Some of you may recall that late last year I fulfilled a longtime automotive-ownership ambition and took delivery of a 1990 Nissan Pao from the amazing Duncan Imports. It’s been a few weeks, and I’m delusional enough to think you’re still curious, so get ready for a full report on my first almost-month of Pao ownership.
I’ve been driving the crap out of this thing. Every excuse or flimsy reason I can come up with to drive it, I’ve been doing it. Even when it doesn’t make sense. My mom and sister need a lift to Costco and I should bring my wife and kid? Let’s take the absolute smallest, lowest-power car I have to carry five people and a big boxes of crap!
It’s sort of snowy? Better get in the tiny FWD car with all-season tires! Why take the school bus, kid, when I can drag my ass out of bed to let you be the only kid who shows up at school in a JDM boutique car?
That’s how it’s been. And it’s been great. So, what have I learned so far?
Driving with 52 horsepower makes life interesting
I’m absolutely not a person who is spoiled by horsepower. My other daily driver, my 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, has had around 50 hp for most of its life, but I did get a slightly better engine after it was stolen and stripped a few years back, so I’ve gotten used to driving a 60-something horsepower monster.
Even that extra 10 or so horsepower makes a difference.
Now, the Pao doesn’t really feel slow, as such, but driving it is definitely different than driving even cars with a modest 100 or so horsepower. It’s a much more engaged kind of driving, and I’m finding that I really like it.
Luckily, my Pao has a manual, so I can hopefully force a few more of that meager stable of stallions to the wheels. That means you end up shifting a good bit more than in other cars. Mostly downshifting.
There’s long, gradual hills where I’ll go from fourth to third that I wouldn’t normally do—this is a car where you just have to stay more on top of where the engine is working in the power band than in a car with more power that lets you be sloppy.
You also end up thinking more about momentum, planning your moves a bit more, and generally you’re more aware of what’s happening.
This may sound like more work, but so far I’ve found it’s just more fun. You get the sense that you’re really working with the car, and it makes little boring trips much more engaging.
It’s the perfect demonstration of the slow-car-fast debate. Yes, I’m technically going slow, but I’m sure having fun, and no cop is going to impound my car, at least not for speeding.
By comparison, the first week I had the Pao, I had a Ford Mustang GT press car, with about 10 times the power (paower?) of the Pao. Driving that thing was fun at times, sure, when the road was dead empty and there was plenty of room to open it up, but most of the time, in normal traffic, it felt like the driving equivalent of the sting you get when you stop urinating mid-stream. You know what I mean.
So, my take on the basic Pao, low-power driving experience? It’s engaging, fun, and slow.
It will go highway speeds, but it’ll beep at you
I’ve taken it on the highway a few times already, and the fastest I’ve gone so far is about 72 to 74 mph or so. It’ll do it fine, but, thanks to the charming goofiness of the Japanese Domestic Market, the Pao has a ‘speed chime’ whenever you go over 64 mph. Just like the AE86 in Initial D!
It’s actually not as bad as I’d have thought. It’s a pretty gentle little chime.
It’s comfortable and really easy to drive
This may be one of the easiest-to-drive cars I’ve owned.
Compared to the Pao, my Beetle is like driving a tractor. All the Pao’s controls work with the lightest of touches, and the clutch goes in as easy as stepping on a marshmallow. The shifter is clicky and not vague at all. Plus, the heat works like a sauna and all the defrosters and windshield washers and that stuff works. For me, in an old car I wanted to buy for non-practical reasons, this is a novelty.
The seats are great, they even have a manual height adjustment, and I love the coarse-weave canvas fabric.
Also, it holds way more than you’d think—this was after that Costco run, with five people in the car:
There’s a three-drawer storage thing behind those paper towels, too. Is my wife going to be pissed there’s a bra in that picture? If she says anything to you about it, just be cool and pretend you didn’t notice it.
Problems and what it needs
The biggest thing it needs are front shocks. They’re pretty much shot, and, of course, the ride suffers. So that’ll be the first big job to do on it. For now I’m just taking speed bumps slow and pretending it’s a 2CV when it leans into turns like a canoe.
The instrument lights are terrible, and there’s no brightness control for them. So far, all they seem to do is illuminate the outer ring of the speedometer, leaving the speedo needle, fuel and temperature gauges just about invisible, hiding in the shadows. I may replace the illumination bulbs with some bright LEDs.
Also, the radio is calibrated to Japanese stations, so I only get a small subset of American radio. That’s okay, because I got a cool little Bluetooth adapter that’s shaped like a cassette tape, and just slides in the cassette player! Cool! Except my eject doesn’t seem to work and now it’s stuck in there and not activated. I’ll probably have to take apart the radio and see what’s up.
It’s also idling a little rough. I think I can just adjust that on the funny little electronically-controlled carb. I’ll look into that.
Oh, and the reverse lights only seem to work if you actually keep your hand and a bit of pressure on the shifter when it’s in reverse. That’s fine by me. Then I can be in reverse clandestinely, if somehow I need to. You never know.
What have I done to it so far?
Mostly, I’ve just been driving it, enjoying it, and learning the car. I did some minor stuff—thorough cleaning, re-laced the rear package shelf thing so it’s nice and taut, like a stretcher for an injured gnome.
I also installed the fog lamps that were in the trunk. I’m an absolute sucker for big, round, yellow fog lights, so I was thrilled to find the official Pao accessory lights and overrider/light bar in the car.
I had to rewire the lights to get them working again, source the right size long screws to clamp the bar on the tube-like bumper, and wire them into the car.
The switch in the car for the foglights is, for some reason, wired now to turn on the parking lights/taillights/dash lights, just like the first click on the light stalk, instead of just turning on the fogs. Weird.
The wires that seemed to be the original fog light wires were dead, so I just took the easy way and tapped off the little parking light bulbs in the headlight housings. Now the fogs come on with the parking lights, from either switch. Good enough!
Did you really drive it in the snow, dummy?
Just a little bit. I was curious! It had the wrong tires, of course, but it wasn’t bad? Like any little FWD car. One day I’d like to try it with real snow tires.
It makes people happy.
This is not a car for people who hate attention. People notice the Pao, and they’re almost always made a bit happier to see it around. And it’s not always car-people! It’s different enough that people who don’t normally look at cars sometimes notice it.
Of course, plenty of people don’t notice it at all, which makes me think some people wouldn’t notice a full-grown rhino sleeping in a parking, lot, either.
Also, my kid, Otto, loves it. He wants me to drive him to school more just so more of his little kid-pals see him coming out of it. And, because I’m driving on the right, I have to get out and open the door for him, like he’s President of the First Grade. Don’t think he doesn’t love that shit.
One surprise about JDM cars
Japanese license plates are almost the same size as American ones, but their mounting holes are in different places. I had to drill some holes in my license plate to make it fit.
I’m thrilled. Still. I love this thing. I love every little charming, silly detail about it. I even like the small ways it’s worn, almost more than if it was pristine. It’s fun to drive in its own, very specific way, and it makes every boring trip that much better.
I still can’t believe I actually have one of these. I can’t wait to keep driving it and tinkering on it.