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Nissan Figaro at 30: plotting the retro roadster’s history

It’s like a tinplate toy made real. It seemed old when it was new, conjuring a 1950s world of Formica kitchen cabinets, Dansette record players and the clumsily miniaturised American cars that Britain, Germany and Japan specialised in during the immediate post-war years. Yet the Figaro was 35 years too late for this era, a fact soon apparent when you stepped inside to discover a CD player – hot stuff in 1990 – combined with a radio and a cassette tape player, electric windows and air conditioning.

In fact, it was mainly the 1930s that this curious car drew from, its largely female design team inspired by the 1935 Datsun Roadster and the art deco era – hence electric window switches shaped like miniature chrome lampshades – to produce a car clashingly different from everything else within its maker’s range. There were exceptions – the magnificent R32 Skyline GT-R among them – but back in 1990, Nissan was mainly a peddler of saloons as dull as empty waiting rooms.

The Figaro wasn’t quite the visual shock it might have been, though, because it was the last of what Nissan would christen the Pike Factory cars. Not pike the fish, but pike as in medieval spear, this weapon symbolising the thrust to produce something cutting edge (okay, okay…) and to harness new technology. All were sold in Japan only.

Nissan’s odyssey of studied weirdness began with the Be-1. Today, it looks almost ordinary, but when it appeared as a 1985 concept, this mix of 1960s throwback and curvy futurism was as startling a contrast to a Nissan Bluebird as you could wish. Demand for the 10,000- copy production edition was so strong that Nissan introduced a lottery allocation system and did another run of Be-1s with a fabric sunroof.

The Pike Factory’s next punch was the Pao, a car that surprised as much as if its name had been spelt POW!. Here was a strange little utility hatch with the ribbed panelling of a Citroën 2CV, a painted dashboard, a fabric roof, exposed hinges, a flat windscreen and plenty more of the built-on-a-budget features of Japanese and European people’s cars of the early 1960s. Having massively underestimated demand for the Be-1, Nissan wasn’t going to be caught out this time and invited buyers to sign up for one of 50,000 cars. They were gone in three months, the void filled later that year by the S-Cargo, one of the quirkiest vehicles (and there are plenty of contenders) that Nissan has ever produced. An adorable high-roofed van, the S-Cargo came with snail logos, a sushi tray, the beefier guts of a Sunny and the option of portholes in its ultra-flat flanks.

By now ablaze with creativity, the Pike Factory followed up two years later with the Figaro. It went on to become the most famous of the Pike cars, despite a production run limited to just 20,000. Its shape could have been drawn by a child, the face created by its chrome-rimmed, slightly mournful headlights and simple elliptical grille as cartoonish as its silhouette. The Figaro was unveiled at the 1989 Tokyo motor show in a year generally regarded as the high-water mark of this often extraordinary display of the bold, the oddball and the gloriously unnecessary.

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