A Trip to Yesteryear in a 1984 Nissan B720

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By Aaron Bragman

Pop quiz time: Who remembers how the Japanese automakers first made inroads into the U.S. market, all those years ago? The fuel-efficient Japanese subcompact cars of the 1970s that led to the more mainstream cars of the 1980s were only part of the story. The other part was light trucks like the Nissan you see pictured here: compact pickup trucks with tiny engines that had to be made in the U.S. if they were sold here, since they were subject to a 25 percent import tariff if they were made abroad.

So, with the truck I recently drove, not one like it but with this actual truck, Nissan began manufacturing vehicles in the U.S. in 1983. This model-year 1984 Nissan B720 pickup was the first vehicle to roll off the assembly line in Smyrna, Tenn., officially making it the first Nissan of any type made in North America. It's part of Nissan's heritage collection, stored not far from the company's North American headquarters in the suburbs of Nashville, at the superb Lane Motor Museum.

This truck exited the plant and went straight into storage, being trotted out for special events and the occasional drive by fortunate automotive journalists such as myself. When my derriere graced the truck's bench seat in September, the odometer had just 713 miles on it. When I left the seat, it had just 723. It is essentially a brand-new 1984 Nissan compact pickup, and it is fantastic.

Yes, 10 miles isn't really a lot for a test drive, but then this is a very special truck, and I wanted to minimize my impact on the truck's odometer as well as subjecting it to the insane public streets of Nashville, where the unofficial motto, according to a frustrated local, is: "Where Florida Trains Its Drivers!" So a lengthy spin around the block was in order, and it was just enough to get a sense of how far the industry has come with pickup truck tech.

Early Japanese Trucks

Fire up the Nissan B720's stalwart 2.4-liter inline-four-cylinder engine and listen to it purr. Even 34 years ago, diminutive Japanese engines were smooth and engineered to a particular standard. The Z24 engine (which later became the KA24 model when the truck was redesigned as the Hardbody pickup during the late 1980s) cranks out just 103 horsepower and puts it to the rear wheels via a three-speed automatic transmission. Obviously, you won't be doing any tire-smoking burnouts in this truck or hauling anything more massive than mulch for planter beds. Towing? With a 1,000-pound towing capacity, you probably shouldn't. By today's standards, this thing is a scrawny weakling, and it wasn't exactly viewed much differently back in its day. But it did introduce some elements that weren't found in domestic trucks of the day — notably, fastidious build quality, reliability and fuel economy.

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Part of the reason for its excellent fuel economy is the fact that it barely weighs anything. Tipping the scales at just about 2,600 pounds, this workhorse weighs just touch less than a new Toyota Prius. That's good, because 103 hp doesn't exactly set the pavement on fire. Nor is the gearing in the three-speed automatic really all that useful for anything but sedate around-town scooting, delivery work or mild light industry.

And yet, it's still an absolute joy to drive. Remember when you were a kid, and you'd make a "car" out of half of a big cardboard appliance box? Slice the top off, cut some fold-open doors, draw on some wheels and off you go onto the mean streets of your imagination? Sitting in the B720 feels a lot like that. There are no modern safety systems in here, no thick side-impact door beams, no airbags beyond the nickname for the driver himself, no antilock brakes, no stability control — it's just a simple, basic, honest truck. I genuinely miss vehicles like this.

The Good Old Days

Open what feels like a paper-thin door and drop onto the pristine bench seat done up in a patterned blue vinyl that's quite unlike anything you'll find in a truck today, adjust fore-and-aft position as necessary, and you're ready to rumble. The steering wheel is thin to the point of wispy and boosted to the point of video-game numbness. The steering ratio is sloooow, so you'll be twirling that wheel repeatedly in three-point parking lot turns. Directional lane stability is more a suggestion than anything, due partly to the tires that have a tread pattern like that of a riding lawnmower. Yet strangely, the tires don't kick up a lot of road noise, and the truck putters along without drama or complaint — until you come to a hill, where a necessary stab of the accelerator drops you down a gear, sending up a roar from the engine bay accompanied by the barest improvement in forward motion.

It's relatively comfortable inside, too. The visibility is excellent, since there just isn't a whole lot of truck to block your view. The pillars are super slim and likely wouldn't stand up to today's rollover protection standards. Everything is in easy reach, and even my big, bulky frame fit easily and comfortably on the front bench. There's no radio to distract you from driving, and climate controls are quite basic — but the purity of purpose of this little truck is fantastic. It feels almost delicate, like you should be afraid to slam a door or twist a knob a little too hard, yet used examples of similar trucks continue to ply the streets of Southern California with steadfast durability.

After my spin around the block a few times, I parked the B720 and lamented once again that basic appliances such as these are no longer offered in our domestic market. You can buy simple compact work trucks elsewhere in the world — Toyota still makes a simple HiLux in Brazil, for instance, and the old Land Cruiser 70 is still for sale in some limited global markets like Australia — but the advent of modern safety systems and the desire for bigger trucks with more creature comforts has made relics of simple trucks like this Nissan B720.

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And that makes it all the more important to preserve the old ones, as Nissan has done with this one. Sadly, Nissan's collection at the Lane Motor Museum is not open to the public, but don't let that prevent a visit. Founded by businessman, philanthropist and automotive enthusiast Jeff Lane, the museum has one of the most amazing collections of eclectic vehicles I've ever seen, and it's growing almost daily. The focus is primarily on unusual (and usually failed) ideas in automotive transportation from all over the world, with a focus on obscure European brands that most Americans (and many Europeans) have never heard of. That emphasis is branching into Japanese and select American automakers as well, but the idea remains the same: To be acquired by the museum, a vehicle must be somehow interesting from an engineering perspective.

As Nissan's stored collection in the basement grows, however, one hopes that one day the vehicles will be displayed for the public to enjoy. There's a lot of other neat stuff down there, from a collection of Nissan's 1990s concept cars to more historic vehicles from its production past. My spin in the first Nissan built in North America was a rare treat and an excellent reminder of what trucks used to be — and in many ways, what some of us wish they could be again.

Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman


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The discussion of carbon fiber then tangents off to Graphite, an even lighter and stronger material than carbon fiber, and then that tangents off to, I believe, nanotube technology or specialized cell formations, or both. Can't remember. Anyway, PBS has had good specials on all this.


PBS? Are you kidding?

PBS can't find its *ss with both hands and a flashlight. Talk about a media dinosaur! I did not realize anybody watches that anymore.

@papajim--I agreed with you on safety but you are narrowly focusing on one aspect and not on the entire picture--you can't see the forest for the trees. My point is that the S-10, Ranger, and Dakota would have never existed without the early Japanese pickups. Detroit was content with the way things were and was slow to change. As for safety vehicles are much safer today than they were in the past and in the future they will even be more safe. Regardless of your opinions and biased the Japanese min trucks and cars were historically significant because they changed the market and the way manufacturers operate.

It was W Edward Deming an American who brought forth more efficient management practices. Deming was ignored by the US auto manufacturers but Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers paid for Deming to come to Japan and teach them his principles of Management efficiency. You might not see that as significant but Deming changed the way manufacturers operate and led to Toyota creating Just In Time Inventory and Manufacturing.

I understand your biased toward Japanese vehicles but regardless they have had a significant impact on our market and our manufacturing processes.

@papajim--You tend to change the goal post when presented with facts and others opinions even when they agree with you. Most of us would not want to drive on a daily basis vehicles with the safety of 70 and 80's vehicles. Please no snide remarks or belittling others.

Light, simple, cheap, efficient, reliable... also loud, uncomfortable, and by todays standards unsafe. There is a charm to the earlier times.

You could say the same thing about the Model T Ford in that it was cheap and more reliable than comparable cars during its time. The Model T was also loud, uncomfortable, and not as safe by today's standards. Hopefully vehicles continue to become safer and more efficient.

the FAKE Jeff s

the FAKE Jeff s

@papajim--Not the fake Jeff S this time. As stated previously I said I agree that the early Japanese mini-trucks were unsafe but that is just part of the discussion. You need to consider the significant impact of Japanese vehicles on the US market and the global market. To ignore this is the same as ignoring the Model T and the VW Beetle both would be considered death traps by today's standards. Historically these are all significant vehicles.

Model T vs some crappy 80s Jap deathtrap? Jeff S you are becoming unhinged. All because papajim schooled you in the original post and rained on your nostalgia moment. Get help

@Mike D--Sorry you feel that way. I believe the Model T would be considered a death trap today. Seems those crappy Jap deathtraps produced some very dominate Japanese manufacturers in the Global and US auto market. People said the same thing about Japanese motorcycles and now the Japanese dominate that market. One can have nostalgia for an old vehicle without wanting to drive and own one day to day. This is not a political debate and there are no wrong answers. If anything papa jim and you need to be schooled on the history of the car industry. You cannot appreciate today's vehicles without a knowledge of the past.

Without the earlier Nissan trucks there would not be a Frontier. You cannot skip the importance of this truck and the original 50's Datsun pickup sold in the US. You don't have to like the old Nissan and Datsun trucks to realize their contribution today's midsize and Global pickups.

"In a collision that piece of rail could literally cut you in two, or fly out of the bed and kill a bystander. Tie down bars? Are you kidding. No brains.
The absolute dumbest thing I've ever heard. You win the golden turkey!" ---- Posted by: papajim

--- Do, please, go into detail, why don't you? Show us how much you know about the '83 Mitsubishi. Show us how much you think you know about me. Tell us how you think I did it.

"In a collision that piece of rail could literally cut you in two, or fly out of the bed and kill a bystander. Tie down bars? Are you kidding. No brains.
The absolute dumbest thing I've ever heard. You win the golden turkey!" ---- Posted by: papajim

--- Do, please, go into detail, why don't you? Show us how much you know about the '83 Mitsubishi. Show us how much you think you know about me. Tell us how you think I did it.

Yah papa. I want to know how well you know how well Vulpine did it. Please pull out your crystal ball papa for us all.

@Vulpine. Sounds pretty innovative. I think you did just fine.

Looks like papajim has got the left wing of putc fired up at him.

@Vulpine--Papajim will never admit anyone else knows anything. In his mind his opinion is the only one that matters. Kind of reminds me of our current leadership. I never regretted buying my Mitsubishi and I got more than my money's worth of use out of it. Some of these commentators like to label people left wing, Marxist, or any other insulting name it is easier than usually their frontal lobe. I probably never would have bought a truck if those affordable compact pickups were not available. I discovered all kinds of uses for my Mitsubishi. I am glad that today's vehicles are safer but they are also bigger and more complex. I would like to see a real compact pickup again even if its based on a Focus, Cruze, Santa Fe or other current compact suv or car. It would be all I would need. I don't measure my manhood by the size and power of my truck. I have much more important things that concern me.

What is wrong with a little nostalgia? You can reminisce about the cars and trucks of the past without owning one. Is it wrong to reminisce about the first car or truck you owned or first drove without being judged. What's wrong with having fond memories of the 63 IH with 3 on the tree that you learned to drive on and reflect upon its simplicity. It was a death trap as well and I have no desire to drive it day to day but I would mind having it back for a Sunday drive. Seems some on this site wish to erase those fond memories like some wish to revise history. Sometimes it is good to reflect on the past to appreciate what you have today. No need to apologize for that.

@Jeff S,
Yes, If the Asian trucks didn't come in at an affordable price point, my father may never of bought one. My dad grew up during the depression in Italy, and $1 saved was $2 earned. He probably would of pushed things out for another year, using the roof racks on his 62 Ford Falcon, as cumbersome as they were, for transporting custom made kitchen cabinetry. 62 Ford Falcon: (3 on the tree that I learned to drive as my first, and as my first tranny replace training ~15yrs old, with my older brother.) Reflect past, appreciate today!

Papajim: I'm glad the T-bone accident you had didn't have any bad effects, otherwise it might be less dynamic if you weren't commenting on this forum and mixing it up with everyone.

Geez, I just can't believe how that Nissan's dash boards' upper section, and cluster area, are so much like the B2000 of same year, and color like mine. Geez.

The Nissan dash is very similar to my Mitsubishi as well. Maybe the Japanese manufacturers use the same suppliers.

I have got spoiled in old age.
Went to grocery store 6am this mourning and as I was coming out of store one of the older Japanese trucks like this pulled up in parking spot near me. I said no way would I have it no modern comfort features. It was raining with fog here. I had my creature comfort and safety features on in my Acura sedan that truck didn't have but Ridgeline does. Heated mirrors heated seat.

I analysed the comments here, but first I would like to state back in those days I was an avid Datsun/Nissan pickup fan.

I have owned 2 520s, 2 620s, 1 720, a 1986 "Hardbody(D20) King Cab and a 1997 D20 diesel.

I can assure you that these were very good vehicles, all of mine were manufactured in Japan, so the quality was extremely good.

As for the comments. They were civil until PippaJum entered the discussion with his derogatory and belligerent comments aimed at creating dissent among the commenters.

His comments are of low quality and made with little knowledge.

PappaJim give it a rest and grow TF up.

Ilike this bakkie isfresh

Ilike this bakkie isfresh

You dont sell it

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