(First posted December 18, 2014) We got a lot of Japanese vehicles in Australia, but we missed a lot of cool oddballs. There was one we did get; the Mazda Bongo – a kooky-looking van sold here from 1966 to 1976. Once prolific, now long gone from Melbourne’s curbs, I chanced upon this sweet example in the backstreets of hipsterville.
Toyo Kogyo started producing vehicles under the Mazda brand in 1931. They began with trucks and by 1962 they had entered the car category with the air-cooled two door kei R360 (left). ‘Kei Jidosha’ denoted cars built for the Japanese domestic market that fitted within certain dimensions and were powered by engines sized from 360cc to 600cc. Styled by Jiro Kosugi, the R360 was a great success capturing two-thirds of the kei market and spawned the water-cooled two and four-door Carol as well as the wide-eyed Porter Cab utility.
Mazda’s next move was out of the kei category with the Familia range. Launched in 1963, this 782cc-engined series was designed by Giugiaro whilst at Bertone using styling principles developed from the 1959 Corvair. Things started with the Familia Van (pictured) and soon followed the Familia Wagon (the van with more luxury), a four door sedan and then a two door sedan. It was a very accomplished entry into a larger category for Mazda.
In 1966, the Familia found itself the basis for a cabover-style van, the Mazda Bongo. 148.4 inches long and 56.1 wide on a wheelbase of 78.7 inches, it weighed 895 kgs and could take a payload of 400 kgs. Powered by the same unit as the cars, the first model was the F800 putting out 33kW. In 1968, the ohv four was enlarged to 987cc and 38kW to create the concurrent F1000. Bongos had independent suspension all round, mounted on a full chassis with a four speed transaxle at the rear.
Like the VW Type 2, Fiat Multipla, Corvair Greenbrier and newly launched Fiat 850 Familiare, the engine was in the rear under the floor. It shared the greatest similarity with the 850, being water-cooled and roughly the same size.
When you look at some of the smaller Japanese commercials around at the time, its quirkiness seems to fit in quite nicely. The Subaru Sambar (top right), Toyopet Toyoace (bottom left) and Nissan Homer (bottom right) show a set of styling conventions that didn’t really last. Not quite as graceful as some of the cars that were starting to come out of Japan.
An open tray Cab Truck version was part of the range. The copy for the above advertisement is at pains to note the floor of the tray sits at knee height (460mm for the truck, 450mm for the van).
The commercial potential of this platform was fully exploited, but one model we never saw from this brochure was the glass-topped vista vanette in bright green shown in the bottom right corner.
A people carrier was probably on the cards since the Bongo was just a gleam in some Toyo Kogyo executive’s eye. As with its overseas post-war antecedents, the Bongo was produced and marketed as a mini-bus. It could carry enough adults to fill four tennis courts.
This is an official publicity still, but I’m not sure if the annex was an option for the Bongo or just a prop for the shoot. Growing up in Melbourne in the 70s, these vans were all over the place. But over here it was still a culture of sedan and wagons for family-carrying duties. Maybe every now and then you might see ‘alternative’ parents shuttling their family around in a VW Kombi, but I never saw the Bongo being used like this.
Instead, it was being used like this. According to this ad, the headline claim is supported by Australian Bureau of Statistics data for the March 1976 quarter. The Bongo seemed to have made some serious inroads into the Australian van market, but what was it competing against? The VW had a strong presence here, but I’m pretty sure the Multipla and Corvair were never brought in officially. Maybe some 850s came in.
The light-commercial market over here had been dominated by the larger British vans such as the knock-kneed Austin J2/152 (top left) and Ford Transit. Our version of the ‘sedan delivery van’ was the high-roofed ‘panel van’, seen on the Ford Falcon and equivalent Holdens from the mid sixties onwards. Smaller panel vans such as the Escort were also available.
The Nissan Homer and Toyota Hiace (bottom left) were larger than the Bongo, and were soon to define a sort of standard scale for Japanese vans. We also got some kei vans such as the Suzuki Carry and Daihatsu HiJet which made their mark in the later part of the seventies. We never got this 1969-72 L40 Carry example (bottom right), but seeing as it’s yet another Giugiaro gem I thought I’d feature it.
The next generation of Bongo was a larger, more conventional cabover mid-engine rear drive arrangement. For export it was given the E-series designation (E1300, E1400 and E1600), again using engine size to differentiate models. Ford produced this model as the Econovan and Kia used it for the Bongo and Ceres models. This series lasted from 1977 until 1982.
In 1983, the next generation of Bongo/E-series vans was launched. For 1985, Mazda produced the high-concept Sky Lounge. This state room on wheels included such luxuries as microwave oven, mobile telephone and VCR system (format unknown). It also featured a floor that rose between the passenger seats when the vehicle was moving, probably to avoid that ‘canyon’ feel so common in other Sky Lounge type vehicles.
There is a fourth generation of Bongo still in production under a plethora of manufacturer and model brands, but I’d rather show you the Bongo Friendee from 1995 to 2005. It was built on a smaller platform than the ‘standard’ Bongo Brawny and has its own very dedicated website forum for camping enthusiasts.
When the Bongo as first appeared, it was envisioned to be an electrically powered vehicle as well. A prototype was built which could reach 75 kmh (47 mph) with a range of 60 km (37 miles) but there is scant information out there on this variant. In fact there is so little information even for the petrol-powered version. This is a van that was once everywhere that seems to be slipping into the cracks of history.
This is the XV ‘61 concept car shown in 1961 or 62. It was a one-off made for a US company called McLouth Steel, now defunct, as a showpiece for their stainless steel products. It was touted as being designed for use as a monorail as well. The only source I can find that refers to the XV ‘61 is Jean-Rodolfe Piccard’s indispensible ‘Dream Cars’. Did Mazda see this?
I remember hearing stories about skittish handling due to its narrow track, but I’ve never ridden in one. If I found one in this condition, I’d turn it into an open-bodied beach special and use it at the coastal manse to ferry guests. It would make the perfect start to their summer holiday; the Mazda Bongo is one of those shapes that always manages to elicit a smile.