By on December 29, 2009

a convertibel and unforgettable rear end

How many show-car concepts over the decade have featured a “convertible” body, where the car could be transformed from one body style to another? In my memory, several; it’s an irresistible draw for designers. And how many have actually made it into production? The only one that come to my mind is this gen2 Nissan Pulsar. When I saw it and its gen1 predecessor two blocks away, it was my cue to take a look at this historically significant little car.

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The Pulsar’s upper rear body section is removable, and can be replaced by the wagon-like Sportbak option, or left off entirely for a laundalet-like open rear seat. With the T-top opened also, an almost full-convertible feel was created. I remember seeing quite few of the Sportbak versions in its day, and its been a long time since I’ve seen one. I haven’t spotted a Pulsar at all in Eugene, but its still vivid in my memory; the gen2 version that is.

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The most attractive young female employee at the tv station I was managing in 1986 bought one of the first Pulsars in LA in the fall of ’86. It was red like this one, and they were a perfect combination. The Pulsar was not only unique in its body configuration, but it was pretty aggressively styled too. A hot little number, both of them; sure got my pulse going.

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That hardly applies to its gen1 predecessor. Built from ’83 to ’86, it was trying to be a bit adventuresome, but came off rather cliched in that Japanese school of hard-edged boxyness. The graphics package didn’t help either. No wonder it had long left my active memory banks.

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These Pulsars sold in the US were Sentra based, and the only time that name was used here. In the rest of the world, Pulsars graced a variety of small FWD Nissan sedans, hatches and coupes.

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37 Comments on “Curbside Classic CA Vacation Edition: Nissan Pulsar – gen2 & gen1...”

  • avatar

    The Chevrolet SSR is not impressed.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    interesting  facts . Sport utes had  been doing the roof  thing for yrs.  FWDs not so much.  I like the history lessons. Thanks Paul.

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    You should also note the rare and not-well-known 1.5l turbocharged version of the 1983-1986 car available here in the states. I didn’t believe it when I heard it first either.

  • avatar

    LA Craigslist currently  shows 3 of these. Come down to get one.

  • avatar

    Gee Paul, your pic reminded me of something that used to bug the hell out of me…about those gen2 Pulsars.  The wacky body-colored plastic film over the rear tail light lenses. With the diagonal slots. If only the trafficators, tail and brake lights could have been oriented in the same direction as the slots.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, I wondered about the slots too. Did they get the idea from the GTO?
      I just saw a black first generation Pulsar yesterday…coupe top of course. I don’t think I ever saw more than about two of these with the long top. This feature reminds me of my old man’s IH Scout, except that 95% of those had the long top.

  • avatar

    I was in high school when these came out. I remember thinking the gen 2 was super cool looking. I still could go for one with the sportbak.

  • avatar

    When I was in college in Defiance, OH one member of the football team had one of the gen 2 and another member had a first gen Toyota MR2.  Both 10 times cooler than my Celebrity but I don’t remember either of  those guys lasting much past football season.

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    How about the Isuzu/Geo sportback/wagonback as an equivalent execution?  I seem to recall seeing a very few of these about in the ’80s

    • 0 avatar

      I was thinking that too, but the Impulse/Storm  was an either/or deal. Either you got a hatch or a wagon but you couldn’t switch.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah but the Impulse came standard with Lotus suspension and steering, which went real well with its wheezomatic motor.

    • 0 avatar

      I recall reading, back in the day, that when Lotus delivered specs for various suspension pieces for the Impulse, Isuzu’s engineers would say “Oh, yeah, that looks good” and copy it for the Storm.  Lotus eventually caught on, and told them to knock it off if they wanted to use the “handling by Lotus” badge on the Impulse.
      The Impulse with AWD and turbo *didn’t* make my short list in 1991, when I ended up buying a Sentra SE-R.  The Storm wasn’t even considered.
      A co-worker bought a Storm around the same time.  With an automatic.  For what I’d paid for the SE-R at the end of the model year.  (He made a point of bragging about the “great deal” he’d gotten.  I made a point of *not* bragging about the better deal I’d gotten without half trying.)

  • avatar

    I got a camera (that used disc film, btw)  for my birthday when I was in early grade school and one of the first pictures I took was of a red Pulsar just like this one. I remember being fascinated by the cheese grater tail lights on this and on the ’87 Mustang GT. I’d like to think I’ve evolved since then but I still think this is a great looking car.

  • avatar

    I’m definitely not advocating ‘retro’ cars aka the PT Cruiser, but the Gen2 Pulsar showed some imagination lacking in today’s cars, where a Bangled butt qualifies as innovation. The Pulsar (still) looks way better than today’s Cube.

  • avatar

    Wow, unexpected affection for a car that when it was being sold was mostly called the  “Secretary Scooter.”  Paul’s memory of the cute chick in the office owning one is the best anecdote on the character and market of this car.

    • 0 avatar

      As if ‘chick car’ isn’t damning enough, I seem to remember Consumer’s Reports pushing the Pulsar as the perfect entry level sports car.  No, that’s not a misprint; they specified ‘sports car’ over everything else available in the mid-80’s.  Shows how much they’ve always understood about cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, Consumer Reports, what do you expect. One day they’ll be testing refrigerators, next day tasting canned beans, Friday they’ll do cars.

  • avatar

    Always loved these things for the utilitarian aspect. Nissan would do well to reissue a revision of these things to sell to the Obamanaut Greenies.

  • avatar

    Funny, just saw a gen2 the other day myself.  A rarity in the snow belt.
    An acquaintance had a gen1.  One day she mentioned that the ECU had failed – and that Nissan had covered the replacement, despite her car being well out of warranty.  I remembered that some years later when I was car shopping, and it’s one of the reasons the B13 Sentra SE-R made my short list, and was ultimately my choice.
    Though the Pulsar name wasn’t used, the Sentra platform was shared for the NX1600/NX2000 in that product generation as well.  I briefly considered the NX2000 but wanted something more stealthy.

  • avatar

    The Sportback version of this was one the coolest things EVER. And yes I was in high school in the 80s when things came out and drove the next closest thing: a Civic S 1500 Hatchback. The Pulsar’s door handles, pop up headlights, removable top and slotted tail-lights made this car look like something I would draw on the back of school notebooks when bored in class. I wish this concept would come back, something like the Subie Brat that could be a pickup, a hatch back or sedan depending on what parts were fitted. Several concept vehicles like this have been shown, but none ever make it to production. Hats off to Nissan for making such a great little car with such clever packaging.

  • avatar

    If memory serves, the second-gen Pulsar was actually the first Japanese car to be styled in America specifically for our market.  This might explain why it still looks good today.

    With the twin-cam engine and a five-speed, and the removable roof, it was a great little car to drive. I came within a hairsbreadth of buying one back in the day, but needed something with a little more room and better highway manners.

  • avatar

    During the early 1980s, a number of little sport cars were produced. The Pontiac Fiero, Ford EXP, Mercury LN7, Toyota MR2, Plymouth TC3, Dodge 024, AMC Spirit AMX, and probably a few others I do not remember.

    After the dreadful Carter years, it seemed that these cars were a natural. Buyers didn’t want old muscle cars anymore, and the luxury two door market was saturated and dated by this time. Americans expected gas prices to remain sky-high and we were told repeatedly by hopefull doom-sayers and car-haters that we were running out of oil.

    So the Pulsar reflected the times by taking their entry level vehicle and twisting it into something sporty. The results were not good, because the basic platforms didn’t allow for the fenders  and beltlines to be lowered into any pleasing proportions to the overall look. Expect for the MR2 and Fiero, which were designed differently, all these little sport coupes looked like stumpy wedges, not sporty cars. The first generation Pulsar was about as attractive as the other little sport cars in the same market that came from the same basic entry level vehicle platforms. Attractive? – nope. Worse, the Pulsar wore Japanese styling of the era.

    The reason for the ugly black racing tape across the first generation Pulsar was to give the car a lower appearance. Without it, the Pulsar looked ridiculous.

    By 1985, it appeared that the market for these cars just wasn’t there. However, with the success of these kinds of cars globally, more than one manufacturer believed that if they designed these cars from a dedicated platform, they would sell because they were more attractive to buyers. Nissan did this with the Generation 2 Pulsar. Mazda created the remarkable little MX3, and the Miata. Toyota puked out the Paseo. Ford reissued the Ford EXP. Nissan’s redesign attempted to justify the Pulsar to buyers by versatility with the Sportbak, and the Notchbak. The MX3 had it’s awesome little V6 engine. The Miata was a retro convertible. Today, only the Miata survived.

    It didn’t work because few expected gas prices to plummet. The costs of creating these little cars were too high in light of the extraordinary profits being generated from turning a stripped truck chassis into an SUV. So these cars were discontinued, not because they weren’t any good – but because the American market pointed into a different direction regarding easy profits. Even though these cars looked like winners on paper, and were respected around the world in other markets, the big dog US market didn’t justify their expense.

  • avatar

    At the shopping center near my house there’s a 1st gen. one. Maybe you should come by and take a look.

  • avatar

    Sorry, but if this thing ever becomes a classic, it will be far off into the future if ever.

    When does a car cease being ‘just an old car’ and begin to become a genuine classic?

    One answer is when regular folk see your lil car and say ‘wow that’s cool!’ or ‘that’s interesting!’ and pretty quickly recognize its vintage-ness and why you’re keeping her. Some, like a 67  Mustang, a Datsun 240, a BMW 2002, or a 65 Lincoln Continental are obvious. Others like a Alfa GTV6 perhaps less so, but still clearly something different and special.

    If you pulled out a ‘minty’ one of these from a deep slumber garage, no one is going to say ‘wow’ unless its some personal childhood connection.
    In my humble opinion, this is simply another example of a disposable mass produced soul-less automobile that in large part ended the era of car as classic. The fact that it is also a girl’s car doesn’t even enter the picture.

    This will never hold a light to a Datsun 240 or Bugeye Sprite. It may be better built and more reliable, but that doesn’t make it a classic…

  • avatar

    my sister had a gen2 (called EXA though), light metalic blue with silver hatch. don’t really remember too much about it, but my other sister had an AE92 toyta levin (corolla gt-s) at the same time which was much better

  • avatar

    @B10er: I don’t agree at all. It’s completely subjective, but I think the  Pulsar totally qualifies as a classic.  Most of the other cars you mention (Mustang, etc.) were probably considered disposable when they were new, too. Just because you don’t think it’s old enough is not a valid reason to discount it.  There was a time when many classic car clubs wouldn’t allow cars newer than the brass era into their competitions. Of course, that changed and rightly so. I think any car more than 15-20 years old, if nicely preserved, is great to see and worthy of saving and enjoying. You get to see the design sensibility of an earlier era, and the Pulsar certainly captures the 80s VERY well with its quirky, transformer robotic style. It’s a breath of fresh air to see it.  Go Pulsar!

  • avatar

    My aunt bought herself a Gen2 Pulsar. What a POS that turned out to be. She lived up in the mountains NE of Redding and didn’t handle those Cascade winters too well.

  • avatar

    It’s been 15+ years since I been in one, but I still recall the 2nd gen pulsar as having the most (front seat) leg room of any car I’ve ever been in.  I’m 6′ 7″ and I’ve never been in a car where I had more leg room than I needed, except for the Pulsar.  I suppose the designers didn’t give a rats ass about those in the back seat, so the rails just let the front seat slide way back.
    Otherwise the MX3 was much nicer, and yeah the Paseo was an abomination, but the leg room of the Pulsar kept me looking for the legendary Japanese car with leg room (my RL has almost fulfilled that prophesy).

  • avatar

    Paul Niedermeyer:  These Pulsars sold in the US were Sentra based, and the only time that name was used here. In the rest of the world, Pulsars graced a variety of small FWD Nissan sedans, hatches and coupes.

    Actually, the first-gen Pulsars sold in the U.S. included 2 and 4-door hatchbacks with exposed headlamps, as well as the Pulsar NX Coupe that is shown and was sold alongside the first-gen Sentra.  The coupes all had the “NX” suffix.  Nissan also sold a 2-door Sentra hatchback (usually referred to the Sentra Coupe) at the same time as the Pulsar Hatchbacks.  The Pulsar Hatchbacks were shorter than comparable Sentras and featured rather wide solid C-pillars, while the Sentra Hatchback was about the same length as the Sentra 2 and 4-door sedans and featured thin C and D-pillars.

    The Pulsar Hatchbacks never made the transition into the second generation in the U.S. and the only model left was the handsome Pulsar NX, now a hatchback coupe with the available sportback option.  The second-gen Pulsar NX was finally replaced by the NX1600 and NX2000 hatchback coupes.

    I actually considered buying a second-gen Pulsar NX back in the day.  The Sportback option seemed really neat, but as I recall, the rear window of the Sportback did not open and in order to access the luggage compartment you had to lift up the entire Sportback section.  I thought at the time that the Pulsar NX would probably be rattle-prone what with the T-roof panels and the removeable hatchbacks.  I went and bought a plain Honda CRX for about a thousand dollars less.

  • avatar

    Oooh. Ugh and uglier. The first gen Pulsar was ugly enough to use as rolling birth control. I know a guy that had one. He finally dumped it for a 200SX. His luck seemed to change after getting the SX200. Another friend’s fiance (later wife, and then ex-wife) had the 2nd gen. Her bucks-up daddy sprung for both hatchbacks for the car when new. I remember helping him change the damned things around, it was literally a pain. But, like so many of those little Japanese coupes of the time, it couldn’t hold up to the Northeast Ohio winters, and in less than three years was iron oxide yard art. Laughingly, his Z24 Cavalier kept on trucking long after the Pulsar was pulverized.

  • avatar

    Silliness…the Pulsar will never be a classic, just a blip on the radar. The swappable hatchback piece is just a quirk on an otherwise unforgettable car. The styling was cool in its day, but the big dissappointment is that it is just a Sentra under there, with maybe a rear sway bar thrown in to make it “sporty”.  Japanese people have always liked vanilla cars with fancy duds(pao, cube, s-cargo, figaro…) but American customers seem to demand a little more substance. The next gen NX2000 is a more likely classic with its unique styling and enhanced Sentra SE-R hardware.

    There are so many cars ahead of this one in the “classic” waiting line…MR2, CRX, Celica, heck even the AE92 Corolla GT-S…

  • avatar

    Unless sold  (doubtful)  there’s a salvage yard in Omaha NE with a sport-back attachment awaiting an owner.
    Hanging on the warehouse wall the manager did not list it on the computerized inventory so a gazillion yards across the USA could find it if one of their local folks were seeking one.
    Might make a groovy auto-themed table or desk or…. gasp!!! For attaching to a Pulsar!!!

  • avatar

    I know it’s been three months since this was posted, but I had to do a search to see if there’s a CC on one. The only new car I’ve ever bought was an ’89 Pulsar. I was young, didn’t see the dealer tricks clearly enough, was eager to spend money from my first full time job on a car, and a girl had a huge influence on my decision. It probably is a “chick car,” but women really did like it. I wasn’t nearly smooth enough to use it to full advantage, however.

    I also learned a few things: Just because a car looks fast and sporty, doesn’t mean it is; it would not hit 100 mph nor accelerate too quickly. T-tops are not much more effective than a sunroof and less effective than a convertible, and you have to pull over, detach them and very carefully store them in the trunk. In short, sudden rainstorms or drops in temperature aren’t countered by pressing a button. Having a manual without a tachometer is kind of silly. Careful use of the trip odometer when filling up is a pretty good alternative when the fuel gauge no longer works (and the entire tank would need removed to fix it). Never take out a five-year loan to pay for a rapidly depreciating asset. Don’t be too enamored with styling and be careful who influences car purchases; someone else will probably soon release a car that looks even cooler, outruns and out handles it and is better made (I’m looking at you, early 90s Honda). Cars that appear cool in your early 20s don’t have quite the same effect when you’re five years older. A car does not have to be fast to be fun. And, finally, after nearly 250,000 miles, a timing chain’s failing is catastrophic.

    All in all, I did put nearly a quarter million miles on it before the timing chain gave out. I never tried taking the back off. I also haven’t seen one in a few years. The last one I saw has blinged out and had tires that had to be at least 20″; I was torn between nostalgic amusement and slight sadness of seeing it that way.

    Well, that was a lot to write on a three-month old CC, but thanks for the nostalgic trip. It’s odd that, no matter how much I think I’d buy something else if I could do it over again, seeing one still tugs at something. I suppose you never really get over something you loved, even if you tell yourself it was just a car.

  • avatar

    Hmm, the N14’s are starting to get so old I can’t back up my own knowledge base easily even via Google.  The same chassis in the Sentra was raced successfully with a turbo 1.5L with a lady driver against guys in Porsches, & such only to take 2nd to BMW in sports car racing.  1st FWD “sports” car to race well.  BMW had the knowledge to do so, but Nissan had the guts to try.  It was thier Ace of Trump really.  Anyway, in the Pulsar 2nd gen, pull the battery from engine bay & store it in cabin, adjust & upgrade some font end parts & it should easily outcorner a Porsche 944 & several others.  Also, the sohc 1.6 backed by the cable clutch 5-sp stick will reliably do 40 mpg if driven moderately.  I have a project ’88 Pulsar in the garage with that base 1.6 single cam & stick.  Also, EVERY time I had that car on the road, some punk in a Honda tuner or such really tried to egg me on.  Of course, my engine was on its last legs.  A mint replacement engine is on a skid in the garage.:)  Also have 2 really good trannies complete with new clutches.  I also know that this car converted well to e85 should leave a lot of tuner guys scratching thier heads wondering where that thing gets all its power – even here in Metro Detroit.  Not that I plan to.  Want to yeah.;)  It should smell like race gas running at e85’s stoichiometric air/fuel ratio though, esp with timing advanced to smooth idle.  In the last couple of years, the great sites & forums for these cars have been vanishing much to my frustration.

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