You’ve probably seen a Nissan Pulsar NX Sportbak before, maybe on the weird side of town with half of its clear coat peeled away. You might not have realized that it was possibly the first and maybe the only modular car ever put into production.
Back in the 1980s, Japanese car companies faced what were called Voluntary Import Restrictions from all their top export markets. Countries like America limited how many cars Japanese companies could bring onto our shores.
All of the Japanese auto industry collectively realized that since they wouldn’t be able to make money off of big numbers of low-cost, low-profit-margin family cars like they had been doing, they would need to move to higher-cost, higher-profit margin vehicles instead, since the total number of exports was getting capped. This is why we saw a boom of luxury cars like Lexus and Infiniti, and why we saw a boom in sports cars and niche cars from Japanese carmakers as well.
And that brought us the smallest niche of all: the modular car, and the Nissan Pulsar NX Sportbak.
Designed in California and sold from 1986 to 1990, the second-generation Nissan Pulsar NX (known elsewhere as the EXA) was basically just a coupe version of the Nissan Sentra of the day. It came with front-wheel drive and a variety of small four-cylinder engines, even the most powerful of which only made 130 horsepower. It weighed just 2,300 pounds, but it was more sporty car than sports car.
But that’s not what’s interesting about it.
What’s interesting is the optional Canopy roof.
With your Sportbak, you could disconnect the coupe’s rear hatch that ran from the back of the roof to the top of the trunk, and you could slot this wagon back into its place, which only came in grey, partly because it was cheaper and partly because obviously you wanted to show off your cool detachable roof, and you’d have a practical shooting brake.
I think the wagon back cost an extra couple hundred bucks, which is more expensive than it needed to be, but again that’s exactly what Nissan was looking to try out.
Or you could leave both off entirely and the empty back made a kind of truck bed back.
In Japan, where garage space was at a premium, you could actually rent the top from Nissan where it’d live at the dealership, as Japanese Nostalgic Car recalls.
Also, the car had t-tops, so you could go from a fully open convertible, a closed coupe, a semi-enclosed pickup, or a fully-enclosed wagon. You didn’t need to choose what kind of car you wanted; you could have them all in one practical, economical, fun vehicle, one that had pop-up headlights and gradient rear taillights. The only thing that would have made it more ‘80s is if it had a digital dashboard.
Again, from today’s perspective, the Sportbak seems like a lark, a fun but pointless idea from the Bubble Era, when Japanese car companies had more money than they knew what to do with. But in the context of import restrictions, it made sense as a sound business decision, at least for a while.
Sadly, Nissan replaced the Pulsar NX with the decidedly un-modular NX1600 and NX2000 for the more boring ‘90s, and no other carmaker was quite bold enough to copy the modular idea. Mazda’s boss in the mid ‘80s, the late Kenichi Yamamoto, wanted to and even had a concept version made called the MX-04, but he was pushed out of his top position and it never made production. We ended up with the Miata and we were happy with it, not knowing what else could have been.
So while I’m bummed that the modular idea never made it deeper into the mainstream, I’m happy that the Pulsar NX Sportbak got as far as it did. It serves as a reminder that what we take as natural in the auto industry doesn’t have to be as it is. We’re not locked into our current norms. There are always other visions of how the world can be, and we have this little Nissan to keep that in mind.