LONDON — It just might be the most adorable thing on four wheels. People smile when one cruises by. They point, they wave, they use the word “cute” a lot, and they ask, “What is that?”
The tiny Nissan Figaro has an almost cartoonish design that is guaranteed to stand out. To an American living in Britain, who regularly spots pristine Figaros, it would appear to be a highly popular model that was made recently.
Every part of that guess is wrong: The Figaro is rather old, built for the 1991 model year, and there never were large numbers anywhere. Nissan never even exported it from Japan.
Yet here it is in Britain, in the thousands, an oddball little convertible with an ardent following and a back story that is even odder.
More on that in a minute.
Britain never had dominant carmakers like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Instead, for generations, it had a profusion of small-to-medium manufacturers.
Those carmakers produced a much wider array of designs than their American counterparts, a good number of them quirky, small, underpowered, none too practical — and beloved by their many admirers.
But in the face of foreign competition, recessions, bankruptcies and consolidation, British car manufacturing plummeted from its peak in the early 1970s. Brands like Morris, Triumph, Austin, Sunbeam, Daimler, Rover and Reliant died off.
An increasingly competitive and global market had less room for eccentric cars, British or not, or for models that sell only a few thousand.
“Cars have lost their personality,” said Nic Caraccio, a devoted Figaro owner and trader who lives outside London. “If you go out on the street now, the Citroëns and Vauxhalls and Skodas and Peugeots, they’re all black or white or silver, and they all look the same. Not the Fig.”
Definitely not. And it is the look that entices people here — the curvy, throwback shape, and the front end that could have been the face of one of the animated characters in the movie “Cars.”
“The quirkiness, there’s something very British about it, isn’t there?” said Colin Bullock, a harbormaster in London. “It’s so familiar to people, even if they’ve never seen it before. They say, ‘Oh, I used to have one of those in 1962,’ which is impossible, and I just smile.”
They drive in Figaro rallies and attend classic car shows, proudly displaying their budget compacts the way other people show off their pricey Aston Martins and Rolls-Royces.
People who took their Figaros to a show in Guildford, a town southwest of London, said one of its best features was the built-in social circle. That comes in handy when the owner’s manual is written only in Japanese.
“The one thing that worried me when I met my husband, Ian, was whether he would love the car,” said Zoe Collier, who lives in Surrey, runs training courses and calls her car Figlet. He did.
The Figaro may look a bit like a sporty roadster, but performance is hardly the point. It has a small engine, just under one liter, and the only transmission available was a pedestrian three-speed automatic.
It has an unusual “fixed profile” convertible roof — the middle folds down, but the sides stay put. The legroom in what passes for a back seat would cramp all but the smallest passengers.
“It really harks back to the more interesting cars in the past, when there was more of a homegrown industry,” said Steve Huntingford, the editor of the British car buying magazine What Car? “A lot of people really loved those cars.”
Vehicle production in Britain gradually recovered from its 1980s nadir, but what has emerged is an industry that is not very British. There are six large-scale carmakers in the country — and every one is foreign-owned.
Niche luxury brands of British heritage like Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Lotus are also now foreign-owned, as is the maker of London’s famed black cabs. The few British makes that are manufactured in Britain by British companies, like Aston Martin and Morgan, account for less than 1 percent of the country’s car production.
For many years, it has hardly mattered to the British market where cars were made; most vehicles made here are exported, most sold here are imported, and membership in the European Union allows for seamless trade with 27 other countries.
It could begin to matter a great deal if Britain leaves the union, as it is scheduled to do on March 29. Manufacturers worry that new trade barriers will obstruct both their international supply chains for parts, and the movement of finished products.
Analysts say that is unlikely to create a renaissance in British manufacturing for British consumption, much less a return of the idiosyncratic products of old. People looking for something really out of the ordinary will have to keep turning to rarities like the Figaro.
The company originally planned to build just 8,000 Figaros, priced at about $8,300, and strictly for the Japanese market.
Even before sales began, it was clear that demand would far exceed that figure, so Nissan held a lottery to choose its buyers. Celebrities were among those in the running, generating still more interest.
Nissan expanded production to 20,000, but even so, most would-be buyers were turned away. Despite the unmet demand, the company stuck to its plan to make the car for just one year.
From early on, a very few appeared in Britain, as people visiting Japan — including Eric Clapton — bought Figaros and had them shipped home.
The car required only minor modification to be street legal in Britain, and drivers here, as in Japan, sit on the right side of the car.
Until 2016, the Figaro was barred from the United States because it did not meet emissions and safety standards, but cars become exempt from those rules 25 years after they are made.
It took several years before a semiregular pipeline to Britain was created by people like Mr. Caraccio, who buy, repair and resell cars, and who began going to Japan to find Figaros and send them back a few at a time. The first big Figaro gathering here was held in 2008.
More than 3,000 of the cars are registered as being in active use in Britain, but numbers are no longer rising, and the pipeline has slowed to a trickle.
“There’s only so many, and they’ve been around awhile,” said Peter Pattemore, who drives a Figaro (named Jimmy), as does his wife, Sandra (hers is Sally). “But we’re going to keep them as long we can.”