Still the champion of Africa
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Still the champion of Africa

Date: 30 May 2003 Author Type: Registered Journalist
Author: Andrew Walker
Take proven rear-wheel-drive traction, semi-elliptical leaf springs for load-carrying capacity, bodywork from the school of hard knocks, a tough and simple four-cylinder powerplant for reliability; put them all together and you have the basis of a world-beating bakkie.

Those fundamentals remain the four pillars on which the Nissan 1400 bakkie was designed and is still built, with the most popular half-tonner in the land able to trace its ancestry straight back to the legendary Datsun 1200 bakkie which was launched locally in 1971. In its day, the compact yet big-hearted 1200 was at the forefront of new thinking in the pick-up market, and with large gas-guzzling six and eight cylinder vehicles not suiting everyone’s tastes and requirements, the timing was perfect for a smaller and more comfortable option.

The 1200’s car-like cabin and ability to carry a 500 kilogram load made it a big hit straight away, as did its reliability and economy. By 1976 it had been renamed the 120Y, and in 1980 the 1 397 cc A14 motor replaced the venerable A12. Rated at 47 kW and 97Nm (the latter figure at just 2 500 r/min - one of the reasons the 1400 bakkie remains so willing even when heavily laden), the basic drivetrain has remained virtually unchanged for over 20 years.

A carburettor still supplies the fuel and a straightforward single overhead valve engine means that maintaining and servicing a 1400 bakkie requires little in the way of special skills or equipment. These are aspects that have helped to make it especially appealing to fleet operators who often handle their own servicing, and sometimes under less than perfect conditions. Parts of all kinds are attractively priced and readily available too.

In the mid-eighties the 1400 bakkie underwent a further capacity increase, but this time in the form of more cabin volume by virtue of a higher roof. From behind the cabin nothing changed though, and there’s still a roomy, sturdy, double-sided loadbox stamped from high tensile steel, designed to carry virtually anything from boxes to bricks.

Today, the two-model range undercuts anything else in the class, whether you’re talking about the businesslike “Standard” or more lifestyle-orientated “Champ” version. Mechanically the two are identical, from suspension through to the ratios in the five-speed gearbox, right down to the tiny 4.1 metre turning circle. The Champ can be identified by virtue of its silver Spoker 12-inch wheels, spotlamps, tonneau cover, tinted windscreen, mudflaps, and side striping. Inside there are individual seats with cloth upholstery (as opposed to the bench in the Standard), a tachometer, head restraints, and a soft-grip steering wheel.

While it may be the senior citizen of the Nissan model line-up, the 1400 bakkie continues to play a significant role in the local market. And until such time as something else comes along that can work harder with a half-ton load in its bak, the Nissan 1400 bakkie will continue to deserve its unofficial title of Champion of Africa.

250 000 and still going strong

For the Nissan 1400 bakkie, the number 250 000 isn’t a big deal if you’re talking about distance travelled in kilometres, and there are many thousands of South Africa’s favourite half-ton pick-ups in use which have exceeded that distance. But the significance of the quarter-million figure is that that’s how many of the immensely popular workhorse have been sold locally - including the 1200 – since its introduction in November 1971.

“The 1400 bakkie is a cornerstone on which Nissan’s reputation was built in this country,” says Roel de Vries, Head of Marketing and Communications at Nissan SA. “Many years ago one of the print ad campaigns focussed on its indestructible engine… well, I think that time has shown that it’s not just the engine that is indestructible.”

Over the decades the Datsun 1200, and since 1980 the Datsun 1400 (which became the Nissan 1400 in 1982) has earned a well-deserved reputation as the ultimate small workhorse, thanks to its excellent reliability, low maintenance requirements, and modest sticker price. In both the Standard and Champ guises currently offered they are the two most affordable vehicles on the South African market, period. If you want to buy any other rear-wheel-drive bakkie you’d have to spend at least an additional R40 000.

Small business owners and fleet operators swear by the evergreen 1400 bakkie, and according to information from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, one out of every 37 small businesses relies on the big-hearted Nissan bakkie. Key to its popularity has been the rear-drive layout, ensuring traction is maintained even when fully-laden.

The Nissan 1400 bakkie has consistently maintained approximately 30% share of the half-ton bakkie market, and while it has remained largely unchanged – and why tamper with a winning formula? - its specification and pricing has been constantly reviewed to ensure that it meets the rigorous demands of the typical owner.

“We knew that the 1400 bakkie enjoyed a solid reputation in the marketplace, but when we started researching users like the Automobile Association and Mounties for background information on the occasion of our 250 000th sale, we realised that the 1400 bakkie had established something of a cult following in its own right,” says de Vries.

“Many of its drivers talk about it as if it is a friend that you can rely on and trust anytime and anyplace – which has to be the ultimate product endorsement.”
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