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Retro Car Design For An Idealistic Future
Retro-futuristic design, irresistible looks, and lines of eager buyers trying to be the first to get one. It’s not the latest smartphone – though they could be accused of being pocket-sized – but the vehicles produced at Nissan’s Pike Factory. And while these cars aren’t hitting the market today, their legend has been enduring since 1985.
Buoyed by a booming economy and an optimistic view of the future, Japanese design began pushing the envelope – from packaging to consumer electronics and more. It was in this climate that Nissan sought to create an innovative vehicle and brought the challenge to a special design team of in-house and independent designers at its newly created Nissan Pike Factory.
EXCITING MODERN DESIGN WITH A TOUCH OF NOSTALGIA
The Pike Factory team decided to break away from the more conservative designs being produced by the industry as a whole. Instead, the team further developed the concept of “Nostalgic Modern”, which would be the guiding principle in the development of the Be-1 as well as the other Pike cars.
The Be-1 would emphasise playfulness and excitement – a departure from the average vehicle design of the era. The Pike team believed it had a vehicle that could be an immediate hit with the public, but first it had to prove that the design was worth taking a chance on bringing a concept car into full production.
THE PUBLIC SAYS HELLO TO THE NISSAN Be-1
Introduced to the world at the 26th Tokyo Motor Show in 1985, the Nissan Be-1 made a huge splash. Instead of following more common, boxier design cues, the Be-1 looked to the rounder, more compact vehicles of the past. It was small, sleek, curvy, and – let’s face it – kind of cute. Japanese car buyers went crazy for it, and the immediate public response was so positive that Nissan could not ignore it.
When the Be-1 was brought into production in 1987, it was limited to a run of 10,000. Nissan was so inundated with pre-orders that all potential buyers were put into a lottery system. To help satiate demand, a canvas top version was introduced later that year, and it, too, immediately sold out.
SPEARHEADING A NEW MOVEMENT IN CAR DESIGN
Nissan had a winning concept on its hands and commissioned more designs from the Pike Factory. In fact, the name “Pike” was chosen after the medieval spear to evoke the idea of spearheading new, cutting-edge design. And so, the Pike Factory went on to create the Nissan Pao, Figaro, and S-Cargo.
Although always conceived as a series of cars that would be limited in quantity, Nissan upped production of its next Pike car, the Nissan Pao, producing over 50,000 of them. It still sold out three months into pre-orders. Wiith a canvas top, the Pao was designed to express an adventurous spirit with retro sensibilities inside and out. Although it was produced until the early 1990s, it looks like it would be at home in any classic car show.
FIGARO TAKES US BACK TO THE FUTURE
The Pao was joined in 1991 by the Nissan Figaro. The Figaro continued breaking ground for the automotive industry, starting with a development team predominantly made up of women. Whereas the Be-1 and Pao were designed with an eye to the ’50s, the Figaro took its main inspiration from the 1935 Datsun Roadster and art-deco fashion of the ’30s.
A fixed-body convertible that Nissan unabashedly marketed at the Tokyo Auto show with the tagline “Back to the Future”, the Figaro featured standard features like European-inspired styling, leather seats, and an in-dash CD-player. The Figaro was an inspired mix of classic luxury and state-of-the-art tech. As you might have guessed, all 20,000 sold out before a single car hit the road. If you didn’t snap one up, you were out of luck – Nissan stuck to its guns and produced the Figaro for just one model year.
SNAILED IT WITH THE S-CARGO
Not to leave the commercial sector out of the fun, the Pike Factory designed what would become one of Nissan’s most legendary vehicles – though not for prowess on the track but for its truly one-of-a-kind styling.
When the Nissan S-Cargo came to market in January 1989, it brought a bit of whimsy to the commercial vehicle segment. Its name was a pun on the word “escargot”, the vehicle was designed to look like a snail, and its 48-inch-high domed cargo area allowed it to carry a fair amount. Then there’s the smaller, quirkier touches, like a removable sushi tray – that’s right, removable sushi tray – the tablelike dash, and the snail-themed floor mats.
While its unconventional looks have remained polarizing, the Nissan S-Cargo is rare and hard to find today.
COLLECTOR CLUBS KEEP PIKE CARS IN DEMAND
As Pike cars have become available for export, they have begun to appear more often on American, United Kingdom, and European roads. In Britain alone, over 3,000 Figaros are registered as being in active use. With a production run of just 20,000, British owners account for 15% of all Figaros ever made. It’s no surprise, then, that Britain is home to one of the largest Figaro clubs in the world.
While Pike cars have been available for import into the United States for only a few years and have been received enthusiastically. Finding a Pike car for sale online is not impossible, but with a limited number to go around, the vehicles once again are in the position of being in high demand.
The Pike cars retain a place in the hearts of enthusiasts who enjoy their unique styling and the sunny optimism they embody. A new generation of drivers has started to discover them, while a new generation of quizzical onlookers tries to nail exactly which decade these timeless pieces came out of.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOXY DESIGN
Pike cars marked the first time that Nissan would lead with a design-first approach, focusing on remaining as faithful to the initial concept instead of compromising. To accomplish this, Nissan sought new methods of production, using moldable thermoplastic resin for the first time on its Pike cars to create the iconic rounded shapes on each vehicle.
In order to facilitate a small production run, Nissan had to streamline its entire planning and production process. Using readily available parts and employing new materials, Nissan was able to complete production of the Be-1 in one year, moving it from design to the showroom in half the time of any of its other vehicles.
The curvaceous design aesthetic and innovative processes developed by Nissan would go on to have a lasting impression on the automotive industry as a whole. Softer lines slowly displaced hard edges on everything from sport cars to family sedans in the 1990s. You can still find some of that magic today in vehicles like the Nissan March and Micra.
If you keep an eye out, you might even see a Pike car pulling up next to you at the next red light. Some things just never go out of style.
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