In 2014, the Ford Motor Company was the world’s 6th-largest automaker with 6.32 million unit sales. In January of this year, this same global juggernaut announced it was pulling out of both Japan and Indonesia. The Japanese market, in particular, seems to be a frustrating one for Ford to figure out. The Japanese are thought to like their American cars flashy so Ford offered the Mustang. Sales remained low. Perhaps smaller cars like the Fiesta were in order? Oh, they didn’t really sell much, either. Even restyled Mazdas like this Laser Lynx couldn’t save Ford Japan.
The story of Ford’s Japanese operations is an interesting one. Ford had been the first American automaker in Japan, but withdrew from the market when World War II broke out. They returned, belatedly, in 1974. Left-hand-drive models like the Mustang and Thunderbird sold in very modest numbers during the 1980s but the Big 3 regularly lobbied the U.S. government to impose tougher standards on the Japanese automakers and to break open the Japanese market. It was a market dominated by its domestic automakers and was perceived by the American Big 3 as being extremely protected.
Ford had purchased a 25% stake in Mazda in 1979, and would eventually purchase further shares. This purchase was made in part to gain further access to the Japanese market but predominantly for Mazda’s expertise in engineering class-leading small cars. The two automakers established the Autorama dealership network in 1982, which featured a lounge-esque dealership style targeting younger consumers.
By the mid-1990s, Ford’s Japanese operation had a strong Mazda-based lineup: the Festiva, a restyled Mazda 121; the Laser range, based on the Mazda 323; and the Telstar, a restyled Mazda 626. Although Ford had often leveraged Mazda for engineering expertise to create cars like the 2005 Ford Fusion and 1990 Ford Escort, Ford actually utilized Mazda’s production lines for the manufacturing of cars like this Laser Lynx. These Japanese-built Fords were then exported throughout the Asia-Pacific region including Australia.
The Laser Lynx was the flagship model of the KJ-series Laser range of 1994. Although every generation of Laser in Australia from the nameplate’s genesis in 1981 had been based on the Mazda 323, the KJ-series was the first generation to be imported entirely from Japan as Aussie manufacturing of small Fords came to an end. This offshore production, coupled with a rising yen, meant the Laser range saw a corresponding bump in price, around $AUD 3k difference for the base models. Sales of the new, imported Laser were weaker than its Aussie-built, US Escort-related predecessor and the Laser nameplate would never again reach the heights of popularity it had soared to in the 1980s and early 1990s. It also didn’t help that inexpensive South Korean vehicles were taking the market by storm, with the keenly-priced Hyundai Excel (Accent) even seizing the number #1 spot briefly.
The daringly-styled Lynx was around 30% more expensive than the base-model Laser sedan, at around $AUD 30,000 and with the price increasing each year. It was available only with a 5-speed manual and a Mazda 1.8 four-cylinder engine (123 hp, 118 ft-lbs) while the more conventionally-styled sedan and Liata hatch were available with an optional 4-speed automatic and an available Mazda 1.6 four-cylinder (107 hp, 105 ft-lbs). In features, the Lynx was equipped to an even higher level than the Ghia sedan and hatch with keyless entry and dual airbags; like the Ghia, it also came standard with power windows and mirrors.
Slow sales led to the retirement of the Lynx from the Australian Ford lineup in 1996, coinciding with the arrival of the facelifted KJ II Series. Perhaps it was the controversial styling or the niche appeal of a highly-specified three-door hatchback in a market that favored five-door hatches. Ultimately, the same engine and enjoyable handling were available in the more practical sedan and Liata hatch.
Ford would eventually divest its shares in Mazda in the 2000s upon encountering financial difficulties. By this point, however, Ford’s Japanese lineup was switching to imports. The Laser was gone after 2002 in Japan and the Telstar axed after 1999. Ford Australia had also switched to importing European models like the Focus and Fiesta.
The KJ-Series, the penultimate Laser, was a well-built, high-quality vehicle and therefore there remain many on local roads. Although this generation was not the sales success its predecessor was, there are still plenty around because of the car’s inherent reliability.
The Lynx, though, has always been a rare sighting. In fact, I hadn’t recalled seeing one of these rock-shaped hatchbacks in many years when, all of a sudden, I spotted one near my mechanic. Obtaining photographs proved futile but later that week, I spotted another one a few miles away. I was only able to get one shot as the owners appeared.
Frustrated at not being able to obtain any photographs of Laser Lynx #2, I drove off… Only to see something in the corner of my eye, down the very same street, that didn’t seem right. Turning back, I found the third Laser Lynx of the week – hell, probably only the fourth I’d seen in my life – and joyfully snapped photographs. It even had the original alloy wheels!
Three Laser Lynx sightings in one week has to go down as one of the most peculiar coincidences I’ve ever experienced. Of all the Japanese compacts of the 1990s, the Lynx has to be one of the most uniquely-styled and memorable. It just wasn’t appealing enough to get Japanese consumers into Autorama dealerships.