By on April 8, 2016

1983 Nissan Sentra in California Junkyard, RH rear view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The first-generation Nissan Sentra first appeared on American roads in 1982, early in the very costly Datsun-to-Nissan rebranding process. The lightweight, fuel-efficient Sentra was a big sales hit, because drivers in the early 1980s (with vivid memories of the gas lines of a few years earlier) were willing to put up with double-digit horsepower and lots of NVH in a car that promised decent reliability and cheap point-A-to-point-B costs. Now, of course, nearly all of the early Sentras are gone, so this well-worn example in a San Francisco Bay Area yard gives us an interesting history lesson.

1983 Nissan Sentra in California Junkyard, Chevron San Francisco Road Map

Speaking of history, I found this 1971 Chevron-issued San Francisco street map in the car, probably moved from whatever car this Sentra’s original purchaser owned prior to this car.

1983 Nissan Sentra in California Junkyard, Embarcadero Freeway Map - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Look, there’s the much-loathed Embarcadero Freeway, which was torn down after suffering serious damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

1983 Nissan Sentra in California Junkyard, Odometer - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

I ran the smog-check history for this car, and it last had a California emissions test in 1997. The most likely scenario is that it racked up this impressive mileage total between 1983 and the late 1990s (California requires emissions tests every two years), then sat outdoors for nearly two decades before getting towed away and scrapped.

1983 Nissan Sentra in California Junkyard, Radio - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Even though the Sentra was always referred to as a Nissan in the United States, the Datsun brand name appeared in a few places on the early versions. For example, the AM radio. Imagine a staticky “Mr. Roboto” buzzing out of the mono speaker, fighting with the deafening wind noise heard inside this car at any speed over about 50 mph.

You need this car! The 50 mpg highway mileage took place at not-quite-rapid speeds; I owned one of these cars in the early 1990s and managed a best of about 40 mpg at real-world speeds.

The Toyota Starlet knocked the Sentra off the fuel-economy perch soon after this.

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30 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1983 Nissan Sentra Coupe...”


  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    With cars like this, I can see why the later Reagan years were so indulgent and exhuberant. JFC, what a pile. An ambitious 90 MPH speedo, and more road noise than riding a motorcycle without ear plugs. It is truly amazing how far cars have come. This thing probably cost $15-20K in today’s dollars.

  • avatar
    CaptainObvious

    A friend, fresh out of college in 1985, bought the diesel version of this car. His first job was as a travelling sales rep and he was getting reimbursed for mileage. I can only imagine how slow that car was.

  • avatar
    John

    Google is your friend. A five second search for an inflation calculator shows this car would cost $11,782 in today’s dollars. With 223,408 miles and 40mpg in ’83, someone more than got their money’s worth out of this car.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      CPI indicates $12,160.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      What gets me is that they got their money’s worth while listening to AM radio for 223,408 miles. Personally, I didn’t find the cars so horrible to drive. I actually liked these Sentras far more than the disposable boxy ones that followed immediately after. First generation Sentras were a pretty huge step up from GM and Ford cars in driving dynamics and seating comfort. I don’t just mean J-cars, X-cars, Escorts and Tempos either. Given a choice between a 1982 Cutlass Supreme, a Regal, a Granada, or a Sentra; I’d have taken the Sentra unless I had more than two passengers.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I had a red 1986 sedan as my first second-car. I paid $2500 for it in late winter 1995 (I think). I don’t recall how many miles it had on it, I wanna say in the 60 or 70k range. But it was in fairly good condition despite even then being considered woefully outdated.

    I did not love it, but it was a good car to get back and forth to school in while I was in high school when it rained or during the winter when the Land Ark was parked. It was durable, I intentionally drove into lots of stuff, and it held up great. I don’t recall it being aggressively miserable to drive. Though I did have the back end kick out on me while driving around a slow slightly graded curve after a light shower. I was probably going 20mph when it started to get sideways.

    A couple days after buying it I remember I got really sick and missed some school. I have always quietly blamed it for harboring some sort of pathogens that attacked me when I got in it. A few months later it started dying on me. I took it to a shop who said nothing was wrong. Then once it died again after leaving the shop I had it towed back in and they told me it needed a new carburetor. That was too expensive so I shot about half a can of carb and choke cleaner in it and it seemed to clear it up.

    My sister decided she wanted a new car and bought a 1996 Civic so I convinced her to trade in my Sentra and I would take her old car. And that’s how I ended up spending the next 5 years in my 1990 Pontiac Sunbird.

  • avatar
    mdensch

    Brings back memories of a 1985 Sentra I had back in the day. A pleasant enough little car (damning it with faint praise) for the first few years, it eventually turned out to be the most trouble prone car I ever owned. Some of it was normal wear like a clutch that went out way too early, while some of it was just odd like a battery cable that corroded to the point of failure. One of the few cars I’ve owned that I didn’t keep to at least 100,000 miles. I suppose I could have tried to make it to 223,000 but it would have been too frustrating and expensive.

    • 0 avatar
      360joules

      These were dreadful cars in terms of reliability after 75000 miles. The clog-prone pre-catalytic converter. Poor top-end lubrication with a tendency to sludge and eventually burning a valva. Visibility was outstanding even by pre-rollover standards and a very good turning circle. Brakes were so-so. Sentras didn’t have the electrical gremlins of other Nissan offerings of this era.

  • avatar
    vwgolf420

    I see a silver sedan version of this car with some frequency on the way to and from the office. Alabama is a non-inspection state and we don’t have the corrosion issues that many in other climates deal with, so you’d be amazed at how many 30 year old Japanese penalty boxes linger on down here as daily drivers.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    No air, no stereo, and those door panels indicate it’s the super-strippo version (no armrests). All it needed was vinyl seats and rubber floormats, and its journey to the Hairshirt Auto Club would have been complete.

    The current Sentra looks like a freakin’ Benz in comparison. But it’s still dull to drive.

    Some things change, some things don’t.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      It does have AC! Look at the climate control panel. Circular button top left.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      None of these came with AC, it was a dealer add-on, but a Nissan kit. There was even a healthy market for aftermarket AC for new cars. I ordered an early’89 Mustang GT with AC of course, and it showed up without it. Options packaging changed from ’88 to ’89 so there was some confusion by the dealer, but they quickly paid for an aftermarket kit by a local installer, AC shop.

  • avatar
    pbr

    Dunno about the B11, but the B12 had the strongest self-centering steering force I’ve ever had the mispleasure of wrasslin. We got 250k miles out of the one we had before something big parts in the lump went *bang*

  • avatar
    tomLU86

    At $5000, in 1983, the hardest part of this car was the price.

    In 1977, a Corolla, Pinto, Chevette, Datsun B210 could’ve been had for $3200-$3500.

    That said, compared to those offerings, the Sentra was more fuel-efficient, roomer, and …. quicker. And it was definitely less noisy and buzzy than the B210.

    Not bad, considering in 1982, the Civic, VW Rabbit, Mazda GLC, and Toyotal Tercel were better econoboxes than the Sentra.

  • avatar

    I was going to say “I wonder who Jack James is”, but with a little googling it looks like it’s a towing company. Given that they have a bunch of municipal towing contracts and that the stickers on the windshield look like auction stickers, I wonder if it was towed and auctioned.

  • avatar
    swiftfox4

    Bought one used for $3300 in 1987. Great car, as long as I took it into Baltimore because the Cumberland dealership did not know or care how to do a tune-up. 35 mpg highway, drove out west and back, and then to Memphis for a real job. Could not take a second full summer in Memphis without AC, so I traded it in. Didn’t think I would ever comment on this car as pedestrian as it was but it was perfect for a grad student on the move.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Fine Clarion radio there.

    And check out the two hoses near the carb, plugged with bolts. Yeah, this car had some smog check issues.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    I bought a 1985 Nissan Sentra coupe in the late 90s to drive to high school. Actually, I traded a 1983 Mazda B2000 with a bad clutch and leaky rear main seal for it. I had actually called the guy about a 1987 Tempo he had in the paper, but the guy’s wife decided she liked it more than the Sentra, so he offered the Nissan for an even trade for the Mazda. The Mazda had fresh paint, Pathfinder chrome wheels with low profile Micky Thompsons, a Flowmaster and a new head gasket. Only the latter occured during its time with me.

    I hated the Sentra. The driver’s side headlamp was super dim. Replacing the bulb and inspecting the wiring didnt change that. Living in western Washington, it rained A LOT. The linkage for the wipers was rotten and they would slide off and not work. I took the car to a Nissan dealer, and was quickly told that Nissan does not stock parts for cars as old as the my Sentra (they didnt even attempt to look it up). I couldnt find the linkage anywhere. It stalled a lot, refused to crank regularly, there were a dozen or so issues that made it a true beater/POS. Heat didnt work, very fun trying to defog/defrost the windshield.

    The 1983 Tercel SR-5 4wd wagon that replaced it was equally crappy and unreliable. Finally, after I graduated and got a decent full time job, I bought a 1994 Ford Tempo GL with a little over 80k on it. It was so nice, so clean, it drove so well, it was like going from a one room shack to a nice house. That Tempo served me very well for several years, only asking for a trans mount to end the CLUNK when reversing. My brother wrecked it by driving like an idiot, and I sold it to a neighbor who repaired it and drove it for several more years. When he passed away from a heart attack, his wife took it when she moved back to her family’s home.

  • avatar
    THEjeffSmif

    An uncle of mine (who has since passed) had a light blue 1988 Sentra XE 4-door. Traded in his blue 1982 Plymouth Reliant for it & as an 8-year old, I thought it was the coolest car because everyone else in my family drove ‘Merican cars at the time. I remember around 1990 my grandmother contemplated selling her ’75 Ford maverick for something newer & considered one so my uncle let her borrow it for a weekend while he went out of town (via AmTrak). Something about the squared edges of 80’s Japanese cars intrigued me as a kid & volunteered to go with her whenever she ran errands that weekend because I thought the Sentra was a cool car at the time.
    My uncle eventually traded in the Sentra in 1994 for a Chevy Corsica & I have ZERO idea what he was thinking because we all know the Sentra was leaps & bounds a better car than a Corsica! The Corsica predictably failed him a number of times & eventually bought a 1997 Mercury Tracer, which was his final car purchase until he died in 2010.
    My grandmother never bought a Sentra, instead she went for the “new for 1991” Ford Escort, which I thought was a nice looking economy car at the time (had that “baby Taurus” front end). Since it was based on a Mazda platform, I guess that made my grandmother prefer Mazda over Nissan!

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    My first new car, in 1985. The only other cars available anywhere nearby in its price class were the Honda Civic, which was marked up an easy $1K when available; and a Ford Escort, which reminded me with its driving dynamics of a Pinto. No Toyota dealer nearby, and I wasn’t going to do anything VW, GM or Chrysler even on a bet. It turned out to be a great little car. Noisy, yes, but it went where it was steered, stopped when it was supposed to, and never broke. Perfect car for that transitional time between college and first job.

  • avatar
    plee

    Had a 1983 Sentra Wagon with 5 speed, a/c and the removable sun roof back in ’89 to ’93 or so. Was slow but average gas mileage was in the low 30’s and got as high as 37 if driven less aggressively. Reliable but cheap, my oldest learned how to drive with it. Later had a 1987 5 speed four door for the kids and bought my youngest a 1994 Sentra SER which served him well through college. Not real keen on the newer Sentras and Versas.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    My first new car was a 1983 Sentra XE hatchback. With all of 79 horsepower, Car and Driver said it took 11.9 seconds 0-60 with the 5-speed manual (which mine had) – and that was better than most economy cars of the day. Most of them had automatics and went 0-60 in 14-16 seconds. Those with automatic transmissions never hit 30 MPG either. My 5 speed delivered a fairly consistent 33 MPG all-around. I really enjoyed the freedom the car gave me. The good MPG made it affordable to go places. I could put the rear seat down and sleep in the hatch. I think the sticker on mine was something like $7300, so it was quite a bit more than the base version, but it had an am/fm radio. Real cloth interior, a clock and a stripe. It was completely reliable through the 79,000 miles I had it, but it was starting to show wear. I traded it in in 1987 for a Mercury Tracer which had 88 horsepower and multi-port fuel injection and went 0-60 in 10.3 seconds. It also had 69 standard features including puddle lights. Moving on up.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    All that wind noise and the cheap audio was still a blast as long as the trip was to Stinson Beach. A friend had a similar car…

  • avatar
    revjasper

    My buddy had a 1983 two-door one of these, we would drive around in-town quite a bit. This was in about 1990 and we got the bright idea to go for a drive (40 miles each way) to look at a 240Z that spent most of its life in Chicago. Upon hitting the highway, the window frame on the passenger door started vibrating at about 50mph. And by vibrating, I mean jumping more than a half inch side to side, with little puffs of air leaking in and an enormous noise. We kept to the right lane for the rest of the trip. And the 240Z was a rust bucket, as expected.

  • avatar
    MilwaukeeMike

    Crappy as it may have been, it was probably still more fun to drive than the 2016 I just rented. Want to ruin an otherwise decent car? All it takes is a CVT.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Interesting if dull little car .

    I seem to remember these as pretty reliable .

    Imagine if a Datsun 510 in this condition (filthy & bad paint but no dents , no rust and intact seats and door cards) was found , you’d all be jumping for joy ~ this one has little cosmetic wear , just worn out and used up .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    zipper69

    That particular car looks in surprisingly good shape with the under-hood shot looking cleaner than much new cars I’ve seen in scrapyards.
    Might be fun to make it a sleeper with modern mechanicals under that tired looking exterior…

  • avatar
    carsraul67

    Where is this nice Sentra??, i need the Radio, dash clock and some interiors.

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