Basic Transportation: 56k-mile 1987 Nissan Sentra Coupe

At some point in the future, we'll look back at automotive history and remember the point when cars changed from being overall pretty basic to the mercilessly, needlessly complex vessels they are today. We know that up until at least the early 1990s, cars were still being made in a mostly straightforward, simplistic manner, especially cars from America and Japan.

This is such an innocent, honest car.

This 1987 Nissan Sentra is a surviving document from those days, and could also be remembered as an excellent example of pre-millennium car construction that was perfected by the Japanese. It was decades after they had been developing vehicles, but before they overreached themselves and descended into cliche.

Nissan and other Japanese manufacturers had tapped into an enormous hunger in the American market for cars that were inexpensive but well built and reliable. Domestic cars were certainly affordable, but were never known to be particularly ergonomic. By the 1970s this was especially apparent. Then the oil crisis of 1973 created a simultaneous appetite for fuel-efficient vehicles. The shadow of the '70s fuel crises and the scare it created was cast over nearly every major manufacturer for the rest of the 80s, until the very end when gas was plentiful, prices were low and tastes changed. They continually put out cars with the knowledge that the more fuel efficient and quality built they were, the better chance they had at being a success. The fuel crises therefore worked out well for consumers in the long run: it forced manufacturers to make better products, so that by the time the economy came back, excellent products were available for reasonable prices. The American public bought in droves. Everybody won.

This '87 Sentra is not only a largely symbolic car but also a very useful driver, perhaps the ultimate utilitarian vehicle (although the 4-door sedan or station wagon would probably best earn that title).

It's a two-door coupe version in presumably the bottom-of-the-barrel trim: not only does it have unpainted plastic bumpers and no passenger side mirror, but the seller says it also lacks power windows, a/c, power steering and even a radio unit! This is the leanest little box I've ever heard of. To the modern observer, the absence of supposed basic features is a revelation.

But good things come in simple packages, and there are huge benefits to the lack of features. The less mechanical components, the less chance things can go wrong or wear and need replacement, and therefore the less costly it will be.

Adding to the extreme frugality of this Sentra is a 5-speed manual transmission, for both better gas consumption and a little more driver participation. In the seller's own words, the fuel economy is "second to none", citing 30+ miles per gallon for highway driving, and I believe it.

The condition inside and out is what you'd expect for a 56,000 mile car that has apparently been taken care of by an appreciative owner. The paint looks bright and the body clean and straight, free of any noticeable dings and dents. There is no mention of rust, so it may be something to look for. The seller says the interior needs cleaning which is expected but not a major problem. The simple, clear, angular dashboard begets a typical but classic '80s ribbed pyramidal gearbox cowl.

Quite simply, they don't make 'em like they used to.

It's hard to place a value on this. The model wasn't any special edition or particularly rare in its heyday. This generation Sentra was produced from 1985-1990. It was a basic car then, and it's an extremely basic car now. But that's part of the charm. Currently, there are no cars being made like this. And that's what makes it special. The mileage is low, and there can't be many left east of the Grand Canyon, where they were long ago traded back in to the dealer or crushed at junkers, as they held no great value to the collective populace. But to have a working piece of economical Japanese transportation from the '80s, today? Anything under $5,000 is reasonable. The car should remain a cheap acquisition to make complete sense. Since the mileage is relatively low but not extremely low, I would also drive it, the way the manufacturer intended it: simple, basic, point-A-to-point-B transportation, cost-efficient, hassle-free and dependable.

Find it here on ebay.

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