Curbside Classic: 1989 Nissan Pao – Making Retro Cool Again

In his post on the Nissan Pao, CC Founder and Editor Paul Niedermeyer called it “Retro done right.” It’s about the most succinct way to put it. There are so many retro cars that look all kinds of weird or just plain ridiculous, but every once in a while, retro works. The Toyota Origin or the Mitsuoka Rock Star come to mind. But the Pao is even more important in automotive history, as it was a key part of the movement that re-launched retro, yet it was an entirely original design.

As luck would have it, there are still plenty of Paos about in Japan, as you may know if you are a regular reader of my recurring Singles Outtakes posts. My issue was to find one that was both original and decent: I have seen a few rotting ones, which is uncharacteristic of JDM finds, but seems to affect Paos more than others. As it turns out, I ended up with three candidate cars. So I’m going to mix all three, even if one seems to be a different colour from the other two.

I say “seem” because two of the four colours used on Paos, namely olive-gray and blue-gray, are somewhat similar, depending on lighting and the condition of the car. One car looks (to me) aqua blue and the other green(ish), and the third kinda looks between the two. The other colours were “ivory” (really more of a light beige) and “terracotta,” a deep orange-red. I have seen a couple of ivory cars, but never the fourth sort. Blue seems to have been the most popular choice by a large margin.

Retro automotive styling went through a first American wave in the ‘60s and especially the ‘70s, leading to a proliferation of upright chrome grilles, imitation convertible tops, wire wheels and stand-up hood ornaments on American cars – as well as some copycat designs from elsewhere. And there were a lot of ‘30s-inspired replicas, such as the Excalibur SS, Stutz and a wide variety of kit cars as well, as we saw was the Gazelle SSK recently.

By the mid-‘80s though, the source for retro inspiration started to shift from the prewar era to the ‘50s, as the Boomer generation started calling the shots and designing the cars. And thus began the second retro wave, which in Japan especially, has not yet really died down. Of course, nowadays some of the references are more ‘70s/’80s, but it can all be traced back to Nissan’s famous “Pike Cars,” of which our Pao is one.

It all started with the Be-1 (bottom left) in 1987. Nissan hired an outside designer, Naoki Sakai (born in 1947) to devise a new kind of city car – one that completely favoured form over function. Based on the Nissan March (K10), the Be-1 was built in limited numbers and with a high degree of care by one of Nissan’s top subcontractors. It therefore sold extremely well and encouraged both Nissan and Sakai to imagine more cars using the same method. Thus came the Pao (top right, in the famous terracotta hue) in 1989, the Pulsar-based S-Cargo (bottom right) in 1989-90 and the Figaro (top left; 1991-92). The Figaro was not designed by Sakai, though.

The Pao was based on the K10 March and inherited its 51hp OHC 1-litre engine, also used on the Be-1. Nobody ever accused the March of being fast (or even fun to drive), but at least the March and its Pike derivatives are pretty light. Only the Figaro received the 76hp turbo engine. On the other hand, the sole transmission mated to that turbo was a 3-speed auto.

At least, with the Pao (and the Be-1), you had a choice of slush or stick. Here, we have an interior with the aforementioned automatic. Let us also take a minute to gawk in sheer unadulterated awe at this superb dash design, that delicious cream-coloured switchgear, the big ‘50s-style circular gauge cluster…

And here’s the manual version, with a 5-speed that is certainly the far superior choice, given the size of the engine. Gawk again at that cabin before we move back to the exterior.

Aside from the colour and transmission, one of the option boxes one could tick when ordering these was the fabric roof – two of the three cars in this post have this desirable feature, once commonly seen on economy cars (think Citroën 2CV, Fiat 500 or Subaru 360). The two-piece tailgate, complete with exposed hinges top and bottom, is one of this car’s coolest quirks, in my view.

The Mitsuoka philosophy of torturing a March until it screams “Jag” is markedly different from the approach used on Nissan’s Pike cars. The Pao wasn’t made to look like any particular classic car, it merely borrowed a few clues here and there – the 2CV’s horizontally split windows, for instance – but it’s its own thing.

Thanks to being only sold domestically, the Pao was also able to avoid a host of regulatory headaches: no thick bumpers, no third brake light, etc. This helped keep a genuine retro feel. I mean, just look at those “bumpers,” they’re the thinnest ones seen on a city car since the original Renault 4 – another classic beloved of the Japanese public that inspired some aspects of the Pao’s design.

Just like the Be-1, the Pao was a certified hit and orders poured in as soon as sales started in January 1989. Production at Takeda Kogyo had kicked off a few months before, using an unusual mix of materials: the front wings were made of a some kind of polymer resin, the hood used a new type of fiberglass compound and the rest was made of a highly rust-resistant zinc-nickel coated steel. Retro by design, but quite modern in terms of engineering.

Nissan received over 50,000 orders for their sweet little Pao, but production ended in December 1989 at only a shade over 31,000. Selling the cars, which involved some overly elaborate scheme, took until February 1991. I don’t fully comprehend this mismatch between supply and demand, but it goes some way to account for the fact that none of the three Paos in this post have their original license plates, meaning they have great value as second- or third-hand cars – a rarity in Japan, especially for a city car.

Few of the retro designs that proliferated on the March in the wake of Nissan’s Pike cars were very good – including Nissan’s own blinged-up Marches, the various VdP Princess clones, Mitsuoka Viewts and the like – compared to the Pao’s clever cocktail of innovation and classic car cues.

Other carmakers’ usually questionable efforts on their cars, be they Japanese or otherwise, rarely rose to the Pao’s level, being either straight homages to past designs (e.g. Toyota Origin, VW New Beetle) or misguided attempts at jumping on the bandwagon (e.g. Subaru Casa Blanca, among many others). Retro just ain’t what it used to be. And what it used to be, when retro was cool, was the Nissan Pao.


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Curbside Classic: 1989 Nissan Pao – Retro Done Right, by PN