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:
1987 Nissan Vanette – How Did This Turkey Scape the Crusher? – by PN
1980 Toyota TownAce Wagon Super Extra – All You Need Is Loaf – by Tatra87
Mate of mine bought one for his roof tiling business it barely lasted 12months underpowered and grossly overloaded it really struggled with the Canberra landscape towing a laden trailer it was replaced with another VW Kombi 1800 which lasted years with regular engine rebuilds and transplants
I never knew there was a LWB version of these – they were never sold in the US. Reminds me of early- to mid-70s Dodge vans with that insert between the front and rear/sliding doors.
All of these Jap vans of the ’80s were crap. The only reason they landed in the USA was because of the overwhelming success of the Chrysler minivans. And Japan was in the mindset that it could do no wrong in North America. It was a rude awakening for both Toyota and Nissan. Especially for Toyota, who went through this heartache 20 years earlier with the Stout pickup.
However, one man’s nitrogen-rich fertilizer is another’s crap.
And in places where speed and rust were unlikely to be factors affecting, respectively, usefulness and bodily longevity, these Nissans were more of the nitrogen-rich variety. It should perhaps also be pointed out that such places vastly outnumber the US in all things other than wealth.
In those places, as attested by their continuing manufacture as the Leyland(!) mentioned above, they proceeded unbreakable for wholly unlikely times and distances.
I might add that Toyota sold plenty of their vans here, as many as they could under the terms of the Voluntary Import Restrictions.
And guess what? A lot more of those Toyota vans are still on the road here in Eugene than there are Chrysler minivans.
You’ve got it all wrong: Japan wasn’t in the mindset that it could do no wrong in North America; quite the opposite. When they started importing cars and trucks in the late 50s and early 60s, they just sent over what they already were making in Japan; some of those products clicked in the US (Toyota LC; Datsun pickup), and some didn’t. They were committed to learning what was going to work here, and they kept changing their products to make them more appealing to US buyers.
That’s a lot more than what can be said for most of the European imports sold here in the 50s. What happened to them all, after 1960? The majority of them packed it in right away, and some hung in there for a while longer, but eventually they all walked away from the US market except for BMW, Mercedes, VW, Audi and Porsche. Where’s all the rest? There were dozens and dozens of them.
Heartache? More like learning pains, which the Japanese were quite willing to endure.
The Japanese studied and studied the American auto market relentlessly and were quick to adapt their products to American tastes, albeit with exceptional attention to quality and reliability. David Halberstam’s book “The Reckoning” is an excellent read that deeply explores the Japanese auto industry and how it succeeded in the U.S. by exploring niches and offering value domestic manufacturers couldn’t. They didn’t always get things right the first time, but they sucked it up, went back to the drawing board, worked harder, and eventually gave Americans what they wanted.
Crap? Japanese vans are all over the developing world. In the Philippines, for example, Bongo vans (as they are universally known in Asia) are commonly used as busses between cities.
These vans are intentionally low-tech so that local shops can maintain them. I’ve seen Bongo vans haul all kinds of stuff including goats and hogs.
I keep a residence on Mindanao island and we have a Suzuki Carry Utility Van. It’s even smaller than a Bongo and it often is used as a bus. The thing is old but it will never die, as they seem to last forever.
Your wife has sense in her memory of the Vanette.
These were quite nasty devices, valuable only for their value at purchase. That they eventually rusted into unusability instead of breaking at their inevitable millionth mile was something immensely irritating.
If they had had the decency to be unreliable, many more people on earth would have better backs, and possibly quite numerous others might still simply be with us.
Though it must be conceded that about 300 million more would still be stuck in point A instead of B, not to mention the other 300 mill whose tools for work or food for transport would be stuck similarly.
The real problem is that all these minibus services crammed in a lot more passengers than ideal, hence the back pain. If they were outfitted like the ones sold here, with room for four adults in the back and no more, no one would be complaining about back pain.
This and the same-sized Toyota Lite Ace were sold that way here too, and having ridden in them as a teen, they were pretty dire. To fit between floor and roof, the skimpily-padded seats were very low, so you sat on your coccyx. Combine this with stiff leaf springs and a really short wheelbase, they did feel rather like one of those rodeo rides at a fair. The bigger, longer-wheelbase Toyota vans (Tarago here) with coil springs were considerably more civilised. As was the infamous Nissan van, which, curiously enough, never went round self-immolating in this country. Rather, it just reliably and uncontroversially performed its role as a decent Tarago alternative. Perhaps the ones sold here fitted less lawyers…
In 1999, I had had just been married to wife #1. We were in the Philippines and we went to visit friends in Iloilo City on the island of Panay. After a couple of days, we decided to go to Boracay Beach, which was unspoiled at the time. Going there involved Bongo van, the brand of which I don’t remember but the Mazda one was the most common.
The whole day was on Philippine time. The night before we were to head to Kalibo we got no sleep as about 100 dogs barked all night. I wanted to get a move on because the trip is about three hours, if one is lucky. Well, first we had to stay for brunch. That involved sitting around for several hours, something that is very common in the Philippines. Eventually, we headed to the van terminal.
There is no schedule for van rides and they leave when they were full. Well, about eleven people were jammed into the thing and I was right at the very back, with almost no legroom. Then we had to wait for the van to fill up. The last seat was going to be pretty uncomfortable, so just wanted to pay for that seat and get going.
Nope. That seat would cost P100 (C$2.50) and that’s a waste of money! Instead, I sat in the back of the Bongo sweating because the a/c didn’t work well with the door open. Then we set out on one of the most unpleasant journeys of my life. The Bongo bounced, lurched and shuddered. What should have been a three hour trip turned into five. We made it to Kalibo at 9:00 PM, too late catch the boat to Boracay that way.
The ride from Kalibo to Caticlan was another adventure involving a packed to the rafters jeepney on a muddy road, after a storm. That took three hours and instead of sitting in the jeepney with the chickens and goats, I rode on the top. The views were amazing.
Return of CC-in-scale! (I don’t want to post one every day.)
Built this one about forty years back. Clever Japanese engineering touches include folding and swivelling second row seat, sliding door and opening tailgate.
Initially we only got Nissan and Toyota vans in the next size up, though by the eighties they started trickling in.
(BTW typo alert: you have the capacities of the A12 and A14 the wrong way around.)
That’s the very one I rode about in, colour and all. From the perspective of embiggened moderns, yours even looks the same size!
I remember these and the Lite Ace seeming fairly attractive back in yonder days, because they had a bit of shape and stripes and cloth seats and carpets and such, whereas VWs were all vinyl and rubber and dourness (not to mention entirely uncompetitive pricing then).
Until one actually rode in them, of course.
Heard the 1991 Nissan Serena C23’s rear-wheel drive platform was allegedly based on the earlier Sunny-derived Nissan Vanette.
Along the same lines as the Sunny based Vanette. Is it known if the Nissan Junior and Nissan Caball were either based-on or make use of any car-derived mechanicals (apart from sharing some engines with the Cedric), such as possibly the Bluebird via some sort of upscaled Datsun Truck platform or even Nissan’s licenced built version of the Austin Cambridge A50 that preceded the Cedric?