The Classic Nissan the British Can’t Get Enough Of
By Andy Bannister
Mention classic cars and a few marques spring instantly to mind. Nissan, though, is unlikely to be one of them unless you like the original Datsun 240Z or possibly those early, MG-like Fairlady roadsters.
One odd little Nissan of rather more recent times is, however, enjoying remarkable popularity in the UK as a stylish classic. Never sold here when new, hundreds of cherished used models have been imported and their value seems to go up year after year.
The car in question is something called the Nissan Figaro, one of a handful of deliberately quirky products which appeared at the end of the 1980s when the company briefly went through a phase of selling brand new “boutique” cars for the Japanese home market. Known as Pike Factory models, these odd little limited production vehicles were something of an indulgence for Nissan, which pulled the plug after a few short years of existence.
The Figaro was the brainchild of Shoji Takahashi, a Japanese designer, who set about creating a retro-styled car that would have all the charisma of a classic from the 1950s or 1960s but with modern safety features and reliability.
Under that head-turning skin is nothing more or less than a humble Nissan March (Micra in Europe), the company’s first-generation small city hatchback, beloved of hundreds of thousands of British senior citizens. The Figaro did benefit from a turbocharger, boosting power to a heady 75bhp, which gives ample performance for the city, where it is most at home.
The Figaro was offered in just four body colours – topaz mist, emerald green, pale aqua and lapis grey, each representing a different season of the year. and in their subtle non-metallic hues imitating paint schemes from the era which inspired the car’s styling. Today a popular shade to respray the Figaro is pink, although in my opinion the standard colours are much more in keeping.
Nissan originally aimed to sell only 8,000 Figaros new in Japan but such was the car’s popularity, 20,000 ended up being built and buyers had to enter a lottery to get their hands on a new one.
The car’s popularity in the UK today is easy to fathom. Like Japan, Britain drives on the left, so the tiny right-hand-drive Figaro is perfectly suited for UK roads, needing only a few modifications to be road legal as a personal import. The bulletproof Micra mechanicals means it runs for ever and many spares are available locally at low cost.
No model in Nissan-Datsun’s back catalogue can possibly have inspired the Figaro, and in many ways its styling is unique, although bits of it look like contemporary British cars of the era, from Austin-Healeys to Sunbeams. The closest car I can suggest as an inspiration – unlikely as it may sound – is an East German model from the 1950s, the surprisingly glamorous IFA P70 coupé (right) , from the state-owned company which went on to make the infamous Trabant.
One of the most delightful things about the Figaro is its off-white leather interior, with other features carefully purpose-designed to suit the retro ambience, such as a CD player with a finish like Bakelite, authentic looking instruments and chrome switches, and a mother-of-pearl horn button. The car also has a folding soft top with glass rear screen, making it even more attention-grabbing with the roof down.
Media types and celebrities love it, needless to say, and a well-cared for example can fetch around £8,000 ($16,000) – not far off the new price in Japan in 1991.
As well as the Figaro, Nissan’s Pike Factory also made in very limited numbers its first retro small car, the Be-1. Next, in 1989, the same year as the Figaro was shown, came the distinctly utilitarian Pao (shown left) , which also has a certain rustic charm and was clearly inspired by no-frills models like the Renault 4 and Citroën 2CV.
A slightly different departure was a little “Noddy” van, the S-Cargo (the name is a pun on escargot, French for snail), which is ideal for small business trying to stand out in a crowd in the city. Quite a few of these have also made it round the world to the UK.
The popularity of today’s retro-look new cars like the VW Beetle, Mini and Fiat 500 – made in huge numbers by comparison – makes me wonder if Nissan has missed a trick in not persevering with its Pike Factory models.
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