Curbside Classic: ’70-82 Nissan Junior – Coffee Picking Season

Can’t recall when I had this conversation with my wife; some anecdote of her father’s youth tending to farming chores in the countryhouse. This brought up my dad’s childhood, born in the most abject poverty in a distant rural enclave. Staying on topic, the thought of my upper crust classmates and their abandoned family farms crossed my mind.

  • You know dear? Everyone in this country is one generation away from the countryside -at most. Heck, dad always tried to get me into some kind of farming endeavor or other… even though I never got the hang of it.

She looked at me, her eyes opening wide.

  • Actually, mom took us coffee picking when we were kids. To the volcano plantations… the whole family; grandma, auntie, me and my brother…

She a coffee picker? The nerdy college professor? I couldn’t quite picture her having such a ‘humble’ background, even though it was further proof of my point. She went on:

  • It was fun. I was really little then and can’t recall much, but I had fun.

Of course you did. You were a kid, and knew no better. Still, a somewhat unexpected bit of background.

October marks the start of coffee harvesting in Central America, and what better way to gather those goods than with a sturdy and trusty old Nissan truck? In this occasion a Junior, one of Nissan’s longest running models.

Grab your caffeinated cups and let’s take a quick tour in coffee harvesting.

As you all must know -don’t you?- coffee’s best esteemed varieties grow in the volcanic hills of Latin America; with the 1,5000 to 2,000 mts. (3,000-5,000 feet) range being best for the crop. Of Arab origin, coffee found its way into the region during the 19th century, originally as a decorative shrub.

In Central America, lacking industrial know-how and raw materials, crops such as coffee were looked upon by local elites as a way to join international commerce. And coffee plantations had a good going for the better part of the 20th century, creating wealthy elites and bringing much needed revenue to the emerging nations (more thoughts on these traditions, via a Mercedes, here).

Towns grew in prominence, especially those located in the hilly volcanic range, with many prominent families of Spanish descend becoming wealthy coffee barons. As revenues accrued, churches expanded, ballroom halls sprouted, and city halls were refurbished (above, coffee enclave of Apaneca). The coffee barons became a class of their own, eventually directing national politics.

With time, everyone in the nation had some kind of attachment to the crop. From the upper classes bent on keeping the new status quo, to rural peasants displaced by the crop’s growth.

The hilly, irregular, coffee farming volcanic range compelled El Salvador’s government to create a modern road system by the 1940’s. This decision was, as always, conditioned by constrained finances. Extending train lines were beyond the country’s capabilities and small trucks brought a cheaper, yet expedient, way to transport the crop.

American built pickups and trucks served the purpose in those early 20th century days, but Japanese makes steadily took over with basic and sturdy machines such as the Junior.

Competing directly with Toyota’s Stout, the model belonged to a now-gone segment that slotted right between compact pickups and commercial trucks in its native Japan. Abroad, Toyota’s Stout made a brief appearance in the US, failing to crack much of a market. Better luck awaited elsewhere, as Japan’s midsize trucks made a name for themselves in Asia, Africa and Latin America; their dimensions and capabilities proving ideal for farming operations of modest capacity.

The Junior line dates back to 1956, being as rudimentary as could be, although already possessing Nissan’s known quantities for careful assembly. A more ambitious effort was launched in 1962, with the mid-size truck becoming more substantial and providing ‘car-like’ comfort to the segment. Styling wise the 2nd gen. Junior took cues from Nissan’s contemporary Cedric, while some American elements such as 3 seat bench seating, and an optional steering shift lever, made their way into the interior. Engines were company stalwarts; inline-4s that came in 1.5, 1.9 and 2.0 displacements, with an additional 2.2 diesel being offered. Cargo capacity ranged from 1.5 to 2 tons.

With this 2nd gen. the model made its way into Central America, making slow headway for the brand in the region.

The Cedric also provided much of the truck’s chassis, borrowing the model’s double wishbones in front and leaf springs in back. Having to deal with heavier loads, the Junior’s setup differed from the Cedric’s by using torsion bars up front and stiffer rear leafs.

With the 2nd gen. serving as foundation, a restyled Junior arrived in 1970. The new styling probably shouts ‘Pontiac’ to most, although according to a Don Andreina post, the cues come from an earlier Cedric. Regardless of origin, the boxy styling made the truck look contemporary and sold quite well in the region.

With Nissan’s acquisition of Prince Motors in 1966, a rebadged Junior took over Prince’s Miler truck line. Locals started to get a sense of Nissan’s erratic marketing when both the Junior and the badge-engineered Miler showed up in dealers with a prominent ‘N’ in the grille, displaying Nissan badges on the fenders. It was the first time anyone had ever heard of the brand. Meanwhile, all other models sold alongside as Datsuns. Didn’t make much sense, but when has that ever stopped Nissan?

By the mid ’70s, the Junior (and Toyota’s Stout) had become essential to mid size farming operations. With crop-raising practices dating to a century or so before, coffee plantations did quite well with trucks of this capacity, with many a sample still serving faithfully to this day. Indeed, many operators prefer their simple rugged innards over more modern machinery, as they are generally easier and cheaper to maintain.

Not that coffee is doing that great nowadays, as the civil war took its toll and modern competition from Brazil and South East Asia plummeted the crop’s value. Still, some of the old families put effort in keeping the tradition going, mainly tending to specialized varieties of higher value. Mixing the produce with crops such as bananas helps to diversify and sustain loses when values dive.

Not to bring any guilt on any of you, but it takes a LOT of work to gather the crop. The hilly and irregular conditions of most coffee plantations force the need for hand pickers, which take to the hills in squads numbering dozens. The results of their work go to small weigh stations where the beans are purchased and taken for further processing.

Pickers arrive by the truckloads -literally- to the haciendas. Sometimes even in Juniors and Stouts, looking quite cramped in those (unlike those in the photo). With baskets in hand, workers take to the hills harvesting coffee beans by hand. Although occasionally directed to selectively pick the beans, most engage in scraping forcefully -with tight fists and fingers- each coffee plant branch. Work goes much faster this way and brings better pay at day’s end.

If well cared for, most coffee plants are shrub sized, with its longest branches an easy reach by arm’s stretch. The crops are generally protected by larger trees located every 12 meters or so, providing essential shade to the delicate plants. Hilly conditions go from moderate to steep, with occasional wet conditions making a tough going in the muddy soil.

Each worker carries rather large baskets, moving briskly from branch to branch. An early sorting takes place, putting aside ruined samples. The harvest is then placed in 50lbs. sacks, to be carried by hand, or better said, on the backs of the better muscled workers.

It’s back breaking labor, literally, and it was quite something to witness first hand few years ago. A young adult male, somewhere in his early 30’s, placing -somehow- a stuffed coffee sack on his back. Then making slow progress on muddy terrain, climbing slowly to reach the hacienda’s truck. With faded gang-member tattoos on his arms, he moved forward, saving his breath methodically, as he carried the load uphill. I could almost feel my lumbar spine cracking and slipping out of place just by looking at him.

Make no mistake, farming is a severe endeavor. No wonder most don’t want much to do with it. The union worker in me wished for these coffee pickers to get better wages, but wondered how many customers would be ok with a fair market cost of $22 per coffee cup (numbers just made up in my head). Better not leave the matter to me, or I’ll crash these workers’ livelihood.

On a happier note, months before harvest, buds appear for about a week before blooming briefly for a day of two. It’s a rather wonderful view. Now, this is a sight I have no problem associating my wife’s childhood with. I forgot to add, it isn’t rare for a worker or two to sing aloud during harvest in an effort to bring some relief to their workday. Blooming flowers make a nice addendum to that image (even if seasonally impossible).

With coffee now being of low relevance to the nation’s coffers, some processing techniques feel rather ancient. A common practice is to place the beans to dry under any available space. It isn’t too rare to come across such a sight when taking a trip around ‘coffee country,’ as sidewalks, schools and basketball courts serve as tending fields. Once dry, the beans are finally taken to a processing plant (locally known as beneficios) to be properly treated for sale and consumption.

Just like local coffee plantations, against all odds, Nissan’s Junior remains in production to this day in Iran. Under the Zamyad Z24 name, the model has remained in assembly over there since its introduction over half a century ago. A number of small updates have occurred in the interim, of course; with the model now making use of Nissan’s Z engines, and an optional 2.8 turbocharged diesel of Isuzu origin.

As mentioned earlier, to this day a good number of locals still have some kind of attachment to our ‘coffee traditions.’ This became quite clear a couple of years ago, during a wedding my wife and I attended in the coffee enclave of Apaneca. As we danced away during reception, the recently married couple gave away mementos to the attendees; little coffee sacks with their initials engraved. Not a strange gift, as we knew the couple’s families had been hacendados in the past.

This was something to tackle while driving back to the city.

  • I suppose neither your coffee picking grandparents, nor the Apaneca hacendados of yore, would ever imagine their grandchildren dancing together at the same party?

With memories of duress fading away with the passing of time, the coffee tradition is now looked upon with nostalgic longing. Hacendados’ grandchildren try to make a go with gourmet coffee shops, while the children of the peasants of yore listen to coffee picking stories with wonder at the toil it all took. There’s, in general, a sense of pride on the fading tradition.

Back to our CC guest. In Japan, both the Junior and the Stout died in the early ’80s. Either the segment faded away, or Nissan’s and Toyota’s compact pickups grew to a point that made the whole effort moot. Meanwhile, in Central America’s countryside old Juniors and Stouts can still be found performing yeoman’s duty, much as it was intended.