Sometimes, a CC subject can be a bit borderline. I like old cars, but there are two kinds: the really old ones and the late ‘80s / early ‘90s econoboxes that some folks may appreciate nowadays, but are still under the radar for me. I remember those times all too well. And I remember thinking at the time that cars like the Fiat Uno, the Citroën AX or the Seat Ibiza were flimsy and appalling in almost every way. I still think that, but seeing this very well-preserved first generation Micra got me seeing the issue differently.
There is nothing objectively wrong about this Micra. It is an honest, well-built four-door hatchback that likely served many owners very well. The roads of Europe, Japan, Canada and large parts of Asia were crawling with these at one point. Even in France and Germany, which still had a vigorous domestic car industry, Nissan managed to get a slice of the market. But why did these do so well everywhere they went?
Because they were the definition of mainstream. When Nissan launched the March (as the Micra was and still is known in Japan) in late 1982, they had softened the blow by giving a preview of the new car one year prior. The message was: “Guys, we’re going FWD and making a Japanese Golf. Let’s beat VW, PSA, Fiat and all the others at their game.”
Throughout the ‘70s, Japanese carmakers made a lot of sound business decisions. They cracked the American market, dominated a lot of the Asia-Pacific countries and even made a dent in Europe and Africa. But the cars were not really mainstream: they were extremely basic, technically (with notable exceptions such as Honda, Subaru and the Mazda Wankels) and sometimes oddly styled. Japanese automakers had perfected their sales operations, production facilities and marketing strategies, but the products they were peddling were not all that impressive, at least for some people.
At the time, European automobile journalists and gearheads in general routinely derided Bluebirds, Corollas or Colts for being crude, old-fashioned and underpowered. Which they were. But they were also well put together, dependable and very well equipped. The formula worked somewhat in some European markets – though not as well as in the US, where domestic cars were also old-fashioned and underpowered, so Japanese imports seemed all the more interesting.
Just as Detroit started downsizing its wares and switching to FWD, the Japanese automakers started doing the same. Only this time, new design ideas came from manifestly non-American sources. Does anyone else see the VW Golf in this Nissan? The cabin and rear of the Micra certainly look very second generation Golf-ish, only with a little less personality. Since the March / Micra came out about a year before the new model Golf, perhaps we’re seeing a case of convergent evolution here, but still.
Presentation counts for a lot, and this Micra caught my eye chiefly because looked really clean and well-looked-after – and almost entirely original. The colour differences seen on the grille and the driver’s door indicate that this car has had a few replacement parts put in over the last quarter century. That would have mattered if we were in the presence of a 1949 Cadillac, but in this case, it just looks like what cheap old cars look like.
The interior was spotless, just as the exterior seemed to promise. And entirely original, as far as I could tell. This being an early ‘90s car, the dash and instruments are of the black Lego brick variety – cheap wheels looked very cheap on the inside in those days, but then so did expensive ones. A touch of levity was provided by the black and white gingham seat fabric. Coloured plaid must have been deemed either too passé or too daring…
The Micra fulfilled its intended purpose. In 1993, a second generation was launched, which further improved market penetration in Europe and made Nissan a true household name. As per David Saunders’ first-hand experience with these cars, one could describe the first gen Micra as “good Autoshite” – innocuous 20-plus-year-old economy cars that still litter the landscape by the thousands, but are sufficiently cheap and (usually) durable to warrant consideration for personal transport. I subscribe to this description of the Micra mark one, though this facelifted French version is slightly less appealing to me than the older ones. At least this little red beater looks like it still has a few years of servitude left in it.
My Curbside Classic: 1989 Nissan Micra – Good Autoshite, by David Saunders