By on November 12, 2009


Oregonians have long treasured the random little collectable objects that Japan’s artisans inadvertently send our way. Usually that takes the form of beautiful hand-blown glass fishing floats that spend years or decades bobbing in the Pacific before a storm washes them on our shores. But occasionally another form of distinctly Japanese objet d’art finds its way ashore, like this Nissan Pao.

a long way from homeStephanie and I were driving down Oak Street, when I had a split-second glimpse of its grille sitting up on the upper level of a parking ramp. Holy Kapao! popped out of my mouth, as I instantly pulled a rude maneuver to get into the parking ramp. What the hell is that doing in Eugene!? My wife asked me how I could have possibly seen it up there while driving. Don’t ask.

When we found it hiding tucked up close to a stairway shaft, Stephanie had a palpable hormono-vascular reaction. Like most Americans, she had no clue of the Pao’s existence. Now she would have settled for a new Mini in a pinch, but, prior to seeing the Poa, a Mini Traveler is what she really wanted. But the one is too common (and overpriced), the other too impractical. The Pao is the proverbial missing link.

Well, didn’t I feel full of myself telling her all about the Pao, how I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and how it started the whole Japanese retro fad that raged for a few years there, thanks to Nissan’s indulgence. The Pike Factory was set up to be a limited production facility geared to small batches, the goal not being profits, but image enhancement for Nissan, which frankly needed it back then.

bentlyesque?The lowly and boxy Nissan Micra K10 was drafted to be the donor platform for the Pikes Factory specials, and the Pao was its first radical makeover. Premiering at the Tokyo show in 1987, the Pao is a rolling pastiche of retro cues gathered and rearranged from around the globe: mostly original mini, but also pieces of 2CV, Beetle, Mehari, mini-moke, and Austin 1100; am I forgetting somebody? It was followed shortly by the much less creative Be-1, and then by the brilliant little Figaro.  The goofy S-Cargo rounded out the Pikes family, before the Nissan fun-mobile exercise petered out.

The Pao’s production was purposely limited to 10k units for the Japanese domestic market only, and interested parties had to submit a reservation from January 15 through April 14, 1989; orders were served according to their date of placing. The new fashion darling sold out in three months and is still sought after. But the question as to whether the Pao is a worthy work of art or a flash in the pop-pan is as questionable as Wikipedia’s reliability. It claims that the Pao is on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York along with those other timeless automotive masterworks residing there: the 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT, a Willys Jeep, a ’59 Beetle and a ’63 XKE. But a search of MoMA’s press releases on the subject of Pao draws a big zero. Has anybody in NY seen it there?

CC 55 013 800Well, somebody in Eugene sure wanted it in their collection. Actually, it’s a daily driver, and it now spends its rainy days on a surface lot off Pearl Street, which made it possible to get some decent shots of it. It’s definitely a city car, what with all of 51 horsepower from the carbureted 987cc Micra engine. At least this one had the desirable five-speed stick; the three-speed automatic is best kept for Tokyo’s traffic jams.

At least those 51 ponies only have 1600 lbs to pull. The Pao is about the same size as the new Mini, but its weight is a lot closer to the original mini’s. And the Pao’s interior has it all over the Mini stylistically, if not in comfort and features. The round speedometer and authentic-looking retro flip-switches work; the current Mini arcade game IP is almost unbearable to look at.

Want one? There available through Japanese exporters; though they seem to go fairly quickly, with prices roughly in the $3 to $6k range. Stephanie did, badly, until the reality of right hand drive set in. Pass. Well, the Pao and Figaro are particularly popular in the UK for at least that one reason. For anyone with good taste wanting a true mini successor, the new Mini doesn’t just doesn’t cut it. How much to convert one to left-hand drive?

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31 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1989 Nissan Pao...”

  • avatar

    Delightful! My idea of what an urban car should be. Just the right size, cute, and look at all that lovely glass area! I didn’t realize Nissan made them with a 5spd, for some reason I always thought they were all automatics. Assume that it probably made its way into the States via Canada, where cars only have to be 15 to be freely importable vs. 25 in the US.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Gee, I’m glad I didn’t even try to guess that one from the clue!

    BTW, what is a Eugen, Oregon daily driver doing sporting California license plates?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      The expiration dates on it are Nov. 09, so I guess there will be OR plates on it soon. We still get a regular influx of Californians, or they bought it in CA.

  • avatar

    Right hand drive is no big deal…left hand turns need to be done with real attention, but other than that.  Parallel parking is easier.  Betcha you wouldn’t turn down a Bugatti and they were largely if not all RHD…

  • avatar

    There’s plenty of these in the Great White North, along with JDM Delicas, Skyline’s, Pajaro’s, Celicas, Fairlady’s, Hiace, Hilux, Land cruiser, Solara’s etc, and those cute little Kei trucks and vans.
    All used to be quite a head turner but are fairly common now.
    This Pao probably did come down from Canada, but I thought a vehicle had to be 25 years or older for it to be imported into the US?

  • avatar

    This car doesn’t meet your own criteria for a Curbside Classic.  It isn’t 25 years old, has no discernible patina (looks meticulously cared-for), you don’t exactly relate it to your personal automotive history, and your article admits it is not representative of what you encounter in Eugene.
    Not that I care (it’s your column), but you once posted reasonable criteria that seemingly rules this car out.  Plus its non-availability in the US made the clue inordinately difficult.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I should have been clearer then, although I think it’s pretty obvious: any one or more of the criteria I listed works to qualify a car, not all ten. That would be too limiting. There may even be exceptions, from time to time. Anyway, the Pao does pretty well:
      2) used as a daily or regular driver;  4) has a significant place in automotive history; ; 6) has distinctive design features; 7) has an enthusiast following; 8) represents the unique carscape of Eugene; 9) is under-appreciated; and 10) inspires me to write about it
      Numbers 8 & 9 are iffy, but hey, this isn’t exactly the Concours at Pebble Beach. Good enough for me.
       Sorry about the clue.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a unique, interesting ‘retro’ vehicle that, although likely not technically street legal, is currently being driven on streets in the States. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual legal cars that get reviewed, ad nauseum, regardless of how unique and/or interesting they might be.

      So long as it doesn’t become a habit, I’m willing to give the guy a pass on this one. Plus, it sure seemed like a lot of people were able to guess it from the clue, anyway. 

  • avatar

    Is that even legal to be registered in the US?  I know vehicles older than 15 years can be registered in Canada (which is where the importer you linked to is located), but there is no similar law in the US.

    The California registration was probably in error; this probably can not be legally registered in the US.

  • avatar

    I didn’t know you could import one of these into the US.  I’ve seen a few on the streets here (Vancouver), but it’s just one of many RHD cars that have popped up lately.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    I’ve been seeing a few non-US cars around lately. There’s a nice recent Land Rover TDI, and…draws a blank. I don’t know the current rules in detail, but I bet there are loopholes.

  • avatar

    Here is MOMA’s car collection presented online. No Pao.

  • avatar

    Nissan Figaro is all the rage amongst London’s high society. When I was in London on a weekend-trip a few years ago, I say more Figaros than Bentleys, I kid you not. Apparently, it’s a chic car for the trophy wife. What astounded me, was the immaculate condition of all those Figaros, which must have been almost twenty years old at that time, but there was no Spitfires, Tr6’s, MG’s or E-Type’s anywhere to be found. Strange bedfellows indeed…

  • avatar

    What a neat little car that I knew exactly nothing about! This is exactly what minimalist (sort of) city cars should be. The new Mini is a poseur, and the smart is a joke. Awesome, I love it!

  • avatar

    I did not see the Pao at MoMA when I was last there, maybe 4 years ago. (Thanks, Chuck, for posting a link to their collection!) And thanks, Paul, for showing us another piece of the charming Eugene carscape. This one is adorable, unlike the last couple of entries.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Adorable indeed! I am not a fan of flat windscreens but everything else about this car looks just right. Never heard of it before — thanks, Paul, for another unique and entertaining view into automotive history.

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    If not for Gran Turismo, I would never have known about this car. Neat find.

    Also, the “Poa” typos are driving me nuts :)

  • avatar

    It is extremely unlikely that this is a legal car in the USA.  Although it may have found its way to North America through Canada under Canada’s 15-year exemption, that does not mean it was originally certified for sale new in Canada, which is just about the only exemption it could come in under the NHTSA regs.  See .  Nor is it on the list of cars eligible for NHTSA’s “show and display” exemption (see ).  Whatever bit of subterfuge, truth-bending or wink-wink, nod-nodding was used to get a tag on this car will not prevent the feds from confiscating it if the urge strikes them to.   In California, I suspect the model year was misrepresented as a 1975 or earlier because there is absotively, posilutely no way this car could get a smog certificate.

  • avatar


    Of course it isn’t “legal”.  There is no way at all to get one of those in here with perfect legality, certified, etc. But it is actually quite easy to get one in, and chances are nobody is ever going to care. I have a few friends with oddball European spec Saabs (right-hand-drive 900, 1980 Saab 96, etc) from the ’80s who have done the following (helps to have club buddies in appropriate places): 

    Import car to Canada under 15 year rule, register to Canadian address.
    Drive car across border, register in non-titleing state. Maine only titles for 15 years – how perfectly convenient. Actually, Maine and Vermont blanket accept Canadian titles too – so technically this would work for a newer car too, if you could get it into Canada and title it.
    Register car in Maine using hand-written bill of sale and proof of insurance, as that is all that is needed on a 15+ year old car. Well, and money.
    Use Maine registration plus whatever documentation home state requires to get title for a car from a non-titleing state to register car at home. Usually a notarized bill of sale.

    Not that I would have ANY experience with such nefarious goings on.  <puts on look of angelic innocence>

    Now if you were doing this in volume for profit you would probably end up a guest of Uncle Sam, but as an individual?? Well, I just bought that neat old car from some nice Canadian guy, what do you mean it isn’t legal????? Once it is over the border, who would know or care about some wierd old car?

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Paul: You go ahead and write about what you want to write about. I really enjoy your articles.
    BTW: you wrote: “It’s definitely a city car, what with all of 51 horsepower from the carbureted 987cc Micra engine.”
    I thought Kei (City Cars in Japan) had to have motors of less than 660 ml.

  • avatar

    @krhodes1:  1980 Saab would be OK, as NHTSA allows anything 25 years or more.

    I don’t know about ME or VT, but in many states, the DMV’s computers will hiccup on the VIN, because it is not a recognized VIN sequence.  Insurance companies will do the same.    Then the fun begins.  I had enough such “fun” registering a legally gray marketed Benz in GA.

    If you register with a VIN or model year that does not correspond to the car,  you are at risk if some hotshot trooper pulls you over for a burnt out taillight.

    Understand, I think the NHTSA rules are dumb.  But they exist, and there are some people who are not above misleading the buying public when they offer one of these up for sale.

  • avatar

    I think I have seen this car in years past [living in L.A. you get to see some of these sorts of treats: I once saw a Fiat Multipla going down Magnolia Blvd ], once parked outside on the street next to my job and another time at a garage in Burbank. I took pictures of it. What a scream. Would that the Versa and Sentra had that sort of style and simplicity.

    I’d  trade 2 cars for one of these.

  • avatar

    Oh bless you, krhodes1, for the nice howto.  Robert, is there a reference section of TTAC where such helpful information can be archived???
    BTW, the little guy next to me in the avatar picture was also imaginatively imported

  • avatar

    I remember with fondness blasting around town one time in a noisy, crude little 1990 Nissan Micra.    The Pao looks to be another step down… or should I say up.
    Whatever happened to this sort of simplicity?    Safety?    Okay, but even the crummiest little cars were still 1,000% safer than my Yamaha XJ1100 of the same vintage.   Performance?  Also relative.   A screaming shitbox with 12″ wheels and inch-thick doors could put a bigger grin on your face at 30 mph than any Versa ever will.
    Pity the future, as the Nanny State legislates two-ton safety cocoons that limp along on mere wisps of energy.   Be well, John Spartan.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    Yeah, there are ways (such as krhodes1 describes) to sneak past the regulations, but MadHungarian is correct: the car can be confiscated at any time and its owner hauled up on smuggling-related charges. More practically, you can run into tremendous hassles each and every time you transfer the registration to another state. In the last few years, most states have considerably tightened up their VIN verification protocols. Non-US VINs are easily detected by the system, and if you cannot produce HS7 (DOT) and 3250 (EPA) forms stamped and signed off by US Customs, and referring specifically to that vehicle, then registration may be denied (and that may be just the start of the tribulations).
    Or not. I encountered this Mexican-market Chrysler Spirit about five years ago in Seattle. There’s no way this car could have been legally or legitimately imported, and yet there it sat with Washington plates. The owner said he bought it at a used-car lot not far away, and I’m pretty sure he was telling the truth. He had no idea the car was anything other than a cheap used toastermobile, and he’d broken the rear quarter glass deliberately for a reason I don’t recall.

  • avatar


    Give me a Skoda Estelle or Lada Signet/Riva and have the genuine article; cars that looked dated and odd because they were dated and odd.

    An Estelle, or any other Communist car, is like a trucker’s hat on a trucker, while the Pao is like a trucker’s hat on Aston Kutcher; same object, but one is real, and the other is passing  fling of fancy from a well-to-do pretty boy.

  • avatar

    B10er: Give me a Skoda Estelle or Lada Signet/Riva and have the genuine article.
    A part of me agrees, another part says “But you’d dealing with rare/non-existent parts and extreme unreliability with the real thing, while with the Pao you could just ,well, use it”.  The real thing takes up ownership of you….
    Speaks the man who has a original Mini, whose diff dropped a tooth whilst mildly tooling around a corner…because the 1950s metallurgy just isn’t in the same league as todays…and who also remembers what giddy fun it was to strap it on and hurl yourself down a twisty country road.

  • avatar

    As usual, Paul, this is a great article…but I can’t sit still over the statement that the Pao “started the whole Japanese retro fad.”

    I think that at least some credit is owed to Mazda, for its MX-5/Miata. While definitely a then-modern interpretation of the classic British roadster, the design pays homage to styling cues of the past, particularly in its packaging.

    On a similar note, I’ve always been a fan of the Figaro and would love to own one, even though I now know its popular among British trophy wives. But then again, I’m comfortable with my masculinity…

  • avatar

    Car still in Eugene, still w/Cali plates. 3/22/2012 I drooled over it @ Woodfield Station lot in South Eugene (Market of Choice).
    Very nice.


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