Nissan’s Vanette is known in the US for self-combusting in ways that can put a Pontiac Fiero to shame. How Nissan turned this basic transport into an infamous quick-cash-grab gaffe has been covered quite in detail previously at CC. Elsewhere around the world, these little haulers are renowned for their rugged and dependable –if somewhat crude- mechanicals. In its original intent (the C120 gen), the Vanette was nothing more than a vehicle aimed to markets in need of cheap and reliable transport, and that it delivered.
How Nissan found itself in this segment came almost as an afterthought, a product of acquisitions made all through the 60’s (a period of industrial consolidation in Japan, pushed both by private and government interests). One of these purchases was commercial vehicle maker Tokyu Kogyo Kurogane, a provider of cab-over trucks and vans. With some reengineering, Kurogane’s cab-over truck line was relaunched in 1969 by Nissan under the Datsun Sunny Cab/Nissan Cherry Cab monikers. Under these guises, the line included trucks and vans in various capabilities.
By 1978 the whole line was revamped, with the minibus rechristened Vanette. Nissan’s refurbished people hauler appeared with updated utilitarian lines, playing with soft round lines against straights, and round headlights adding contrast to the squarish body (styling a brick is hard!). Original engine choices were the tiny A12 1.2L and A14 1.4 L, that offered anywhere from 63 to 74HP. In Japan, CA20 and CA18T engines were also offered. None of these were earth scorchers, but that was never the intent. These Vanettes were rather simple and rugged vehicles; employing the getting-old cab-forward layout, with engine located below front seats in almost mid-engine position. Suspension was rather basic, with shocks up front and leaf springs in back. In all, the Vanette owed a lot of platform and parts sharing to Nissan’s own Sunny sedan (plus whatever else was being carried from the previous generation).
On the regular Vanette, seating could ‘accommodate’ up to 8 passengers, and on the extended (33 cm.) version, up to 10 tightly packed bodies. Dashboards were plasticky and straightforward. Shifting could be manual or automatic, either by column or floor shift. 4WD versions were available as well. Did I mention these vehicles were basic?
Yes, I keep insisting on this point. On a short trip to El Salvador in the year 2000, I went to visit the capital’s decrepit downtown, which I had last seen before a major earthquake hit in 1986. Transport from my lodging was available on bus line “Number 5,” comprised solely of Vanettes and Toyota’s Lite Aces. I remember boarding the beaten up little van through the narrow entrance, moving uncomfortably between tightly packed bodies, with my back hunched over uncomfortably as I moved to the middle. In comparison a VW bus seemed spacious (if memory doesn’t fail me).
Up front the driver moved the floor shift lever aggressively, making long throws into each gear. The van’s innards shook and moved forward, as quickly as its low-geared mechanics allowed, advancing across the city in dependable -if noisy- manner. In all, the van’s interior was humid, sweaty, and smelly. Did I mention I was hunched over uncomfortably and the ride was rather bouncy?
About 25 minutes later we made it to downtown, not a moment too soon. The Vanette got me there, which was the kindest thing I could say about it. After stretching a bit, I walked around the main square for a good half hour, trying to remember the buildings that used to stand before succumbing to the ’86 quake. I could see hills in the distance, something that was not possible in my youth. Outing finished, I boarded bus line “Number 5”, enduring the same unpleasant journey on the way back.
Never mind my complaining; rugged mechanicals that could take a beating were the Vanette’s purpose. And these were dependable, easy to work on vehicles, ideal for the non-developed world, with less demanding costumers. Not too surprisingly, the Vanette has quite a following in South East Asia, with a few Youtube videos showing its very mechanical driving sensations. The Vanette actually remained in production in Malaysia all the way to 2010; and even to this day its innards form the basis for Ashok Leyland’s Dost trucks and vans.
In Latin America advertisements for the Vanette were rather candid, placing in clear view that the van’s engineering was not much more than its body riding on a Nissan Sunny frame. In all honesty, not too different an approach from VW’s type 2 Bus development. But that had been in the early 1950’s; by the 80’s this style of platform sharing would start to die off. The age where passengers would ride on top of anything in order to travel would start to shift, with more demanding specialized vehicles becoming the norm.
2.0 engines found their way into the Vanette mid-cycle, both in gasoline and diesel versions. In Japan, a luxury version was released with sun roof, captain’s swiveling chair, and an elevated roof (that would have helped on that trip to downtown!). Swanky square headlights were placed in order to give it a more ‘modern’ look. By 1984, the updated Vanette C22 was released, and in this guise, with the shoehorned 2.4L engine, would gain its burn to a crisp notoriety in the USA.
This generation of Vanettes appear regularly in Central America, as they just don’t seem to die. Feeling myself to suffer of ‘first-world’ bias, I asked my wife –a lifelong bus rider in San Salvador- if my impressions on the poor thing were that off. “They were horrible! I HATED those! So uncomfortable!” She frowned in disgust, almost angry at the memories (Toyota’s Lite Aces didn’t fare much better with her). Oops! Sorry dear, didn’t mean to touch a nerve!
On the positive side, Malaysian video uploaders seem a lot happier with their Vanettes. The vehicle also served its purpose more than well in its native Japan, as far as it seems. And in Latin America, bus drivers made a good living with these for years; quite a few remain around performing yeoman’s duty, taking kids to school, or riding families around. Memories of my sore back aside, the Vanette performed rather well when offered in non-crisp edition.
More on the Vanette and Toyota’s competitor: