Retro Rides: Nissan Figaro

All four of Nissan’s March-based “Pike cars” had their origins in the 1980s revival in Japan of old cars still in production. The Mini, the 2CV, and the Autobianchi A112 were popular with young Japanese buyers at the time.

You can see the influence of those cars in the first three Pikes – Be-1, S-Cargo, and Pao. They were made for style, and indeed the “Pike Factory” was effectively a public pseudonym for chief designer Naoki Sakai’s Water Group design house.

Chief designer Naoki Sakai was not specifically a car designer before the Be-1. He’d been a graphic artist and a fashion and industrial designer. He did not even have a driver’s license when the Be-1 project began. His specialty was cool, and the limited-production cars he designed had that in spades.

The final Pike, the Nissan Figaro, was just as unashamedly retro as the first three if not more so. It seemed both old – taking cues from loads of vehicles you’d sort of recognize – and new. Looking closely, it bears a resemblance to the Gutbrod Superior, and the Maico Champion, and Vespa 400, and the Autobianchi Bianchina, and on and on.

Really, it was an original idea made out of other ideas and misty views of the past – but not cribbed from any single inspiration. It has been accurately described more than once as “postmodern.”

Tokyo, 1989

The concept version of the Figaro debuted at the blockbuster 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, held at the Makuhari Messe Convention Center. There it competed for attention with the Honda NSX, Toyota Sera and Celsior, Subaru SVX, and exotic concepts like the Ferrari Mythos. Then as now, exotics are cool but the Figaro was a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire.

Buyers had to wait until 1991 to get one, but it’s adorable styling soon made it a desirable car far outside of the JDM audience it was intended for.

Sakai did not design cars alone. Other key figures in the design of the Figaro (and the Pao) were Shoji Takahashi and Jun Shimizu. The latter was one of Nissan’s own designers. It was he who bridged the gap between traditional Nissan execs and Sakai’s left-field Water Group of artists in their weird office in Shibuya.

When it came time for finalizing the car, the detail work went to a Nissan internal team led by Yasuhiko Honma. That, and the growing economic contraction in Japan, was the beginning of the end for the Pike philosophy. Still, about 80% of the design was from the original group.

Inside, the retro themes continued, with hard pieces that looked like Bakelite and old-look pieces made from modern materials. Sakai did not actually like the “retro” appellation, though there wasn’t any hiding it or the logic behind it. “Our secret weapon is the emotional matrix,” he said in a 1991 interview with design publication Blueprint.

As with previous Pikes, production would be limited and potential buyers would get their cars via a lottery.

The original Figaro concept car (Press Photo).

Initially 8,000 were planned – but demand was heavy enough to justify two batches of 6,000 after the first cars were gone. “Unfulfilled desires are hotter than satisfied ones,” Sakai opined. Part of the appeal of all of the Pikes was their exclusivity.

Very much a fashion accessory, it was only available in four 50’s shades. These were Emerald Green, Pale Aqua, Lapis Gray, and Topaz Mist, though many were later repainted.

The “Pike Factory”

The Pike Cars got their name because Sakai’s team were dubbed the “Pike factory,” but there was no actual physical factory. Nissan could probably have sold thousands more Figaros even in the rapidly cooling early 1990s Japanese economy. But they couldn’t really build any more.

The Figaro was built by contractor Takada Kogyo. This company also made panels for the other Pikes and later built the Nissan Rasheen, another Sakai design. Takada also built the Subaru Vivio T-top and WRC Subaru Imprezas in the years following the Figaro.

Underneath the ultra-cool exterior, the Figaro was pure K10 Micra/March with few mechanical differences. The heavy structure needed for the convertible top necessitated fitting the 987-cc MA10ET turbo four from the March Turbo. In the Pao and the Be-1, a non-turbo unit from the same family was used. Those cars were either manual or automatic but much more commonly automatic – in the Figaro, it was automatic only.

Although not much of a performer to drive despite the Turbo, the car never fails to capture attention wherever it goes. That’s one reason why Figaros are quite sought after even today.

Everybody Loves Figaros

Not long after all the JDM buyers had them, it started to gain popularity in the U.K. and parts of continental Europe.

As soon as they arrived in the U.K., Figaros found favor with the style-conscious and famous. Eric Clapton and Noel Gallagher had them, and then on TV (as seen on Elizabeth Slaydon’s “The Sarah Jane Adventures”). When the cars turned 25, a huge surge of interest began in the U.S., which previously couldn’t legally get the Figaro.

If you’d like to learn more about the Figaro (and don’t speak Japanese), the best place to go is the British-based Figaro Owners Club.

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