In business, first impressions matter. No wonder Vancouver is up to its glass-fronted skyscrapers in Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes; if you can’t wear your success on your sleeve, you might as well be seen driving around in it.
I’m a little early for my meeting with Randy Lum, Canadian restaurateur, entrepreneur and real-estate mover-and-shaker. Peering in the window of his funky sushi restaurant, The Eatery, I can see giant octopi made of papier-mache, Andy Warhol-esque wall art, a collection of Astro-Boy figurines and, hanging from the ceiling, a giant dragon made up from discarded plastic toys.
Pretty interesting stuff, but I don’t have long to wait. Randy soon rolls up to the curb in a 1991 Nissan Figaro. He’s got five of them. This one’s pink.
Like I said, first impressions matter.
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!
So what’s a Nissan Figaro then? Well, it’s an eye-catching little coupe that was built by Nissan’s Japan-only special projects group, Pike Factory. Pike was also responsible for such JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) wackiness as the Nissan S-Cargo van and the Nissan Pao.
The Figaro wasn’t Randy’s first JDM-car. He started off with said Nissan Pao, a sort of Volkswagen Thing pseudo-army-style hatchback based on Nissan’s Micra subcompact. It came in the early days of the Japanese grey market cars (vehicles older than 15-years-old are importable into Canada, even if they’re right-hand-drive), and Vancouver’s proximity to the Pacific Rim meant a few of the first cars showed up here.
Fleet of foot, Randy chased down the little green monster when he saw it roll past with a “for sale” sign in the window. Why was the previous owner making space? He needed the scratch to track down a Nissan Figaro.
Just 12,000 Figaros were originally produced, but demand was so great for the cute and kitschy coupe that total production (just one model year) was ramped up to 20,000. Powered by a turbocharged 1.0-litre engine, nearly all came equipped with a three-speed automatic. That retro-look belies some pretty prosaic architecture: it too is really a Nissan Micra underneath.
Randy bought his first Figaro for $12,500 and now has five of them, each painted a different colour, and all bearing the Astro-Boy anime livery of his restaurant. As he puts it, “each car brings a different personality out.” The canary-yellow Figaro is the sporty one, the green one’s the cruiser. This bright pink car catches the eyes of young and old; little girls wave as fast as their arms can manage and seniors are transported back to thoughts of some pastel ’50s Ford T-bird at the drive-in-movies.
“Everywhere I go, it’s like being a rockstar. It’s attention-getting and of course it’s great advertising for the business.”
Driving around in a bus ad
When Randy bought The Eatery, becoming its fourth owner, it was the usual Vancouver joint. As such, he started out advertising on the back of the 99 B-Line, the major bus service that runs from East to West, ferrying students out to the University of British Columbia.
But The Eatery isn’t an ordinary sushi restaurant with California rolls, luke-warm green-tea and teeny-tiny servings of sashimi. This is a place you can get a roll called the Electric Banana (eel topped with tempura banana), Tunacado (cubes of tuna and avocado tossed like salsa), and my personal favourite, the Fat Elvis. This delicacy is tempura-battered avocado drizzled with mayonnaise and – hurk! My aorta!
Randy quickly worked out that the cost of a traditional bus advertisement for a year was the same as buying one of these funky, Japan-only, toon-town cars. Better yet, he’d have the enjoyment of actually driving around in the thing. Car by car, the fleet grew.
The drawbacks of cartoon motoring
You might imagine that owning a fleet of 20-year-old tinker toys might be somewhat different than jumping into something modern and sleek everyday. You’re right: these cars are much more reliable.
Randy reports that he’s never had an issue with any of his cars which, in addition to that first Pao (now in the care of the Eatery’s bartender) and the five skittle-shaded Figaros, include two Subaru Sambar micro-vans converted to look like diminutive VW microbuses. A private mechanic drops by once in a while to change the fluids and filters, and it’s important not to let them sit around, but other than that, it’s worry-free driving.
In fact, the only trouble with the Figaros seems to be their relatively high fuel-consumption. You might chuckle, but even with light weight and teeny-tiny turbo engines, the Figaros burn more gas than expected. The only place they sip fuel? Out on the highway, with regular runs up to Whistler and Seattle.
Drawing a Crowd
Mind you, taking one of the Figaros across the border isn’t for the shy. As these cars aren’t available in the US, everybody from the border guards to the bus drivers want to take a peek at the brightly-coloured tykes. What is that? Why’s the steering-wheel on the wrong side? How fast does it go? What’s an “Eatery”?
Once a year, on Canada Day, Randy gathers up his staff and stages an impromptu parade through Vancouver. People stop to stare and wave at the little cars as they make their way through historic Gastown, through the business district, into the West-End, along English Bay, then back into Kitsilano.
It’s a little unofficial tradition, sharing the spectacle of these tiny machines trailing throughout the city. In a town where big, flashy cars are Serious Business, there’s still a little room for a tiny sense of fun.