Rare Rides: A 1988 Nissan Van, Not Yet on Fire

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides a 1988 nissan van not yet on fire

Today’s Rare Ride represents Nissan’s first attempt at a family van for the North American market. But Nissan would prefer you forget the Van entirely, given how things went after its introduction.

1989 Nissan Van.

The vehicle known as Van in the North American market was sold as Vanette elsewhere. Introduced in 1979 as the Nissan Datsun Vannette or on occasion Datsun C20, the first-gen van’s production ran from late 1978 to 1988. Concurrently, Nissan introduced a second Vanette in 1985 which remained in Japanese production through 1994 and extended its life in the Philippines through 2001, and Malaysia through 2010. Good grief!

The mid-engine rear-drive layout was how Japan made its vans at that time and was never entirely popular in the North American market which preferred its engines at the front. In 1986 Nissan brought the Vanette to North America, called it Van, and pitched it against the Toyota Van and the Mitsubishi Van/Wagon. All three imports vied for customers from the minivan of choice, the Chrysler minivan.

Engines for Vanette around the globe ranged from a microscopic 1.2-liter inline-four through a 2.0-liter gasoline or diesel engine. But that wouldn’t do for the wide-open American roadways and its drivers’ desire for more powah. Americans also expected air conditioning (sapping even more power), in contrast to Vanette buyers elsewhere. So Nissan made a small edit for its Van: the 2.4-liter Z24i engine from the Nissan Hardbody and early Pathfinders. That inline-four was sandwiched under the front seats, in an engine bay that was a bit too small for 2.4 liters.

The Van was marketed as a cheaper alternative to the Chrysler minivan, but most buyers shopped elsewhere anyway. The Van was imported only through the 1989 model year before it was killed by slow sales. And recalls, multiple recalls! That large engine and small space combo didn’t work out so well, and the Van would often overheat and potentially burst into flame. The problem was made worse by sales concentrated in three hot places: Texas, Florida, and California.

By 1994, Nissan had issued four recalls to try and fix the overheating, to little success. There was also a class action lawsuit pending at the time, and Nissan threw up their hands. In an unprecedented buyback recall action, Van owners were offered at least Kelly Blue Book value to bring their overheating minivan to their local dealer. This offer was acceptable to most owners, who turned in their Van so it could be crushed. Before the buyback was completed in 1994, more than 135 Van fires were documented. None resulted in death or injury, to the chagrin of US lawyers. The class action was settled too, and its members were offered discounts on a new Nissan, like the Quest!

Today’s Van was owned by some dedicated soul who risked life and limb for boxy burgundy in high-spec GXE form. The two-tone Van has accumulated 127,000 miles since 1988 and looks in superb condition. It’s yours for $8,900 and is likely the only option for the dedicated Nissan Van Enthusiast out there.

[Images: Nissan]

Join the conversation
3 of 19 comments
  • Johnster Johnster on Sep 11, 2021

    I had a coworker who had one of these. She was pissed about them selling her an unsafe vehicle and pissed about them not offering her enough money to buy it back, but she ended up getting a used Nissan Sentra Station Wagon from the dealer who had sold her the Van.

  • La834 La834 on Sep 13, 2021

    One of the advantages the Chrysler front engine/front drive vans had over these was that you could easily walk between the two front seats or between the first and second rows. Now front-engine front drive (or AWD) is ubiquitous in small vans, but some brands (Toyota, Kia) are voluntarily squandering that advantage by fitting huge center consoles that look like the one in this Nissan. I don't get it. One thing I remember about the Nissan Van was the exposed steering column, like in a 1950s Ford.

    • Jack4x Jack4x on Sep 13, 2021

      I don't understand the console thing either. None of the interior designers (of minivans!!) have small kids that need attention on long trips?

  • 3SpeedAutomatic Auto insurance renewal every six months. Ten year old car, good driving record, own my own home, excellent credit score, no teenagers on the policy, etc, etc, etc.Yet, I pay thru the nose!!!!!Adds on the morning news brag about $500k settlements.I paid less when I lived in New York State.
  • Jim Bonham Full EVs are not for everyone, they cannot meet all needs. Hybrids do a much better job of providing the benefits of EVs without most of the drawbacks. I have a hybrid sedan with plenty of room, plus all the bells and whistles. It has 360 hp, AWD, does 0-60 in just over 5 sec.(the instant torque is a real benefit), and I get 29 mpg, average. NOT driven lightly. I bought it used for $25k.Sure, it's a little heavier because of the battery, motor, etc., but not nearly as much as a full EV. The battery is smaller/lighter/cheaper and both the alternator and starter motor are eliminated since the motor assumes those functions. It's cool to watch the charge guage show I'm getting energy back when coasting and/or braking. It's even cooler to drive around part of the time on battery only. It really comes in handy in traffic since the engine turns off and you don't waste fuel idling. With the adaptive cruise control you just let the car slowly inch along by itself.I only wish it were a Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV). Then, I'd have A LOT more EV-only range, along with even more of that instant torque. The battery would be bigger, but still a fraction of the size of a full EV. I could easily go weeks without using much, if any gas (depending upon my commute) IF I plug it in every night. But I don't have to. The gas engine will charge the battery whenever it's needed.It's just not as efficient a way to do it.Electric companies offer special rates for both EVs and PHEVs which lower your operating cost compared to gasoline. They'll even give you a rebate to offset the cost of installing a home charger. You can still get federal (up to $7,500, plus some state) tax credits for PHEVs.What's not to like? My next daily driver will be a PHEV of some kind. Probably a performance-oriented one like the new Dodge Hornet or one of the German Hybrid SUVs. All the benefits, sound, feel, etc., of a gas vehicle along with some electric assist to improve fuel economy, performance, and drivability. None of the inherent EV issues of cost, range anxiety, long charging times, poor charger availability, grid capacity issues, etc. I think most people will eventually catch on to this and go PHEV instead of going full EV. Synthetic, carbon-neutral eFuels, hydrogen engines, and other things will also prevent full EVs from being 100% of the fleet, regardless of what the politicians say. PHEVs can be as "clean" (overall) as full EVs with the right fuels. They're also cheaper, and far more practical, for most people. They can do it all, EVs can't.
  • Ron rufo there is in WaSHINGTON STATE
  • ToolGuy @Chris, your photography rocks.
  • ToolGuy No War for Oli.If you have not ever held a piece of structural honeycomb (composite sandwich) in your own hands, try it.