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]

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