The cars we loved.
By the time the retro movement was sweeping across automotive design centers in the US, it had been firmly established in Japan for a number of years by the early 90’s. Cute little cars with go cart charm and similar dimensions began to crowd the tight streets of large Japanese cities. New tax and insurance regulations that favored smaller cars gave birth to a new class of vehicle often called the “Kei Car”.
The small size dictated by this class of car seemed to work best when applied to retro themes as seen in cars like the Daihatsu Copen and Suzki Cappuccino. Although not quite a Kei car, it was very small, Nissans’ Figaro was a cute 60’s styled Barbie box based on the Micra platform. Developed by Nissan’s specialty wing called Pike Factory, it did not wear any Nissan badges and was intended for the Japanese home market only.
It came in only four colors, each representing the seasons. Inside all the technology expected in any Japanese specialty car was there like a CD player, leather seats and air condition. The Figaro featured a open roof (almost always white) that was bigger than a typical moon roof, but not quite a convertible. It could retract completely into the trunk and became cars more enduring features. All this fluffiness this have some substantial technology underneath the glassfibre resin body panels. A 1.0 litre turbocharged 4 cylinder engine with 75 hp was more than enough to propel the diminutive coupe around town. It could even keep up with most expressway traffic. The small 12 inch wheels and tires combined with a fully independent suspension tried their best to isolate the interior from poor road surfaces, but wheels so small were not much different from those of a large John Deere lawn tractor. It shared the Micra’s three speed automatic, but not 5 speed manual transmissions.
The appeal of the Figaro was its whimisical Hello Kitty-like looks. First shown at the Tokyo Auto show in 1981, the result of a design contest, it was put into production in 1990 as a 91 model. Nissan produced a limited number and only for one year. So popular was the car, that dealers had a lottery system to determine who would get the chance to buy one. There was really nothing in the Nissan line that resembled the Figaro in Japan or elsewhere.
Even though there were only 20,000 cars made, there are a surprising number of owner clubs and parts suppliers who cater to this car in Japan and some parts of Europe. Surprisingly, the Figaro has developed some odd fit and finish problems that are unusual for modern Nissans. Regardless of problems, the Figaro remains one of the best examples of the early retro craze in Japan, making it a instant modern classic. Used examples can still be found in its homeland, but England and Ireland have emerged as popular locations for exported cars.
A healthy export market for refurbished cars has developed in England were many second hand Figaros find new life and are exported all over the world. The Figaro will be best remembered as helping to usher the retro craze around the world that eventually lead to modern revamps like the New Beetle, Thunderbird and PT Cruiser.