A smile on my face. What else could elicit this little old van? That an inanimate object can provoke emotions defies cold logic. But here I’m, feeling once again nostalgic, bemused and delighted by an antique and simple machine. In this occasion a Mazda Bongo, elsewhere known as the F800-F1000, and previously covered in detail by Don Andreina.
Simple, basic? Yes, by all means. Not that it lacks charm in spite of its plain forms. A remnant of a gone age, when traded goods seemed to reflect qualities of its home country.
Goods and their trade. Before production pipelines streamlined across the world, products arrived from distant nations arising curiosity, awe, ridicule, hesitance and/or desire. And most seemed to reflect on their nation’s traits. Back when the Bongo was being sold (1966-75), US products were the norm in those early ’70s of my childhood. A Tonka toy was an object of desire, endowed with qualities usually associated with American products: robust, rugged, long-lasting. And I loved my Tonkas, toys that resisted my rough playing and kept rolling regardless.
The early ’70s were riding on a wave of lingering ‘industrial positivism’ (soon to burst). After a half century or so of incredible advancements, technology was to save humanity’s fate. Or so the story was; with US products leading the way. After a destitute childhood in 1940’s Puerto Rico, Mother would never get out of her head how industrial goods were much ‘better’: canned goods were safer than produce from street markets, Tang was a nutritional miracle (more vitamin C than orange juice!), and Formica looked just like wood without the termites. How could nature compete?
Not that I cared much about her views, as my attention was directed to die-cast toys. US brands aimed straight to my tender heart: Tonka, Nylint, BuddyL and the ever present Hot Wheels. In the midst of all this newcomers started to arrive: cheap tin toys from Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Easy on my parents’ purse, they started to appear in my toy collection much against my wishes.
Even as a child I could tell those cheap tin toys were nothing but outdated technology. Not that I minded much after a while. My heart still belonged to Tonkas, but those foreign tin toys proved rather useful in my roughest of playing. Most became sacrificial lambs on my playground, dying in extraordinary kamikaze ways. Still a few survived, battered and trashed; always ready for another round of rowdy make-believe. How could one not develop some respect for the tiny newcomers?
Outside of Japan, quirky little things like the Bongo probably elicited reactions not unlike those of my childhood-self. Basic, peculiar and charming in its straightforward manufacture; its sight must have brought up a chuckle here and there, derision from the ‘Tonka-minded,’ and quiet admiration from those daring customers who discovered its charms.
By the time the Bongo was launched, Mazda had built its reputation on commercial vehicles in its native Japan. Though originally sold as a commercial van, our post’s glass windows suggests it belongs to the passenger version, a market Mazda had started to pursue few years before with kei cars and the Familia range.
The brand was also about to launch its Wankel rotary to the world, though nothing that unusual resided in the Bongo; just a water cooled inline 4 (varying from 800 to 1,000 cc) mounted in the back. No idea if this sample still runs on its original engine, though through a mix of low speeds and unstressed use some local owners manage to keep their old vehicles fairly authentic.
Regardless of our Bongo’s engine condition, cosmetics and accessories are a challenge locally. The driver’s-side-only wiper and passenger-side-only mirror are the odd result of that state of affairs.
Admittedly the Bongo had a few unorthodox engineering details, yet somehow in accordance with what was happening elsewhere. Vans of the period had a variety of layouts and packaging setups, and the most varied styling; no one would confuse an Econoline, a Greenbrier or a Citroen H-Van with each other. Memorable faces that made for a diverse mechanical landscape.
We moved to Central America in 1976, with Asian toys becoming pretty much the norm from then on. Most were robots and space-age trinkets, looking as cheap and cheesy as ever. Additional kooky little things appeared as well, like this Kosto truck of French manufacture. It seems to offer a ‘French’ solution to die-cast toy making (a jolly plastic human head is missing next to the ‘radiator’). A case could be made that customers were more willing to put up with a foreign product’s quirkiness in those days.
Good thing for those foreign products that buyers’ curiosity (and desire for thrifty deals) overcame any hesitations they may have had on their provenance. Memories from those beta-testing days are a bit jarring; early Japanese office goods failed to impress my Dad (accustomed to German brands), while a close family friend’s Sharp TV exploded while viewing. That Sharp event made Mother weary of the brand for decades.
Good thing Japanese makers proved they had the drive to steadily improve their products. It also helped that European and American brands could be just as iffy; and that even before the “dismal-quality ’70s” arrived. By mid-decade Father would find an appreciation for Japanese electronics, while Mother – being letdown too many times by US and European vehicles- would switch to Japanese cars and never looked back.
A Mazda of this age rarely appears in San Salvador’s traffic, unlike Corollas and Sunnys of the period. The ’66-’75 Bongo rarely changed in appearance during its run, with the side marker turn signals being one of few cues placing it as a later model. It could be an add-on, as locals love to tweak their vehicles.
Love the simple paneling on this little toy-like van, as it manages to exude a lot of character with limited resources. That said, my ‘tin toy’ reference may be somewhat unfair to this survivor, since Japan’s products might have looked fragile but performed rather well in their tasks.
Not that the toy reference is completely off, as this old Tonka seems positively Bongo-like in shape. I’m pretty sure this Tonka came out in the early ’70s (no toy expert myself); if so, it’s a post-Bongo design. A coincidence, I suppose. After all, there are only so many ways to style a rolling brick when using few metal sheets.
While the Bongo’s dimensions are compact, it was more than adequate for the Japanese physique of the time. It must have fared just as well in Latin America. Impossible to see through those darkened windows, but let’s take a look inside courtesy of web images.
There’s no denying that basic interiors like those of the Bongo belong exclusively to the past. Still, the spare tire and jack location under the driver’s seat could be a tie-breaking trivia question in some board game. That would be the kind of game I would be into.
This remaining Bongo is proof that these were no mere toys, and I do hope this sample stays on the road for a few more years. A bit battered perhaps, but still, like those long-gone tin toys of mine, still putting up a good fight. And yes, I’m placing all my good will into this pledge. After all, I gotta atone for those tin-toy-sins of my childhood.
More on the Bongo F800-F1000:
Absolutely captures the period look of funky, futuristic, yet crudely detailed, late 60s snowmobiles. Excellent find, and biography.
Great find, and as usual, an essay at the same level.
As to its engine, given that its rear engine, it would probably be a lot more challenging to replace the original with something else. There’s certainly no indication of any butchery back there. My bet is that it’s the original.
Your comment about how your mom came to acquire her perspective that industrial goods were superior is a keen insight and is a perspective that I’ve consistently encountered with generations previous to mine. It’s probably totally alien to millennials and more recent arrivals. Understanding where those opinions came from seems important as we now work to unravel some of the consequences of having those perspectives baked into our world and economy.
The Bongo is cute. (that seems an appropriate way to describe it) There’s something about its face that reminds me of the astronaut helmets in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Dave Bowman’s in particular as Dave had the red helmet.
I’ve never seen a Bongo before. I hope this one survives, and that either this owner or the next finds some kind of more appropriate replacement passenger-side mirror. It definitely looks like he figured that ungainly front-mounted thing would stand in for the stock one which seems to be missing.
The toys…I had the same range myself; although the Tonkas (I had ’em) always disappointed me since they seemed only very loosely connected to actual vehicles. I have two that have Jeep grills (but one is a cement mixer??? a jeep cement mixer???) Likewise with various heavy trucks such as a car carrier I recall owning. I much preferred Matchboxes as they seemed to prize accuracy. The tin vehicles? Yeah, well, they were wacky, but so very problematic in terms of understanding just what they generally were trying to represent.
Excellent article Rich!
(I know…this picture is of Frank and not Dave, but the helmet shows up better in this still 😉 )
Very rare now these rear engine Bongos I have seen an immaculate restored example but daily driven versions simply dont exist,
the Bongo badge was still in use by Mazda well into this century and 90s examples arent hard to find though they could have Nissan badging just to confuse the issue and be rotary powered though that wasnt a factory option AFAIK, more of a boy racer backyard implant fan bois will put rotaries in anything literally.
Bongo Cha Cha Cha · Caterina Valente with Werner Müller & His Orchestra
Wow, my father’s soul would approve of this choice. He was an avid Werner Müller admirer 👌
Another weird old Japanese vehicle I never knew of .
Kudos for someone keeping it road worthy in Centro America no less .