California Dreaming

California. There’s some magic in that name. Just saying it immediately brings up images of endlessly cool Americana; sand, sun, surf and Hollywood all being in California might have something to do with it. An iconic place, cars named after it seem to have inherited some of that magic: Cadillac’s Eldorado after the El Dorado county in Sierra Nevada, the eternal Chevy Bel Air after a Los Angeles district of the same name, and of course Ferrari’s peerless 250 California Spyder, one of the prettiest cars to wear the prancing horse. So what do we make of Nissan’s vehicular application of “California”? Certainly a long-roof version of a compact family sedan isn’t the most obvious choice.

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But then again, Japanese automakers have gained a bit of a reputation for saddling cars with ridiculous names. A couple that come off the top are the Suzuki Every Wagon Joy Pop Sound, which is a tiny kei-van, and the Mitsubishi MUM 500 Shall we Join Us?, which apart from being the only model name to incorporate a question mark, also invites a philosophical discourse on collective identity. In light of such fantastic names, “California” on a B12 Sentra wagon doesn’t seem so strange.

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Really, standing in the vicinity of this car, the name “California” starts to sound even better.

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The B12 Sentra, designed in 1985, was the very last holdout of the unapologetically-rectilinear styling that the Box Type Lancer started in 1979. Product cycles being what they are, Nissan was in a spot of trouble when, in 1988,  Mitsubishi, Toyota and Honda released their next-generation compacts. Quite suddenly, the B12 Sentra was looking very dated next to its competitors.

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There was nothing wrong, really, with the basic design of the B12 – the following B13 Sentra simply rounded out the same features to great success – but all the lines looked old by 1990, the final model year for the B12, and the year from which this California comes. JP’s father acquired the car new in 1992, and for ten years racked up digits on the odometer using the car as a daily driver and workhorse for the family business. After a decade of faithful service, JP’s father decided to replace the California with a 1995 Corolla, parking the California as a sort of invitation to JP.

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Invitation? JP was already a certified car nut in his early teens, and well before legal driving age had already settled on and acquired an Isuzu Gemini coupe as his would-be project car. He took on work in the family business to save up money for the Gemini, but dad stepped in and told JP that that wouldn’t do. JP’s dad told him to finish studies first, and then think about a project car. JP took his father’s advice – probably not without at least some typical teenage rebellion – and the Gemini went away.

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With the Corolla serving as the workhorse, the father seemed to be suggesting that JP take the parked California for himself. Evidently, JP did, or we’d be looking at a very different car today.

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Photo from owner.

When JP first took the California, the original blue paint had faded quite badly, so a respray was in order. Body-wise, there wasn’t very much to do; the car may have been a workhorse for a decade, but it was in no way abused. Never crashed and never driven through even a slight flood, the body was completely straight and only showed minor surface rust on the right side rocker panel. Above is how the car looked in 2005 after its first respray, when JP had fully taken over caring for the California.

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Photo from owner.

Not one to rest on his laurels (not the Nissan), JP had the car resprayed a lighter shade of blue in 2008, this time bolting on a set of Rota Flashbacks. At this point it’s important to note that JP had, by that time, started a family and was using the California as his daily driver. To that end, he’d had the motor swapped out for a fresher unit of the same kind from Japan, as a precautionary measure, instead of waiting for problems to crop up on the original motor.

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By the time 2012 rolled around, JP had already gotten another car for daily driving duties, so he decided to give the California one more refresh, this time far more thorough and possibly for good.

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It bears repeating: in this California, JP had a very good base to start with his build. He had known the car all its life, and knew how well his father had cared for it. Plus, with the two prior builds, he had gained intimate knowledge of the platform and its capabilities.

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One concern was parts; in the B12’s era, Nissan was in a bit of a slump. These Sentras used to be quite common, but are now noticeably thin on the ground compared to its contemporaries. While questions of durability and engineering prowess are difficult to answer, one reason may be the rock-bottom resale the market gave these cars. This could be down to any number of reasons, but JP puts this down to parts prices. It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here, since low demand for the cars means low demand for the parts creating a scarcity through time, but in JP’s experience, he found that parts were really no more expensive compared to parts for contemporary Hondas.

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Seems curious to have an air vent and the clock share a bezel, but there you go.

Still, Nissans of this era still had one pretty compelling one-up on the competition: the air-conditioning. Today, the Japanese competition has mostly caught up, but up until the mid-90s or so, if you wanted a stonking A/C system that simply shrugged off the tropical heat, you went for a Nissan.

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Evidently, this isn’t some bargain-basement stripper special California, as the presence of power windows and power locks denote. But, since this is a car engineered and sold in simpler times, this was about the most amount of luxury you could get in your typical compact family sedan. While today’s compact sedans can be optioned with automatic climate control, keyless entry and starting, back in the 90s your car was pretty boss if you didn’t need winders to open up your windows, or if you didn’t have to ask each passenger to lock their doors. Any other luxury was left up to you.

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Impressively, Nissan has made an attempt to give the driver the feel of being in a cockpit. Hooded gauges set between two air vents and all contained within their own enclosed pod do a lot to raise the sportiness of the interior, meanwhile making sure that the driver would never be cursed with sweaty palms.

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So with JP’s plans for the car ironed out, the next step was bringing it all together.

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Let’s start with the outside, since it’s a mighty logical place to start discussing a car. Originating from the Sunny line, the Sentra only came to be in 1982 with the front-drive B11. The Philippines got the “Sentra” moniker, while other Asian markets got “Sunny”. “Sentra” B12s came with grilles that had white “NISSAN” lettering in the middle, while “Sunny” B12s got a stylised “S” crest. Considerably less dowdy than the white lettering, the Sunny grille gives the car a much sportier character.

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In concert with the Sunny grille, JP spent years looking for this rare GTS bumper. Cleaner than the stock bumper, the GTS bumper also incorporates pods for fog lamps. These aren’t the OEM fog lamps, by the way; the OEM lamps were included with the GTS bumper, but came to JP with cracked lenses. Apparently the shipping handlers weren’t handling the goods with enough care, so JP had to make do with undersized stand-ins. Plans are in place to find the correct lamps, but for now these will have to do.

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As for the wheels, JP didn’t want to stick on modern, large wheels; he was chasing a period look, and since wheels are a huge part of a car’s overall look, whatever went here would be crucial. At the same time that he was looking for the GTS bumper, JP was looking for these vintage three-piece Work Ewings in the correct 4×100 bolt pattern for the car.

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Originally, the Ewings were supposed to go on a liftback Corolla DX. With similar body lines, the Ewings work just fine on the California, the black centre caps tying in very well with the black window surrounds and body pieces.

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At the completion of the respray, JP decided to take the California out of daily driving duties. He has several sets of parts for the car, most of which are kept in storage, one of which is fitted to the car for when the car goes into storage. The tail lamps you see on the California are from the storage set, so they’re a little rougher than the set he fits for show.

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A B13 Sentra exhaust finisher is at the end of the California’s exhaust system. Usually found on top-trim B13 Sentras, the oval exhaust serves an interesting counterpoint to the rectilinear bumper.

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For the car’s suspension, it’s a mix of aftermarket lowering parts and B13 retrofits to get the car to that just-right drop without completely murdering ride quality. A believer in neither extreme camber nor “stance”, the suspension geometry has been slightly modified to keep the wheels sitting square despite the drop.

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A coat of gloss beige from the VW Beetle colour catalog finishes the car off perfectly. JP wasn’t out to build the sort of car that shouts at you to get attention. He wanted something akin to a slow burn, and I think that the choice of gloss beige has achieved that perfectly. You notice it, take maybe a couple of steps away, and turn for one more look.

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Another goal for the paint was that it had to look thin, to keep it from masking the car’s delicate lines. From this angle, it’s evident that the paint does indeed look thin, but isn’t one bit dull. In the sunlight, the colour takes on its own weight, at the same time lifting all of the body’s lines and creases to light.

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Since JP was going for a period look, shaving the little corner lights on the ends of the front fender would have been a mistake. These corner lights were popular items on cars of the era, and these were actually already fitted to the California from new. Aside from being trendy dress-up items, these lights helped drivers locate the front corners of the car. Now these are a thing of the past, owing to the sloping front ends dictated by aerodynamics and safety.

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“Hi-Tech Locks”

Another extremely period item is the Solex door lock. The Solex “Hi-Tech Locks” were pretty much the standard car security upgrade of the era, before the supremely annoying “Viper” alarms took over with their maddening “VIPER ARMED” exclamation. The Solex lock’s main security feature was the unique key: cylindrical, with linear cuts of varying lengths in the outer rim that corresponded with tumblers inside the mechanism. These keys were practically impossible to replicate, a huge leg up on the simple keys of the time. Solex locks have fallen out of favour, as most keyholes on car doors have now been integrated into the door handle, and factory alarm systems have made mechanical security systems like this largely obsolete.

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The twin high-mount third brake lamps mounted behind the large rear glass are another period item that JP spent considerable time searching for. Aside from building on the period look JP was going for, the lamps augment the California’s admittedly small brake light area. The right side reversing lamp has been turned into an additional brake lamp for the same reason.

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Inside, these multicoloured rubber floor mats are the biggest throwbacks to the 90s. These were incredibly popular back in the day, and were usually paired with muted cloth or corduroy corded seat covers. Time was that you owned several sets of seat covers, each paired with a set of floor mats, and you’d change them out regularly. As leather seat covers grew in popularity, along with the increasing complexity and somberness of car interiors, such practices went away, and so did these mats.

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See how, with the muted seat covers, the floor mats add just enough colour to lift the interior. The only real problem with these mats was the durability of the material. Made of quite thin, flexible rubber, they were prone to tearing and just weren’t quite up to the duty of being repeatedly trampled. In retrospect, this was probably why one usually owned several sets of these. For JP though, time was not on his side; while the search for a fresher set is on, the slightly tired set in the California will have to do.

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This being a California, one of the big draws is the extended roof and the large rear hatch. While the sedan might look a little dowdy, with its formal roof and flat boot, the wagon makes a good case as to why each sedan should have a wagon version. Suddenly, with the extended roof and fast rear slope, the California becomes a properly pretty thing.

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Here is why it’s so good to be building on a car that you’ve always known: you’re sure of what’s still there and what isn’t. For example, how many B12 Sentras do you think still have this bit of plastic trim with them and in such good condition?

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That being said, this California still isn’t at 100%. There are a few more things to sort out, but it’s well on its way to being the period build that JP wants it to be.

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Not that he’d had a dearth of ideas for this round of rebuilds of the California. At one point, he was considering an SR20 swap. That would have turned it into quite the quick wagon, but JP decided against the swap, in consideration of the car’s chassis. From his and his father’s faithful daily driver, the California has been given a well-deserved rest from daily duties. For its own preservation, the car is now become a garage queen, which is probably a good sign that JP is satisfied with the direction he’s taken with the car.

It isn’t the showy, loud kind of thing that you see from most modified cars of this age; even among its contemporaries it sits a little muted. But it is that very meekness that makes the California stand out. Right now, it’s a testament to good taste, and a prime exhibit as to why you don’t really need loud colours, deep-dish wheels and ridiculous suspension geometries to get attention.

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And the future? Well, JP’s got a Datsun B120 that he’s already starting to restore, and is still on the prowl for parts to finish the California. Plans to sell? Absolutely none; this is one B12 Sentra that should never have a problem with low resale values. There’s no denying that this California deserves every bit of cool that its name implies, and JP’s son is extremely lucky to have such a cool car waiting for him when he comes of driving age. That is, of course, if he can prove that he’s worked hard enough for dad’s California.

– Words by Kristoff Franco, photos by Eugene Calimag and supplied by owner

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