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.
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.
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