* Prices may differ from that shown
After growing up with classic cars in the family I can't imagine owning something modern (although I have to admit they drive so well). I had a succession of classic cars but then got a job where I needed something practical. We looked into this and found the Nissan Figaro. I've owned one for almost 7 years now. It does everything a practical car needs to and doesn't break down as often as a classic. Some parts can be expensive (like front bumpers) but there are so many friendly dealers out there that will help you out. Many parts are shared with a common Nissan Micra too. There are forums for owners too where you can get tips for keeping your Figaro in good condition. It's not a fast car but it is nippy. It has four seats but the back ones are small. Our ten year old fits in their perfectly but he'll get bigger! My friends are willing to sit in the back when the roof is down for short journeys.
It is hard to imagine as we stumble through this awful recession & see many global companies cancelling projects, paying off staff & closing factories that around twenty years ago one huge Japanese company gambled with its profits & produced a series of whacky looking vehicles in an attempt to 'reconnect with its younger market'.
Nissan were a very conservative run company producing well made & reliable cars but aside from a handful of models they would hardly get the adrenaline pumping. Young Japanese buyers would rather buy Honda or Toyota as they were more focused on the 'youth' market & 'cool' to be seen in.
THE PIKE FACTORY
With the help of some young & inspiring engineers Nissan produced three highly individual models that were to be produced in limited numbers.
They were built by a Nissan special projects group called The Pike Factory, who had also produced another niche model for Nissan in 1985 called the Be-1.
Their first new project car was called the Pao (say it POW!), a rather boxed shaped utilitarian looking three door hatchback which looks like it had been influenced by the old war time VWs. It featured a grille that wouldn't look out of place on a 1950s electric fire, external door hinges, loads of painted metal inside & it had a back to basics look about it. Only 10.000 were produced & it was a sensation in Japan, modern cars are designed to appeal to as many people as possible & not offend, the Pao was the complete opposite & that is what made it special.
Under the body was established Nissan Micra mechanical parts which guaranteed it would be cheap to run & be 100% reliable.
Next came the weird & wonderful S-Cargo van, a modem interpretation of the old Citroen 2CV van, this time it looked like it had just come off the set of a Walt Disney cartoon with its bug eyed headlamps & Mickey Mouse ears styled door mirrors. Based on the parts of the Nissan Sunny this whacky looking van was a sales sensation & had so much appeal for small businesses that required a van that attracted a lot of attention. Many made their way to the UK as personal imports & one ended up in the design museum in London.
However, it was the third & final model that really got things stirred up; the Figaro was introduced at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show under the slogan "Back to the Future" & was based on the K10 Nissan Micra but influenced by 1950s /1960s European coupes. Only four colours were ever available which symbolised each season of the year, they were Emerald Green (Spring), Pale aqua (Summer), Topaz mist (Autumn & it's beige) & Lapis gray (Winter), all had white interior with leather seats & matching dashboards.
It was all tastefully done with period looking dials with chrome bezels, fake Bakelite controls & chrome fittings & even the radio CD had a retro look about it. The roof would fold electronically into the boot at the touch of a button leaving the side panels & windows in place.
Outside the rear boot lid was hinged from the rear with a separate boot below housing the spare wheel or a sliding drawer similar to vehicles from the post war era. The door mirrors were a mixture of white & chrome & there was an abundance of chrome on the grille, around the wheel arches & lamp surrounds. All very retro & all very tastefully done with only Figaro badges added, there would be no Nissan badges on the outside of the vehicle.
It looked classy & a bit different, despite its small size the body was quite heavy compared to a standard Micra so Nissan used the 1000cc turbo charged Micra engine from the Japanese market models matched to a 3 speed automatic gearbox. It wasn't the fastest thing on four wheels but progress was still acceptable.
The Figaro was designed by Shoji Takahashi, who won a design competition with the car, only 8,000 were originally to be made available with an additional 12,000 added to production numbers to meet demand. What Nissan didn't take into account was how popular it would be, after the public got their first viewing over 100.000 people put there names down for one. Rather than use the 'first come first served' principal, Nissan decided to have a series of lotteries & 20.000 lucky people got their tickets plucked out the hat & were able to but their new Figaro.
DRIVING THE FIGARO
They aren't the most exciting cars to drive but there is something special about them & performance becomes the last thing on your mind. As you step inside you can only be impressed with the retro look. The chrome ringed dials with elegant white readings look impressive, as does the chrome heater controls, the white & chrome steering wheel & that retro looking but modern radio CD. Even the key is special & unique to the Figaro, it looks rather elegant.
Although they lack features usually found today on modern cars you have to remember these cars was originally sold in 1990. Although it does come with air conditioning, electric windows & a rather smart electric folding roof you won't get ipod connections, key less entry or built in Bluetooth connections.
You do however get four seats although the rear ones are likely to be used by small children rather than two larger adults. Boot space is limited but this is not a car intended for long haul journeys.
These cars were never intended to be sold outside Japan, so don't expect European safety features. There are no air bags or anti lock brakes, but everything else is up to modern day standards.
They all come as automatics, there is no manual version. The little 1000cc turbo charged engine is neatly fitted under the bonnet & these cars shared their mechanical components with the early Nissan Micra. This means most fast moving parts are easy to find & are reasonably cheap, however the cosmetic stuff can be expensive as its unique to the Figaro & this is because only 20.000 were made which is rather small numbers in the 'car business'.
Companies like Nissan usually produce cars to be sold in millions which drives down the cost of components.
As you start up & drive away the Figaro is quite smooth, the little engine is only harsh when it's pushed to the limit. Automatic gear changes are fairly smooth with a sensitive but effective 'kickdown'. The power steering is a bit too light but the brakes are very progressive & secure. The turbo charged engine's performance is best described as adequate as your pulling around a rather heavy car for all its size. It is zippy enough around town but gets a little strained on the motorways.
Handling is best described as adequate; the Figaro is not the type of car to push to the limits on corners but either was the early Nissan Micra which it's based on. Having said that it is still safe & secure & not likely to be of any great concern.
BUYING ONE TODAY
You need to take into account that these cars are nearly 18 years old & just like any other car they corrode. Most have been used for low mileage runs & have been garaged which helps but corrosion can still be a problem. The more you pay the better Figaro you will get, many have been refurbished & they do hold their values very well indeed if they are in good condition.
Although they do use reliable Micra components do remember that the turbo charged engine was never available in the UK so getting parts for that along with the interior & body parts will be harder than a normal car & quite expensive. Only one single engine component is the same as a UK sourced engine. There are many companies on the internet that do specialise in obtaining parts.
A turbo charger can cost around £650.00, which is quite reasonable for a new unit from Japan. Replacement radio CDs are very expensive, although Clarion will repair them for around £250.00.
Make sure the cars have a service history which includes regular oil changes for the engine & the automatic gearbox.
Engine rocker shafts have been known to fail, they slacken off & cause a lot of damage, timing belts have been known to break & should be changed on a regular basis.
There are a multitude of coolant hoses which after 18 years have seen better days, one in particular cannot be seen form under the bonnet & if it leaks the lack of coolant can cause major problems before the temperature gauge warns you of a problem. Door locks often seize up & keys wear out quite quick.
It was a brave move by Nissan to produce a car like the Figaro in such small numbers all those years ago. They did produce something that now has a strong cult following, something that still looks classy today as it did 18 years ago & something that holds its value very well indeed. I believe that the best ones will continue to hold their value in the years ached & that the car will eventually hold a classic car status.
* 1000cc MA10ET turbo charged engine SOHC 8 valves
* Compression Ratio: 8.0:1
* Max Power: 76 PS (56 kW; 75 hp) at 6000 rpm
* Max Torque: 10.8 kg*m (106 N*m; 78 ft*lbf) at 4400 rpm
* Fuel Delivery: Fuel Injection
* Fuel Consumption 38mpg
* Fuel Type/Capacity: Regular Unleaded/40L (8.8 gal.)
* Steering: Rack & pinion, power assisted
* Suspension: Four-wheel independent
o Front: Strut-type
o Rear: 4-link, with stabilizer bar (anti-sway bar)
o Front Wheel Drive
* Brakes: Ventilated front discs
* Tire size: 165/70R12 77H
Exterior body colors:
* Emerald Green (6K8) 6000 produced
* Pale Aqua (6K9) 6000 produced
* Lapis Gray (7K0) 6000 produced
* Topaz Mist (7K1) 2000 produced
* Main color:
* The following parts come the same color as the exterior body:
o Top of dashboard
o Steering wheel horn button
o Seat piping
* Uniquely designed CD/Tape/Radio stereo (dealer option)
* Manually-retractable trunk tray
* Safety equipment and front seat restraints
o Three point seat belts
o Rear seat: Three point seat belts
o Driver's seat belt not fastened warning (buzzer)
* High-mount stop lamp.
* Genuine leather seats standard equipment.
* Low mount head rest for classic appearance.
* Synthetic leather piping is used for the prevention of leather fatigue.
* High quality paint on interior and exterior.
* Retractable top which became one of Figaro's unique trademarks
o External design completely hidden in boot.
o Equipped with a double lock and warning buzzer as a safety feature.
o Secondary hood latch designed so the hood should not open while driving or by accidental activation.
* Rear window heater on glass.
When a girl looks, then points and says
"I want THAT car!"
You know you can relax and expect to follow her gaze to discover it to be a classic or a prestige or the Batmobile.
On this occasion however, the gaze was fixed to a tiny picture on the back of a paperback book, and the pointing was emphatic.
After some long and dedicated research, namely Googling 'noddy car', I could formally identify the vehicle as a 1990 Nissan Figaro.
The search to find a car to actually buy developed rapidly after trawling various sites thrown out by Google and after several fruitless weekends going to view examples for sale whose visible rust patches and tatty interiors had seen better days.
We weren't put off or search after each disappointing journey back home, only slightly more enthusiastic about actually getting one of our own and even I was feeling more comfortable with the prospect of actually driving a Figaro around.
My initial fears of it being an apostrophe laden 'girl's car' were allayed after test driving a few different ones, and discovering they were all actually a great laugh to drive. The result was that I test drove every Figaro wearing a silly grin.
This specially adopted facial feature may have been a contributing factor to the general reaction of the pedestrian public when you are in a Figaro. Most ignore you, but occasionally people point or they wave, or once, they follow you for 3 miles to your home to ask you what it is that you're driving. The result was that I drove every Figaro with a silly grin, and slightly paranoid, but feeling just a bit funky. Oh yes.
They are not girly, they are funky. Not girly. Funky. This is also the excuse I use when I wear pink t shirts, scarves when it's not cold or sunglasses when there are clouds everywhere. Not girly. Funky.
This change of heart was helped along when I started to learn more about the Figaro's history.
The next paragraph will sound better, as ably demonstrated by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, if I ask you all to adopt a nasally dysfunctional tone:
There were only 20000 made between 1990 and 1991, demand from the car's debut at the 1989 Tokyo Motor show was so high that Nissan ran a lottery system to decide who would own one. Ooooh Matron!. They came in four colours, lapis grey, topaz mist, pale aqua and emerald green. They have a one litre turbo charged engine from a nissan micra of the same era so parts are cheap and all models were fitted with automatic transmission, which I find weird on long journeys because my left foot has nothing to do. What not to do, in an automatic car, is to forget you are in an automatic car and press the break pedal with your left foot. If you do this, you, and all of your passengers' faces will whack the windscreens. As I'm sure anyone who has 'done a leftie' in an automatic car would verify. Yes.
You can stop the voice now, unless you prefer to keep it up and if that's the case, crack on.
As the Japanese are one of the few countries around the world who also drive on the correct side of the road, all Figaro's are also all helpfully right hand drive.
The low maintenance and running costs being as they are the equivalent to running a Micra, along side their added funkyness meant that we soon found a Figaro we were happy with, in a colour that whilst not an original in being dark blue, was still classy, we finally bought one for £5995 from a specialised Figaro importer in Redbourn, Hertfordshire.
The price was slightly above the average for others we'd seen on our travels but the added security of having a 1 year warrantee thrown in gave us confidence in stretching our budget.
That was three years ago, and amazingly, the car has not only held it's value but it's actually gone up with similar mileage and condition vehicles going for up to £8000. If I had known this would be the case, and if I had had the funds, I'd have bought two.
The first thing we did after getting ours home on the first day was to name it. Sorry,
We named her Flo.
As in Flo the Figaro. And Flo is referred to as a who not a what.
Funky. Not girly.
In the three years we've had flo, we have only had one mechanical breakdown, which happened to be on our way home to London from Manchester after a 500 mile round trip weekend visit, and the impact was softened by the very lovely RAC man, who towed us for the final miles and diagnosed the correct problem - something very technical sounding about engine things that our local garage easily repaired for £120 including wishing it was still under warrantee and VAT. Our only other issue has been occasional failures to start on cold mornings, but the cars first replacement battery since production has since fixed that.
These are just minor irritations that are soon forgotten, especially in the summer months when Flo really comes into her own. (see?) With the roof down, which takes just a couple of minutes and a bit of lifting and folding, and the music on the built in CD player is turned up, the fun factor only increases.
Most of our trips out in Flo are either on our own, or as two, and although cited as a four seated car, the back seats are mostly only available to children and dwarves, unless the roof is down and then you can get 2 more almost full sized people in the back. Luckily, almost everyone we know isn't full sized. Only me, at 6'5" is full sized, on my own personal scale of sizing people.
My bride-to-be drives Flo to work every day, which at a 20 mile each way commute involving the M1 AND the North Circular is hardly a breeze, but she still loves Flo so much she has even planned to use her at our up comign wedding.
Not for her car, you understand though. That's going to be an old Bentley.
Flo's for me to drive. Marvellous stuff.