“My Velma. She’s cute as lace pants”.
First published by Sean Patrick in April 2014.
Cute. I’d been hearing it a lot that day. Moose Molloy’s gaze shifted towards the window and his expression changed slowly. It was like watching a landscape erode but, after that eternity had passed, there was a big lake of a smile rippling across his face and, somehow, I knew I was going to hear that C word again.
“Hey Marlowe, is that cute pink Figaro outside yours?”
A guy like Moose was big enough not to need to humiliate you with your choice of wheels, but I thought it best to offer him some clarification.
“The Buick’s in the garage, That’s the only courtesy car they had. Some courtesy eh?”
“Look Mister, show it some respect. My Velma loves those Nissans. Hey, you ain’t got her out there have you?”
After five minutes I calmed down Moose enough for him to put me back on the floor. Another five and I’d convinced him I’d do my damndest to find his Velma. Then I was back in the Figaro wondering whether it was better to drive with my neck bent or to open the roof and have half of Hollywood Boulevard’s low-lifes laughing at me. After some thought, I decided to book an appointment with my chiropractor for next week.
Back in my office I rang Larry at the garage.
“How’s the Buick”
“Still waiting on spares Marlowe”
“That lady’s roller skate you loaned me. What do you know about them?”
“It’s a K Car”
“Don’t give me the runaround Larry, I know a K Car. That heap of Chrysler junk you tried selling me back in the Eighties was a K Car. That pink piglet is no K Car”
“No Marlowe it’s K-E-I, Kei. It’s a Jap car”
“So, if I’m singular enough to want to find more of them, where do I go looking?”
“Search me buddy, I just took it in exchange and I can’t find a buyer. Too cute I guess. The guy you need to talk to is Murphy in Traffic Homicide. He knows every set of wheels in LA”
The fat cop with the big nose eyed me. He came closer, until he was too close and all I could see was nose. The nose twitched like jello and a thick tongued voice came from behind it.
“Are you wearing scented moisturizer Marlowe?”
“Maybe I just sweat more politely than you do, flatfoot”
He moved quickly for a fat guy and his fist hit my jaw before I could ride the blow.
“Always the wiseacre Marlowe. You really should be more respectful if you’re asking favors. Still, if that skirt you’re looking for has a taste for Figaros, you might like to take a look up on Mulholland next Tuesday. Ten at night they get together and bring their rides. Mostly hookers who think they’re actresses and pansies, but likely you’ll find her. And your pal Larry gave you a bum steer. A Figaro ain’t no damn Kei car, it’s too damn big. Laugh away fellow, but I’ve seen all those sick little bastards – Keis, Pike Factory, French Microcars …. why, I even saw a Fiat Jolly and a Bond Bug there last year. I could go on.”
He could indeed have gone on, but he might just as well have been talking in Japanese. His flabby gaze turned to the Figaro.
“A cute guy like you should fit in perfect, gumshoe”.
As I walked away, Murphy called after me and there was a change in his tone that almost chilled me. It was concern.
“Hey Marlowe. You take care now”
Back in the Nissan I checked my bleeding lip in the vanity mirror. It wasn’t so bad.
The next Tuesday night I took Fig up to Mulholland. I was getting worried. I’d never called a car by a pet name before. Not only that but Larry had called in the morning to say the Buick was still waiting for parts. Somehow I hadn’t been disappointed.
It was a warm night and I had the top down. A kid in a fancy hot-rod came up behind me. Normally I’d have gunned the Roadmaster’s straight eight and given him a run, but I just waved him past. I felt my face twitch in an unaccustomed way. I realized I was smiling. This was strange.
It wasn’t hard to find them, they were in a lot just off Mulholland and you could hear the sound of Abba for half a mile. I parked Fig next to her double, only finished in a nice shade of baby blue. I took my .38 out of the glove locker and went to tuck it into my waist, only I’d forgotten that the flared silver boogie pants I’d bought earlier in the day were elasticated. I put the piece back in the locker and crossed my fingers. They seemed a harmless bunch, but those ones can be the most dangerous.
I like to consider myself what the French call a Homme Du Monde, even if my world is one that no Frenchman might recognize. But the sight that met my eyes was one that neither my eyes nor I had experienced before. There were over fifty of the things, I could hardly call them automobiles, and not one of them wouldn’t have fitted into my back pocket, had the boogie pants possessed such a thing. Most of them wouldn’t have looked out of place on the top of a wedding cake.
A blonde came up to me. She was ….. cute.
“Hi, you’re new ain’t you? Is that Figaro yours? Mine’s the blue one, they call it …. Pale Aqua.”
The way her lips mouthed the name of the color made it sound kind of dirty, but nice at the same time.
“Oh My God, where did you get your tires? I wanted new whitewalls but my guy couldn’t find them in the right size. Hey, have you seen Jimmy’s S-Cargo. Ain’t it just the cutest?”
That word again. What were these people? I thought I’d met them all – pimps, bosses, whores, politicians, mobsters, dopers. I’d been to reefer parties and opium joints but I’d never heard laughter like this. As they wandered round looking at these strange devices they actually sounded happy. I turned to the blonde.
“Say, would your name be Velma by any fleeting chance?”
Her face clouded and she bit her lip.
“Oh. Did Moose send you?”
“Uh-ha. He says he misses you”
“Yeah? And I bet he told you I was cute as lace pants. Now listen Mister. You seem like a nice guy in a nicer car. Sure Moose loves me but that ain’t enough. If I’d stayed with him I’d still be driving an Audi. Yeah, he knew I loved Figaros, but did the lunk ever buy me one? No. See, I had to get out. This last week has been like I’ve been reborn. You must understand”
Somehow, I did understand. As I got back onto Mulholland I knew I wasn’t going to see Moose again. Half a mile further down the Drive I slipped off and pointed Fig’s nose south, through the warm night towards Pacific Coast. I reached in the glove locker to throw my .38 into the bushes and found an old cassette tape. Kylie Minogue. The name meant nothing to me, but I put it into the machine. As the sound came out of the speakers, everything came together. Velma was going to be OK, and so was I. Everything was going to be just ….. cute.
11 thoughts on “Theme of Themes : Cute – Farewell, My Cutie”
Figaros weren’t kei cars – too big. They were a product of the soft tooling era of manufacturing which enabled short runs of specials like the S-Cargo and Toyota Sera.
Thank you, Mr. Edant, for that clarification. And how could a car based on a Micra be a kei-car? Silly us.
As far as I know one can still use “soft tools”. Something else ended their deployment for limited runs. There might be no very good reason other than that nobody bothers.
Were I to ask for a Micra-based car that aped the style of an 80s Sentra I could use the same engines and same electronics and dash substructure. The costs might be: development of the CAD data (a year) for the interior and exterior, tooling, marketing. I think you could re-skin a Micra for around €500 m.
Break even would be around 75,000 units at app. €15,000 each. If the car sells for five years that ought to be attainable.
I feel impelled to defend the author here, in that he corrects himself within the text of the piece: “And your pal Larry gave you a bum steer. A Figaro ain’t no damn Kei car, it’s too damn big.”
I had cause to examine one of these in some detail for an acquaintance a couple of years ago. It was bright pink. I was struck by two things. Firstly, the thoroughness of the transformation from Micra to Fig – not a trace of the donor car was apparent to the eye, inside or out. It was, I have to say, rather beautifully wrought.
Second, was the overwhelming urge to get in and drive the thing in all its bright pink fluffiness. It looked like it would be quite fun, but I didn’t have my matching feather boa with me that day. And a failure to colour co-ordinate would have been unthinkable.
When I was in London in 2005 I was surprised this was the second most common exotic car in Kensington besides the Bentley Continental. I was surprised, because the cars were at least fifteen years old at that time, they had all a humble Micra origin, they were all in pristine condition, and they were all parked curbside along the terraced houses. I figured this was the chic car to have for the wife at the time, they obiously didn’t care about the technical part, only that it was a chic accessoar. Cars as fashion statements, bought by the same people that wanted a lap dog because Paris Hilton was seen having one in her handbag. I have no idea what cars they have now, but I’d put my guess on a Fiat 500 or Mini.
Which does a better job of retro-cute? The 500 or the Figaro? Having seen both in the metal, I can say that Eoin is quite right. They are absurdly well-made. The seats look convincing. Every car museum needs a trio of Pikes cars to show what can be done with some imagination and a moderate budget.
Note: the Pao, Be-1 and Figaro had March/Micra underbits; the S-Cargo ran on Sunny gubbins. All were made in the Pike factory in very small numbers: 8000 S-Cargos, for example. My own idea of “limited production” is off the scale in comparison.
To keep costs manageable development would need to be €250m per model; can that be done? They’d need to sell about 10,000 to break even at a moderate price.
Note: the 1987 Nisaan Be-1 has rear lamps that must have inspired the 1995 Fiat Bravo/a.
I love all the Pike line cars. Those were indeed the fat years of the Japanese car industry. A decade unsurpassed in quality control, creativity, and actually very real quality and not only perceived. For how much this actually cost Nissan, I will be forever thankful.
The Japanese spent generously on tech and design; our own fat years yielded horsepower mostly. I feel the design side is treading water here.
They’re starting to grow on me now I’m starting to see them with dents and rust. They suit it like anything small, old and French suits it. Speaking of which, the ‘utility chic’ Pao is my definitely favourite of the Nissan pike weirdoes.
In my life I’ve seen one Pao. I wish I’d had a camera that day. They must be quite valuable now. Toyota could afford to do that now – it’d be lovely if they did another limited run car, just to experiment.