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  • Before the Nissan Frontier, the Hardbody Earned Its Respect

Before the Nissan Frontier, the Hardbody Earned Its Respect

A look back at the history of one of America’s most beloved mini trucks.

Feb 1, 2021
The Nissan Hardbody is one of the most iconic, legit mini trucks of the '80s and '90s. Everyone either had a Hardbody or knew somebody who had one—and has a story or two to share about that Hardbody. It fits nicely into that clan of indestructible mini trucks—alongside the Toyota pickup, Isuzu P'up, Chevy S-10, GMC Sonoma, Ford Ranger, Mazda B-Series, Mitsubishi Mighty Max, and Dodge D-50—that cruised the streets plentifully once upon a time. The two-wheel-drive Hardbody was prime for slamming to the ground, and the 4x4 version was ripe for tackling mountain trails. What's the history of the Nissan Hardbody, in a nutshell? Let's find out.

What Came Before the Nissan Hardbody?

The Datsun/Nissan 720 (1980-1986) came before the Nissan Hardbody. But, let's take it a step further. Nissan was established in Japan in 1933; Datsuns (the name by which Nissan sold vehicles for many years) were imported to the United States. The first 37-hp 1.0-liter four-cylinder 1959 Datsun 222 (known as the Datsun 1000) compact pickup was introduced in America in 1959 and was actually showcased at the 1959 Los Angeles Auto Show. That was followed by the 60-hp 1.2-liter 1960-1961 Datsun 223, then the 1962-1965 Datsun N320 (check out this rare Datsun NL320 unibody cover truck), and then the two-headlight, 1.3-liter 1965 Datsun 520, and the four-headlight 1966-1968 Datsun 520. The 77-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder 1969-1971 Datsun N521 can be considered the world's first half-ton mini truck. The 1972-1979 Datsun 620 introduced the long bed (1975) and the first King Cab extended cab (1977). After that came the 720.

Was the 720 a Nissan or a Datsun?

The 720 pickup was badged a Datsun or Nissan (or both!). Generally speaking, Nissan replaced Datsun as time went on. Model years 1980-1983 were called the Datsun 720 and had Datsun badging. Model year 1984-1986 Nissan 720s, the first Nissan pickups built in the U.S., were assembled at the then-new Smyrna, Tennessee plant; some of these "tweener" trucks had both Datsun and Nissan badging (1984) while the company officially transferred to Nissan branding. Hence, the 720 was the last Datsun truck and also the first stateside Nissan pickup. You'll never see Datsun associated with the Hardbody.
This first American-built Nissan pickup truck, the 1984 Nissan 720 pickup, exited Smyrna on June 16, 1983. The Nissan Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant, opened in 1983, was Nissan's first American factory, and the white Nissan pickup was its first vehicle off the line. (How's that for the history books? Nissan's U.S. manufacturing kicked off with a pickup.) The plant now produces the Leaf, Maxima, Murano, Pathfinder, Rogue, and QX60, along with some engines for other models such as the Frontier and Titan. The current Titan and Frontier are produced in Canton, Mississippi.

What Year did the Nissan Hardbody Come Out?

The Nissan Hardbody came out in model year 1986.5 and was produced in Smyrna through model year 1997. What that means is that 1986 was a split year between the 720 and Hardbody—there was an overlap of outgoing and incoming Nissan pickups for that year. A 1986 Nissan pickup could be a 720 or a Hardbody; that's why you'll see some owners refer to their Hardbodies as 1986.5. The trucks are, however, very visually distinct and look completely different. The Hardbody is distinguished by that prominent body line that runs literally straight through the entire length of the truck, starting immediately above the headlight, continuing through the door handle, and ending in the middle of the taillight.

Why Is It Called a Nissan Hardbody?

Hardbody refers to its double-walled bed, firm paneling, and aggressive styling. Seriously, the brick-like trucks of the '80s were tough. It's the only generation any Nissan truck was called a Hardbody—and unofficially, as it's formally coded D21. Hardbody took hold, however, and Nissan ads even used the Hardbody term.

What Engines and Trims Were Offered?

The D21 Hardbody was produced for model years 1986.5-1997 with four-cylinder and V-6 engine options. The four-cylinder offerings were the 106-hp 2.4-liter Z24i throttle-body injected four-cylinder (1986-1989) followed by the 134-hp 2.4-liter KA24E multi-point fuel-injected four-cylinder (1990-1997). The V-6 options were the 140-hp 3.0-liter VG30i throttle-body injected V-6 (1986-1989, class-leading horsepower) followed by the 154-hp 3.0-liter VG30E multi-point fuel-injected V-6 (1990-1995). Model years 1996 and 1997 could only be had as a four-cylinder—Emissions, ya know? The engines were backed by a five-speed manual or a three- or four-speed automatic transmission.
Photo 78/105   |   Nissan Hardbody Pickup 1
Rear- and four-wheel-drive regular Cab (single) and King Cab (extended) models were available, with six-foot and longer seven-foot bed options. The long bed was apparently a class leader in size. Some international markets got a four-door Crew Cab version—lucky! Trim levels were Base, XE, and SE. Late-model XEs had a value package option that included air conditioning, power mirrors, alloy wheels, and some chrome. In addition to its limited-slip rear differential, the SE had a package that included a sunroof, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, air conditioning, and special alloy wheels. A super-sweet special edition, the Desert Runner, was produced after a Nissan Hardbody won its class in the 1987 Baja 500. Nissan apparently made 1,000 of these.
There were minor updates to the exterior and interior of the Hardbody throughout the years, although it always retained its Hardbody-esque appearance. Model year 1990 brought minor updates to the front end, a new grille, and white-numbered gauges inside. A unique gauge cluster delineates 1993 trucks and marks the first year of the chrome "V" grille. An upgraded interior with a new, curvy dash design marks 1994 models. The addition of a driver-side airbag and OBDII was introduced in 1996.

What Came After the Nissan Hardbody?

All good things must come to an end. The D22 Nissan Frontier replaced the beloved D21 Hardbody for model year 1998. The 1998-2000 Frontier most resembled a mini truck, and in the following years morphed more and more into a midsize truck. The second-generation D40 was introduced for model year 2005. A long-overdue new 2022 Nissan Frontier introduces the first major overhaul of the Frontier in about 16 years.

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