CC Capsule: 1987 Nissan Be-1 – It Takes One To Be-1

Retro is in. But then it’s always been in. Back in the ‘30s, Ettore Bugatti styled his cars with hints of the horse-drawn buggies of his turn-of-century youth. In the ‘60s, Virgil Exner reinstated stand-alone grilles and opera windows harking back to the Hoover administration. But the third wave of neo-classicism, which was now looking back to the ‘50s, came from Japan. More precisely, from the Nissan “Pike cars” of the late ‘80s, the first of which was the BE-1.

In the early ‘80s, Nissan saw a double threat to their new K10 March city car. One was one of the imports that was making a killing in Japan, the evergreen Mini. The other, the Honda City, was also round-eyed and cute – everything the March was not. An internal design competition was organized to devise a March-based rival to Honda and Austin, taking in a number of styling cues from both. Designer Naoki Sakai, author of proposal B1, won the competition. Having perhaps exhausted their inspiration, Nissan went ahead and called it Be-1.

A prototype was showcased at the 1985 Tokyo Motor Show to tremendous general approval, but now Nissan had to decide how to play their hand. The company had virtually no capacity to build the Be-1 and it would require a lot of man-hours, given its somewhat novel construction. Certain body panels, notably the front and rear valence, were to be made of a new type of pebble-resistant thermoplastic resin, developed in collaboration with General Electric. ABS resin was used for the C-pillar, while the hood and doors were made of durasteel.

This all called for a lot of care in terms of manufacturing, assembly and especially painting. The Be-1 would thus be offered in four colours – Tomato Red, Pumpkin Yellow, Onion White and the very fetching Hydrangea Blue seen on our feature car – made from high heat-treated special paint that was said to be very resistant to fade. Judging by this car and the handful I’ve seen, the reality lived up to the hype on that score.

Production was therefore limited and outsourced to Takada Kogyo, a company that up to then had mainly provided Nissan with parts, truck cabs and body panels. The Be-1 had to be partially hand-built, but Takada did an excellent job of it and became a regular partner for small production runs, including for upcoming Pike cars such as the Figaro.

All this care and innovation did not extend to the running gear, which was your bog-standard Nissan K10 March, complete with its modest 52hp 987cc 4-cyl. (with either a 5-speed manual of a 3-speed auto), but this was not at issue. In fact, the reassuringly capable mechanicals worked in the Be-1’s favour, keeping the focus on the car’s novel and distinctive styling.

Initially, Nissan hoped to produce a limited run of 3000 cars, but when sales actually began in January 1987, the company quickly realized that this would not be sufficient. Nissan resorted to a lottery system to allocate the cars fairly. Takada ended up making 10,000 units by December 1987, yet this failed to quench the public’s thirst for the little Be-1. But Nissan were ready to move on to other retro designs, such as the equally successful Pao.

With such a small production run, it’s no surprise that the Be-1 is now the rarest of the early Pike cars, along with the S-Cargo van. Subsequent neo-retro efforts were not all as graceful and restrained at the Be-1, to say the least. The lack of garish brightwork on these is particularly notable, yet the ‘50s/’60s feel is unmistakable. They really don’t make retro like they used to.