By on September 10, 2021

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]

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19 Comments on “Rare Rides: A 1988 Nissan Van, Not Yet on Fire...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Rare ride, indeed. I didn’t know the sordid history of these, but the example for sale is pretty sweet – for the discriminating buyer.

    That thing is practically a pushmi pullyu.

    Great find!

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Just shove that 2.4L in the space which was designed for a 2.0L max. What’s half a liter in displacement, right?

    “It’s yours for $8,900 and is likely the only option for the dedicated Nissan Van Enthusiast out there.”

    I think he’s on vacation till the 20th.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    Buyback notwithstanding, I definitely see way fewer of these than even the Mitsu version (not counting the not-legal-in-Maine Delicas)

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these on the road. The Toyota versions show up pretty often.

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the inadequate design when I’ve driven MAN SG310 buses with an 11.4L inline six mounted in the same pancake configuration, ahead of the center axle.

  • avatar
    eng_alvarado90

    I remember I saw a handful of these during my childhood. Definitely much rarer than the D3, Toyota Van or even the Mitsubishi offerings.
    Personally I’m not a fan of the Z24 engine, I had a 720 4×4 with one and those were notorious for cracked head issues. When I rebuilt mine the head was of course cracked and 2 cylinder sleeves were warped so it also needed a long block.

    The KA24E was a much better and powerful engine overall.

    The newer Axxess and Quest were much better efforts

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I had a stint selling Nissans at the time, and we had one. I believe if you look in Webster’s dictionary for the phrase “lot poison,” you’ll find its’ picture.

    • 0 avatar
      CoastieLenn

      How did they ride though? Every time I see one in photos, something about their heft just makes my mind default to “it looks like it rides like a Cadillac”. Something tells me that you’re about to ruin that for me.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Hate to disappoint you, but I never drove it. In fact, it may never have been driven in the entire four or five months I worked there.

        The dealership I worked at also tried its’ hand at the Yugo business, and I took a guy out on one – and only one – test drive of one of those. It quit in the middle of the road when the A/C was switched on.

      • 0 avatar
        993cc

        If they ride similarly to the Toyota Van of the time, the combination of short wheelbase and driving position directly above the front wheels leads to every imperfection in the road surface being hugely exaggerated.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    Time to hit YouTube and check out the crash test results on this van, if they exist. When your legs are the crumple zone, it can’t be pretty.

    Growing up, my family was really close on signing the papers on one of these vans. Loved the interior space, but with five on board, that engine gives up the ghost pretty quickly. Noisy as well. Kind of wish they would have because it would have eventually ended up being my van and one can only imagine…

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I remember reading about the overheating issues and buyback program with these at that time.
    You still see the occasional Toyota Van around, the 4WD version is highly prized as well as the Mitsubishi van. I wonder if the few of these still around were retrofitted with a high capacity stainless steel radiator overflow tank and a pair of electric fans to keep them running.

  • avatar
    Coolcar2

    My parents had one of these a 1988 silver with a stick shift. Me and my father bamboozled my Mom into getting it and she hated it! I personally thought it was awesome, it had a fridge, RWD and stick! Living in Chicago it was horrible in winter and sitting so close to the nose did not illicit confidence while driving through snow drifts. We traded it on for a 1992 Maxima and the rest is history.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Ah, the Vanette. Famous for two and only two things:

    Being the subject of the largest manufacturer buyback in US history until VW management declared, “Achtung! Hold mein bier!”

    Being the vehicle form of Ironhide and Ratchet.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    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.

  • avatar
    la834

    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.

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