Latest challenge for experienced JDM car modifiers? A Bone Stock 80’s Pathfinder

Brandon Miller is no ordinary car enthusiast. Something about the cars he finds and builds just strikes him as different. He’s crossed our sides before with a 1980’s turbocharged R30 Nissan Skyline RS and a drop-dead cool 300ZX that rocked SEMA from its perch in the Toyo Treadpass area last year. Unfortunately, a valve failed on this car. As plans were put in motion to get it back on the road, Miller decided to explore another facet of his enthusiasm. So instead of a BMW with an LS swap or a straight-six Z 300ZX, we’re looking at a bone-hard 1980s Nissan Pathfinder.

Not that Miller can leave it alone. No, it will not be modified, but improved and revised. It’s a refreshing and intriguing change of pace for a guy who can’t stay alone on any of his vehicles well enough. We caught up with Miller to find out why a tired, old SUV has captured his heart and if he’ll be tempted to improve it later.

MT: You’ve been featured a few times on our site as you’ve been the brains behind some of the most interesting builds with heavily modified classic JDM sports cars. And now… a pathfinder for the US market made of bone material? Tell us how you got here and why this vintage SUV appeals to you.

BM: It’s good to be back. That’s right, I’ve always rebuilt my vehicles since the beginning since 1995. Even the brand new Tacoma I bought in 2019 was only in stock for about four hours. I really enjoy customizing cars and trying to create OEM plus visions of what I would have liked the factory to do.

The hunt for a red 1987 Nissan Pathfinder SE has actually been going on for more than a decade. And it took two years to convince the previous owner to sell me this one. I’ve basically been a Nissan fanatic since birth. My dad bought his first Datsun 240Z in 1971 after watching Jon Morton race the BRE 46 car on the Atlanta street. Growing up, he only owned Nissans and Porsches.

Walk us through some of your previous builds. Do any of them have a nostalgic or emotional component, or were they just cool cars?

The most notable earlier builds would probably be the currently owned RB I-6 swapped naturally aspirated Nissan Z31 300ZX, the LSx 427 swapped BMW E39 528i Touring, the supercharged S62 swapped BMW E38 740i, the R30 Nissan Skyline currently in the Owned is the S212 Mercedes E63 AMG station wagon and the Turbo M52-swapped BMW E34 525i. There were many other but far lesser known and/or milder builds.

If I remember correctly, I have owned 35 vehicles since 1995. The Z and R30 were more nostalgic builds, but the rest are basically just trying out all the different vehicles that appeal to me and trying to see what I like best. The Pathfinder is much more nostalgic and personal/emotional to me.

Might you be content with keeping the Pathfinder stash? Any subconscious desire, I dunno, to do a twin turbo and make some sort of Bronco Raptor alternate universe fighter?

I know it’s hard to believe, but for some reason I just love how a stock Pathfinder SE looks. Sure I’ve been thinking about creating an amazing restomod vision of what could be and to be honest if this was in worse shape I would have been open to just that. But my goal in searching for the last ten years has been to find the most original and up-to-date example I could find. When I first saw this one I knew it was what I needed.

However, the photos I saw didn’t really show the condition of the paintwork. When it got here in Virginia I was a bit disappointed. The entire passenger side was chalk red. It looked like the clear coat had been baked straight from the California sun. And although the driver’s side looked much better, it had buffer burn marks across the entire surface. This process had done some damage to the factory strip. Thankfully, the stripe on the passenger side was near perfect. I tried doing some hand polishing that didn’t do much. But then I tried a very light wet sanding in some places and quickly realized that this color might still be salvageable. My good friend brought in his colorimeter and I was thrilled to learn that there was quite a bit more color on it than I expected. This allowed another good friend of mine who owns and operates Blackops Auto Proto spend a whole week doing a full color grading.

And I have to admit that my expectations were far exceeded. I couldn’t believe how rich and vibrant the color could look. Knowing that paint correction was first on the list, I set out to purchase as many NOS parts from Nissan as I could. Luckily I have a friend who works in a dealer’s parts department in Virginia and he tracks down rare parts for me and gives me the PM and dealer number. Most of the time the inventory is wrong and the pieces are missing, but sometimes I get lucky.

I found a new passenger side front fender flare, hood vents, a Nissan badge, driver side stripe set, rear dome light, outer door handles, front door window seals and lower trim/wiper along with a few miscellaneous other parts.

New BFG A/T 31″x10.5″x15″ tires were fitted along with new Bilstein shocks. Although the OEM adjustable suspension still worked, they were just too far gone to keep. With the new shocks, a new center drag link and after a fresh realignment this vehicle drives remarkably well.The original head unit was long gone so I fitted it with an aftermarket Blaupunkt styled like the 80’s model albeit with bluetooth.

The only items left on the list are dry ice blasting the engine bay, chassis and wheel arches, painting the front and rear bumpers and then just some minor cosmetics like replacing the driver’s side armrest, finding a replacement Sunroof cover and replacing the driver’s side seat cushion foam. The original owner of this vehicle averaged less than 3,000 miles per year until storing it for seven years through 2020. California weather kept rust at bay and in fact I’ve never seen a chassis cleaner on a vehicle like this. The wheel studs and suspension bolts are still fully cad plated with no corrosion. It’s quite remarkable and for all these reasons this vehicle needs to stay as close to stock as possible. They are original only once and it is important to preserve such vehicles so that people can see and experience them as they were like new.

Seems the pathfinder brings up strong memories of your father. How does it reflect who he was, his interests and personalities?

My history with ’87 Pathfinders is pretty strong. As previously mentioned, my father was a huge influence on my love of automobiles. And being a Nissan guy through and through, my passion began. I remember having Datsun 510s everywhere growing up. It was four or five at a time, and I fondly remember pretending to drive an old empty shell in the backyard. My dad traded in his 1984 Nissan 720 ST for a blue Pathfinder XE in 1987. It was a base model with no radio and no air conditioning, but I absolutely loved it. I will never forget how cool these rear triangle pop out windows were to me. I really don’t know why I used to be so clingy, but I’ve always loved her.

Although my first vehicle was a similar specimen to one my father bought new in 1987, the Nissan Maxima SE, I decided to sell it one day when I saw a red ’87 Pathfinder SE in a local driveway. I convinced the guy to sell it and I drove it from about 1997-2000. I then found another locally in the early to mid 2000s and convinced them to sell that one too. Can’t really remember why I sold it, but I’ve pretty much wanted a different one ever since.

Are there specific memories you’d like to evoke with the Pathfinder… maybe an adventure you had in it as a kid?

I just want to enjoy it. It’s a great vehicle to drive, albeit slow as hell. It gets a lot of looks and thumbs up. I’m delighted that my 9 year old son seems to love it as much as he used to, so I hope to create fond memories with him. My dad loves it too and says it’s his favorite vehicle I’ve bought in a long time.

What’s new about the 300ZX, which was one of our highlights at the 2021 Toyo Treadpass area at SEMA last year?

The Z had an unfortunate incident on Christmas Day 2021. My son and I went on a cruise as it was 70 degrees outside. We were coming home from a nice long drive and while revving to about 9,000 rpm a valve in the number five cylinder dropped. I parked the vehicle immediately, but it was already too late. Luckily I found someone who made me a great deal on a factory fresh RB26 head and it is currently being built milder with Headgames. Similar cams, but only full-size valves and pocketport. It might not do as much peak performance, but it will probably be more fun in normal driving situations.

I need to have new pistons made and with an endoscope it looks like the cylinder wall can be honed. When I finally pull the motor off I’ll know more about it. Hopefully he’ll be back on the road by the end of the year.

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