Nissan D21: An Unlikely Drift Hero

The Nissan Hardbody is a great truck for drifting

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If you've researched drifting, you've probably heard the following: Get a BMW E36, Nissan 350z, Mazda Miata, or a Nissan S-Chassis. While these are all excellent platforms, the recent popularity of drifting has caused the prices of these cars to skyrocket.

What is a fun, unique, and engaging way to get into drifting without breaking the bank? Enter the Nissan Hardbody, or D21: a work truck produced in the 1980's and 1990's that is often overlooked simply because drift trucks are only noticed when they're built from the ground up.

This is for a good reason, as custom flashy drift trucks often require plenty of fabrication. But many people don't realize that the stock D21 is one of the most capable trucks for drifting.

While something like a Chevy C-10 will have more power, they are less reliable, more sought after, and weigh up to a thousand pounds more. Here's why the Nissan Hardbody D21 is one of the best trucks for drifting.

Table of Contents


What is the Nissan Hardbody D21?

The Nissan D21 Hardbody was first introduced to the states in 1985 as a successor to the Datsun 720. It was designed to compete with other small trucks like the Ford Ranger and the Chevy S-10. This light pickup truck was available until 1997 when Nissan transitioned to the Frontier. Below is a typical 2WD version of the Nissan Hardbody truck in an extended cab configuration.


There are many trim levels and engine packages to choose from, although the trim levels don't have much effect on performance. The D21 is available in a single or king cab and a dual cab variant exclusive to Japan. There is a four-wheel-drive model as well that is more suited for off-roading.

Is the Nissan Hardbody Good for Drifting?

The D21 Nissan Hardbody is an excellent truck platform for drifting. It has proper weight distribution, promotes driving skills, has plenty of room for spare tires, and it's tough enough to drift on a regular basis. Here's more on the four reasons why the D21 is a great truck to drift.

1. Nissan Hardbody Weight Distribution

First and foremost, the D21 has excellent weight distribution for drifting. When looking at sedans or hatchbacks, you will find electronics, seats, windows, and other materials placed directly above the rear wheels. The only components above the rear wheels are the bed and frame on the Nissan Hardbody.

The lack of material in the rear provides optimal weight distribution for drifting as the rear wheels are much easier to slide out.

2. Skill is Better than Power

Second, drifting a difficult car teaches proper technique. With relatively low power and a lack of sporty suspension, the D21 may be difficult to learn to drift in. But it's worth the initial challenge if you want to be good.

Someone who starts learning to drift with a Chevy Corvette will slide out with ease as the high power output allows the rear wheels to spin freely. While this may seem beneficial, someone that relies on engine power alone to drift does not learn proper load transfer.

Many advocates for D21 drifting will note that learning to master their truck has allowed them to easily hop in the driver's seat of most other track cars.

3. Spare Tires are Handy

Third, trucks have plenty of room for spare tires. Anyone who has tried drifting will know how quickly tires go bald. Many people will trailer their car to events to preserve the tires and fit additional spares. Nobody wants to drive home on tires that are ready to burst.

Here's where trucks become incredibly useful. The bed can be filled with spares, negating the need for a trailer, allowing for a safe drive home, and guaranteeing plenty of laps. You can drive to the track and drive home.

4. The Nissan D21 is a Tough Truck

These trucks are built to last. Many can run and drive for up to 300,000 miles without needing major repairs. Just ask anyone who owns a D21.

Obviously, maintenance will be required, but so long as all work is carried out safely and correctly, there should be no concerns about being stranded on the highway. The same cannot be said for the ever-popular Nissan S-Chassis, but that's a conversation for another day.

How to Choose a Nissan D21 for Drifting

When looking to purchase a Nissan D21, you will likely find many options. These trucks are available everywhere and at many different price points. There are a few things to look out for when picking one specifically for drifting.


The most important factor will be the drivetrain layout. Be sure to avoid four-wheel-drive models, as this drivetrain type adds extra weight and will be extremely difficult to hold anything more than a small donut.

Trim Levels

Next are the trim levels and engine options. There are many trim levels, including XE, GL, SE, and DX. These options won't mean much in terms of performance as they mostly affect body styling and features such as power windows. The most notable difference is in the SE model, which is available with a limited-slip differential.

Engine and Model Year

Looking past the trim levels, the best D21's to purchase will be the model years 1990-1997 as these ones came with the KA24E engine making 130 hp. Anyone familiar with this motor will most likely know it from the legendary drift car, the Nissan 240sx. This motor has very large aftermarket support, including internals as well as bolt-on turbo kits.

As is true with most cars from this era, rust is very common. These vehicles are mostly used as work trucks and have likely seen plenty of fluids that cause rust. When buying one, make sure to check the wheel wells, bed, and undercarriage for any extreme rust.

Nissan Hardbody Drifting Modifications

It's worth noting that Nissan Hardbody trucks are not "designed" to drift. While it's possible to slide them stock, it will be much more enjoyable with a few modifications. These can be simplified to D21-specific mods and general drifting mods.

The biggest issue, if you already have a limited-slip differential, is the rear leaf springs. Leaf springs allow for some of the easiest lowering methods (it can be lowered a few inches for only $50 by using blocks) but have sloppy responses and are too soft for quick transitions.

The single best thing to do for these cars is to redo the suspension and convert it to four-link or double wishbone. There is excellent information and tutorials available online that show the entire process.

Although it is long and difficult, Ronnie from the YouTube channel "Local Losers 520" showcased the entire process of installing a custom four-link kit from @beebanicustoms. Ronnie also provides tutorials on converting the drum brakes to disk brakes, adding front camber, and more.

The other recommended modifications are more applicable to drift cars in general. Installing a hydraulic handbrake, a turbo kit, bucket seats, welding the differential (if a limited-slip differential is not available), and adding negative camber, will turn this simple truck into a drifting machine.

Should I Buy a Nissan D21 for Drifting?

If you are looking for an event-ready vehicle from the day you purchase it, this truck is not for you. There will be a significant amount of work needed to make this truck competitive.

However, if you are willing to learn, love building and installing parts, and want something to make you stand out, then buy a Nissan D21. It will be a fraction of the price of standard drift cars and will remain that way for a while.