Sentra 87

The perils of owning a classic misfit.


Last weekend I was driving up to see my niece for her high school graduation and along the way I decided to take a longer path and do a little more exploration as I do whenever I can. It was raining the whole way so i didn’t take any time to actually stop anyplace but when I was almost at my destination, something unexpected happened.

As I was coming over a bridge up to the main highway the car suddenly lost power and started to shudder as it was idling up to the stop sign. I gave it some gas to get out into the main road but it just felt worse so I pulled over to see what was going on. The engine was still running and at idle it didn’t appear that anything was wrong but when I went to take off again, I knew that one of the cylinders had gone dead.

Because of the weather and where I was at in my trip I didn’t have much choice and pushed on with the car running like this, all the while worrying about what damage I was incurring. Eventually I made it to the next town and stopped at the gas station / hardware store where I turned it off and went inside to think. I also made my Facebook friends aware the car just had a troubling malfunction and tried to reach out to my dad for some ideas as to what I should do.

Not long afterwards my dad called me and asked if the car even ran. When I said it did he had only one response, “drive it.”

When I restarted the car I thought I caught a whiff of anti-freeze but when I checked the exhaust all I got was extra fuel that was not getting burnt. Before I made the rest of the journey I did check to see which cylinder wasn’t firing and made sure that all of the connections were tight. It happened to be the #1 cylinder that wasn’t firing but every once in a while I could hear it pop off so all was not lost.

I pressed on and drove it nearly 60 miles this way and was doing about 55mph at the most. Hills were the worst as it couldn’t handle the increased load as well so I tried to avoid them as much as possible. Eventually I made it to my parent’s place and left the car alone until I could look at it closer the next day.

One thing my dad kept saying was that when grandpa had the car it was always stalling because there was moisture in the distributor cap. I looked at this idea with much skepticism for two reasons. One, I have power washed the engine (twice) while it was running and never had a problem with water getting in the cap and Two, there were a bunch of things wrong with the car when I got it so who knows what was really wrong when grandpa had it.

To be sure though, we checked that the spark plug for that cylinder and it was good (I have recently changed the plugs) and it had good spark. The plug and the inside of the cylinder were wet with fuel but otherwise everything was normal. Nothing in the oil, good gas, clean air filter, just that nagging idea that a ring had gone out. Dad felt that one of the valves had come out of adjustment but that didn’t feel right either.

In the end I had to go back home. I checked online if there was anything wrong with driving as it was and mostly it was determined that it should be fine. So I set out on my trip and again, I made sure to get on the roads with the least inclines. The engine sounded rough but ran and I was able to maintain a fair highway speed.

270 miles after this problem started I was at home and I had some new insight as to what the problem truly is. When I got closer to home I saw that there were huge billowing clouds of white exhaust when I drove slow but it went away when I sped up. I’m pretty sure now that the head gasket blew around that one cylinder and you can smell the sweetness in that cloud as well.

I have not had a chance to do anything with the car since I have come home and it might be another week before I can get it over to my mechanic. In the meantime, I might work on replacing the brakes, drums, rotors, and bearings since I don’t have to worry about time constraints.



I have been lacking on my updates because I’ve not been feeling well and there hasn’t been a whole lot beyond the casual maintenance performed on the car. With that, the maintenance menu item on the page does show what has been happening recently if you re so inclined to check that out.

When the weather gets a little warmer outside I will be doing more intensive repairs and updating this page accordingly. Until then, just sit tight.

The Family

Every so often I search the Internet for 87 Sentra cars to see who has them still and who is selling them. Pretty much all of them are too far away for me to even look at much less purchase but it has been nice to see them listed on Craigslist and sometimes on eBay.

Just recently one of my cousins pointed me to a barter page on Facebook where someone had an 84 Sentra Hatchback/Wagon for sale and it opened up a whole other search that I had never considered. Instead of searching Facebook for other people, I searched for “87 Sentra” and I was surprised to find so many people listing them for sale.

Despite finding so many Sentra cars of the same year, there are still only a small number of them in the same style as mine and in original condition. In any case its good to see that others are still seeing the value in them and keeping them on the road.

NAPA Till Death

I know I’ve said that I’m searching for parts all of the time but recently I saw something that gave me a little excitement. Something that made me realize that my adventures with this car could go on indefinitely.

Most of my primary maintenance parts come from my local NAPA store and it helps that they are between my home and work so that it isn’t out of the way to get stuff there. The people that run it are friendly, helpful, and willing to listen to me go on and on about this little car. From time to time I will watch their screens to see what options they can provide but hadn’t gone into much search on my own until just this last week.

I happened to be on NAPA Online and noticed that I could do a general search for anything that would work with the Sentra rather than looking for a specific part. The list that it produced was far longer than what I had expected and in that list were some parts that I had no idea I could even get there, or anywhere for that matter.

Now, Nissan has been using the same engine in their Sentra line for a long time and you can even now get a 1.6L version for the Sentra SR Turbo. With that it would stand to reason that I could obtain a new engine through NAPA and sure enough it was listed in this general search. What was also listed is what took me aback for a moment and gave me the hope that the car will just live on forever (mechanically anyway) and that was the transmission.

So pretty much I’m set for parts and NAPA will continue to be my go-to spot for general maintenance on the car. Things I cannot find through them I and still able to get online for now. Which is good because I need more ideas to write down and share.

The Maker

I have contacted Nissan about my Sentra over the years to get some feedback on various aspects including computer information, parts resources, and to let them know one of their cars is still running after 30 years. In each case the response has been friendly and the response time has been quick but the feeling I get from them is just cold.

While talking with people online to find out more from other 1987 Sentra owners, they have expressed the same sentiment. Then I stopped by my local dealership to ask a parts question and no one there gave it a second thought. I know the last time I was there the mechanics where all gaga over it but the rest of the staff was apparently dismissive. If you aren’t there to buy a new one, then move along.

When I contacted them about the car turning 30 I didn’t expect much but what I did get was much of the same as I got from the dealer. They thanked me for writing, said they liked hearing from people, and then wanted me to buy a new vehicle. Figures.

Despite this, I still think that Nissan is missing out on a little opportunity with the owners of these older vehicles. If they showcase the people that own, drive, and maintain their cars and they last this long then that shows a quality product that the company can say about all their cars. Subaru has that kind of campaign by highlighting the people that keep their cars the longest, they are a great influence on their family and friends’s future cars.

Overall I enjoy what Nissan has developed with this car and the current renditions and if I could afford to buy a new one, I’m sure I would get another Sentra; possibly the Sentra NISMO, but that idea will just have to wait.


With no garage and living in a cold climate I am reduced to small repairs and upgrades that don’t require me to be outside for very long. When I woke up this morning it was 14F and by the time of this writing it has achieved 27F for the day. Anything that is plastic or rubber tends to break easily and I really don’t want to deal with that kind of agony right now.

What I am left with is finding anything metal that needs upgrading or repair no matter how small or insignificant it may appear. Replacing missing bolts and screws is always helpful but today I’m going for something that is mostly overlooked in most vehicles, the ground straps.

Despite vehicles being mostly metal, not all of that metal is connected directly to itself. There are a lot of places where metal parts are spaced apart with fabric gaskets, plastic shims, and rubber mounts to provide protections from heat, cold, vibration, and various fluids. Although there is wiring to operate the various electrical devices on the vehicle, the metal of the body and the engine are used as the main ground and if one piece is not properly grounded, the vehicle can exhibit a variety of odd behaviors while operating.

In my case there are a few straps at various locations in the car that make sure everything is properly grounded to the body, the engine, and most importantly the battery. There is at least one inside the car’s cabin but I shouldn’t have to worry about it as it is out of the elements but the ones in the engine compartment appear to need some TLC. In the image above you can see the greenish strand leading from the manifold to the frame and although it looks pretty it’s not very helpful.

So, today I’m going to warm up the engine and get some oil on those bolts so I can remove that ground strap and replace it with a new one that is plated as to prevent future corrosion. After that I know there is another one I need to look at as well. Just another thing to do as I continue to tinker until spring affords me the ability to conduct another major upgrade.

Just Slick

Because of the recent cold I’ve had the car parked since it was just too cold to be in it. The thermostat was stuck open and not only was it freezing for me to drive the car, the engine was also freezing cold no matter how much you drove it. It would heat up nicely if you let it sit for a while but once you got on the road, it would once again become a deep freeze.

I did try to change this but I couldn’t get on the bolts to remove the thermostat housing so I ended up taking it to my mechanic. Since I was having him do this I opted to have him do a coolant flush as well and just make everything fresh in there. Now, now I have heat and its so nice to drive.

The other benefit to this is that not only should the car run better but it should also get better mileage when its cold. The fuel mixture is heated partially by the coolant circulating through the intake manifold walls and now it should be more efficient.

While I had the car in the shop I had to order a new cap for the oil fill port on the valve cover. The old one, pictured above, had degraded and was no longer doing a good job of keeping the oil in the engine. It’s a hard rubber plug yet the old one had changed from the heat, cold, and time it has been on the car and had become very hard. It was difficult to remove and put on unless the engine was warmed up and once it was on it wouldn’t seal properly, letting oil splash up and out.

If anyone knows Japanese, can you tell me what it says on this cap? I’m assuming it’s something about Nissan and Oil. I’m going to keep it, the new one is devoid of markings.

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.

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