How Nissan’s Bizarre Pike Factory Built Retro Masterpieces

Excitement thrummed through the crowd around the Nissan booth at the 1985 Tokyo motor show.

As the throng pressed close, you could hear two phrases: kawaii —“cute,” and hoshii—“I want it.” Nearby, a state-of-the-art, mid-engine sports-car concept called the MID4 sat overlooked. Instead, people had fallen in love with a 51-hp compact.

This story originally appeared in Volume 3 of Road & Track.

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Nissan

That little car was the Be-1, and it was a stroke of genius. Beneath its skin lay the mechanical underpinnings of the deeply ordinary Nissan March, a utilitarian hatchback with boxy lines typical of the era. However, instead of a salaryman’s suit, the Be-1 was draped in a postmodern blend of Austin, Simca, Fiat, and perhaps even Renault. It wasn’t a direct copy or tribute to a particular car, but one designer’s translation of fashionable nostalgia into a desirable consumer product. It would be the first of four limited-edition vehicles falling under the Pike Factory designation, tiny concept cars brought to life in the peak optimism of the Japanese economic bubble.

The Be-1 was created as part of a design competition within Nissan to make the March a little more exciting to the general public. The March’s marketplace rival, the quirky Honda City, was selling well and offered delightful options like the Motocompo, a 50 cc scooter that could fold into the City’s trunk.

nissan pike factory

Nissan

Nissan produced four redesign proposals of the March: A, B-1, B-2, and C. Three of them retained the strong, straight lines dictated by typical manufacturing processes of the time. The B-1 looked like it came from an entirely different planet. The name was later adapted to Be-1, with the implied meaning of “be unique.”

prototypes a, b2, and c stuck to the robocop aesthetic of the time

prototypes a, b2, and c stuck to the robocop aesthetic of the time

Certainly, the car’s creator could hardly have had a more singular career. Born immediately after World War II in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient former capital city, Naoki Sakai finished art school and found his way to San Francisco in the Sixties. There he fused traditional Japanese irezumi tattoo designs with flowing silk fabrics to create a ludicrously profitable enterprise selling custom-printed T-shirts. In a 2007 interview with the Japan Times, he claimed to have been making $300,000 a month at the time —and spending all of it.

nissan prototype

nissan b1 prototype

Prototype B-1. A ball of sunshine against its drab counterparts.

Nissan

Now in his early seventies, Sakai has been married five times and is still designing from his studio in Shinagawa City, Tokyo. An example of his limited- edition Olympus O-Product camera is part of the permanent collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and his Water Design studio has had hits in everything from furniture to mobile phones. Most of that success has come from having an outsider’s perspective.

“When I was involved in the Be-1 design concept work, I wasn’t interested in cars at the time and didn’t have a driver’s license,” Sakai says through a translator. “However, fashion design and car design looked very similar. Because the designer thought that car design was simply to cover the chassis package made by the engineer.”

He continues: “I felt uncomfortable that car designers are highly elite and only look at the future and evolution of cars. Fashion design goes back and forth freely. We put those ideas into car design.”

Sakai came to the Be-1 project as a freelance designer, separate from Nissan’s main design studios. He remained a consultant throughout the company’s Pike Factory experiment in low-volume, nostalgia-tinged car making. To the ordinarily buttoned-down corporate hierarchy of Japan, his ideas must have been shocking. Indeed, in past interviews, he admits that he must have been like an alien to them. Happily, some young designers from Nissan bought into Sakai’s vision, acting as a bridge between the conceptual and the concrete.

naoki sakai headshot

The man himself. Naoki Sakai had penned everything but cars until Nissan roped him into a design competition. We’re glad they did.

Nissan

“I was supported by a few young Nissan designers who understood my ideas well. In that sense, we were able to achieve nearly 100 percent.”

Nissan had an audience clamoring to buy the Be-1 and a short window to satisfy that appetite. As this would be a low-volume production, Nissan decided that plastic resin panels were appropriate for most of the front bodywork, allowing for a rounder look than the stamped steel used in the March.

More importantly, Nissan managed to find suppliers willing to commit to a run of interior parts that fit the Be-1’s retro theme. By January of 1987, the Be-1 was ready for sale, in roughly half the time it would normally take a concept to reach production.

nissan be1 engine

How do you make a 51-horse four-cylinder exciting? Cover it up with the Be-1’s funky style.

Nissan

Nothing about the Be-1’s performance was any more exciting than the mechanically identical March. The aforementioned 51 hp came from a 987 cc, eight-valve four-cylinder engine. Buyers could choose between a five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. However, curb weight was below 1500 pounds, and the Be-1 was blessed with both a small footprint and a tight turning circle. It was cool-looking and practical, and people went nuts for it.

But you couldn’t just buy one. Production of the Be-1 was limited to just 10,000, and demand far outstripped supply. Nissan’s response was to arrange a lottery for the cars. Prospective buyers would apply at a specialist Nissan dealership, and the lucky ones would be allowed to purchase the car. The scarcity made the Be-1 one of the most desirable cars on Japanese roads. The mania even extended to a specialty Be-1 shop located in the trendy Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo.

Pike Factory was named after a medieval foot soldier’s long weapon, conveying the idea of “the tip of the spear.” Just one problem: The factory didn’t actually exist. Sakai’s Water Design group handled the concepts, and Nissan tapped business partner Takata Kogyo to hand-assemble the cars—the same Takata that ran into trouble years later with faulty airbags. Some of the Pike Factory cars were also built at the Aichi Machine Industry plant.

The fantasy didn’t matter. If anything, it was the point. Given the success of the Be-1, Nissan was only too happy to green-light further Pike Factory cars. The next two to arrive, in 1989, were the rugged-looking Pao and the cheerful, useful S-Cargo.

nissan pao

Vaguely Jeep-like, vaguely Soviet-style, the Pao’s design mixed rugged pragmatism with Pikachu cuteness.

Nissan

According to Sakai, the Pao was inspired by the idea behind the fashion brand Banana Republic, a safari lifestyle for everyday. Again, underpinnings were from the March, with the Pao dressed up in Jeep-like exposed door hinges, fold-up rear windows, and a split tailgate.

A marketing video for the car features a digitized Pao driving around Tokyo, a semi-psychedelic animation of the word Pao, several minutes of synthesized voices singing “Pao,” and a man playing a ukulele in a barber’s chair. The brochure featured the Pao in a number of prehistoric backdrops, usually surrounded by dinosaurs.

nissan pao dash

The Pao’s cockpit.

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The S-Cargo was even weirder, if a bit more practical. This time, power was up thanks to a workhorse 1.5-liter out of the Sunny. Essentially a re-imagining of the Citroën 2CV Fourgonnette, complete with a French-inspired single-spoke steering wheel, the S-Cargo’s visual puns extended to snail-themed floor mats and bugeye headlights. There was also a removable dashboard-mounted sushi tray and an enormous retractable canvas roof.

As a delivery van that could double as a company’s eye-catching rolling billboard, the S-Cargo was really quite a clever product. It’s also as large, and as silly, as the Pike Factory cars ever got.

nissan scargo

Has there ever been a better or more playful vehicle name than S-Cargo?

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By 1991, the world was about to change. The Japanese real-estate and stock-market booms had reached their apogee, and a golden age of automobile design was about to end, albeit with echoes of greatness to come, like the fourth-generation Toyota Supra and twin-turbo FD Mazda RX-7.

At Nissan, the success of the Pike Factory cars had caused a ripple effect. Designer Jun Shimizu had become head of the design division in 1987 and found himself freed by the triumphant successes of the Be-1 and Pao. He faced the challenge of creating a worthy successor. It would be the most audacious of the Pike Factory cars, but according to Shimizu, early design submissions were better suited to a museum than real-world driving.

nissan pao interior

Every Pike Factory car had an interior that was basic, but never condescending in its simplicity.

Nissan

“In April [of 1989], I gathered the team, expressed my thoughts, and suggested a different direction, a modernization of the Datsun Roadster of the Thirties. I imagined a 19th-century woman sitting in the car, with a parasol . . . possibly getting ready to take a trip. From there, I sketched a side profile in my sketchbook and set the team to task.”

By June, the concept was finalized, needing only a name. One of the design team suggested a group visit to the nearby Atsugi Cultural Center to watch a small production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The name stuck.

As with the other Pike Factory cars, the Figaro had only minimal badging to identify it as a Nissan. It featured perhaps the most retro look yet, with art-deco emblems, white-faced gauges, and interior switchgear that resembled 1950s Bakelite.

nissan figaro official images

Art-deco emblems and Fifties design cues inform the Figaro’s aesthetic.

Nissan

The oval grille and stunted proportions of the Figaro have been likened to everything from a Goggomobil to a Hillman Minx. Its true ancestor is the original Austin-based Datsun Fairlady of the 1950s, Nissan’s first foray into building sports cars. Because of the weight of its hardtop-convertible roof and automatic-only gearbox, the decision was made to give the Figaro a turbocharged 1.0-liter engine, which bumped power to 75 hp. But, as with the first Fairlady, the Figaro was more about image than performance.

Buyers didn’t care. They just wanted it. According to a 1991 article from the design magazine Blueprint, a majority of people on the Figaro waiting list, when asked where they would drive their car, answered, “Nowhere.” Like most of the other Pike Factory cars, the Figaro was more toy than actual transportation, particularly in Tokyo, a city with a comprehensive public-transit system that makes driving an unnecessary inconvenience.

Figaro sales began, again with a lottery, on Valentine’s Day 1991. The cars cost 1.8 million Yen —adjusted for inflation, that’s about the equivalent of a basic Mazda MX-5 Miata today. Total production was limited to just 20,000 vehicles.

artdeco emblems and fifties design cues inform the figaro’s aesthetic

Nissan

Nissan could have sold more, but neither the Figaro nor any of the other Pike Factory cars were profitable. As a marketing exercise, they showed daring and raised the profile of the brand. As a long-term product line, the Pike Factory cars couldn’t weather the coming storm.

The Japanese bubble crashed in late 1991, and that was the end of Pike Factory. The quirky Rasheen SUV was also designed by Sakai and built by Takata, but it was more a precursor to the boxy Nissan X-Trail than a true Pike car. Funkier products, like the later Juke and Cube, showed that Nissan had internalized the lessons learned with the Pike Factory experiment.

The four unconventional models also enjoyed a second renaissance in the gray market, with the Figaro especially popular in the U.K. Notable Figaro owners include Eric Clapton and Liam Gallagher, with a Figaro even featured on the cover of a live Oasis album, Standing in Japan, recorded in Yokohama in 2000. They’re interesting little cars to own and drive, with workaday mechanicals but endless charm. So novel was the retro concept to us that in 1993, after getting our first drive of a Figaro, we felt compelled to construct an analogy to explain the concept: Think of the Figaro as a house built to modern codes but in the French Provincial or art deco style. The Pike cars helped inspire the retro craze that swept through European and American automotive design studios for a decade afterward. Their influence was so great, no analogy is needed to explain the concept today.

Nissan

And Nissan enthusiasts can draw a direct line from the excitement and upheaval of the Be-1 to that twin-turbo 1990s juggernaut, the 300ZX. “Nissan regained its vitality after the success of the Be-1 at the Tokyo Motor Show in the fall of 1985, and in 1986 President Kume and Vice President Sonoda led the company under the slogan ‘Change the Flow’ to create a more vibrant Nissan,” Shimizu said.

“This created an environment in which designers could come up with design ideas freely, without interference from outside the division. The 300ZX is considered to have been a big hit that took advantage of this trend.”

Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan’s current senior vice president of design, has said the 300ZX stunned him on his first trip to Japan. His team tried to incorporate that seamless feel into their latest concept car, the 240Z-inspired Z Proto. As with the Pike Factory cars, the Z Proto is intended to be a blend of nostalgia and modernity.

It’s a memory that never was. But then, the Pike Factory cars really did exist, as cheerfully timeless as Studio Ghibli characters, little jewels of optimism from a time when anything was possible in the Japanese automotive industry. Kawaii and hoshii, cute and desirable. In an age of almost universally aggressive design, perhaps we need to once again glance backwards to look forward.

nissan pao ad

An absurdist promo image for the Pao. We’ll have a truckload of whatever Nissan’s ad team was taking.

Nissan

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