Today, automakers reserve limited-production vehicles to high performance sports cars and supercars. But in the height of Japan’s Bubble Era, Nissan had a different, better idea. These are the Pike Cars. They’re cute, but there’s more to them than good looks.
(Full Disclosure: Our friends at Duncan Imports invited us to their shop in Virginia for a week to drive some of their finest wares. They’re extremely good folks with a mind-blowing selection of import cars, so check them out if you’re in the market.)
Welcome back to our new video series Bubble Cars! Let’s Go!, where we test some of the finest and weirdest cars of Japan’s automotive golden age. Last time we tested two of the wildest kei cars ever made. This week we drive the Nissan Be-1 and the Nissan Figaro. Four years separate them in production, but they feel worlds apart!
We remember the Bubble Era for producing extreme works of overengineering. Think of the Toyota 2JZ engine that was sold making 300-odd horsepower in the MkIV Supra but was designed to survive more than double that, on stock internals. And we remember the Bubble Era for ambitious projects like Honda taking on Ferrari with the NSX, Toyota taking on Mercedes with Lexus, Mazda taking on the world at Le Mans. Winning projects. Hubristic ones, in the case of Mazda’s Amati lux brand that never was.
But the Bubble Era wasn’t just about car companies having bottomless engineering budgets. It was also a time of the Japanese consumers having cash to burn on car purchases, and the Japanese domestic market going wild for new vehicles. Things were competitive and every automaker experimented with every idea it could think up, every niche it could squeeze into.
That meant trying things like supercharged kei car convertibles, or turbocharged kei vans that revved to 9,000 RPM. Modular cars. Anything.
In 1985, Nissan showed the Be-1 at the Tokyo Motor Show. The idea was simple. The car itself was a Nissan March hatchback, just clothed in a retro body, throwing back to the classic European city cars of the 1960s. When Europe was getting back on its feet after WWII. When it couldn’t help but make cars with style.
A performance car it was not. A 1.0-liter four-cylinder with an electronically-controlled carburetor got about 50 horsepower, running to the front wheels with either a five-speed manual or (as we drove at Duncan Imports) a three-speed slushbox. I’d recommend the five-speed. For safety. Weight was, thankfully, only about 1,500 pounds, per Nissan.
The Be-1 was a bit of an experimental project, and Nissan only committed to selling 10,000 units. Nissan pitched it as a “coziness oriented car.” Not sporty. Sweet. Even its colors were adorable.
They sold out almost instantly, with so many orders that Nissan had to hold a lottery to select who’d get the privilege of owning one. Secondhand examples traded at more than double list price, as Japanese Motor Business wrote in 1987, when the car made it to production. It was dubbed the “Be-1 phenomenon.” Remember that these cars wildly predated the retro cars of the 1990s to be bigger hits. Hell, this is long before even the Miata came out and took the world by storm. Before them all was the Be-1.
What’s interesting about the Be-1 was it was limited production, but it wasn’t expensive. Nissan didn’t charge much more for it than the March itself. The idea was that style, experimentation, that kind of thing shouldn’t be restricted to the rich and the speed-addicted.
The Figaro drives impossibly better than the Be-1. With a turbocharged version of the same 1.0-liter engine, it makes 70-odd HP, per Nissan. It does so with some consistency and urge. No surprise these things are still ultra-desirable, even with a relatively high production of 20,000 units.
The Bubble burst in late 1991, and the Pike cars, their vision, has never been matched again.