Car design can be a fickle and unforgiving art. For every home run, there’s a swing and a miss, and that notion is amplified when crafting a “retro” ride—a notoriously tough look to pull off.
The most popular reborn icons to carry this banner include the modern Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle, and Mini Cooper, however this special retro car predates all of those modern cars by years; in fact, it arrived in 1989 at a point when the original Mini and Beetle were still in production.
Don’t recognize this trendsetter? It’s a Nissan Pao, one of four “Pike” cars that Nissan produced in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to spur youth interest and enthusiasm in the brand. It worked like a charm, and now some of these Japanese-market cars are beginning to arrive on US shores. This one included.
Glance quickly and you might think you’re looking at a product of the 1950s, rather than the late 1980s. That was quite purposeful, as the Nissan Pao was penned with ‘50s French design cues in mind. It samples the rippled body panels of the iconic Citroën 2CV, the overall shape of the Renault 4, and mixes in a bit of Fiat 500 and Austin Mini for good measure.
First teased in concept form in 1987, Nissan produced the low-volume Pao at its Aichi Machine Industry plant from 1989 to 1991, after which around 50,000 were built in total. To own one you had to be rather lucky, in fact, Nissan instituted a lottery process due to overwhelming demand for its “Pike” cars, which also included the Nissan Be-1 hatchback, Figaro sports coupe, and S-Cargo van. All four were based on the Nissan Micra (also known as “March”).
Motivating the Nissan Pao is a—gasp—987cc four-cylinder engine, which provided 51 horsepower from the factory. Admittedly, that’s not a lot, however these cars were quite light on their feet and weighed only 1,670 pounds (not quite “kei car” small, though). A three-speed automatic transmission came standard, but a five-speed manual was optional.
Outside there’s plenty of vintage design elements to love—from the exposed hinges to its cute fascia and retractable soft top roof—and that’s much the same story inside as well. Sitting in a Pao is like taking a step back in time. The gauges, dashboard, switch work, and seats all look wonderfully vintage and minimalistic. The word “timeless” comes to mind, and come on, doesn’t this interior looks startlingly good for a product of the ‘80s?
If you’re starting to fall headlong in love with the elegant Pao, you aren’t alone, however you are in luck. This ’89 Nissan Pao recently came up for sale on eBay in Long Island, New York, said to be a recent import from Japan. Despite some modifications—aftermarket wheels, stereo, and fog lights—it seems to present well inside and out, and features the automatic transmission.
Given that these were only sold new in Japan, this ought to be one of very few that have ever made it stateside.