By on October 21, 2010

We’ve spent a lot of time in the sixties and seventies lately, probably alienating some of our younger readers, so lets set the time machine a bit closer to home. Why did I pick this? Because I think its a pretty fine looking car, as well as being one of the last of its genre: affordable fun-to-drive, lightweight RWD coupes. Kind of ironic, that this vintage of the SX/Silvia was a looker, because most of its predecessors sure weren’t. Some things do improve with age.

The first Datsun Silvia appeared in 1964, as a coupe version of the Fairlady sports car. Built in very low quantities (554 total), the Silvia left a lasting impression, one that may have influenced our featured car. But I’m inclined to think there was another:

The Bitter SC coupe (1978-1989) perhaps? The time was right. Obviously, the Bitter didn’t even attempt to meet modern bumper standards, but nevertheless…

As much as the original Silvia started out on the right foot, and ended that way with some European influence in both of them, Datsun certainly could have used some of that for the first generation of 200SX/Silvia S10. It was that rather dark period, where Japanese and American styling went a bit bizarre.

There’s clearly some early seventies Chrysler influence here, but with some of that uniquely Datsun flavor that graced us with such memorable cars from that era.

I’m profoundly disappointed in not yet having found either a gen1 or gen2 200SX. It seems like just yesterday that these beauties were gracing our streets. The gen2 (S110, above) is utterly boring and forgettable, styling-wise, especially compared to the very handsome gen2 Celica coupe , but the gen1 is a real classic of its era, if you have a thing for Japanese eccentricities. I do, and I live in hope.

Let’s make sure we don’t overlook the fastback version of that generation. These cars were obviously chasing the popular Toyota Celica, and sold well enough. Like the Celica, they were based on Datsun’s RWD sedan platforms, and in Japan, as usual, a variety of exotic engines were available. We suffered with the usual detuned 1.8 and 2.0 L SOHC fours.

I did find this S12 version of the family, a 200SX, built from 1979 through 1983. And I had such a perfect fastback turbo version, really clapped out; but it was on the one file that somehow got lost in translation to my new computer. I’m still smarting about that one. It may also still be a forgettable car, but the record must be kept regardless. And lets not forget that this generation was available with the 3.0 V6 in 1987 and 1988 only.

The S13 generation appeared in 1989 and was built through 1994. It featured Nissan’s excellent multi-link independent suspension, which turned it into one of the better handling cars of the era. A combination of light weight (2700 lbs) and a well set-back engine resulted in excellent front-rear weight distribution. Its only shortcoming was a lack of serious beans: the US versions had 140 hp in 1989-1990 (SOHC KA24E engine), increasing to 155 hp for 1991-1994 (DOHC KA24DE engine). These were cars that called for a stick shift and the willingness to use it liberally.

This car is an automatic, which probably explains why its still in such good shape. The ease of modifying the Silvia for more performance makes them eminently suitable for drifting and other such activities, on the street and off. A full range of readily swapped Nissan engines, fours and V6s, as well as forced induction makes this a perfect platform for tail-happy motoring.

To each their own. I appreciate the 240SX in what it essentially started out to be: a coupe version of a sports car, and as such, this car is the equivalent of a coupe version of the…Miata. Same basic formula, a semi-usable back seat, and a handsome fixed roof.

I may be partial to the notchback coupe, but that’s no excuse to not show the hatchback version, which was undoubtedly the more popular with the crowd that makes them even less common now.

The S13 was replaced by the S14 in 1995, whose sales were a big disappointment. While the S13 sold 60-70k in the US during its best years, the S14 quickly withered a way to four digit numbers, and was pulled from the market in 1998. It  wasn’t quite as handsome to me, and the Lexus 300/400SC was clearly the styling influence now. But soldiering on with the same basic four in an era of rapidly exploding horsepower numbers, as well as the general weakness of the sporty coupe market conspire to its early demise.

The 240Sx is gone, as well as the whole genre. Yes, the V6 Mustang and Camaro can eat these cars for a snack, but for some of us, it’s more than that. A car is also like wearing a suit, and some just don’t…suit, regardless of the label. The 240SX’ disappearance left a hole on the rack.

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56 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1989 Nissan 240SX (And Silvia/SX History)...”

  • avatar

    On the main photo – I remember these cars very well. That is one beautiful greenhouse side view. Certainly better than the long arch (with triangular blank) seen now in too many cars. Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t remark on the pillarless hardtop, which was my favorite!

    Paul, to your comment about the pillarless H/T; if that was “forgettable”, why? Are you refering to how fast it ran or handled? I have no driving experience with those, but for sheer beauty, it has my vote.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The styling, which is of course a very subjective parameter. Especially against the very handsome gen2 Celica, the SX looked very messy. It wasn’t a standout performance wise, but par for the course of the times.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m referring to the car in photo #6, not the swooped-up rear windows.

      The styling is a bit busy, but there’s something about seeing the absence of a “B” pillar and having that long, uninterrupted open space when all sideglass is rolled down. Must be me, for I miss the hardtops greatly, as I am a fresh-air fiend at times.

  • avatar

    That first Silvia looks like a shrunken, front-engined 2nd-generation Corvair Monza.
    (I finally confirmed my registration just to post this, if that gives you an idea of how striking a resemblance that was.)

  • avatar

    Paul, you’re also missing a hatchback version of the same car. Much nicer design in my opinion… Nice piece though!

  • avatar

    I don’t know which vehicle came first, but as I look at the backlight and the tail-light in the first pic in the artice, I am somehow reminded of a Buick Reatta…

  • avatar

    In 1980 my folks were looking at the S110 but they just couldn’t swallow the price. Instead, they bought a much cheaper Mustang. Oops. That POS probably racked up in repair bills what they would have paid for the 200SX.

  • avatar

    They are all fugly!

  • avatar
    martin schwoerer

    In 1981, I drove coast-to-coast (NYC to LA) in a 200 SX like the brown one pictured above. It was a truly horrible car that managed to create a perfect blend of groan and shout noises whenever I tried to make it accelerate. It had no space inside and was fantastically ugly from the outside. Me and my pal called it the “Graue Sau” (grey pig), because it was grey and it was a real pig and because no other name seemed proper. I was real happy, in comparison, with various asthmatic 2-cylinder Citroens after spending all that time in the Datsun.
    Oh and one last thing: for the return trip we bought a totally clapped-out Chevy Nova from a crook named Silvio Silva that leaked gas, leaked oil and leaked water. That incontinent Chevy was much nicer, all in all, than the Datsun.

  • avatar

    My daughter bought a used ’93 that was a solid reliable car she still regrets selling even though her current ride is an ’01 IS300.   These cars are a bargain when you can find one.   

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I think 1985-95 was the apex for Nissan styling….subdued, competent.

    For the life of me I never understood what drug the F-10 and 200SX gen 1 designers were using.  I understand the JDM likes flamboyant design, but for Godsakes man, LOOK at it….

    All in all, the ’85-’95 Maxima, Sentra, 300ZX, Altima, 200SX, Pathfinder and pickup all had decent design and competent build for that era…. 

    • 0 avatar

      A friend from college had one of the early 200SX/S10s (the pix that follow the Bitter). Not only were they ugly as stink, IIRC they had an odd manual shift pattern – first was left and down, not up. So, the pattern was inverted from basically every other car on the market.

      I guess Nissan/Datsun wanted to “stand out.” Maybe they shouldn’t have tried so damn hard…

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry, not to be a dick, but that’s a dogleg gearbox… perhaps not too much performance from the car, but far handier…

  • avatar

    A short-term salesman at the Honda/Yamaha dealership where I work had a 240SX that he converted all the trim over to the Japanese Silvia.  It caught my eye the first day he was there, I’m walking through the parking lot, kinda notice the car, then . . . . . what the f***!  He was pleasantly surprised that a guy old enough to be his father actually appreciated what he was doing.

  • avatar

    The 240sx would have sold better if Nissan (just like Honda & Toyota) put in their better engines.  Why in the US we always get the detuned versions and lesser performance models I don’t know.  Honda finally started giving us the goods in the mid 90s with their DOHC VTEC models (but put them in very few cars and models – Civic didn’t get it until the limited edition Del Sol, Integra’s GS-R and Type R and the short run Civic Si in ’99-’00 – where in Europe and Japan the CRX had these gems since the late 80’s) and Toyota hired out Yamaha help them with the 1.8 vvti engine (still used in the Lotus Elise).  The Silvia in Europe and Japan had the SR20DET which was a monster of an engine that helped consolidate it as a road racer and drifter car.

    • 0 avatar

      Amen.  And it wasn’t so much a lack of power – the KA24s were actually pretty stout compared to the Hondas and Toyotas of the day – it was the lack of high-revving enthusiasm.  The big 2.4 (especially in the old 12-valve configuration) roared like a Massey Ferguson at anything over 4,000 rpm.   The SR20DET would indeed have been awesome, but even without the turbo (a la Sentra SE-R) it still would have been a more modern contender.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Nissan did put turbo engines in the S12 for a while in the mid-80s, but turbo cars came with obscene insurance premiums which hampered sales, and, to be honest, the American market was too doltish to appreciate high-revving small displacement engines in those days. Nissan replaced the turbos with the VG30E from the nonturbo Z for ’87-88 for people who thought a sports car should be able to chirp the tires in overdrive, but that was a quick-fix kludge and cut open the soft underbelly of the Z market. So, the S13 got a truck engine with good torque and still protected the Z. The aftermarket would eventually set things right.

  • avatar

    Had a job selling Nissans in 1990.  My very first test drive was in a 240SX fastback with some dude not wearing a shirt (hey, I was young and stupid).  The test drive lasted about a quarter mile, and ended with me grabbing the parking brake and ordering him to pull over now.  His parting shot was that “this piece of <ethnic slur deleted> crap” would never touch a Mustang 5.0.  Duh.
    @Paul:  The Celica was cool, but the 240’s rwd platform handled like it was on rails.
    @Ott:   +1.  The fastback was the only real 240.

  • avatar

    Instead of the 240SX I had the Honda FWD version – an ’89 Prelude Si in yellow. To date its still the best handling car I’ve driven, awesome seats and dash layout too. Its a shame no cars like the 240SX exist today, the world really needs a simple, light, RWD coupe that is not a convertible. If the ScionTC had RWD it would be closest thing to a modern day 240SX. Since the 240 has become such a popular drift machine you can’t get a clean one any more, they are all “riced” up. Instead its best to pick a slightly used (but not abused) 350Z and be happy… which I just might do one day.

    • 0 avatar

      I always liked the Prelude better than the 200/240SX anyway. I didn’t know a lot about cars back then, but as I recall FWD was much better regarded then than it is now. I mean, the Prelude’s FWD was not considered a drawback in the 80s, and indeed it was a more desirable model than the 240 or, to a lesser degree, the Celica. Am I correct?

    • 0 avatar

      I have to disagree with you there.  In the late 80s/early 90s I was a Honda fanatic too, but I dont think FWD was “better”, just more popular.  I was too young to appreciate the engine swap opportunities or turbo capabilities of the 240sx, or I would have wanted one instead of the CRX Si I had.  Also, the 240 was significantly more expensive than the Civic, and the Prelude wasnt really a sports car, it was more of a luxury coupe with sporty pretensions.  All the true sports car guys I knew either got a new 240 or a used RX7 or Porsche 944, which ended up around the same price I guess.

  • avatar

    I’ve always quietly admired the S13 version of the 240SX, especially in hatchback form.  However, I have to say I prefer the appearance and interior of the S14s.  I thought those were great cars, and the I-4 stuck me as a decent way for a younger person to get into a sporting RWD car without paying monstous insurance premiums.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I honestly think they’re all beautiful for their time.  Auto Trader/eBay motors search here I come!

  • avatar

    I had an S110 just like the one above (hardtop) . I was young and fell for the cars looks.( Hey ,it was 1984- Should I have bought an Iron Duke 4 Camaro ?) It had a silky smooth 5 speed ,but the car was like one of those wax ice cream sundaes that shops put in the window to entice you- All the right styling cues, but the car overall was a major disappointment. If I recall ,it had some bastardized version of the Z-car engine with 2 plugs per cylinder that were supposed to make the thing go like stink. It didn’t help me live the sporting life ,but that mill did keep an army of Datsun mechanics kids shod. It was troublesome and did not lend itself to much young adult maintenance.
    That car was also the rare bird that looked a LOT better in phographs than up close in person. In pictures,the lines are crisp and angular (right in tune with the times) ,but in the flesh ,you could pick out the oddball styling details (like the curve of the backlight) that just didn’t quite fit.The rear lamp assemblies look much bigger and ungainly proportioned in person.The stock steel wheel covers look a lot cheaper than the optional ones pictured.

    Overall ,it was like being promised a date with Madonna and ending up with Aunt Bee.

    • 0 avatar

      “Overall ,it was like being promised a date with Madonna and ending up with Aunt Bee.”


      That did it! I can go home now! Darn near died when I read that. Nothing more to say.

  • avatar

    Excellent CC.  These really were wonderful cars.  I am probably biased as my first race car was an ITA prepared 1989 240SX hatch.
    No top-end to speak of from that KA24E, but it was tough, and had nice torque to pull out of those slow corners.  Also very forgiving handling that made it easy to drive.
    Essentially, made an excellent race car for a rookie that wanted RWD.  Enough torque to rescue you when you were too slow out of a corner, and forgiving enough handling when you did something stupid.
    Sturdy cars too.  Mine ended it’s life with me when I got rear-ended on the front straight during an aborted restart.  Got tagged on the corner by an Escort GT that wrinkled both rear quarter panels, the trunk floor up to the B pillar and had the gas-tank straps break and drop the tank.
    I sold it go a guy who chained one end to a pole, the other end to a bobcat to pull it straight, then put new tank straps on it and turned it into a drift racer.
    I still kind of miss that car…

  • avatar

    Thanks for bringing me back!  My first car was a 1992 Nissan Stanza XE Manual w/the KA24E engine.  I was always jealous and lusted after the sportscar version – the 240SX.  Though besides the engine I doubt my sedan shared much with these coupes.

    I still loved that car though.  Sad that I sold it.  It was still running completely fine w/170k and the orginal clutch.  And I kept it in very good condition (new paint, clean interior, etc.)

    I still have the VIN – I’ll have to look it up someday.

  • avatar

    I sold my Integra dream and moved to a drifting/RWD fantasy. I bought 2 S13s a few years ago. Never could afford to drift, nor a radio for that matter. Drove the cars a few years without a radio, and interestingly never needed one. They were pretty reliable, and sportier than my BMWs. I do miss the nimbleness and responsive handling, although the car was maybe too forgiving. With Bimmers is not such luck, I need to drive better to stay on the road, which I guess is why I traded up for. Also the bimmer are more comfy, sturdy, intuitive and powerful (vs. stock 240).

  • avatar

    I use an 89 Notchback as a winter beater.Similar Spec to the one above, except with a Manual and a Nismo LSD. Awesome little car. I highly recommend these(S13) to anyone.

    Don’t count out the S12. The JDM turbo version with the FJ20ET 4 was a rocket, I’ve driven one, it flew.

    The S12-S14 are the ones to get.Dead reliable and fun to drive.

    The first gen and the S110’s were very susceptible to rot, very few likely survive.

  • avatar

    The 1600 coupe sure is reminiscent of the Lancia Fulvia coupe, which came out in 1965.

  • avatar

    Those ’89-94 SX’s are damn fine looking cars.  That was a glorious time for Japanese cars in general and that Nissan was one of the finest.  I’m partial to the hatchback myself.  My personal experience with the (Datsun) SX is the 2nd generation.  My highschool girlfriend had a silver ’81.  At that time I drove my parent’s hand-me-down ’82 Maxima (diesel wagon no less!).  The interiors were incredibly similar and many of the exterior details, so we enjoyed our his and hers Datsuns.  I can’t say her SX was too sporty but it was a rocket compared to the diesel.  I recall that the suspension seemed shot and her aftermarket sunroof leaked.  One advantage my car had was the talking waring system.  It was always a kick to play it for someone, but that “key is in the ignition” chime got old after a while!

    Paul – I wish I still had my talking Datsun diesel wagon for you to do a CC on!

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Its a shame no cars like the 240SX exist today, the world really needs a simple, light, RWD coupe that is not a convertible.

    Like the Genesis coupe?

  • avatar

    The Silvia/SX continued in Japan and Australia for another model generation after the S14 departed.  The S15 is more of the same, and it died in 2002 along with the R34 Skyline.

  • avatar

    This car has “heads up display”. Was it the first with it? I know GM used it a lot in the 90’s but I do not think that they did in the 80’s.

  • avatar

    Great classic… my mom had one of the Gen2 S110, in brown just like the one above, I dont know about forgettable, in its day it was a nice clean design.  And now I have a mint 1998 S14, last year they imported them, I got it from the original owner completely stock, never modded.  Its an auto, so not perfect, but my daughter drives it and loves it.  She likes how all the guys at school drool over it!  Its nearly impossible to find one of these that hasnt been beat to crap by some teenage boy with drifter dreams.

    But I disagree with you on the S14 styling copying the Lexus.  They were going for a Skyline look, that car was targeted as the Skyline’s baby brother.  The “Kouki” front end of the 97-98 models (like the one pictured and like mine) kind of strayed from that, but from the rear 3/4 view it is a beautiful car with great lines.  Especially with 350Z rims bolted up… which is the hot setup these days.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    The S-13s and 14s were all gone by the time I was smart enough to want one.

  • avatar

    The S12 was offered from 1984-88, not 1979-83. In college I worked for a print shop doing graphics and pasteup — and deliveries — sometimes in the owner’s late model 1984 200SX notchback. It was loaded and even had the “voice feature” — voice tapes which reminded you of doors open, seatbelts needing to be fastened, etc. It drove well, but I was lusting much more after a Prelude at the time.

  • avatar

    The seats in the S13 came with rips in them from the factory.
    I had a 91 SE fastback with hicas, the handling was spooky when you pushed it. I still loved that car and should have kept it, the drive train would take endless abuse and it fit like an old glove.
    You could fit a lot of crap in the fastback as well.

  • avatar

    Shame that US market didn’t get the turbo engines. CA18DET and SR20DET are not only rev happy and easy to modify, but the sensation of driving a rev happy turbo engined (the turbo kicks in y0! effect :) ) light rwd car is emotionally so overwhelming when you do it for the first time that in the 90’s lot of mustang 5.0 guys would have bought the S13-S14 instead. When I did it first time, I was sold immediately :)

  • avatar

    I owned a 1992 200SX.
    It was a riot to drive.
    Sideways half of the time :)
    Very popular car for tuning.
    Some people got more than 500bhp out of this little 1,8 turbo.
    The rust protection was not that great though.
    I suspect that most of these cars are crashed now.

  • avatar

    Huh, I’ve always considered the first gen 200sx a really good-looking car, at least in Euro/Japanese spec. Those ugly bumpers and the crappy grille pretty much ruin the design, the original chrome front end is so much better.
    Then again, I don’t consider the Datsun 120 series that ugly either… Maybe I have just bad taste in cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Nothing wrong with liking the first gen. Quirkyness is good somethimes.

      The again, I like Peugeots,Fiats, and Renaults as well, so maybe I share your bad taste.  

  • avatar

    I’m not a fan of the notchbacks.  The fastbacks and the S14 and S15 coupes all have great exterior designs.  As for the interiors, yes, it does appear that the seats were pre-ripped at the factory, at least on S13s you’ll find.
    I’m keeping my 2001 Integra running as long as possible; 198K on the odometer as of tonight after a front brake job.  The Japanese just don’t build cars like they used to, and nothing from Detroit interests me even now.  I’m parked next to a BMW 335is coupe in my apartment’s garage tonight, but it’s not like I have that kind of cash to burn at the moment.

  • avatar
    Jeff in NH

    Oh my, this brings back sweet memories.  As a naive 17-year-old, I unexpectedly lost my virginity to my best friend’s mother in a ’94 S13 hatchback.  I remember such sweet handling in both respects, but with time graduated to an enduring appreciation for higher-quality Honda products and younger (if less enthusiastic) women.

  • avatar

    Nice CC.
    There was one black 180SX in the Stanhome plant in front of ours. Black. The 180 is the version we got of the S13, with the CA18 turbo engine as only option.
    And you forgot to mention than in these, a LS1 can be also swapped. There’s a guy here that is doing it. I guess the most common is to yank the truck motor and put a variant of the SR20DET in it

  • avatar

    Thanks for the Silvia history lesson.  As a long-time devotee of Nissan/Datsun S-chassis cars, it’s good to see some attention focused on them.  Even though the focus of the article is the S13, it’s great to see the older generations represented.
    My first car was a 1982 Datsun 200SX hatchback (S110).  It had 211K miles on it when I bought it for $450 in the fall of 1993.  It had the Z22E 2.2-L NAPS-Z engine, with the twin-plug setup.  This wasn’t for increased power, rather it was an emissions control system, and a 5-speed stick, which I learned how to use after I bought it.
    The Datsun was a rustbucket, and it took a lot of work to keep it going for the year-and-a-half that I owned it.  Then I sold it for $400 after driving it about 12K miles.  I found it in the junkyard a few months later.  I still have the shifter knob and the “Datsun 200SX By Nissan” nameplate.
    When I moved from Western NY to NC in 2000, I still had such warm feelings for that old Datsun hatch, and I suddenly discovered that ’80s-vintage Japanese cars were still running around all over in the less-rust-prone South.  So after some searching, (which even here failed to turn up a single S110 for sale), I found and bought a 1988 200SX SE V6, which is the S12 model with the VG30E mentioned above.  It had 122K on the clock, and I drove it every day for the next eight years.  I still own it, although it’s not a daily driver anymore. It’s got over 230K miles now, so I picked up a ’96 200SX SE-R for a daily runner, and the S12 is in the garage awaiting restoration and possibly some lightening for future AutoX or other events.
    I love the S12 so much that I even bought a domain , and built a website devoted to the car back in 2003, and became a founding member of around that same time.  I’ll be sure to post a link to this article over there.
    Thanks for the classic Silvia love!
    P.S. it’s an interesting factoid that the chassis codes go from S10 to S110 to S12, S13, S14, etc. because the S11 was a rotary-powered version that was originally planned for ’79.  But problems with the motor resulted in a switch back to pistons and the re-naming to S110.

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