(first posted 10/17/2011) If I told you one of the most sought after cars of the early nineties was a Nissan that only came in color hues more suited to bathroom decoration, would you believe me? Would it make a difference if I told you it was only sold in its home market and there was actually a lottery to see who would be lucky enough to be able to purchase one? Production plans called for a paltry eight thousand units but huge demand pushed that total to twenty thousand. Nissan likely lost money on each and every one. Our subject today is the retro-inspired fashion accessory that is the Figaro. One could surmise that it was a halo branding effort, but the Nissan name is nowhere to be found on the car.
Japan was mad about anything retro in the late eighties and early nineties. Rover was selling boat loads of its Minis and the bulk of MG B derived RV-8 roadsters there. Caterham did brisk business with Lotus Seven style roadsters as well.
There were also some niche Japanese manufacturers like Mitsuoka who created a Zimmer like car called the Le Seyde, to the Viewt which was a Nissan Micra clothed like a 2/3 scale Jaguar MkII (above). Conservative Nissan jumped into the retro craze like no other manufacturer.
Many mislabel the Figaro as a Kei class car but it’s not, given that it’s at least a size too big. Based on the K10 Nissan Micro, its turbo-charged four cylinder engine is too big (1.0L vs 660cc), powerful (76hp vs 63hp) and the Figaro is dimensionally too large (12.25ft vs 10.8ft in length, 5.3ft vs 4.6ft) for the Kei class specification. That said, it’s hardly a performance machine, with front wheel drive and a mandatory three speed automatic gearbox. Performance of course is not the point; style is.
All Figaros came loaded with power steering, air conditioning, power windows, leather seats, CD-playing but retro Bakelite-looking stereos. The interior was perhaps inspired by a mix of high end beauty saloon and a jukebox, and made of high quality materials. Chrome abounds on the dash, white steering wheel and separate analog gauges.
To top it off there is a fantastic sliding roof panel that made it almost a convertible. The top folds into the the “upper trunk” with another small trunk below that can hold a modest amount of luggage as well as a spare tire. The back seat is probably the best place to transport groceries however.
Very distinctive and almost moon disc like wheels. The one hole in it for the air nozzle makes it mesmerizing to watch rotating as the car goes down the road.
The Figaro is arguably the most stylized of the Nissan “Pike” series of the late 80s and early 90s that also included the Be-1, Pao and S-Cargo. Chrome trim abounds from the trunk hinges to the window trim and door handles.
There were four colors, and each was supposed to represent a season. The options included Emerald Green (spring), Pale Aqua (summer), Topaz Mist (fall), and Lapis Grey (winter). Sounds like something out of a home decorating magazine. For those of us who are fashion impaired, those are translated to green, light blue, gray-ish beige and blue-ish gray.Topaz Mist was the least popular colour and our example today is Lapis Grey.
Although never officially acknowledged, I think it’s fairly obvious where the styling inspiration for the Figaro came from. The 1950s AWZ P70 was the forerunner to the more well-known East German Trabant. Like the Trabant, the P70 featured Duraplast bodywork and a two cylinder, two stroke engine (but water, not air cooled in the P70). Interestingly this engine used the transverse engine/front wheel drive layout well before the Mini. Unlike the MINI, New Beetle, Challenger, Mustang or Camaro, the Figaro doesn’t come across as a bloated, bulbous version of its muse.
With Canada’s importation rules allowing almost anything over fifteen years or older in (ironically I’ve heard the Trabant is one of the very few on the disallowed for import list) there are a number of these Figaros around. They certainly aren’t common but I’ve managed to see a handful. They’re also one of the more expensive cars of the genre to import, as they have been instantly collectible, but are generally in fantastic condition. They are quite popular in the UK as well, with many imported in recent years and a strong owner’s club. With so many mechanical parts being shared with the common Micra they shouldn’t present too many issues for those driving and preserving them.
There were also some niche Japanese manufacturers like Mitsuoka who created a Zimmer like car called the Le Seyde, to the Viewt which was a Nissan Micra clothed like a 2/3 scale Jaguar MkII (above).
The Figaro I can take or leave but I would enjoy a Viewt. (Though I guess you could get the same effect in a larger size by putting a leaping cat hood ornament on a Kia Amanti. :))
The vewt is actually on the Pulsar/Sentra platform same as the Scargo
Nope, Viewt is based on the K11 Micra from 1992-97 – I bought the brochure off trademe recently, and Wheels magazine reviewed one in 1994 when it was new.
I would love one of these! Far better looking than a new Cinquecento to my eye.
I think I would feel more love for this little Nissan if it were an honest to god convertible instead of the folding roof section deal.
I’ve always loved the Figaro and the other Pike Series cars, but never made the connection to the AWZ P70. I know someone within arm’s reach of me who would love to have one of these.
The 1956 BMW 502 Autenrieth type Hannover is similar looking as well but definitely more obscure.
Good catch. That one has fallen off my radar too. The Nissan designers must have had fun researching all those old cars for inspiration.
I’ve seen one of these around town. Couldn’t remember the name at the time but I remember reading about them in R&T at the time and thought “Hey there’s one of those lil’ Nissan thingys”.
Considering that they are RHD and valueable enough to outstrip the meagre DougD budget for interesting vehicles it’s interesting but not THAT interesting.
I love that 15 year old rule in Canada. 15+ it’s a total free for all!
They seem to hover around $10k Cdn and up for a decent one.
Oh Canada! You guys get all the good import rules. Ours (in the US) suck.
Not that I would want a Figaro. I barely can squeeze my fat butt into a Miata. I’m afraid I’d look like Herman Munster with my head and arms sticking out of the roof and side windows as I attempted to pilot a Figaro…
Also, kudos to Mr. Saunders. Just when I thought I knew something about obscure cars, he blows my mind…
I learn something new every day.
I love everything about the Figaro but the styling and the RHD. It looks so terribly sad, like a kicked puppy. Otherwise, I love the upscale-yet-simple interior and the convertible-with-pillars bodystyle. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of a ’51 Nash Rambler Custom Landau, one of my favorite cars of all time.
But that sad sack styling, I just don’t see myself in it.
I am torn on these. I like the unique look, but then it also has a Hello Kitty quality too. I am not sure I would buy one, but it is a shame that others here in the U.S. do not get the chance. This car would certainly add to the car-scenery.
Too funny, jp, Hello Kitty is the first thought I had upon laying my eyes on it!
I was surprised at first to see the Viewt with British plates but then why not? Britain and Japan do have rhd in common.
Some guy here locally used to show up at cruise nights with a bright red rhd Nissan Cedric sedan. It’s a navy town so he probably brought it back from Yokosuka. I haven’t seen it for a couple of years, so he probably got transferred again.
I like it, it kind of reminds me of a 3/4-scale 2002-05 Thunderbird. And how small are those wheels? 12″ or 13″?
12″. Stock tires are 165/70R12
Scooter size, more or less. lol 🙂
There are quite a few Figaros in NZ as we are navel deep inused Japanese cars even the Misuokas were brought in though the only one I saw was for sale because it couldnt be registered we are officially RHD but LHD cars are allowed if the paperwork is right though again theres a Buick Roadmaster wagon for sale on trademe that needs conversion as its too young.
Yes, that Roadmaster’s quite tempting Bryce – good price, and only a year to go until it’s legal for LHD! And not an ex-hearse!
Yeah it looks ok if you want one im gonna be busy trying to get my Minx thru rego this year then try to make it go like Harold Heasleys one or Dennis Marlowes example.
I live in Hastings, Sussex in the UK and in our tiny town of 80K people, there are at least 5 of these, an amazing concentration given how few were made. But you Americans beware- these were amazingly well made and high quality cars, however our coastal climate has proven that they were made of ’70s Datsun quality steel. They rot worse than anything else from the ’90s. These were really fashion accessories for Japanese secretaries, and given Japan’s 7 year rule, were made to rust out and be scrapped before they fell out of fashion.
There is a booming restoration business in the UK for these, as well as the Nissan Pao, a retro Mini/A-40/Publica type thing and the very strange Suzuki Sambar, a 600cc turbo microvan with ‘swatch watch’ type panels that will turn it into a VW splitscreen.
However, I’ve seen those Viewt things before- and they just look silly- I’d dare to call it Japan’s Lincoln Versailles. They still have the plastic cheapo dash from the Micra, and the vinyl-over-cardboard door trims with leather seats in different colours. All chintz and no class.
“..tiny town of 80K people…”
That’s a city, mate!
– Old Pete, in his smallish town of 2500 people. Without a Figaro.
That’s funny I just discovered this car yesterday while googling for Largo al Factotum.
I love it. Everything about it. I even like the bathroom colors, especially the green.
Want want want mega wantitationally want! Y’all up there in Canuckistan, let me put one on layaway; I’ll pick it up in 2016.
Is there any actual evidence for a connection to the AWZ P70? From the first time I ever heard of the Figaro I have thought of it as a front engined and slightly expanded derivation of the Bianchina Trasformabile. The Bianchina, being based on Fiat 500 mechanicals, would have Kei class specs, and Nissan was wise IMO to move up one size class which allowed them to give the Figaro a higher level of amenities and performance. You could also cite the Vespa 400 which is similar in overall design to the Bianchina including the distinctive rollback roof (which has of course reappeared on the new Fiat 500).
The AWZ P70 is definitely more stylish than the Trabi that succeeded it (wassamatta, did the Stasi deem it to be too bourgeois?), but to me the Figaro speaks Italian, not German.
Here in south-west London, Figaros remain the height of chic. It’s an unusual day when I don’t see two or three pootling around. Typically, they live at £2m+ houses… The Fiat 500 is the default choice today, but there’s undoubtedly a market for the chic and unusual – and unthreatening, which eliminates my default choice, the Morgan three-wheeler!
There’s a lot of these rumbling around Edinburgh’s cobbles as well – mosty in their original hues but I’ve seen several resprays too. There’s a very tasteful black one lives nearby, and a rather unfortunate pastel pink one across town.
@brian Hastings’ climate must be far harsher to steel than Scotland’s somehow. I’ve never noticed rust on any of the local Figaros.
edit: almost forgot to mention there was a good article and excellent little slideshow about the Pike class Nissans over at the NYT back in March:
Another of the JDM retromobiles of the early ’90s was the Subaru Casablanca – a British-look Impreza wagon. It was every bit as horrible looking as it sounds.
Subaru also looked to their roots in 2003/4; the R1 and R2 kei cars were modern takes on the original 360.
I saw one of these in Wisconsin the other weekend, the first time I’ve seen one in person. I know there is an S-Cargo in Chicago, also. Cute as a button. I always thought they referred most directly in visual terms to the Peugeot 403 (I think) convertible.
OMG you are so on point, Otter! It’s a shrunken Columbo car!
I love the Figaro and the other Pike Nissan. I must say I don’t think this was a copy or at least directly inspired by the AWZ P70, or any other particular car, but a generic 50’s inspired design that obviously looks alike.
There’s a Lapis Grey Figaro tooling around our neighborhood, identical to the one in your picture. I’ve checked it out a few times, but I never would have guessed it was a Nissan.
I can verify the Trabant is definitely allowed in Canada!
My dad also just bought a Kubel from a collector in Quebec. There is a whole Trabant Canada club too, http://www.trabant.ca/
Just saw a Figaro on the road here in Quebec – it was in terrible shape! Rust, tattered roof, grimy… what a shame.
there are a good few Figaros in these parts. they are a natural for gray market importation into the UK/Ireland market because of the righthand drive. I regularly see a Viewt on the streets of Dublin as well
My Dog! I saw one of these driving around LA 2 weeks ago! It has always been one of my favorite cars ever. It caught me off guard as I was driving west while the Figaro was driving East. I so wanted to get at least one shot of it.
Sweet car that Figaro! One of my favorite Nissans ever.
The Figaro’s ability to arouse wild-eyed covetousness in people who otherwise don’t care a whit for cars is really quite astounding. A Fiat 500C is sort of the same idea (it’s actually not that far off the Figaro in size) and has a similar target audience, but it doesn’t quite inspire the enthusiasm. The Figaro’s cartoon-character size and proportions are half the point, I think, and the fact that the design really goes all in enables it to transcend the self-consciousness that cars like this sometimes end up suffering.
I caught this related Nissan Pao in Vancouver, BC. Very cool little cars.
Had it gone on sale in the US,it would haven given the Volkswagen, Mini and Toyota Solara a real run for their money as “best woman`s car”. Hello Kitty indeed.Real men don`t do cute.
I’m a real man with a dk and I love the Nissan Figaro. It’s a good thing I don’t listen to closed-minded people like you.
Don`t take it so seriously. Its called “sarcasm”.
Taken! OK, I guess I got my man panties twisted in a bunch then 😉
My wife had a craving for this, but luckily enough a good example of the breed is pretty expensive, and she settled for a 1995 Audi Cabrio. I hated anything about the poor little Nissan.
The AWZ looks sort of like a Karmann-Ghia greenhouse plopped on a 49′ Kaiser.
I have actually seen one of those Figaros several times at my local car show in Danvers, MA this past summer.
One of these was the on screen transport of one Sarah Jane Smith in the new Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane adventures spinoof, replacing the MG she drove in the original Doctor Who series
Sigh. Still one more year to wait before I can get a legal one (yeah, I know people have registered them in various US states through various dodges, gambits and sleights of hand, but it would be just my luck for that to turn into a major snafu). I’m concerned that the prices will jump as soon as literally millions of new potential buyers enter the market.
Not sure about the Trabant being banned from import into Canada – there was one that occasionally parked on my street in downtown Montreal.
Everything I have been able to glean about the Viewt points to Micra heritage. You can see it in the roofline. The one shown in the picture above is a ’90s first generation, with a well deserved reputation for ungainly proportions. Attached is a 2008 version, perhaps the best looking of the (so far!) 20-year production run, due to its Micra donor’s bubble top design of that era. Those in production now seem to suffer from the current Micra’s squarish top.
This isn’t to say they compare on any level with their stylistic progenitor, the muscular yet refined Jaguar Mk 2. However, as retro designs go, they are a nice example of creating a car you can drive every day that has a certain retro panache.
This town is loaded with them. Owned by spinsters and young yuppies. It’s not a bad looking car, if you like fairground rides.
And the Mitsuoka jag lookalike? A few of those around here too. I want to throw bricks at them.
Nice to see Figaros about, think I’d prefer a Daihatsu Coppen or even better an Autozam though.
Question: in order to share the enjoyment of a RHD car in a LHD country, don’t you need a mate who isn’t freaked by sitting powerless on the side of the car with opposing traffic at a closing speed of 120mph?
The CC effect strikes in the strangest ways, I actually saw a Figaro driving home from work yesterday, in Miami. It was even a little beat up with some rust bubbles over the left rear wheel. I know that there is at least one of these running around SoFla in better condition than the one I saw yesterday.
There is also a 3 rotor Eunos Cosmo coupe that has been living in Miami for at least the last 15 years, I still see it on the road every once in a while.
I like the Figaro. Although I have never seen on in person it looks like a quality product. But you guys forgot my favorite retro-mini of the period, the Suzuki Capuccino.
a good few of these ended up in the UK and Ireland as gray market imports
It appears the British are adopting the Figaro as their own.