I receive a ton of emails from readers asking me to drive their cars. It’s a good problem to have. But the truth is, while I’d love to say yes to all of them, a lack of time simply prevents me from driving them all. But when a Jalopnik reader from Rimouski, Québec told me that he and his friends, all of whom are proud owners of Nissan 200SX-es, were holed up in an old military bunker just so I could write a story about their cars, I had to find the time.
This is the story of four young people—Jerome, Jean-Daniel, Carolanne and Dominic—and their obsession with an obscure and forgotten automobile. It proves that our collective passion for driving the cars is still very much alive, and it is not going anywhere soon.
But first: what the hell is a Nissan 200SX anyway?
The Nissan 200SX is what we North Americans called the Silvia between 1984 and 1988. This is also more commonly known as the S12, and it’s the predecessor to the Nissan 240SX we all know and love today. (A later 200SX from the 1990s, a front-wheel drive coupe with the beloved SR20DE motor, is a different car.)
Yet for some reason, nobody ever really cared about the 200SX. Like the 240, the 200 was a compact front-engine, rear-wheel drive sports coupe or hatchback.
I should have your attention now.
Depending on the market in which it was sold, there were several different versions of the car. Even on this continent, between American and Canadian markets, significant drivetrain differences can be spotted.
For instance, from 1984 to 1986, both U.S. and Canadian hatchbacks came with either a 105 horsepower, 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four, or a 135-horsepower 1.8-liter turbo four. The coupes only ever got the 2.0-liter.
However, from 1987 onward, American hatchbacks only came with a 160-horsepower 3.0-liter V6, essentially the same engine found in the 300ZX but without turbos. Meanwhile, Canadian 200SX hatchbacks soldiered on with four-pots under their hoods.
As I mentioned earlier, this thing remains somewhat obscure compared to the later and ubiquitous 240SX, and compared to its contemporaries like the AE86 or other 1980s Japanese sport coupes. That’s why meeting people so dedicated to it was such a special occasion.
I met these diehard S12 fans in Québec City, from which my shooter Guillaume and I followed them roughly 50 miles east towards the Beauce region where the so-called bunker was located.
Built in 1952 by the Royal Canadian Airforce on top of Mont-Sainte Marguerite in Québec, the 13th Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron, or today known as the Domaine du radar, operated during the Cold War up to 1964 as a NORAD communications base and part of the Pinetree Line observation shield.
It’s just a kickass place.
The building has since been dismantled, but is now privately owned. It serves as a historical tourist attraction, with the surrounding land, essentially a small mountain, hosting several outdoor events such as Spartan races or paintball tournaments. The bunker itself can be rented for photo shoots or movie settings.
And my kids had booked it specifically for this story. Due to the limited time for the shoot I didn’t get to drive them, but I will sooner or later. And I almost didn’t need to drive them to feel the love at work here.
This one belongs to Carolanne. Jean-Daniel is her boyfriend. And out of the three 200SX’s featured in this story, it’s without a doubt the most valuable (do these things even retain any market value?) because it’s completely stock.
Anyway, Carolanne, who photographs drift cars across Canada, already had a thing for anything Nissan and rear-wheel drive. Her guy does too. As a matter of fact, Jean-Daniel daily drives a 240SX.
Together, they both discovered the forgotten S12 chassis in a drift competition, saw how the car performed, loved the old-school ‘80s look and were sold.
Carolanne purchased this Medium Red example in Rouyn-Noranda, Québec earlier this fall. It’s a recent purchase. She humbly paid just $1,500 Canadian for it, a steal for something mint and rust free. The couple does believe it’s been repainted.
Under its hood still lies the gutless, but all original 2.0-liter four, and this one has the four-speed automatic.
Oh, and the car is called Clarisse. Why? Carolanne wanted to name it, and since it’s old, it reminded her of an old lady. Clarisse just seemed to fit with the car.
Dominic’s 200SX is the complete opposite of Clarisse’s car. It’s black, stanced, tuned to shit, and probably the most badass looking one of the group.
Dom actually works at Campagna Motors, the makers of the T-Rex. And the car you see here is where he fiddles when he isn’t doing so on the trikes. Dominic has long had a passion for the Nissan S13 chassis and previously owned a 240SX. Also fascinated by the S12, he shifted his passion towards the car eight years ago.
He bought his ride in Ontatio. It had a dented fender, plastic bumpers burnt from the sun and a defective power steering pump. A really neglected machine. But the body was rust free, the stock V6 (it’s a U.S. car) started and ran like a gem. The automatic transmission operated smoothly. Some $1,200 Canadian later, the car was driving back to Québec with Dom sitting in the driver’s seat.
Today, it’s obviously far from stock. The heart is a JDM turbocharged Skyline engine (RB20DET). The suspension is heavily modified and stanced, borrowing parts from a 240SX. It’s matte black and it spews black smoke from a modified exhaust. This car’s awesome.
Now here’s where things get juicy.
I kept Jerome’s for last, because it really is a case of “I don’t give a fuck.” Forget a Nissan engine, or anything Japanese. This one’s got an General Motors LS2 V8 under its hood—because of course it does.
Sure, to the eyes of purists, this American V8-powered Nissan coupe is a sacrilege, a freakish creation of utmost lack of respect that has no reason to exist. But for the 28-year-old marine mechanic, since the car has no monetary value to his eyes, he figured what the hell? Who even cares, this is awesome.
The thing is, over the 12-year span he’s owned the car, Jerome tried several different performance options before going for the LS. After fiddling with the 2.0-liter and realizing there was not much performance to extract from it, he then swapped it for the 2.4-liter four (KA24DE) from the North American-spec 240SX.
He lapped the car, modified the suspension, tuned the chassis, stripped the interior. It’s basically a road-legal race car now. But for Jerome, it still wasn’t fast enough. More power was needed, hence the LS2.
I won’t list the mods on the car, because I’d be wasting precious internet ink, but it’s a really long list. Everything’s been fortified, from brakes to driveshaft. The transmission is a Tremec six-speed manual.
The car develops over 400 HP, and weighs about the same as a mid-’90s Honda Civic. It also sounds like an earthquake at full throttle.
Our man Jerome has more plans for his whip. He plans on fiddling a bit more with the LS2 engine, because of course, horsepower is an addiction.
He’s also looking into fitting the car with a widebody kit and hood from the Silvia Grand Prix, a special edition model sold for the European market. For Jerome, his car is a test bed, a place for him to tweak and learn how to build the ideal race car.
As it always is with these great adventures, the day came to an end way too quickly. But after following these enthusiasts into their silly 200SX fantasy, watching them scrape the underbodies of their cars attempting to enter the bunker, and drive through miles of muddy and abnormally damaged utility roads, I came to an immediate conclusion: despite what the studies will tell you, today’s car enthusiast young people couldn’t care less about infotainment systems, Bluetooth connectivity, semi-autonomous tech or self-driving Ubers.
They want to drive the cars.
Like the previous generations of car geeks, the millennial generation of automotive enthusiasts simply wants to tinker and collectively get together around a common passion: a car.
And in this case, all it needed to get these kids in the same dimly lit bunker was a 30-year-old, $2,000 Japanese sport compact.