The 1996 Nissan 200sx/Sentra, the 1.6l model, is an underrated brute of a beater. I had one. It was great. It looked the part. It felt the part. It smelled the part. Most importantly it wouldn’t die. No matter how hard I tried to kill it, it wouldn’t die. It would try to kill me on a number of occasions but it wouldn’t die. Part of that toughness meant that it was a great sidekick. It got bruised and took hits for me.
I got the “Little-Turd-That-Could” as a sort of punishment for being a teenager with a sports car in high school (story to come eventually). I first met it on the side of a road in Saint Petersburg FL where I was living at the time. I thought it was the 2.0l SE-R model, but it wasn’t. It was a slow, anemic, boring 1.6l shopping cart. I would come to live out of it, get it stuck, and watch it die. Here are some of those stories:
At one point I lived out of my crap-can Sentra. I had just graduated from tech school and was just starting out my short-lived career in racing. I had just moved from my rented bedroom in Orlando to another rented bedroom just north of Atlanta. My tools, belongings, and dad all piled into the Sentra and took a long road trip up the forgotten and beaten up farm roads of rural Florida and Georgia. We never hit any scales, but the thing weighed so much it could barely move with its 90hp. I guess it was a good thing that we decided to take the back-roads on our father son trip instead of the highways. I vividly remember that every time my dad leaned forward, and I’m not exaggerating here, we could feel the car actually accelerate a bit.That was the beginning of it’s adventures. I hadn’t moved to Sebring yet.
The first thing I did after to moving to Sebring was use the Sentra to make some friends. I took a buddy of mine, Vinny, to lunch at Wendy’s. We finished our lunches and hopped back in the little black Nissan. As we pulled around the side of the building we found that someone had decided it was a good idea to pull a massive car-hauler through the drive-thru effectively blocking the out lane. I, in my infinite wisdom decided this was a great time to practice some rally driving. I pulled the Sentra around the hauler through the sand that Vinny kept telling me was too soft and well, predictably sunk my front wheels. The only thing we could do was wait for the new guy, Jon to show up and pull us out.
We had met Jon only a couple hours before this when he first showed up to his new job. This lunch incident, as I’m sure you can tell, was a great first impression. Jon backed up his nice lifted Cherokee, unrolled his tow straps and yanked the car out of the sand. He looked at Vinny and I, cemented his impressions of us in his mind, and drove back to the shop. All this wasn’t so bad except for having to come up with a way to explain to my shop manager that we were late back from break because I had gotten stuck, in the sand, at a Wendy’s.
In a weird twist of fate, however, Jon would eventually go on to work on rallycross cars in FIA Rallycross and trophy trucks down in Dakar. I like to think I was his first rally car, even though I’m it wasn’t. Regardless, we’re all pretty proud of the guy.
The Sentra took care of me after I made an fool out of myself taking a drunken faceplant on the floor of Chateau Elan during a company banquet. It took my Keith Richards level hungover self from Sebring the morning after the banquet to my new home in Limerock CT.
The Sentra always seemed to be a tool I used I meet new people. The first time I met my buddy Jim (the Saab Story guy) we had just gone out to lunch in Lakeville after a hard morning wrenching on Formula Fords in Limerock. We were driving back to the track after lunch at Deano’s. By the way, if you haven’t gotten a slice at Deano’s you haven’t been to Lakeville. Jim, the Sentra, and I are chugging up Well’s Hill Rd like it’s nothing. We had reached the downside of the hill and I dragged on the brakes like any good Florida flatlander would. We are approaching the intersection to the main road and the brake pedal goes right to the floor. I had boiled the brakes. Cold sweats come over me, I look at the car stopped at the stop sign, I glanced back at Jim. There was nothing I could do. I just let the car go. I swerved the Sentra to the left of the truck at the stop sign and onto the main road fitting the Sentra right behind a sewage sucking truck. Had I tapped the gas pedal at any point on the way down Well’s Hill, Jim and I would’ve had the most literal of shitty days. Somehow Jim remained oblivious to this until we got back tot the shop. Here’s how Jim puts it in a message to me right after I posted his Saab Story to Facebook,
“Don’t forget to mention the time the brakes boiled on our way back to the track. We went down that road with the steep hill and dove out in front of traffic without hitting anyone. And you didn’t say anything to me about it until we turned into the track. Like ‘I didn’t mean to do that. I had no brakes’ ha!”
So, that happened. Here’s another one.
The Day The Sentra Crapped It’s Last Crap.
I moved back to Gainesville GA and needed new shoes. It started simple as that. I drove the 45mins south to the Mall of Georgia, which had a most wonderful Van’s store. Cruising back up northbound 985 the Sentra seemed more anemic than normal. It seemed to struggle to hit 65mph, which wasn’t its normal peppy self. It usually struggled to get to 65mph but this time it took more thorttle than normal. This time, also, there was a strange noise. Mind you that for the 4yrs I lived with this car it spark-knocked and squeaked, and belt-shrieked its way around the eastern seaboard so when I heard a new noise I usually ignored it. Combine a new noise to less power than usual and now you have my attention.
I rolled down the windows and added a little more throttle to see if I could force the new fluttering a little louder, hoping this would help me diagnose it. A loud “Pop!” and “Thud” let me know that the knocking was now rolling behind me down the interstate with what was left of my #2 piston and engine block. I trailed a cloud of smoke that would make NASCAR drivers jealous. It was glorious.
I pulled over and started laughing hysterically. It was perfect. The life of my Sentra ended the way it began, on the side of a road. I called the the tow service and had them come pick me up. My roommate Mike and his girlfriend Brittany came out in her new Explorer and patiently waited with me for 3hrs in the tick infested north Georgia woods until the wrecker showed up (there was and accident just down the highway from me).
Every mishap was followed with a new barstool story and a new friend, provided I don’t fall off. First came Jon and Vinny after towing me out of some sand at a Wendy’s in Sebring, Jim and Well’s Hill CT, then came Brittany and her Explorer, and finally Dakota and what eventually served as a interim replacement to the Sentra, his Saturn.
It wasn’t a shiny car. It was a good car. It wan’t a thoroughbred, it wasn’t even a mule. It was a dirty and bruised sidekick that took hits for me and kept me going for 4 years. It did the impossible multiple times. Most important, it gave me wonderful stories and even greater friends. Here’s to you Sentra!
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