Like many great musicians, Eric Clapton has a thing for cars. Especially fast red ones with little black horses prancing atop their bonnets. Hop onto Google and you’ll discover that old Slowhand is deeply passionate about Ferrari. An obsession that can, in part, be attributed to his late friend and wife-swapping pal, George Harrison.
Apparently the Fab Four lead guitarist once arrived at Clapton’s gaff in a dark blue Ferrari 365 GTC — a sleek gran turismo designed to transport rich playboys to their haunts on the French Riviera at high speed and in relative comfort.
The three-time inductee to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame was at once smitten and, despite the fact that he couldn’t yet drive, there and then decided that he would have one too.
But as it turns out, one wasn’t enough. If you delve into Clapton’s past, you will notice that he has owned some of Maranello’s finest. Everything from a 250 GT Lusso and 512 BB right through to the elusive Enzo. He also recently took delivery of a $4.7-million Ferrari SP12 EC: a bespoke 458 Italia built to the star’s requirements.
Yet in between acquiring all these expensive Italian thoroughbreds, Clapton had an unlikely fling with a diminutive Japanese roadster that probably cost less than one of his Fender Strats. And it’s not difficult to see why.
Built for just one year in 1991, the Nissan Figaro was a small city runabout that traded big performance for cool retro architecture. With its rounded corners, white hubcaps and discreet chrome detailing, it looked like it was pulled through a secret portal to the 1950’s
This period charm continued in the cabin where old-school analogue dials and a white Bakelite steering wheel matched piped leather seats. In an era flooded with design monstrosities such as the Ford Telstar and Toyota Camry, the Figaro was a revelation.
With production limited to just 20000 examples, Nissan had to sell it by lottery. Clapton — influential rock god that he is — didn’t have to rely on mere luck. After falling in love with the car while on tour in Japan, he pulled a few strings and imported one into the UK where he used it to scoot around the streets of London.
Which is the very place Stephen Gunnion (the owner of the Figaro in the photograph) first caught a glimpse of this oddball Nissan.
“I lived in London for a year, where there are a number of them,” explains Gunnion as we walk towards his Lapis Grey model in the underground parking garage. “And when I returned to South Africa I searched until I found someone whose husband had imported one from Japan in the early 2000s and coaxed her to sell it to me.”
He tells me that there’s one more rolling around Johannesburg and possibly a trio trawling the streets of Cape Town. In this part of the world, the Nissan Figaro is a rare beast. One that scores me more than a few glances when I take it for a quick cruise around the leafy Johannesburg suburbs.
With a one-litre turbocharged engine and three-speed automatic gearbox residing under the curvy bodywork, the Figaro certainly isn’t quick. Nor does it feel particularly inspiring through corners.
But then again it was never designed to be a sports car. And once you come to terms with this and adopt a more laid-back demeanor, it all starts making sense.
Just like one of those 1950s classics upon which it was originally based, this Nissan is all about the feel-good factor. There’s an old-fashioned novelty in the way it wafts from A to B that modern machinery simply can’t replicate. And yet it still has the essential motoring must-haves such as air-conditioning and a decent sound system. Not to mention the benefit of bulletproof Japanese mechanicals. In fact, the only quirks with owning a Figaro, apart from actually procuring one, seem to be parts related.
“Some parts are available locally,” says Gunnion. “But I often have to source them from the UK, where they manufacture parts due to the large number of Figaros on their roads. Also, when things do break, some of our local fundis are willing to try and fabricate the parts. Like the exhaust, or the electric window motor that recently packed up.
“Although having said that, I do think the biggest foible of Figaro ownership is the fact that it’s so distinct. Everybody knows where I’ve been — there’s no hiding!”
Maybe this is why the ex-Derek and the Dominos frontman sold his back in 1996. Maybe not. Whatever his reasoning, parting with the papers seems to me like something of a mistake. Because even when parked between a whole fleet of Ferraris, the quirky, rare and fascinatingly beautiful Nissan Figaro is capable of holding its own. – Thomas Falkiner (Pics: Kevin Sutherland)