The cars we loved.
You never forget your first one. A Car that is. My first one was a well-worn Honda Civic 1300. While it was a great car, it was not the kind that captured my imagination when I was young enough to be dreaming of my first car. The first car that got the Star Trek loving’ geek kid in me excited was the Datsun 200-SX.
While mowing lawns to raise money to buy music and stereo equipment, I had just finished up with one of my regular customers who had just bought a brand new 1983 200-SX hatchback. I remember being fascinated by his proud demonstration of the talking voice prompts and the stereo with a graphic equalizer. His car was also equipped with a 5 speed manual transmission, making it a bit more fun to drive that those with the 3 speed auto. He seemed a bit conflicted in weather to call his new car a Datsun or a Nissan (it had both tags on it). Nissan did not help much with it’s “Datsun by Nissan” badge on the cars during this transitional era.
Thinking about it now, the 200-SX was more than ready to drop the small econocar associations of the Datsun name. This 200-SX was bigger than the previous one
and aspired to be a Japanese version of a Thunderbird or Monte Carlo. It lacked the elegance of those cars instead looking as if it could have been designed by the Ford Fairmont team bent on making a cut-rate sporty personal coupe. There was nothing cut rate about the 200SX, although there were better ones elsewhere. In America, the versions we had were fitted with a four cylinder SOHC 2.2 liter engine that never made more than 102 hp. In Japan it was a competently different animal (with names like Silvia and Giselle) with turbo and fuel injected performance variants.
While just over 100 horses might not have seemed like a lot, it was still a more favorable power to weight ratio than the typical American personal luxury coupe. At just over 2600 pounds for the hatchback version, the rear wheel drive 200-SX was just light enough to provide sprightly performance for those who wanted a more grown up alternative to the flashy 280Z. One byproduct of being light was high gas mileage numbers. As a Datsun, the 200-SX might have been expected to be frugal, but with a manual transmission a careful driver could approach 38 mpg on the highway. Not bad for a personal luxury sport coupe.
There was never an official convertible option, but a conversion by California-based American Custom Coachworks, Ltd. was available. The conversion brought the 200-SX more in line with its Toyota Celica competition who’s drop top came from another California-based company, American Specialty Cars (ASC) ). It was just as well that the occasional coupe would get cut up for the sake of topless driving because it’s awkward notch-back roof profile was the least attractive of the two body styles. Some notchback coupes were further treated to dealer installed lando-like roof options that increased the baroque elegance factor. Those cars resembled the Chrysler Lebarron more than anything from Japan and were rare (as any roadgoing 200-SX must be by now).
Sophistication and technology was what the 200SX was all about. The 200SX had moved to a larger (A-series) platform and initially was slated to have a rotary engine for export markets. The Wankle engine was a reliability disaster, prompting the car to be held back until it could be refitted with a standard piston engine. Nissan would leave rotary cars to Mazda (the 200-SX even shared the same engine code name as the Mazda Cosmo).
While the rotary might have been a dead-end option, there were plenty of other tech distractions to make up for it. The 200-SX became known mostly for its use of gimmicky technology, the same kind that made teenage boys like myself dream of a Sid mead future.
Many cars had chimes, but the 200SX went further with scripted voice activated prompts. The prompts were from a tiny phonographic record encased in a vibration proof housing – like what NASA used on early space missions. The space ship theme continued to the dash with it’s array of dials and displays housed in a geometric setting.
Other features were more substantial like the advanced four speaker stereo with auto reverse cassette player. There was even a moon roof option. The Car had two distinct personalities. The hatchback coupe was the sportiest and resembled a Celica in some respects while the traditional two door coupe with it’s trunk could be tarted up to resemble a Thunderbird type car complete with a fake partial cloth top cover.
There were hints everywhere that the 200-SX had the potential to be a real performance car. The 4 wheel disc brake system, 5 speed manual transmission and rear wheel drive were the biggest cues. However the American bound cars were as mild as they came with the excitement limited to two-tone color schemes. In Japan the 200-SX could be had with a turbo engine with fuel injection.
Of course for those like me who were dazzled by technology, or the appearance of in in a car, Nissan (still making the transition from the Datsun name in the U.S.) embodied the future – a future I did not see in most American cars at the time. The technology in the 200-SX no doubt had its part in helping form the image of Japanese cars as being tech savvy (Cannon Ball Run II) and might have even inspired fictions like the K.I.T from Night Rider.
More importantly for people of my generation, cars like the 200-SX represented the cutting edge in affordable and reliable imports. No doubt part of a generational bias towards Japanese imports that would hurt the domestic industry during the ’80s and ’90s. Sadly, few Nissans today capture my imagination like the futuristic 200-SX did back in the day.