ‘80s, this body style was still somewhat prevalent in Japan when it had pretty much disappeared everywhere else. And among the Japanese carmakers, Nissan were the most enthusiastic proponent of this body style in the mid-‘80s, using it on the R31 Skyline, the Y30 Cedric/Gloria, the C32 Laurel and the U11 Bluebird.
So when a deluxe 6-cyl. Bluebird was devised, it made sense to include a hardtop variant as part of the Japanese range, given that these were higher status vehicles by their very nature. Sadly, the federalization of the U11 Bluebird into the Maxima did not include the hardtop, so it remained a JDM exclusive. As did the 170hp turbo V6, which our top-of-the-range (that’s what the “Legran” bit stands for) CC has behind its grille.
That’s as plush an interior as any other high-trim car on the JDM in the late ‘80s. Velour and power-everything, as one might expect. The only oddity, which makes this particular car even more desirable in my book, is the presence of a 5-speed manual transmission.
My real-life photo was not very good due to adverse lighting conditions, so here’s a PR shot of the full thing from a better angle. A supremely ‘80s sight, isn’t it?
It seems Nissan were keen to turn the Maxima into a global nameplate, as the “Bluebird” bit was quietly dropped in May 1987 on Japanese cars. This was related to the fact that the U11 Bluebird itself was being replaced by the U12, but the fact that the Maxima was kept on for an extra year (until October 1988, to be precise) means it must have been quite a home market success.
Our feature car is one of these non-Bluebird late model Maximas. And although this car may have been pretty successful back in the day (I haven’t found Japanese sales numbers for these, so this is more of an educated guess), these were still regarded as a sub-model by the Japanese clientele.
This is perhaps why I’ve not seen too many of these prowling the pavement. They’re getting on in years, for sure, but comparable ‘80s iron such as Skylines, Mark IIs or RX-7s, is still relatively plentiful in today’s Tokyo traffic. Luckily, I caught this very Maxima on said pavement (actually right on the street where I live) a couple of times, so I managed a few extra photos.
To be entirely truthful, I used some of these photos already in my latest edition of T87 Singles Outtakes. But I saw it again parked on my curb with its hazards on about a week ago and took a few more pics (discreetly, as there was someone behind the wheel). I took this abundance of pictures as a sort of sign that this car needed to be written up.
The next generation, known as the J30, went global, being sold in the Americas, Japan, Europe and other markets besides. However, it did not do very well in Japan. Once again, it seems this failure was chiefly due to the car’s excessive width, which made it leap into the same tax bracket as the truly big Japanese cars (e.g. Cima, Crown Majesta, Cosmo), where it became the proverbial small fish in the big pond. That, and the Japanese economy imploded. Only about 27,000 of the J30 Maximas were sold there between 1988 and 1994 — a dreadful dud, when the other side of the Pacific feted it as a “four-door sports car.”
This might go some way to explain why the Maxima name disappeared from the JDM after only two generations. In 1994, high-ranking FWD saloon duties were assigned to the Cefiro, which later became the Teana. All the while, the Maxima migrated to the States and never really looked back.
Nonetheless, it could be argued that Japan got the best Maxima in the shape of this PU11 hardtop sedan. The body style on its own would be reason enough for many to hail this as the maximum Maxima.
But add the fact that the turbocharged 2-litre V6 had 20hp more on tap than the 3-litre found in USDM cars and top it off with a five-speed, and you will doubtless come to the conclusion that the Japanese kept the best stuff for themselves.
Cohort Outtake: 1988 Nissan Maxima – Culture Clash, by Brendan Saur
Cohort Classic: 1987 Nissan Maxima Wagon – The Smart Side Of Luxury Wagons, by Tom Klockau
Vintage Reviews: 1987 Acura Legend, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Cressida – Wouldn’t You Really Rather Have A Buick…From Japan?, by GN
Headlight design was used in 85-86 model year in US… 87-88 were more slanted back. Sure not a pre 87 model for JDM market? I had an 87 SE with an auto and adjustable dampers. I think it was one of the grey imports that was brought in via Panama at the time. Future carfax showed it had around 500k miles on it before it went out to pasture.
Same with the taillights – they’re similar to the US 85-86 ones. The wheels are different than either the early or late US Maximas. Inside though, it has the rougher cloth 87-88 seat upholstery rather than the shiny velour of the 85-86 US models (which I much prefer both for looks and feel – these are the most Brougham seats ever in a non-American car that I’m aware of – loose cushions – check! velour – check! button-tufted – check!). Inside, I like the steering wheel better than the ones used on American exports, with the spokes more sensibly placed, though I still don’t care for its appearance. Otherwise (other than being reversed of course) same dash as US-spec Maximas, including those odd warning lights closer to the passenger than the driver. The 200SX was like that too, even more so.
When I dig through the OE parts cattledogs, looking at Japan-market PU11 Nissans made starting 10/86, I come up with the headlamps on the car in this post. I can think of more Nissan (and other Japanese-brand) examples, including other Maximas, whereon the US-market headlamp is shaped differently than the Japanese; European, and/or rest-of-world headlamp.
It’s awesome. In 1986 and 1990 my Mom was getting a new car and BOTH times I tried to get her to get a Maxima. Alas it was first a Poncho 6000 followed by a Buick Century. Then some larger domestics but finally a Camry and now an Accord Sport. As a teen I really wanted to be driving a new Maxima, though 🙂
(yes I went on to own a few, including a stick SE)
And it is a real four-door hardtop, too – none of that later “pillared hardtop” malarkey.
Just looking from the outside with windows up, is it possible to tell a true pillarless hardtop from those with a thin internal B-pillar? Like, is there an identifying mark we can look for?
Not from the pictures here, but certainly up close in person. They are quite apparent when one knows what to look for, as they extend to the inside some.
It is definitely the best looking Maxima of this generation, or maybe any.
Nissan (and Toyota) knew what they were doing by keeping these hardtops to Japan. The market there is of course very different, and there were plenty of Japanese willing to pay a premium for a higher status Maxima (or other hardtops). That would not have been the case here. If you wanted higher status, you bought an Audi or BMW or Mercedes or such.
The Maxima here was slotted into a specific segment of the market, below the premium brands. Also, hardtop roofs just weren’t a desirable thing anymore here, except maybe a tiny slice of guys who might have liked a big American hardtop.
The European premium brands were leading and defining the market here at the time, and they certainly didn’t have hardtops, except for the Mercedes coupe, which was something different. I suppose if the Germans had developed a thing for four door hardtops, the Japanese would almost certainly have brought theirs over here.
So who was buying American hardtop sedans back when they were still available? Buying a ’76 Chevy Impala hardtop instead of a sedan didn’t confer much additional status. I always assumed buyers paid slightly more for a hardtop because they liked how they looked, or liked the better outward visibility and the long opening when both front and rear windows were rolled down.
I’ve long assumed hardtops mostly disappeared in the U.S. because center pillars improve rollover strength (and are good for structural rigidity in general). It never occurred to me that it might be in emulation of German (and other European) sedans. But now that you bring it up, yep, I can’t think of any Euro hardtop sedans, and German sports sedans definitely set the preferred style mid to late ’80s America. I have no idea whether a hardtop Mercedes or BMW sedan would have sold well had it been offered.
Most likely an older generation than those who were buying Maximas in the ’80s
particularly the de-Broughamified SE which took an increasing share of sales and was a model Toyota didn’t offer a Cressida equivalent to.
So who was buying American hardtop sedans back when they were still available? Buying a ’76 Chevy Impala hardtop instead of a sedan didn’t confer much additional status.
A rapidly shrinking number of buyers. And yes, by then it didn’t confer much status.
Hardtops were glamorous in the 1950s when they were new, and definitely conferred status back then. They became increasingly commodified in the 60s, and less “special” as time went on. By the 70s, it was imports like the Mercedes that was the hot new prestige object, so hardtops became largely irrelevant in that regard. The fear of ever-stricter rollover standards scared Detroit away from them, but by then they had lost much or all of the cachet.
A neighbour had a 4 door sedan of one of these. I thought it a handsome car at the time, although looking at it now it is very square jawed. That steering wheel is very funky in a squared angle sort of way. The instrument panel is very straight up and strictly organized in design. The Maxima line went in a more jellybean styling direction in the early 2000s, as part of that trend.
This guy also had a BMW 2002, which I didn’t find an as strong attraction towards.
As was the look of the ’80s, my own vehicles were quite square in styling as well – A K car and a Voyager. My other neighbour had a GMC Astro van and a Rabbit. Designers got good use out of their protractors back then.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I prefer to buy American brands and I’ve had extremely good luck with them (especially Buick’s). However, it was this Maxima era along with the Toyota Cressida that I really liked and wanted. Something about the lines and plush seats with wood (fake or real) trim and all the extra features. Maybe that’s why I now own and love my 1988 Cadillac Cimarron!
Always thought this generation of Bluebirds and Maximas were good looking cars, and that interior and dash has aged well considering it’s from the 80s.
Nicely shot too, especially the on street shots
I just noticed the buttons on the side of the driver’s seatback, which I assume are power seat controls. I don’t think we got those in the US;, instead, there was an odd combination of power only for fore and aft (very slow IIRC), and manual front tilt (no rear tilt or height adjustment), recline, maybe back support, and headrest up/down and fore/aft.
Nice, Ive seen one before but the interior had been completely stripped out to reduce weight it was being drag raced pretty quick too for a basically stock import, but they certainly were plush inside, a lot of those Nissan hardtops landed here used a friend of mine had one unfortunately she wrote off hitting a earth bank it still drove but the body was twisted, replaced with a regular 4 door that ran for years.
These weren’t particularly uncommon as used imports down here in NZ (could say that about almost any JDM car). But as I recall we never got them as NZ new, only the 4-cyl bluebird.
We used to mainly see NA ones, but some turbos. They seemed to have a lot of problems with the headlamp reflectors rusting out internally, and I suspect that sent a number to their graves once they were at the bottom of their depreciation curve.
Of course we carried the name on here as NZ new cars, the J30 was popular, and the A32 (Cefiro in Japan) was even more so. Then came the CA33, again a Cefiro in Japan, or Infiniti I30 in the USA. Then following on from that came J31 and J32, Teana in Japan. After that the Maxima was culled here, briefly replaced by the Altima 4-cylinder, closing the V6 circle for Maxima in NZ,looping back to a 4-cylinder.
Well the big issue for me, is the fact that we are talking a ‘real 4 door pillarless hardtop’ here. 4 door pillarless hardtops existed in the United States for at most, just 25 years. GM offered them for just 21 years (1955 to 1976).
Outside the USA, Mercedes Benz built a 4 door pillarless 300D from around 1959 to 1962 and then it was only the Japanese that offered this unique body style as we can see here.
Australia, England, Italy and other countries never built 4 door hardtops.
But why are the side windows fully up in every photo? You should never take a photo of a pillarless car with its windows up. From memory, I think the rear door windows on these Japanese 4 door hardtops might not fully retract, but I maybe wrong on that one.
Simply love 4 door hardtops, A unique body style. Today ‘B’ pillars are blacked out to try and hide them, but its not the same as real pillarless cars.
Alas, this is Curbside Classic, and the name of the game is to snap up what you find, not set up a photo shoot and ask for permission. These Bluebirds / Maximas definitely can have their windows down both front and rear, just Google Image it.
I would add the rare but noteworthy Facel-Véga Excellence to your shortlist of European 4-door hardtops.
I think you are correct, as the wheel arch are intrudes in to the door space, the window descends at an angle, so when it’s fully down there’s still a tringle of glass showing over the top of the door. Of course the pillared cars with a door quarter glass don’t have that problem, as the quarter glass takes up the space intruded by the wheel arch, and the remaining rectangular glass just drops straight down, all the way.
Styles, thanks for that explanation about the reason why the rear door windows don’t retract completely. I think this spoils the cars otherwise unique hardtop styling to some degree.
Perhaps rear quarter windows should have also featured on these 4 door hardtops in the same way that they did cars like the 1958 Cadillac Fleetwood 4 door hardtop. This might have corrected the issue but of course added to the production costs
Interesting you say about this, as the plastic that fits into the top of the door to the C pillar has the exact same angle on it as the window.