Classic Cars

Nissan Micra

After the nuclear holocaust, Micras will still be zipping about. Giles Chapman pays tribute to the great survivor

As a journalistic assignment, this struck a new low in glamour: staking out a Tesco car park in suburban Kent on a bitingly cold Monday morning. But the result was bang-on. I wanted my suspicions proved right: that you can still encounter old Nissan Micras just about everywhere at any time.

Time and place were chosen at random, yet here were two already: a red one, C-reg so 22 years old; and a pinkish-beige one, G-reg, 18 years old. No other car on that vast plain of tar was more than 10 years old.

The owner of the pink Micra soon returned, pushing her trolley. "I've had it since new and I've never had a car that's given me such value for money," said Jeanne Stevens from Sevenoaks, who turns out to be a retired driving instructor. "It just goes on forever. Mind you, I do have it serviced regularly and it is always garaged".

Would she ever get rid of it - get something a bit, er, newer? "You must be joking!" she thunders. "I shall keep it till it dies."

Jeanne's car has 99,000 miles on the clock, many of them piled on by countless teenage Sevenoaks rookies. But she looks nonplussed when I ask whether she considers it to be a classic car. Nor, strangely, can she really explain why the Micra is so legendarily easy to drive. "But I do see another lady with one of these every day. We say 'snap'!"

Micras of the original K10 codename variety are rather like that. They have been omnipresent in Britain's roadscape for almost a quarter of a century. You may never have noticed it but their survival rate, unlike many so-called classics, is extraordinary. Keep looking, anywhere, and it won't be long before one ambles past, possibly with dull paintwork and faded plastic trim, but still in rude functional health.

However, the evidence for their longevity is more than just anecdotal. Official DVLA registration statistics reveal that 96,421 Micra K10s are on our roads, out of a UK sales total of 343,411 between 1983 and 1992. So 28 per cent - more than a quarter - of all K10s sold here are still in use.

On its own, that may not seem impressive. But contrast it with the Micra's peers, and it's a survivor of cockroach toughness.

Of the Austin/Rover Metro, with 1,370,000 sold between 1980 and 1994, 21,468 are still on the go - that's 1.6 per cent. Of the Ford Fiesta Mk1 and 2, with 1,292,669 sold between 1976 and 1989, 43,878 are still in use - 3.3 per cent. Of the first-generation Fiat Uno, 190,000 were sold between 1983 and 1989, and 5,179 of them are still standing - 2.7 per cent.

The little 1.0-litre Micra supermini took its bow in 1982 in Japan as the Nissan Match. It arrived in that hazy crossover period when the company was ditching its Datsun brand name in favour of the Nissan badge. That's why early Micras carry tiny Datsun nameplates on their tailgates.

There is unsubstantiated web gossip that the design was by Italy's fabled Giugiaro studio, because the Micra's stance, unusually tall and upright for the day, was similar to design themes the company was espousing, which were most clearly obvious in its styling of the Fiat Uno. But it is more likely that the Micra was rushed out to combat the small-and-tall Honda City, a runaway hit in Japan in 1981. One thing's for sure, though: the Micra was plain when it was new, and it is positively nondescript today.

The forgettable looks, however, masked an uncommonly refined drivetrain. The 988cc single-cam engine was all-aluminium and very smooth, and its lightness up front lent the non-power steering a remarkable ease, something mirrored by the brakes (front discs only) and clutch.

Plasticky blandness prevailed inside, too, although it was roomy and well-equipped. It made car mag writers cringe - after all, by 1987, it was the UK's top choice for driving schools, such was its forgiving nature. Autocar grumbled: "It is not the slightest bit exciting," while grudgingly admitting: "There is nothing much to complain about." Even with a capacity hike to 1.2 litres in 1989, Autocar harrumphed: "The Micra is solid and reliable but ultimately dull" - yet only after declaring that its performance was "lusty", its 32mpg fuel thirst "a class low", its throttle response "crisp" and its gearchange "precise".

What was the rational buyer to make of Autocar's outlook? After all, the Micra was intended as nothing more than a trusty runabout, and Britain's less excitable drivers, especially older and shrewder ones, bought it in droves. It was a key breakthrough car for Japan in the UK, more so even than the Toyota Corolla. And its lingering success is intriguing.

Vanessa Guyll, an AA technical expert with copious knowledge of car reliability, says the Micra was simply right first time. "It's particularly Japanese," she says, "very well built to begin with, and retaining its reliability.

"It must be down to the quality of the components and steel, as Japanese cars of the early 1980s weren't known for their rust-proofing. Metros of the same era have all been scrapped because their wheel arches rusted out, and their suspensions failed. That didn't happen with Micras. Maybe people treated them more gently, too - if the controls are light then the car is easier to manoeuvre."

Classic status must surely anoint the indefatigable Micra soon, to the chagrin of all red-blooded petrolheads. Meanwhile, owners continue to swear by them. As Jeanne Stevens says: "I'm not concerned about how it looks, it goes!"

And the original Micra certainly does go - on and on and on and on...

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