Attending the North American International Auto Show in Detroit for the first time in early 1987 was one event along my timeline that could be identified as lifechanging, without hyperbole. I had been to many local car shows in and around the Flint area as I was growing up, particularly the Sloan Auto Fair that was held on the grassy grounds of the Cultural Center, near the main branch of the public library, Whiting Auditorium, and Longway Planetarium. The local shows all featured classic cars, and while I loved those experiences, getting to go to the “big” auto show would be something altogether different. Mom would be driving my brother and me into Detroit, a big city just under an hour south of Flint, and the show would be held at Cobo Center which, as far as I knew, was just a big convention space.
In a time long before an internet search could answer myriad questions with several mouse clicks within the span of a few short seconds, I had no frame of reference in terms of what to expect before actually getting there. The fact that my mom had committed to driving her two younger sons there for a car-themed event and spending the day in Detroit, which was then still considered a somewhat scary place for your car to break down, was a huge deal at the time, and I stand by this sentiment today. My affinity for cars, along with my piano playing, was an area of my life that seemed like a completely safe space in which my interests were validated without judgement or asterisks. My love of cars was allowed to blossom. It was also something that was all mine amid my quest for individual identity within my family of origin. Going to Detroit in early ’87 for this show felt extraordinarily special, like my own personal holiday on which my mom and my brother were gladly and willingly accompanying me.
I giddily scooped up brochure after glossy brochure from almost each and every stand, plopping them into a giant, plastic tote bag with snaps at the top that was furnished by one of the major automakers. That tote was nearly bursting like a Hefty bag by the time we left Cobo. My face hurt from smiling all day. My brother and I were treated to a food court meal from Pizza Queen. Honeybee-like swarms of people buzzed about the stands, on which stood beautiful people introducing the new cars for ’87. The night ride home back to Flint along then-unfamiliar stretches of I-75 was suddenly, newly thrilling, as I kept my eyes peeled in the hope of identifying other vehicles on the road as some of the brand-new models I had just seen at Cobo. I carried some of those ’87 car brochures to school with me in my backpack for weeks afterward, as if trying to bring the good feelings forward into my otherwise unexciting weekdays. I still have them in storage.
1989 Nissan EXA print ad for the Australian market.
And then there were the cars themselves. Near the top of my list of the most fascinating, new models for ’87 was Nissan’s redesigned Pulsar NX coupe. To this very day, the sight of one excites me like few cars of that era, foreign or domestic. The all-new Pulsar had an exceptionally clean shape that combined the high-tech angularity of 1980s with just enough organic curvature so that from certain angles (and minus the pop-up headlamps), it still looks fairly modern in 2022. It was rife with little stylistic details that were tasteful and eye-pleasing that gave it almost a boutique feel. It was unfathomable to me that it was based on a lowly Sentra.
The flush door handles, frameless door glass, integrated rear spoiler and high center-mounted brake light, and clean body panel cut-lines, especially in the rear two-thirds of the car, were particularly graceful in execution. It had the utility of a hatchback with its (tiny) fold-down rear seat, but was styled to look like it had a proper trunk, giving it a slightly more premium feel than it might have had with a more horizontally sloped rear window. The diagonally-striped and body-colored taillamp overlays were an especially inspired touch. The previous, folded paper-styled NX did absolutely nothing for me, nor did the jellybean NX that followed it. This one was the standout. This generation of Pulsar NX, called the Pulsar EXA (or just EXA) in other markets outside of the U.S., was the first model designed in Nissan’s then-new design studio in San Diego, Nissan Design International, which is now known as Nissan Design America.
All cars had a t-bar roof with removable panels, as well as a rear hatch that came off for as close an approximation to a convertible with a removable hardtop as was available and affordable to most consumers. The rub for me on the early models was that in order for the hatch to be body colored, one had to spring for the upmarket SE model; All ’87 XE models made do with a hatchback in a contrasting, dark gray color that looked, well, terrible. A Sportbak model (see below), with its dedicated rear hatch styled to resemble a “shooting brake” sport wagon, was also available. I’ve seen only a handful of these in my life, and even if that look isn’t for me, I still thought it was cool and I like it for having existed. In the case of our featured car, given that it was parked near multiple-family residential buildings, I doubt that any of its panels come off during any time of year. I can’t imagine trying to fit that hatchback in a freight elevator or walking it up or down stairs with a help of a willing friend or neighbor.
1987 Nissan Pulsar NX print ad for the U.S. market.
As determined by a license plate search, our Silver Green Pearl metallic ’89 XE model is powered by the base 1.6L four-cylinder engine with 90 horsepower. Having snapped a bunch of photos of the car’s exterior, I didn’t want to try for interior shots and chance getting yelled at, but I’d assume it’s got the standard five-speed manual. The nicer SE came equipped with a 125-hp 1.8L four with almost 40% more power. Most accounts I’ve read stated that the cars with the base engine were slow, even for the times. Base curb weight ranged from 2,400 to 2,500 pounds, so I imagine that the performance of the SE was fun even if it wouldn’t pin you to the seatback. According to one source, the ’89 XE had a base price of $12,544 before options, which translates to just over $28,400 in 2022. The SE added $730 ($1,650) to the tab, and also included ground effects and 14″ alloys among other features. The added cost would have been worth it for the extra power, alone.
The only aspect of the car that I wasn’t crazy about then, and which hasn’t aged well, was the fairly generic front end with its hidden headlamps and blocky proportions. It didn’t seem nearly as characterful as the rest of the car’s exterior. Its front fascia wasn’t ugly, though, and even if its mug looked less than stellar, to me all other aspects looked great enough as to give its face a free pass. My main attraction to the Pulsar NX besides its looks were the fact that it could shapeshift and be transformed at will, as demonstrated at the Nissan camp at Cobo.
This quality spoke loudly and clearly to me as a child of two parents from completely different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, of which I resembled neither and both at the same time. In my own life, I would learn to hone my ability to play up or down various aspects of my identity with discretion, all while keeping true to myself along the process of becoming a more fully-formed person in adulthood. “Reading the room” has always seemed innate to me. Though I care far less about my filter or impressions these days, this philosophy has served me well, and it took a chance sighting of one of my favorite sporty coupes of the ’80s to remind me to be thankful for this positive attribute. A pulsar is a type of star, and to someone who was an impressionable, malleable adolescent at its introduction, this generation of Pulsar remains one of the brightest stars of the ’87 Detroit auto show.
Uptown, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, March 5, 2022.