Datsun used to dominate the import market in the days before Hondas commanded dealer mark-ups and waiting lists. Many blame their eventual also-ran status on their inexplicable, expensive and unproductive rebranding of the early 80s. But where the newly renamed Nissan dropped the ball, in my opinion, was in offering compacts and subcompacts that were ultra-conservative alongside more expensive cars which were often bizarre and gimmicky.
There are much better examples than the two cars captured in this shot, and that’s intentional. The Pulsar embodies the tail end of their tone-deafness in the late ’70s through the ’80s, while the Maxima shows the ultimately fruitless renaissance that followed. Kudos to CC Cohort contributor mistergreen for capturing such a relevant piece of Nissan’s US market history.
As for the Pulsar, it’s a transition car, exhibiting the slow reassessment of Nissan’s priorities. While still gimmicky, it was styled in California, with obvious commonalities with the Hardbody and Pathfinder, and was right for the times. As a five year old, I found those taillights—in late 80s parlance—radical. Hindsight, however, reveals the car to be what it really was: a cynical styling exercise. I imagine that, for discerning adults of the day, this may have been more apparent (some, of course, would beg to differ).
In either case, sitting in and driving the car likely revealed its origins in Nissan’s hoary B platform. This car’s turbo badging was added by a whimsical or delusional owner; a twin-cam CA 1.6 (later 1.8) powered the more expensive SE model, but most came with the 71-hp E16 8-valve (later 92-hp twelve valve GA16i) as found in the base model pictured here:
Nissan began fully exiting its period of medieval aesthetics in the very late 80s with very competitive, well-developed models such as the Z32 300ZX twin-turbo, Infiniti Q45 and Sentra SE-R. One of the first and most successful of these cars was the 1989 Maxima: the silver painted aluminum wheels and lack of the “hamburger” insignia mark this as a pre-facelift 1989-1991 model. It was most certainly a hot ticket in its day, showcasing the company’s enthusiastic and early adoption of the quickly clichéd “organic” styling of the following decade.
Unlike Honda, Nissan offered its buyers a multitude of option packages, and their relatively high take-rate reflected the car’s successful upper-middle-class cachet. The GXE featured here came standard with Bose audio, keypad entry and alloys, as well as a class-leading 3.0 single-cam V6. The SE model with its sport suspension and blackout trim earned all the critical acclaim, but the luxury oriented GXE was successful in prying many out of the Legends and Cressidas.
The revised version of the SE came with a quad-cam V6 with variable intake cam timing and a limited slip differential. This frequently forgotten but essential piece of hardware also came on sporty versions of the Sentra, Stanza, Altima, 240SX and the Pulsar’s replacement, the NX, to give you an idea of the seriousness of Nissan’s intentions in the early 1990s. Four wheel steering featured on the 300ZX was also available on the 240SX, Infiniti J30, and Q45 touring, to name a few. The Q45a even offered a very ambitious, fully active suspension system, something no other car on the US market offered until Mercedes introduced its 2000 S, CL and SL Class flagships. After years of dangerously conservative offerings, Nissan was a company with something to prove.
That all began, of course, with this Maxima (ironically called the J30 platform within the company). A much more natural competitor to the Taurus than the Accord was, its success in sales was not matched by any other of Nissan’s stellar offerings of the era. Nissan entered a dark era as the 90s progressed, culminating in its merger with Renault (of all companies) after the Asian financial crisis of 1998. The company’s mid and late 90s offerings were still fun to drive, with evident quality, but that all changed following the company’s acquisition (ignoring some rear-drive models). Of course, that’s a story for another time.
The shots of these two models back-to-back is simply too good to ignore, displaying both a very important point in the company’s history and, in the Maxima’s case, a rather mundane example of the apogee of Japan, Inc.