Curbside Classic: Datsun 810 Maxima – Maximum Mobility

(first posted 4/25/2015)   Datsun/Nissan’s missteps during the renaming era were many, from soft sports cars to shockingly conservative mainstream compacts, but the Maxima was a major success which captured the aspirations of the American middle class better than many of its Japanese contemporaries. It was a timely, unique expression of 1980s suburban values and, as this early 810 Maxima wagon shows, offered a compelling blend of practicality and flash rare among imported compacts of the period.

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Though it shared its basic engine design with the Z-car, the most similar car to the early Maxima in concept was the Toyota Celica Supra.  Just as Toyota stretched the Celica’s wheelbase to shoehorn in a straight-six, Nissan took the Japanese 910-series Bluebird and did the same, stuffing in some extra gadgets for good measure.  And while the Celica Supra was uncomfortably soggy for a coupe, the Maxima’s similar nature still left it solidly average in the world of family cars. It was such a simple formula, but nonetheless effective.

Wagons like this one were unfortunately less common, but they offered an excellent solution for image conscious families.  They were mechanically durable and with a well-located four-link live axle, not nearly as prone to any of the unpredictable oversteer common to soft, trailing-arm equipped, rear-drive Japanese luxury cars (how do you think drifting first became popular?).  That this car is still plugging away after 35-ish years is no surprise; this is pre-Ghosn Nissan quality par excellence, and reflects a major aspect of the Maxima’s popularity.  Yes, America, you can have a family friendly, upwardly mobile import for a good price, and it won’t be stripped like a Volvo, and it won’t be a quality disaster like an Audi.

Nissan also allowed buyers to ladle on options in a very American fashion.  That so many were ordered loaded showed the nameplate’s cachet, which makes the current model’s lack of prestige that much more depressing (at least the Altima is finally moving in the volumes that Stanza could never manage).  Occupants were treated to multi-adjustable seats, a bevy of power assists, button-tufted velour and switches galore.  With the fussy markings describing the function of every knob and button, being inside the Maxima was like sitting in a living room and admiring one of the era’s equally snazzy and equally Japanese hi-fi systems; again, middle class living at its finest (at least on the coasts).

Truly, I’ll always remember these cars and their immediate front-drive successors as kings of convenience and value.  These were cars people bought when their careers were on a solidly ascendant trajectory, and people remember their first Maxima in the same way they remember their first home or first piece of high-end electronics; it embodied middle class mobility, if not ultimate status.  This is why the nameplate also engendered the sort of brand loyalty some other Nissan nameplates could not (except for the similarly appealing Z).

With 120 horsepower out of its destroked, 2.4 liter Z engine (complete with multi-point fuel injection), performance was quite good for a late Malaise-era cruiser, with sixty achieved under ten seconds when equipped with a five-speed, and a bit under twelve seconds with the automatic (a four-speed unit from 1983 on).  Powertrain operation was silent in a way similarly upscale Audis, Saabs and Volvos couldn’t match, even though chassis dynamics were well behind the European competition.  Underdamping, a lack of suspension travel, loose steering and a lightly-built structure quickly revealed themselves under duress.  Up to date engineering at least kept it from being outright ponderous, but these were not the sports sedans that would define the Maxima in its best years.  Even still, the early Maxima was a good foundation on which future iterations could build their reputation for another two decades.

Given the car’s mechanical heritage, a motivated owner could easily hop an 810 Maxima up to provide more modern get-up-and-go, as the 2.8 liter turbo six from the contemporary 280ZX turbo fits pretty easily.  The car pictured here was so-modified, and looks the business with that modest drop.

The absence of other modifications allows the car’s appeal to show through.  It’s actually quite a stately piece, with a fender-mounted power antenna, stand-up hood ornament, side mirrors mounted on stanchions, and lots of chrome trim.  And as fussy as it is in its details, clean lines lend it a functional overall appearance.  Decoration is abundant, yes, but the look is efficient.  Those who really needed to reinforce the latter impression were offered a diesel, which found more buyers than one might’ve expected.  There were certainly worse options, too, as Nissan’s diesel was a smooth, reliable straight-six unit, offering more power than the likes of the Quantum and a great value.

As popular as these cars were and ubiquitous as Maximas have become, early versions like our feature car (captured in New York’s brutal environment by William Stopford) reflect a very rare period in the history of the Japanese car.  They were an expression of luxury with a distinctive American influence but a character all their own.  They were not meant to compete with Europe’s finest, as later cars marketed through separate dealer networks would be.  By the end of the 1980s, this sensibility would largely be absent from the automotive landscape.  Parked at the curb, 35 years on, the 810 Maxima is a loveable piece of forgotten kitsch, and a very textbook example of the curbside classic.