The Story of my Nissan Sunny B12 GTI #1: Survival

My Nissan Sunny B12 GTI was owned by a caring elderly couple for 16 years. It should have become a pristine classic car, but instead it went through the misery of being a beater car, being abused, and failing inspections due to lots of rust. It went through several hands before I took care of it and restored it. This is its story, part 1.

In November 1988, the workers at the Nissan Oppama plant in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, completed assembly of a red Nissan Sunny. A sporty B12 coupe intended for the German market, it was build as a LHD model, and equipped with the powerful CA18DE engine – to not risk sales of the S12 Silvia on the home market, this powerful engine was only available in export models to join the fierce “GTI” compétition happening in Europe.

After being shipped to Germany, the Sunny sold within a few weeks: on 25th of January 1990, the GTI was registered for the first time. An older couple from Albstadt, Baden-Württemberg, bought the lucky buyers.

As an additional extra, the dealer applied fashionable pin stripes, and small “flirt” decals onto the door. Because of that, let us call this Sunny GTI “flirt” from now on.

The Glorious Early Years

Information about the initial years of “flirt” are hard to reconstruct, but the Sunny served his owners well: it ran well over 150,000km over the next 15 years, without any flaws. Besides the usual maintenance, the bonnet was replaced at some point, and the left rear quarter panel got slightly pushed inwards – barely noticeable.

The couple kept the Sunny in a garage, which helped preserve the cherry-red 526 color and red plaid GTI seats. However, the long and snowy winters in southern Germany took its toll. Corrosion caused by road salt started eating away the steel body, and spread quickly.

The rust hole is large enough to replace the timing belt out of the wheel arch.

By 2006, the rust hole in the front wheelhouse grew to a length of over 40cm, a size which even the most generous engineer at the TÜV vehicle inspection couldn’t overlook. Those massive rust holes on both front wheelhouses were not the only place where the Sunny suffered from severe corrosion. Upon closer inspection, rust-weakened spots were also found in the rear wheel arches, rocker panels, radiator support, underbody, and rear chassis legs.

Removing the body kit reveals even more misery on the left rocker panel, right below the door.

By the mid 2000s, the value of Sunnys had plummeted near zero. Even for a garage-kept GTI, a repair was not economical. As with thousands of other Sunnys during these years, the old couple decided to sell the Sunny with a heavy heart.

Escaping the Crusher

A red Sunny GTI, same model as “flirt”, being parted out on a junkyard (2009)

For most Sunnys, that usually meant a one-way trip to the crusher. In fact, in 2008-2015, lots of Sunnys being scrapped were in much better condition than “flirt”. However, our Sunny was lucky: by the time it was put on sale, it still had a few months of valid inspection left. Such sporty cars with a near-zero price tag and valid inspection attract a very niche group of automotive enthusiasts: they buy the car for slightly more than scrap value, beat the hell out of it for 3 to 6 months, and, by the time the fine for exceeding the vehicle inspection gets too high, sell it for scrap.

“flirt” was a perfect fit for this group. It so happened to end up in the hands of an impecunious Sunny enthusiast. This enthusiast already butchered carefully cared for two other Sunnys.

One of the other carefully cared for Sunnys: a body kit slapped on, the roof and bumpers rolled black, rust everywere. Maintenance only happened when acquaintances had mercy and would do it for free. The sheet beneath the rear license plate had a cutout because the owner once forget the key inside.

It was driven very hard for a few months, until the tires were bald, and the brakes stopped working. At which point, it was deregistered. The intended usage of “flirt” was to fix it up once the other two Sunnys were “used up”. For the meantime, it was stored on an open field. The high grass and rainy weather made the corrosion advance in turbo mode.

During that time, some “maintenance” was done. The spark plugs were replaced, during which one of the spark threads in the cylinder head was stripped. The instrument cluster and some smaller parts were removed, and transplanted into the white Sunny above.

Was “flirt” lucky? I think so. Had passed the 2007 inspection, the next inspection would have been in 2009, in time for the Abwrackprämie. The Abwrackprämie offered a €2500 discount when buying a new car and crushing your old one. Back then, my parents decided to hand in my own Sunny for their new car. I was utterly mad at them.
Had this happened in 2009, this Sunny would have been a perfect candidate. Luckily, “flirt” failed the inspection already two years earlier.

The GTI as a Spare Parts Car

In August 2008, the enthusiast was in need of money. He decided to offer “flirt” for sale on eBay. At that time, I was searching for rust-free doors and bonnet, and a friend told me that this GTI may be a good candidate. Another friend wanted to swap the GTIs CA18 engine into his car. Hence, we decided to buy “flirt” together and break it for spares. We won the auction with a selling price of €350.

After winning the auction, my friend and I went to pick up the car. We had been warned that the corrosion was bad and urgent maintenance is required, but we didn’t expect thick flaky rust on the brake discs. During a first test drive on the property, pushing the brake pedal will full force had almost no effect.

That’s me when I was 19 years old, picking up my GTI.

The tires were completely bald, the brakes didn’t work, the cylinder head gasket was blown, and the steering was leaking oil. I brought some wheels with good tires, and friends that live close by offered us to use their workshop. They helped with some urgent brake maintenance. Thank you so much for your kind help!

The Opel BBS rims were a perfect fit! The blue Sunny is our friend who helped us maintain the engine and brakes.

The Five Days Before Breaking it for Spares

Back in 2008, in Germany, you were allowed to move cars without technical inspection on the road using a short-term license plate, which is valid for five days. Because there is no need for a passed technical inspection, it is intended to be used when buying used cars. You would use them to bring your new used car before inspecting it. Germany changed the rules in 2015 to require a valid technical inspection, but back then we could enjoy the GTI to the fullest for five days. Since we bought the car together, I drove it for three days, my friend used the remaining two days.

Driving the “flirt” GTI with good tires and working brakes was a blast. The car looked amazing after a little scrubbing, and driving it during these three days was incredible fun. The CA18DE engine sounds great and pulls the Sunny nicely. At 23:58PM on the last day the license was valid, we drove the car to my place to store it.

Plans for Restoration

In the end, we didn’t have the heart to break the Sunny for parts. Instead, we agreed that I will pay out my friend and will fully own it from that point on. I was so happy! I knew this car is a keeper, and the great exterior condition is just amazing.

However, I had no clue at all how to restore a car. Neither did I have any money to buy spare parts. The only thing that was sure at this moment was that the GTI had escaped the crusher yet another time. But what is next? How to fix the rust without a welder, tools or the experience? How to fix the head gasket, and the leaking power steering?

A few years after owning the GTI, I tried to contact the couple that originally bought it, but I was too late – the husband who knew a lot about this car had passed away just weeks prior.

The story of the “flirt” GTI will continue in part 2! Thanks for reading, folks!

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