Curbside Classic: 1987 Nissan Van – How Did This Turkey Escape The Crusher (Or Oven)?

(first published 11/21/2011)    You want to talk turkey? Let’s start with the only vehicle where the manufacturer tried to buy back every single one that had been sold, to be sent to the crusher, because they kept self-immolating. In 1994, Nissan offered top Blue Book values or more for them (up to $7k), as well as $500 discounts on new Nissan vehicles, after four recalls couldn’t fix persistent engine fires. But apparently, a few die-hards wanted to keep their Nissan Vans, although this is the first and only one I’ve seen in decades. And I’ve been saving this one for two years, just for Turkey Week. I wonder if it’s gone up in flames since then?

The Nissan Van’s problems are highly ironic, given that the very similar Toyota Van (above) has become perhaps the ultimate roach in places like here, having long ago replaced the VW Bus as the rolling box of choice for certain segments of the population. It’s a rugged and durable as it gets. I promise a full CC on them shortly. So what went wrong with Nissan’s?

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Nissan’s Vanette, which is just another representative of that class of  Japanese vans that are/were to be seen all over the developing world, as well as in Japan. Simple, rugged, with mediocre dynamic qualities, to be sure, their ilk in varying sizes are still being made by the millions in China today.

But when the minivan explosion in the US hit hard in 1985, with the Caravan/Voyager twins, the Japanese suddenly found themselves on the outside looking in. So they quickly adapted their work horse vans to conform to US safety standards, which explains their ant-eater front ends. Power trains were also beefed up, given American’s preference for automatics and air conditioning.

And this is where Nissan stumbled, big time. They shoehorned in the larger 2.4 L Z24i engine into the engine bay that had previously been occupied by smaller and more austere engines. Combined with fuel injection, A/C, etc, the engine bay became prone to overheating and engine fires, especially when a leaky valve cover gasket allowed oil to spill on the exhaust manifold. But that was only part of the problem.

Four recalls were initiated to solve the overheating issues, which also contributed to the fires. A whole new cooling system was part of the recall, including new radiators, fans and warning system. But problems persisted, and Nissan started offering to buy back owners’ problematic vans. When word of that got out, a class action suit was initiated, which led to the settlement offer of the buyback of all vans.

That only came to about 33,000 vans, sold in 1987 and 1988, mostly in California. The debacle cost Nissan some $200 million. So if you’ve never seen one, it’s understandable. I wasn’t supposed to either.