Nissan Be-1

Naoki Sakai and the Nissan Be-1.

Naoki Sakai and the Nissan Be-1.

An interesting car every day means that, sometimes, I get to revisit more well-known vehicles in case there's a nugget of 'neat' somewhere. 

The Nissan "Pike Factory" is certainly neat—so even though the Be-1 is pretty well-known, let's revisit it.

Probably the most important piece of the story is noting that Naoki Sakai, a former tattoo-inspired artist—and industrial designer—was hired to lead the design project after his proposal won out over both an internal design and a proposal from "an Italian design house"—I wonder what *that* car looked like!

(The studio was Prototype A, Sakai's was Prototype B1, and the third was Prototype B2…in case you were wondering where its name came from!)

Nissan Be-1 concept

Nissan Be-1 concept

Nissan Be-1 concept

Nissan Be-1 concept

Designed from the start to create an automotive niche that didn't exist, from the outset the aim was to create a compact halo car that would attract people to Nissan showrooms. (And, when they learned that the Be-1 was based from the boring-as-wallpaper-paste Micra, opt for that one instead.)

That the car was limited to just 10,000 units was a marketing masterstroke, though it probably spoke more to the manufacturing side of the equation than anything. Still, Nissan was forced to hold a lottery because of the initial interest.

Just 10,000 retro-styled cars? That's the niche part. Now for the nuance. 

If you take the time to read about the Be-1 or its better-known siblings, the Pao, Figaro, and S-Cargo, inevitably you'll hear about a place called the Pike Factory.

Spoiler alert: it's not a real place.

Some sources say the cars were assembled, largely by hand, in a Aichi Machine Industry factory—which is true of the later Pike cars—but that isn't the case for the Be-1.

Assembled in a Takada Kogyo plant near Osaka, it would also be the site for production of the Figaro, Nissan Rasheen, March Cabriolet…and a few Subarus, including the legendary Impreza 22B STI.

So what the hell is the Pike Factory? Here's what Nissan says:

"In the field of marketing, Nissan introduced the Be-1 in 1987 and the Cima in 1988, thereby creating new segments with a "Pike" car, or niche car, and an upper grade personal sedan."

OK…"Niche Factory"? Think about it—it's like BMW's M division or Ford's former SVO team, or any of the other special project groups that automakers have created over the years. 

Instead of performance, this one started the retro car craze—I'm sure you could even blame them for the PT Cruiser.

The car itself was unremarkable, if you strip away the design. Carburated 1.0-litre 4-cylinder engine, a choice of 3-speed automatic or 4-speed manual. I've driven a Pao with the 3-speed automatic and it's…slow. (It felt slower than my 2CV, actually…even though it's quicker.)

Apart from deciding whether to get a metal or canvas roof, buyers had a range of accessories to consider, too—including a rear-mounted backpack, seat covers, and a metal car stereo rack.

Nissan Be-1-based stadium car.

Far more austere inside than the other Pike cars, it walked the line between modern and retro well, something that the likes of Volkswagen, Ford, Chevrolet, Fiat, and others have battled with. Some have aged well: the New Beetle and Fiat 500; some not: the Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet SSR, to name but two.

There's no denying that the Nissan Be-1 and Pike Factory project has, in some ways, helped to push car design into the modern era.

Just remember: Pike Factory is not a place, it's a state of mind.

Sources / Recommended reading