Curbside Classic: 1991 Nissan Figaro – More Anime Than Animal

Grin of the Figaro

(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.

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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.