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This quirky car is Japanese, but there's 'something very British' about it

Richard Perez-Pena | NYT/ 12 Jan 19 | 10:34 PM

The iconic Nissan Figaro

It just might be the most adorable thing on four wheels. People smile when one cruises by. They point, they wave, they use the word “cute" a lot, and they ask, “What is that?"

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The tiny Nissan Figaro has an almost cartoonish design that is guaranteed to stand out. To an American living in Britain, who regularly spots pristine Figaros, it would appear to be a highly popular model that was made recently.

Every part of that guess is wrong: The Figaro is rather old, built for the 1991 model year, and there never were large numbers anywhere. Nissan never even exported it from Japan.

Yet here it is in Britain, in the thousands, an oddball little convertible with an ardent following and a back story that is even odder.

More on that in a minute.

Britain never had dominant carmakers like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Instead, for generations, it had a profusion of small-to-medium manufacturers.

Those carmakers produced a much wider array of designs than their American counterparts, a good number of them quirky, small, underpowered, none too practical — and beloved by their many admirers.

But in the face of foreign competition, recessions, bankruptcies and consolidation, British car manufacturing plummeted from its peak in the early 1970s. Brands like Morris, Triumph, Austin, Sunbeam, Daimler, Rover and Reliant died off.

An increasingly competitive and global market had less room for eccentric cars, British or not, or for models that sell only a few thousand.

“Cars have lost their personality," said Nic Caraccio, a devoted Figaro owner and trader who lives outside London. “If you go out on the street now, the Citroëns and Vauxhalls and Skodas and Peugeots, they’re all black or white or silver, and they all look the same. Not the Fig."

Definitely not. And it is the look that entices people here — the curvy, throwback shape, and the front end that could have been the face of one of the animated characters in the movie “Cars."

“The quirkiness, there’s something very British about it, isn’t there?" said Colin Bullock, a harbormaster in London. “It’s so familiar to people, even if they’ve never seen it before. They say, ‘Oh, I used to have one of those in 1962,’ which is impossible, and I just smile."

Owners join Figaro clubs and Facebook groups, give their cars names, often buy more than one per family, and sometimes pay over 10,000 pounds, or $12,500 — more than the car cost new.

They drive in Figaro rallies and attend classic car shows, proudly displaying their budget compacts the way other people show off their pricey Aston Martins and Rolls-Royces.

People who took their Figaros to a show in Guildford, a town southwest of London, said one of its best features was the built-in social circle. That comes in handy when the owner’s manual is written only in Japanese.

“The one thing that worried me when I met my husband, Ian, was whether he would love the car," said Zoe Collier, who lives in Surrey, runs training courses and calls her car Figlet. He did.

The Figaro may look a bit like a sporty roadster, but performance is hardly the point. It has a small engine, just under one liter, and the only transmission available was a pedestrian three-speed automatic.

It has an unusual “fixed profile" convertible roof — the middle folds down, but the sides stay put. The legroom in what passes for a back seat would cramp all but the smallest passengers.

“It really harks back to the more interesting cars in the past, when there was more of a homegrown industry," said Steve Huntingford, the editor of the British car buying magazine What Car? “A lot of people really loved those cars."

Vehicle production in Britain gradually recovered from its 1980s nadir, but what has emerged is an industry that is not very British. There are six large-scale carmakers in the country — and every one is foreign-owned.

Niche luxury brands of British heritage like Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Lotus are also now foreign-owned, as is the maker of London’s famed black cabs. The few British makes that are manufactured in Britain by British companies, like Aston Martin and Morgan, account for less than 1 per cent of the country’s car production.

© 2019 The New York Times News Service

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