Ford’s tie-up with Mazda, enacted in 1979, gave birth to a very long and stupidly complicated family of blue oval-badged variations of Hiroshima designs assembled in and chiefly destined for Asia-Pacific markets. This included Japan, where Mazda-based Fords were made throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, despite the oddity of the situation. I mean, imagine Toyota building and selling Chevy Impalas under their own brand in the States – why would they that, and how could it ever work?
Well, Ford were trying as hard as they could to elbow themselves a place in the rising sun, along with being able to shift a range of capable smaller FWD cars to Australia and Southeast Asia, to go alongside their larger (and very expensive) Detroit-built offerings. The plan had a lot of merit, but the Japanese side of the equation never really gelled, as we can see from the brochure above: all the cars on the left were slightly modified locally-made Mazdas, with limited exotic appeal, and the ones on the right were all imported and gigantic, and thus heavily taxed. Conspicuously absent from this brochure was any European Ford, which could both have ticked the LHD import snobbery box and the right-size-for-Japan box.
What was also lacking was a solid dealer network. Mazda did provide their Motorama dealers, rebranded as Autozam in 1989, but the public wasn’t really buying it. And Mazda’s whole branding scheme, of which Autozam was a key part, disintegrated in the mid-‘90s, further weakening Ford’s JDM position. But that’s a whole nother story.
So for the benefit of those of you who do not live in the Asia-Pacific part of the globe, let’s delve into what is a Ford Laser for a bit. The short answer is: a Mazda Familia BF, also known as the 323. The longer answer, and it gets a little complex, is that BF Laser (as it was known in Japan) was sold in many markets as the KE Laser, as well as the Mexican-built Mercury Tracer for North America. There was a whole family of models, including three- and five-door hatches, a cabriolet, a four-door notchback and a wagon.
Not all of these were sold in every market, but Japan did get a very complete array of Lasers. One JDM exclusive was the wagon-based “van” – a bit of a tradition here. It’s basically a bare-bones wagon, usually with extra bars in the back windows. Not sure what those are for, but they’re the tell-tale sign that one is dealing with a work vehicle in this country. Fender mirrors were also part of the deal, but as an option by this point.
Our feature car has the bars but not the mirrors. And it’s obviously been modded slightly, with those rotary phone wheels and all that. Nice to see that someone thought this plainest of Janes would make for a cool sled.
By this point in the Laser’s existence, i.e. generation two (1985-89), engine options had broadened a bit beyond the first gen’s sole 1.5 litre Mazda E5 mill, which was either carburated, fuel-injected or even turbocharged. A more economical E3 (1.3 litre) was available, as was the 1.6 litre DOHC known as the B6 and a 1.7 litre Diesel. JDM vans like our CC could have any of these, as well as an AWD drivetrain with the 1.6.
Doesn’t look like this one has the AWD drivetrain. Plus there’s a choke symbol on that little handle thing near the steering wheel, so I’m guessing the base model 1.5, providing only 70hp (net), is under the hood. Does that justify Recaros? They look about as germane to the rest of the car as a set of white Connally leather armchairs from a Rolls Corniche would.
In 1989, a new generation BG Laser (KE in Australia) took over the range – with the notable exception of the BF wagon, which carried on alongside the new models without much change until 1994. After that, Ford gave up on the long-roof Laser, thereby also leaving the likes of the Nissan AD and the Toyota Caldina without a blue oval rival in the Japanese light van market.
Even if the VW Transporter photobombing this “Ford” is objectively a far more interesting vehicle, it’s also a lot more common, both here and around the globe. The Laser was not a very strong seller in Japan, tallying about a tenth of the Familia’s sales for the BF generation, or about 10,000 units per annum. Ford never did crack the Japanese market – not with their European models, which they did not import for some unfathomable reason (VW were killing it in Japan with the Golf at the time – Ford could have replied with the Fiesta) not with their American ones, and certainly not by rebadging Mazdas. Inevitably, Ford gave up their Japanese ambitions. But it’s interesting to peer back into a time, not that long ago, when they were laser-focused on it.
Curbside Classic: 1981-85 Ford KA/KB Laser – A Beam of Light, by William Stopford