Home » Make Mine Malaise: Our Daydreaming Designer Applies The ‘Pike Car’ Approach For This Nostalgia Machine

Make Mine Malaise: Our Daydreaming Designer Applies The ‘Pike Car’ Approach For This Nostalgia Machine

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Nostalgia is something that can often be co-opted by other cultures. Whether it be British-style punk rockers in Japan or even American girls enamored with Sanrio toys, a transcontinental phenomenon can be highly marketable. In the automotive world, nostalgia takes the form of “retro” cars, and Japan once leaned heavily into this trend.

Back in the early 1990s, Nissan created a series of vehicles styled to look like iconic European cars from the fifties and sixties. The Figaro echoed the looks of a sliding-roof Fiat, while the Pao looked a bit like a Renault 4; there was even the ‘S Cargo’ inspired by a Citroen 2CV van. Under the skin, these “Pike” cars were underpinned by mechanicals from the modern Micra/March and had amenities like automatic transmission and air conditioning.

Despite the fact that many Japanese citizens never had a ton of experience with the European cars that inspired these designs in real life, the popularity of Pikes was insane, to the point where there were lotteries held for the chance to purchase any one of these.

Nissan Pike Cars Pao Advertisement 19tdigbpace101 3000x1250.jpg.ximg.l 12 M

source: Nissan

Tiny Japanese manufacturer Mitsuoka did a similar thing on the same Nissan platform with the Viewt, designed to look like a ’50s/’60s Mark II Jaguar:


source: Mitsuoka

What if the idea of a Pike car came back today? Well, the original ones in 1991 were influenced by cars that were, around the time, about 30 to 40 years old. If we were to make a retro car out of the current Nissan Micra today to echo the looks of a three- or four-decade-old car, that means we need to look at vehicles made from around 1983 to 1993.

Am I the only one that feels really old now?

What should we use for inspiration for this modern-day Pike? European cars from this era were often quite functional and almost timeless in design (like a Golf or a Renault 5) to the point where it’s hard to find much in the way of fun anachronisms. However, many American cars made during the time still had a baroque, outlandish flair to them. The Japanese actually had been influenced by U.S. cars in the past, like with the Celica which appeared to be a mini-Mustang or big domestic market Mazda sedans that looked like a Plymouth Fury:

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sources: wikipedia

I think we need to aim our sights on the final ‘Malaise’ styled cars still produced during this time; the last cars made with vertical ‘formal’ rooflines, huge ‘c’ pillars, chrome ‘waterfall’ grilles, and even covered headlights:


sources: Ford, Orlando Classic Cars, and Chrysler

These cars did not age well and were laughed at almost immediately after they were produced. However, just as today you can listen to ABBA or the Bee Gees without shame, there are now fans coming out of the woodwork for these gingerbread-adorned upright coupes and sedans. Many of them are younger fans, often not older than the cars themselves. This makes sense, since the original buyers are likely dead, and GenXers like myself still tend to cringe at the sight of them.

To keep the true spirit of a Pike car, we really need to use the latest version of the same vehicle the originals were based on: the Nissan Micra. Not sold in the United States, the Micra has a size and proportions that honestly make it extremely difficult to replicate an American personal luxury car, but that ain’t gonna stop us.

2019 Nissan Micra N Sport 00

source: Nissan

This time around, Nissan doesn’t have the ‘bubble economy’ money they did in the ’80s. They’ll need to do exactly what the makers of the American cars they are emulating did back in the day: make as few changes as possible to create a “luxury” car out of an inexpensive vehicle. All of the Big Three did this back in the Malaise era, with manufacturers like Chrysler being so cheap as to actually glue shit onto a sedan to give it a different roof line. Take a look at how they added a fiberglass cap to turn a low-level Chrysler E-Class into the more posh New Yorker:


source: Chrysler

We’ll try not to do that and make most of our changes more seamless onto the Micra structure. Here’s our Pike car in all its glory. It’s named the Boca Raton, after the Florida city that is really the sixth borough of the Big Apple where semi-well-to-do New Yorkers go to retire and overstuffed ‘luxury’ cars once abounded:

2019 Nissan Micra N Sport 00 3

You can see that the front clip of the Micra is changed to incorporate the chrome grille flanked by projector headlights behind flip-open doors:


Well, unless you get the lower level ‘Salon’ model (below the ‘Brougham’ level) that just has exposed lights:

2019 Nissan Micra N Sport 00 2

Chrome replaces much black trim, door handles moved into the window area, and a ‘formal’ roof line caps off the rear of the greenhouse. You can see that the lovely Boca Raton logos on the C pillar (hiding the door handle) illuminate with electroluminescent material:


Below is a rough sketch of the back. Here, the bumper section extends the rear overhang and the reshaped hatchback forms a sort of ‘trunk lid’. The wide rear taillight with the center reverse lamp is a perfect late Malaise touchstone with hidden amber signals for nations that (rightly) require it. The blocky form is very reminiscent of the bustle-backed 1981-83 Imperial or the Fox-based Continental and ends up looking much like a 1986-1991 Seville/Eldorado. I thought that keeping the German license plates and adding the mandatory rear foglight below the bumper added to the absurdity.

8b720039 2019 Nissan Micra N Sport 23 A

source: Nissan

Inside, the nostalgia has to continue. While things like the infotainment screen and climate controls will remain standard Micra items, the things around it can change. Tufty seats will feature Rich Corinthian-style leather, which will continue to the doors where it gets complemented by traditional American luxury car staples such as coffin-style pull handles. We’re too narrow for three-wide seating, but we need to have a bench front seat and column shifter for the automatic transmission. The dashboard features a boxy shape with burled walnut woodgrain trim and LCD screens displaying retro fluorescent-looking readouts. We finish it off with an old-school massive center airbag box steering wheel and a metallic finish analog Seiko clock.

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source: Nissan

Would anyone purchase this thing? I say it’s improbable, but I bet that nobody thought that silly tail fin-backed ’50s cars would be objects of reverence to be fawned over at retro-styled burger joints decades later. Maybe, like those cars, it would be an almost reverse-status-symbol so-bad-it’s-good object. In the car business, there supposedly is “an ass for every seat,” and I think a 5:8 scale Mark VIII would find a few posteriors.

All illustrations by The Bishop


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49 Responses

  1. I do hope to see more manufacturers do a vintage/retro display option for their digital clusters like Ford did for the Mustang with the Fox cluster view.

    In a somewhat similar vein – Subaru had a simple approach with Impreza Casa Blanca, Vivio Bistro, and Sambar Dias Classic – update to front end, maybe taillights. Almost wonder how that would look now too.

    1. Otter- it’s absolutely the inspiration for a Pike car, but did you mean the Nissan Figaro? The Nissan Pao is the red one in the image of the four at the top, and the Figaro is the one on the bottom left. I mean, the Pao is close but the Figaro is spot-on.

    1. Kakairo- as I mentioned in the article, it ain’t the ‘bubble’ economy anymore. Plus, with all the regulations that exist now as opposed to thirty years ago they’d probably never be able do a scaled-down Lincoln Mark VI like I wanted to do in the low quantities these would sell in. Mitsuoka had to deal with these strict parameters with the later Viewt as you can see (though primarily for the budget constraints).

      Also, as I illustrated with the old Chrysler example, it’s also a play on the Malaise ‘luxury’ modus operandi of doing as little as possible to a cheap car to make it ‘fancy’.

  2. I think you truly captured the esprit de meh of the malaise era cars – and this is a sincere complement. The fact that the end product is repulsive in just the right way is a testament of your skills (again, not joking and sincerely praising the results, despite how contradictory this may read).

  3. A perfect car for retirees because it looks like it needs a nap. That Boca Raton emblem would look perfect on a polo shirt too. “Oh my Gawd. It’s so hawt here!”

    1. Jonee- With the interior I was kind of going for the equivalent of comfort food. Remember riding in your grandparent’s car on a Sunday and wafting along surrounded by the fake woodgrain, column shift, and tufty park-bench seats? I wanted something that gives you that sort of feeling.

      1. It needs an absolutely murderous cigarette stank to give it that full grandparents’ car nostalgia effect (and a mason jar of gin rolling around the front passenger footwell, if you were my gram).

  4. Given that the new Toyota Prius is actually a good looking car, I fear the universe may be out of balance. I suggest a body kit to turn it into say a Chrysler Cordoba. The inside will have to be swathed in real vegan Corinthian leather.

      1. Gilbert- and a sleepy wombat at that (well, if you get the Brougham model with the covered headlights as opposed to the exposed headlight Salon model, which is just exasperated).

  5. Well…

    It’s better than the gawdawful pseudo-Escalade golf carts tooling around the gated communities in the actual Boca Raton.

    Two arthritic thumbs up!

    1. StillNotATony- actually, that’s a great idea. I mean, wouldn’t you rather have 85 year old drivers in a small easy-to-park car that appeals to them instead of in a REAL 4200 pound Malaise car (“I bought it in 1993 and I’m still driving it”) causing mayhem?

  6. I think if you want to quote older American design on a modern car, you should look pre-malaise. Say, the boattail Riviera, the 1970 GTO, the 1965 Thunderbird.

    The thing that made the Pike cars interesting wasn’t that they were quoting designs N years old, it’s that they were quoting designs that had character. The malaise era was characterized by an absence of character.

    1. adamrice- I wouldn’t say that the malaise era had no character. Padded vinyl roofs and wire wheel covers are character; they’re just not character that appeal to me (and likely you).

      Doing a modern day Riv or GTO (on a more appropriate wheelbase platform) would absolutely make a nice looking car, but it’s the last Friday afternoon of a very LONG year and I just wanted to do something as silly as making a personal luxury coupe out of a subcompact.

  7. Not bad a few less changes would have resulted in a car people would buy. I might have gone a different way.
    1. I would dive into the parts bin for a numbered keyless door lock.
    2. Pass on the bench seats front or back for 4 plush roomy seats
    3. Combine the trunk into the rear window for a fancy hatch without the hatch profile.
    4. Tires with a larger or colored whitewall.
    5. Slope the hood less for an iconic 70s like grill with a hood ornament.

  8. I’m a Figaro owner, not that it makes me an expert on anything, but I think the original four Pike cars were made for a nostalgic feeling and not to copy particular cars. And the wonderful thing about them is that they don’t look like one particular earlier design, but has a lot of style elements from that time. Hope I’m getting through with this?
    My Figaro looks a bit like a 50ies Datsun Fairlady (the one before the cool MGB looking one..), has an Autobianchi inspired roof and the rear hatch like a Mini (sadly with the hinges downside up..), body also shaped a bit like an old german Gutbrot Superior. But it’s all hints of 1959 nostalgia and not really a copy of anything.
    Try asking Jason if he hasn’t got the same feelings about the Pao, as I’m trying to describe.

    I don’t see the Mitsuoka Viewt as such a Pike car: It’s just an ugly copy (or hommage..) to another a Jaguar, like the Citroën HY bodykit for vans, or countless Chinese copycars.

    So yes, in it’s copying style, your Nissan is a lot like a Mitsuoka, but not so much like a real early 90ies Pike car. And well done with scaling that 90ies Cadillac look down and sticking it on a new car (thumbs up emoji)

    Figgy and me: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cm2ku0TINmT/

    1. Jakob- Lovely Figaro, sir! I experienced a few for the first time at Duncan in Nashville last summer and was really impressed with the detailing and its ability to be used as a ‘real car’. The fact that my wife likes the looks, could actually drive it, and that it could fit in the tiny alcove at the back of my garage behind the daily drivers means I might need to reach out to you for buying advice! The only issue appears to be that any fuel or shopping stop becomes an Instagram post for passers-by.

      Yes, this pastiche of mine is much more Viewt than Pike in most ways, the cheesiness of the conversion really being part of the whole Malaise gestalt. Glad that you got the joke!

      1. Just get a non rusty one. Might be hard to find with one from UK, since they have moist weather and not very many garages. But they are cheap there, especially right now, since many Londoners are selling, due to the very high new ULEZ charges for cars too old to have the right environmental classification, but not old enough to be “real” classics.
        Had mine 5 years this coming april, and it just works and works, after all it’s mechanically just a used Japanese car.

  9. The European cars that inspired the Pikes suited the zeitgeist of the era in which they were built, whereas the truncated GM and Chrysler products that hosted the landau’s last roundup had already descended into self-parody and definitely weren’t part of the era. For something that feels of the ’80s I’d suggest an homage to Ford’s aero cars, putting together an inexpensive pastiche of Tempos and Topazes and Thunderbirds and Tauruses and maybe one of the ones whose be doesn’t start with a T, which GM tried and failed to match in the 1988 senior-midsize debut.

    To get the Malaise feel I’d reach a little further back to the just-past-the-peak era of the first downsizings, which definitely suited the time. Some of GM’s (and Bill Mitchell’s) self-confidence and exuberance from the antitrust-threat era was still apparent in the expensive wraparound window of the ’77 Impala coupe, the fastback flops of the ’78 base Cutlass and Century and of course the 1980 Seville, while the coming storm was foreshadowed by the curves-too-big-for-the-smaller-platform ’78 Monte Carlo.

    Or go a little later to the hella-zeitgeisty Pontiacs of the cladozoic era from the first front-drive Grand Ams to the supercharged and super-bulbous Bonneville and Grand Prix. Painted teal, of course, with nubbly gray upholstery able to hold a spirited driver in place without bolsters and bright orange gauges nestled within the indoor Dagmars of the dashboard nacelles.

    1. AlterId- indeed, I was looking at 1983-93 which was truly the end of the malaise era, and the vinyl-roof clad things like that Imperial were indeed the last of the line. The Ford aero cars of that time (and the arguably poor GM copies) were truly the direction things were going at the time, but instead of cars like the rather timeless 83 T Bird and 86 Taurus I wanted to find cars with styling that was absolutely ‘of an era’, even if (maybe especially if) that era was one that we should be rather embarrassed about.

      However, I do think that the plastic-clad Pontiacs of the late eighties would be a great ‘Pike’ car inspiration as well. Now you’ve got me scribbling that, dammit.

  10. And if you’d like to see a collection of pike cars almost 100 strong look up Duncan imports lmao. (Yes im aware some of you guys have wrote about them and went out there before)

  11. I still stand by the neon 80’s being the direction modern Pike cars would go in, although I think Hyundai’s beating Nissan to that hypothetical punch. It’d even give Nissan a chance to dip into some of their heritage – Iron Mask Skylines, S12 Silvias, definitely the squareback Pulsar.

  12. Needs a Landau Brougham version with padded half roof and opera window!

    A pedestrian-safe hood ornament is needed, with more chrome on the bumpers…. and of course, Faux wire wheel covers and white walls!

    1. dfcarsnguitars- that would be the Royale Brougham package you are requesting, sir. The images I made show just the basic Salon, Brougham, and sporty Touring Sedan models (the rear view with the black wheels) for those with a ‘feel for the road’.

      1. Perfect. You do great work. (As a designer, I’ve been thinking of one of the extremely popular late 70s, utterly inefficient, non-utilitarian Olds Cutlass Brougham, chock full of faux luxury elements… imagining a RestoMod EV rendition of what designers might have been wishing that car could really be. That kind of car is really not my style, but the nonsense of it intrigues me)

    1. Justin- you’re right; I should have said 5/8 scale 1992 Chrysler Imperial. It really does look very much like that thing shrunken down and with the corners softened up a bit.

  13. This thing is horribly perfect EXCEPT it needs the vinyl 1/4 roof treatment for the final (vinyl?) touch. I remember seeing decent cars around Boston in the late 80’s that were given the “Bostonian” custom dealer detailing by adding a sickening-coloured vinyl roof & gold trim. Talk about adding the malaise…at a time when cars were actually getting decent again.

    1. Crusty- I originally started with a regular Micra and added a fiberglass roof cap on back like on the Chrysler Fifth Avenue or later Lincoln Versailles, but figured that was taking it a bit too far. However, there’s no reason a dealer couldn’t that extra bit of ‘class’ to it.

      1. It needed a fiberglass roof cap with a shiny PLASTIC landau bar on each side.

        I really love this article, because this is such a delightfully hideous eyesore of a car to look at. It would be right at home in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, especially with that digital dash.

    1. I always thought the Mark VIII looked like what we thought THE FUTURE would be from a viewpoint of around 1980; I always kind of liked its space-shippy form (but the 1995 Rivera is the best looking of the final iteration of ‘personal luxury coupes’).

  14. “…a three- or four-decade-old car, that means we need to look at vehicles made from around 1983 to 1993. Am I the only one that feels really old now?”

    No, you’re not. Thanks for that. Happy New Year?

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