Sentra 87

The perils of owning a classic misfit.

Time Machine

I have an update on the Sentra but I wanted to touch on something a little different just once. As noted my Sentra was obtained from my grandparents and while they owned it, they also had a Datsun which had gone from being their primary car to being my grandfather’s side vehicle. This, as shown in the photo, is a 4-Door 1978 Datsun b210.

Aside from the faded paint and the badge not fitting correctly on the side, the car is in pretty good shape. As far as I know it’s all there and it will run with a little tuning because it has been sitting there for a number of years. I would be driving it myself but I’m too tall to get behind the wheel so instead I’m looking for a buyer.

It’s currently sitting in northern South Dakota and I know the interior is dark blue and that it has a manual transmission but other than that I will need to do some checking to find out all of the details. Also I do have the title for it.

I’m not sure if you can even get parts for it but once its out of my hands I won’t worry about what gets done with it.

Going on Thirty

As we start 2017 the Sentra starts it’s 30th year of operation. It looks a little rough around the edges and has some quirks with the mechanics but overall it’s doing really good for a car of this age that has been driven for most of that time.

The bitter cold that started out this year has kept me from addressing some of the repairs needed and also from being able to post any updates on the car. While I continue my quest to repair and drive this little car I will also continue to make efforts to document what is going on with it. Also I want to try and get some major repairs planned out and completed this year to really give the car that like-new look again.

Some of the elements I need to do: Replace the brakes and brake fluid, replace the bearings, replace the thermostat, flush the coolant system, and repair the exhaust system.

The extras I want done: Replace the hood and front fenders and get them painted, sand and repaint the rest of the body, replace the grille and headlight assemblies, tint the windows, and install a Bluetooth Stereo with new speakers.

In addition to all of this, I want to compose a little letter to Nissan and tell them about the car and my work on it. I don’t expect anything from it, I just would like to let them see what is being done with one of their remaining creations from that year.

Lots of work to get done, I just can’t wait until it warms up again to get more done.


It gets cold up here and recently the temperatures came close to -30F but even without a block heater, the Sentra starts up and runs just fine. However, the saga continues on the issues with the correct water temperature readings and it has been determined that my engine thermostat has gone bad. When I should be driving in comfort on these frigid days I instead about freeze solid in the car.

There is heat coming out of the heater vents but it isn’t much and the temperature gauge won’t raise up while I’m driving. I had suspected something was up with the thermostat but I wasn’t really sure after reading some articles on it online. It just took a few minutes with my father to pin the issue down.

Not being primarily a mechanic it sometimes takes another person to point me in the right direction. Apparently the thermostat is stuck open just enough to never let the engine warm up as the coolant is always going through the radiator.

So while the car does run, I decided to let it sit while I worked on getting the parts needed to repair this. When I stopped at NAPA they surprised me because the thermostat was available the next day. However, when I asked about the gasket that was a different result. It’s been a week now waiting but this is what I have come to expect for parts on this car and I’m patient … I can wait.

Contingency Plan

There is always the worry that one day the engine is going to give up the ghost and then the car will have to just sit. What will I do when I can’t keep it running anymore, especially with limited parts available to a basic overhaul? Well, all is not lost with resources and technology.

The first and simplest approach would be to just overhaul the engine that I currently have which could be fairly expensive but considering all the time and money I have already put into it, this would be totally acceptable. However, if the block or heads are damaged beyond repair, then we have to go out into the world and find a good replacement.

While searching for a hood for the car I found a salvage yard link that connects all of the yards across the country and in that I could see there where many engines out there just waiting for someone to use them. Despite the car being 30 years old, I doubt many of the ones in the salvage yards have been driven all of that time and would be good to use in a rebuild project. And maybe one of these days I might just get one to have on hand, just in case.

My other idea is to tear out the entire fossil fuel system and go fully electric.This would be more expensive to build and might be just a tab bit heavier but just a little more satisfying in the end. With the advancements in EV technology I might actually get pretty good range out of but I would probably do less adventuring with it though. Yet, if I put solar cells on the roof and trunk lid, I could let the car trickle-charge while it sat around outside during the day and you can’t get that from gasoline.

The only other option I have been considering lately would be to just upgrade. I wouldn’t mind having the upcoming Sentra NISMO …

Winter Blues

Living in a northern climate I have to make adjustments in not only my daily life to account for changing temperatures but also dealing with my vehicle needs. This little car does alright with the fall temperatures but as it gets colder I have to change some things in order to stay warm inside the vehicle.

The high tech addition of a sheet of cardboard between the radiator and the front grill restricts the cold airflow just enough to keep the engine cool but also allows it to stay warm enough to keep me from freezing to death. But the thing that I cannot do anything about is the loss of my great mileage.

I’ve seen those reports were it is said that you don’t need to idle your engine for very long in the cold because it doesn’t take long for the engine to reach operating temperature. The fault with this idea is that if it is below zero outside, it is below zero inside the car. Driving around with frozen hands and feet are not my favored things so therefore I have to let the car idle until I can drive it comfortably.

What all of this idling does is suck up fuel that I could be driving with and therefore I just can’t go as far in it as I would like to. Despite my concern for getting the most out of the car as I can, I’m not really looking to become a hypermiler. I will suffer through the changes and hope for warmer days again.

The one irony with the car is that despite its small size, I can go through snow like no other car. I’ve driven through snow up to the headlights on roads that were no longer visible and the only tracks were from 4×4 trucks. The narrow tires and the forward weight of the car make it easier to drive on wet or icy roads and just in case I do get stuck, it takes very little to push it by hand. Mu other mid-sized vehicle tends to slide around more and lifts up on any snow getting stuck on a collection of packed snow underneath it.

So as Winter comes, there are some annoyances but I will survive as I always have.


Running Cold

While trying to figure out the problem with the idle, I had seen somewhere that the water temperature had influence on how the engine handled things and so I tried to change out the sensor. The process at this time was trial and error because I still had not deciphered the correct procedure from the shop manual.

I went to my local NAPA and checked to see if they had the part available and not only did they have it available, they had one at the store. Later when I got home I located the sensor plug on the driver side of the engine and pulled out the old one. In the image on this posting you can see the old one on top and the new one on the bottom. Not only is the new one shorter but it is also a different diameter so it wouldn’t fit in the same threads.

The old sensor went back in and I went out online in search of the part that would fit. The parts man suggested that I get an adapter piece of brass to let the new one fit but I’m a little stubborn and wanted to get the real part instead. Eventually I found the correct part online at eBay and soon I was ready once again to replace the old sensor.

This is where my confusion really sets in and that confusion lead to a new discovery about how this car was made and how it operates. First, I found out that the reason the one new sensor is small is because there where two different production runs of this car model. My car was in the first run from January 1987 – July 1987 and they used the bigger sensor. After that Nissan retooled some items and built cars in the second half of the year with a smaller sensor among other things. Also with the new sensor in, my dash always showed that the engine temperature was zero and my fans would not kick on. On top of this the car ran just as bad as it did before. This is where I studied the shop manual a much as I could and found out the exact wiring to test to find out what was happening.

What I then found out was that this car actually had two coolant sensors in it. The wiring from the computer went to a completely different location, connecting to a different sensor right in the intake manifold. The other sensor I replaced goes straight to the instrument panel to show the engine temperature at the coolant thermostat and when it gets warm enough, that gauge turns on the fans.

So, I tested the ohms on the old sensor, the new sensor, and the new small sensor and found out that my old one was working just fine and the new one was reading the wrong temperature range. The old one was put back in after cleaning the threads and now it appears to read just a little better than before. I also replaced the sensor that connects to the computer but that really didn’t help either.

Since I had figured out more of the manual and the production year issues, I could see more how to get some diagnostic information out of the computer. What it told me was that there was nothing wrong with the temperature sensors … that’s what I get for not reading carefully.

Idle Time

When I got this car, it had been sitting a while and the main reason for that was that it stopped running. When I got hold of it, my father had tried his hand at fixing it and that method is to remove stuff until it works. After convincing him that I really wanted the car I was able to fix a few items that made it run significantly better but there was still an issue with the engine idle.

Initially I replaced the gas cap to make sure the tank was breathing correctly and then I found that the O2 sensor was corroded so that was replaced as well. Right away the car woke up and I could drive it with more responsiveness and speed than before the O2 sensor was changed.

The issue that would haunt me for the next three years was this: When the car was cold, but not freezing cold, it would start and then idle up and then down repeatedly until it was really warmed up. If the RPMs were not high enough on the idle down it would just kill the engine. So you either had to keep your foot on the accelerator until it warmed up or you had to drive off with it and hope you didn’t have to stop because if you did and the engine wasn’t hot enough, it would kill the engine. However, when it was in the winter time and the engine was super cold it would start and then go into high idle and stay there. Once the engine warmed up then it would start cycling again between high and low idle and then die. Only after warming it up further would it start to actually run at a regular idle.

This being the carbureted model, the diagnostic paths to figure this problem out were really daunting. It wasn’t until I purchased the Nissan Sentra Shop Manual on eBay that I was able to get more into the processes of finding an answer. The Haynes manual is of no use considering there are so many variations of this car. Even with the best documentation it still required me to actually understand how to follow it all.

Thinking it was temperature related I tried replacing the coolant sensor but that made no difference. After deciphering more of the Shop Manual I found the test to tell me what direction to go in. It was either a solenoid or a vacuum issue and when I tested the solenoids they all came back okay. Without someone to help me, I didn’t know how I was ever going to figure out the vacuum tests.

What is eventually came down to was performing one maintenance step that I had recently completed, setting the valves. My mechanic said that some of the gaps were really tight so that meant that some of the valves were open when they shouldn’t have been and now after the correct adjustments the car runs better than it has since I replaced that O2 sensor. You can still tell there is a little variation in the idle but the engine doesn’t die anymore.


The Enigma

In the areas that I drive I have never seen another 1987 Sentra or anything in that era. However, one day, I was in another part of town to help give someone a ride and while I was at a gas station a woman pulled in with a little rusty Sentra coupe.

At the time I didn’t have my Sentra with me so I couldn’t really make the impression that I wanted to so I had to wait for her to go in the building before I could get a picture of it. Later I was able to see in the photo that the car is a little newer than mine but despite the tattered appearance, it had a lot of parts that I could have used.

Since then, I haven’t seen another one.

Rusty Things

Aside from being the fourth owner, I really do drive this every day to work and so it really isn’t all that glamorous under the hood. The car was in a garage most of the time when my grandparents had it but after they passed and the car wouldn’t run, it was put out in the weeds with other rusting vehicles on my parents farm. Over that time period it has become a little rusty and some items have escaped maintenance from that.

Plus, as I drive it, the rain, the mud, the snow, and anything else that splashes up under it has taken away the lovely black and produced this urban camouflage to hide the car from the newer and sportier models.

One day while I was changing the oil I happened to notice that the front motor mount wasn’t really doing anything. I grabbed it and the metal bar rattled on the bolts as the rubber shock material had all but disintegrated. Off to NAPA again for another part and with a week or so I had the new one.

Usually I try to do everything I can by myself when it comes to repairs. I’m no expert but I can figure things out well enough yet there are some things that even I have to give in on. The bolts that hold this mount in are nearly rusted solid and without air tools there is no way I’m going to be able to remove it from the car.

So in this case I will have to defer to my mechanic and see what he can do with it. Then I will have another shiny new part nestled among the array of rust.

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