A Stanza wagon? What the NSFW! Before you run for the exits/bookmarks, give me a minute to spell out my Curbside Classics criteria: 1) at least twenty-five years old; 2) used as a daily or regular driver; 3) shows the patina of age; 4) has a significant place in automotive history; 5) has a place in my personal automotive history; 6) has distinctive design features; 7) has an enthusiast following; 8) represents the unique carscape of Eugene; 9) is under-appreciated; and 10) inspires me to write about it. Believe me, the boxy Nissan (a.k.a. Prairie) is worthy.
I’ve always had a thing about boxes on wheels, and I drive one today. I guess being tall is part of it. But there’s more; something about the pursuit of maximum interior space while casting a small shadow just appeals. Of course, even such a noble cause can be taken to an extreme, like the 1968 Quasar-Unipower.
There are two trans-Atlantic myths about the origins of the modern mini-van/MPV. The American version credits Chrysler’s Caravan/Voyager twins (1984). The European version credits the Renault Espace (also 1984). They’re both wrong. Of course, the VW bus, and other small utility vans precede these, but they’re in a different class. There’s a reason the VW called itself “micro-bus.” The driving position, performance and handling dynamics were distinctly un-car like. The gap between cars and micro-buses was just waiting to be exploited.
The quest for innovative and efficient packaging of humans has been a recurring quest of star-designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. More commonly associated with such classics and exotics like the Ferrari 250GT, the DeTomaso Mangusta and Maserati Ghibli, Giugiaro also takes credit for numerous mass-production successes like the original VW Golf, numerous Alfa-Romeos, and a spate of other popular cars.
His first stab at a modern “people mover” came in 1976, when his New York Taxi Concept won a competition by the Museum of Modern Art. That led to the definitive 1978 Lancia Megagamma, the first true modern MPV. With a 140hp Subaru-like 2.5-liter boxer four, the Megagamma for the first time offered near-luxury performance, comfort and space in a compact package. Lancia didn’t have the balls or resources to put it into production. But Nissan did, in 1981.
Not exactly as penned by the Ital Design master, but pretty close. And not only did they copy the Megagamma, but also improved on it in a very innovative way. By using sliding doors on both sides and totally eliminating the “B” pillar, access became . . . Axxess. The Prairie was a veritable origami-mobile, including clever slide-out storage compartments (under the seats) and so many hidden nooks and cubbies that some owners keep stumbling onto new ones years later.
Sold initially in Japan (1981) and in Europe (1983), the renamed Stanza Wagon finally made it to the US for 1986, presumably in response to the Caravan. Odd about that name change too, since prairies are more associated with America than Japan.
In 1985, I was managing a new start-up TV station in Los Angeles. We needed some vehicles for our news crews. I had seen a picture of a tricked-out Prairie used by a Japanese network, with a complete ultra-miniaturized control room for remote production. Cool, but we couldn’t afford anything like that or even live feeds. But when a Nissan dealer offered us cars in trade for advertising, I picked a handful of Stanza wagons. The news crews second-guessed me big-time, presumably out of feelings of inferiority to the big Econolines all the other stations used.
But the compact and efficient Prairies earned their grudging respect. And despite their best efforts to destroy them, the tall-boy wagons wore like iron. Some of them had well over 200k miles on them before they were retired. [ED: Wiki reports, “The first generation Prairies, while innovative, had undesirable body characteristics when driven hard, due to the removal of the B-pillar.”]
Eugene attracts folks that come here for qualities other than . . . high paying corporate jobs. Most are escapees from the Bay Area looking for a simpler (and cheaper) lifestyle in a beautiful setting. And they prefer the older close-in neighborhoods that accommodate bicycling, busing or walking to work at the University or some research institute or non-profit organization downtown. Or they make hemp tie-dye underwear to sell at Eugene’s famous Saturday Market.
The point is, these folks gravitate to practical, boxy, durable cars, with four-wheel drive when possible, to get them to their favorite weekend hiking, camping, beach or skiing spot. There is a whole genre of classic vintage “Eugene-mobiles,” the VW bus being the most stereotypical of them. We’ll cover them all.
The Prairie might be considered the unsung wallflower of the bunch. But I’m not exaggerating when I tell you there are at least six of them in my neighborhood. Yes, this under-appreciated, vintage, historical, design-pioneering, 4WD box has patina from its daily use by its enthusiastic owner. It scores a perfect ten.