Chances are you’ve never seen one of these Mazda Jeeps: these were only built in Burma and never exported, as far as I know. There are still a few one the roads here and I chanced upon this one not far from where I live, in front of the (only) North Korean restaurant in Yangon. Solid info is hard to come by on this car, so here’s what I could dig up, along with a little historical context…
Burma’s “Mazda Jeep” was designed in Hiroshima in the late ‘60s; Mazda named it the XV-1 Pathfinder. In those days, the Japanese Government was very keen on investing in Burma, as it was then known. Hino trucks were already being built under license since the early ‘60s and Mazda B360/B600 pick-ups were produced as well from 1963 until (probably) the mid-‘80s. Those tiny trucks were ubiquitous in Burma for a good 40 years – until Myanmar’s car market was opened up in 2011. They have now completely disappeared.
The Japanese authorities apparently told Mazda that the home-grown Jeep they were working on would be greatly appreciated by the Burmese. At the time, Burma was ruled by General Ne Win, a paranoid autocrat who basically walled off the country from the rest of the world. Ne Win’s policies, which were seasoned with his own bizarre and explosive blend of pseudo-socialist, nationalist, Buddhist and militaristic doctrines, were not wholly conducive to economic and social development, but he and his army still needed some wheels, preferably ones that all drove.
In 1970, Ne Win allegedly decided that because Burma had moved too far to the left politically, the traffic should switch to driving on the right. (I have no idea whether this is true, but given the guy’s résumé, it’s not far-fetched: his astrologer told him his lucky number was nine, so he abruptly demonetized 75% of the hard currency and issued new 45 and 90 kyat banknotes.) Most cars on the road, to this day, are RHD because they are imported second-hand from RHD markets (Thailand, Malaysia, India and especially Japan), but new cars built in Burma would henceforth be LHD. The Mazda XV-1 started production in 1972 or 1973 in Burma, using CKD kits imported from Hiroshima.
The State controlled virtually everything in the country, so a private JV was totally out of the question. The new Mazda was built by the only folks who could undertake such a job in Burma in those days – the Ministry of Industry’s No. 2 Automobile Factory in Htonbo, a few dozen miles north of Rangoon. The local name for the car was MJ-1 (“Mazda Jeep”?) and MJ-2.
It’s unclear which of the variants fell under the MJ-1 and MJ-2 appellation, though it seems that the “traditional” Mazda Jeep I snapped is an MJ-1. The Burmese MJs came in long or short wheelbase versions with a canvas roof. Some hardtop SWB versions were also made, as were four-door LWB wagons (the LWB canvas-top cars like our featured CC were always two-door). Colour schemes were naturally limited: the overwhelming majority of canvas-top Pathfinders came out dark green, though a few dark blue or black ones seem to have been made, probably for specific “clients”, as well as red ones for the fire services. Strangely, all four-door wagons I’ve seen were sky blue like the photo above.
Under the hood, it seems a 2-litre 4-cyl. petrol engine was standard – probably a Mazda plant, though I have no details on that front. Sometime in the ‘80s, it seems the Pathfinders were available with Diesel engines too. Could those be the MJ-2? Or is it a question of hardtop vs. canvas top? Long vs. short wheelbase? Two vs. four doors? I have no idea.
It seems there was at least one facelift during the Mazda’s lifetime. This photo, which I purloined from the internet, shows the old and the new Pathfinder. The most obvious difference is the one-piece windshield, but I suspect there were other changes as well. The wheels on the newer car (on the left) seem pretty similar to the one featured in this post, complete with fatter tyres. But this one had wipers on the bottom of the windshield in place of the air vents. Perhaps the one I found is a transitional model.
Peeking inside, one is struck by how bare-bones this car is, which is perfectly in keeping with its character. The Pathfinder I photographed had a modern Toyota wheel, for some reason, but the rest seemed stock, with a small central instrument panel.
I managed to find a better picture on the web, though this is probably a later model (the square binnacle seems more modern). The original Willys Jeep or Land Rover dashboards look like a Cadillac’s compared to this.
Out back, there’s enough room for at least eight Burmese soldiers (they tend to be on the thin side) on the twin bench seat. The placement of the spare wheel seems a tad unorthodox. I’ve seen other Mazda Pathfinders with spare wheels fixed on the tail or the side as well as this arrangement. I suppose this makes theft less likely – which is crucial in a country where most folks are poor and tyres are expensive.
The thing with the Mazda Pathfinders is that they were never meant for private ownership. Very few people had cars in Burma back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the folks who did had no access to these, which were made strictly by and for the State. The army, the police and Government officials were this car’s only clientele. One other mystery is the car’s production numbers and dates. Nobody seems to know how many of these were made per year in their heyday.
And when did that heyday happen exactly? Some posit that production stopped in the early ‘80s, which seems unlikely. Some figure that the August 1988 revolution, which up-ended the Ne Win regime and brought about international economic sanctions that even Japan had to adhere to, caused the production lines to grind to a halt. But it seems, according to the State propaganda of the mid-‘90s (grain of salt highly recommended), that MJs were still being made well into the last decade of the 20th century.
It’s unclear how the Myanma Automobile and Diesel Engine Industries (MADI), which is how the factory was renamed in those troubled times, could have continued to make the Mazda Jeeps without imported parts. According to the Japanese, even in the early ‘80s, only 35% of the vehicle was locally-sourced. MADI claimed in the mid-‘90s that “over 85%” of the Mazda’s contents were made in Myanmar, which still leaves a 15% gap – how was it filled? The Chinese black market, perhaps?
Whatever the actual story, it seems they made enough spare parts to keep these things on the road for years after production stopped. Mazda Pathfinders are not an uncommon sight around town and their ruggedness and all-terrain aptitude have ensured their continued survival throughout the country. It’s no longer the car of choice for the military top brass though, who seem to favour new Toyota, Tata or Chery vehicles these days. Lower-ranking officers and officials still use the Mazdas, though some of them are looking pretty worn out.
The Japanese did not stay out of Myanmar’s fledgling State-owned industry for very long: by the late ‘90s, the Suzuki Wagon R and the Carry pick-up were on the production lines. For the next couple of decades, very few cars were allowed into the country. Domestic new car supply was completely insufficient, so used car prices spiraled to incredible heights: buying a circa 1985 Toyota Mk II in Myanmar in 2010 would have cost you up to US$20,000 cash. This all changed in 2011, when a political transition was undertaken, which loosened many of the old rules, allowing a flood of second-hand Japanese cars to enter the country. Mazda officially entered the Burmese new car market in 2014, but they don’t build them here anymore.
At least one Mazda XV-1 Pathfinder can be found in a museum in Germany and there may be one or two in Japan, but other than that, these can only be found in Myanmar. So as I leave this country this week after four years of relative hardship (though living here must have been much more difficult a decade ago), I’ll miss seeing, every once in a while, the only Burmese car ever made.