JUST YOUR BASIC FIRST CAR
It was the summer of 1986. I had just finished my degree, and landed my first actual engineering job. Up until that point I was either driving my girlfriend's car or riding a ten-speed bicycle everywhere, neither of which was going to cut the mustard anymore in the world of a young professional.
I needed a car.
With student loans to pay and the need for a better place to live, I knew I couldn't spend much on my first car. At the same time, I wanted to avoid the trap of buying someone else's problem, so a used car was out. That meant buying a one new.
My only real specification for the car itself (besides a low price tag) was that it have a manual transmission. Those two criteria still severely limited my choices, even back then. The list quickly narrowed down to small Nissan's, Toyota's and a tiny, turbocharged three-cylinder Chevrolet Sprint that was actually a re-badged Suzuki. After a bit of research and a few test drives, it didn't take long to decide on the Sentra.
The Sentra was introduced in 1982 as a subcompact. It represented the bottom of Nissan's line-up in the US. The new B12-bodied Sentra, with its longer and more squared off design, was introduced in the US in the summer of 1986 as a 1987 model. There were also wagon, hatchback and coupe versions introduced later, but I wasn't going to wait for those. This was a fresh look at the time, I couldn't take the Sprint seriously, and the Corollas and Paseos didn't do anything for me.
So, for a whopping $7066, including all taxes and fees (I still have the receipt!), I drove off in my brand new Nissan. With a price tag like that, even in 1986 dollars my Sentra was as stripped down as it could be. It was a base-model Sentra (hence no "E" or any other designation after the model name) without a single option - no radio, no air conditioning, not even wheel covers.
Nearly all 1987 Sentra’s sold in the US were powered by a 1.6L carbureted four-cylinder engine that produced 69 horsepower and 93 lb-ft of torque. In this case, that power was sent through a 5-speed manual gearbox to the front 13-in wheels, which came with P155/80R13 Pirelli tires.
Sentra’s of this era were known to be very reliable and economical to operate, and this one certainly lived up to that reputation. Fuel economy ranged as high as 40 miles per gallon, and on the few occasions repairs were necessary, they were comparatively inexpensive as well. Over seven years of ownership, only two issues arose: a poorly documented filter past the carburetor that would periodically clog, and a failed starter. That was it.
Once the newness of the Sentra wore off, there came an itch to make the Sentra mine. Nissan’s design and construction of this car was simple, making modifications tempting and relatively easy to do. Still on a tight budget after a few months, I started making a few changes.
LET THERE BE MUSIC
The first item on the list was to install a sound system. Those were the days of cassette tapes, and a lot of time and effort was spent searching local audio shops for a suitable AM/FM/Cassette receiver. I eventually picked a Technics head unit, and installed a pair of Jensen coaxial speakers in the doors. I later added a second pair of Jensen three-ways in the rear deck, which were eventually replaced by a pair of Alpine two-ways. An FM signal amplifier was also added, as the local hills and mountains really hampered radio reception. The setup sounded great, and I wasn’t driving around in silence anymore.
The Technics head unit was replaced after five years by a Kenwood KRC-210 receiver. The tape head in the Technics unit kept losing its alignment, and the repair shop found a short in the pre-amp circuit. It was less expensive to replace the whole head unit then have it fixed. While a bit of a downgrade from the Technics, it did perform well for the remaining two years I drove the Sentra.
SQUEEZING OUT A LITTLE BETTER PERFORMANCE
If B12 Sentra’s were known for fuel economy and reliability, they were equally not known for their performance. They were light on power, and even though the Sentra weighed in at just 2,156 lbs., the little 1.6 liter engine couldn’t get the car to 100-mph (which may have been a good thing) and acceleration felt like it could be measured with a calendar. The suspension was firm enough, and at low speeds it was reasonably nimble.
Thanks in part to its skinny little 155mm wide 80-series tires that were essentially fat bicycle tires, it understeered badly. This was the easiest and most obvious place to start make an improvement. Not willing to make any bold changes – this was my first car and my daily driver, after all – I decided to stay in keeping with the higher trim levels of the Sentra, and installed a set of Bridgestone RD401 P175/70HR13's, which were mounted on American Racing Equipment "Aries" aluminum alloy aftermarket wheels. The wider tires instantly improved the car's braking and cornering abilities. In hindsight, it would have been even better to bump up to 14 inch wheels and wider tires yet. The wheels had the bonus of improving the Sentra's appearance, even if they look very 1980's in photos now.
The car came with a 5-speed manual transmission, but it curiously lacked a tachometer. It badly needed one to help the driver squeeze as much out of the little engine as possible. An aftermarket electronic tach was added, and a Nissan technician set the redline for me at 5200 rpm.
LOOK AND FEEL
You don't get what you don't pay for, and the Sentra didn't hide its low-budget nature. This was especially true of the interior, where the dashboard was solid plastic, and the vertical surfaces were covered with very thinly padded vinyl. The doors didn't close with a satisfying thud, but instead gave a noticeable ring from the sheet metal when closed.
To combat of the lack of air conditioning, a manual sunroof was added in 1989 that made hot summers a little more bearable. Removing the glass altogether, which I did quite often, gave sort of a T-top feel to the car.
Compounding the lack of A/C were the stock vinyl seat covers. Searing in the summer and ice cold in the winter, it was obvious something needed to be done. I shopped around having the seats re-upholstered, and was quoted between $350-500. About this time, I stumbled across some cloth slip covers. They were a much less expensive option, and so I bought and installed them. While they did solve the seat temperature problem, they tended to slide around a lot. They were an improvement, but if I had to do this over again, I would have put my money into the re-upholstery work.
Aside from the alloy wheels, the most visible change to the Sentra's look was its color-keyed grille. I had it painted red to match the rest of the body while having some bodywork done on the driver-side door. Second-generation Sentra’s with the standard black grille never did look right to me after that. I always wished I had thought to have the bumpers painted to match, though.
Visually, there were only a few other minor tweaks made. Mud flaps, dual-blade windshield wipers and a jet-black exhaust tip completed the appearance changes.
By 1993, after seven years and 107,000 miles, it was time to move on to something new. The last straw was a third battle with the filter in the carburetor. It may have been a nothing-special car, but it was MY nothing-special car. And that made parting tough.