Oddly named MPV was never an official UK import, but its family friendly features and high spec have earned quite a following. It’s the Friendee you need…
How much to pay
• Project £2500-3500 • Good £4500-6000 • Concours £6000-7000
Most expensive at auction: £15,000 (Luxury campervan conversion on late-model Bongo)
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★
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The Bongo Friendee MPV was released onto the Japanese market back in 1995, and while it was never officially sold in the UK a large number made it over as grey imports. Aside from its well laid-out and spacious interior, the Bongo was also quite generously equipped, and a fair number were imported with factory-fitted camping equipment. UK specialists have since converted many more to campervans – although is worth mentioning that not all conversions are equal.
While there are a handful of rare 2.5-litre V6-powered examples knocking about, the majority came fitted with sensible turbodiesels and automatic gearboxes, so the driving experience is best described as leisurely. Now, we aren’t suggesting that the V6 is an exception to this rule, but aside from the horrendous fuel consumption it does offer a bit more overtaking ability when fully laden.
The Bongo was also sold as a badge-engineered Ford called the Freda, of which some also made it to the UK, while in other markets you will find these vehicles branded as Mitsubishi Delicas. Whatever their name, the versatile MPVs have remained popular for decades, and events such as the annual UK Bongo Bash keep the interest alive. Good ones can still fetch a healthy asking price today, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of. We take a look at what separates the good from the bad.
Your AutoClassics Mazda Bongo Friendee inspection checklist
You will find one of three engines in a Bongo. All are based on Mazda powerplants that were fitted to officially imported models, so spares should be relatively freely available. The most popular was the 2.5-litre turbodiesel, while the 2.0 inline-four petrol, which is the pick of the range, is a bit scarcer. The 2.5 V6 models are far less common.
Reliability is a strong point, but if a Bongo-specific part does go wrong you will need to source a replacement from a specialist – which may involve a fair bit of waiting. Regular service items are no problem, but as the engine is located under the front seats ask the seller to show you where the dipstick, oil-filler cap (under driver’s seat on petrol, passenger seat on diesel) and radiator-expansion tank are located. This way you can check whether the owner has been carrying out any preventative maintenance.
Specialists say the 2.5-litre diesel can develop glowplug issues, which can be identified by poor starting when cold accompanied by excessive exhaust smoke. Overheating problems are a common complaint, especially on the V6s; the cause can generally be traced to perished radiator hoses and poor maintenance.
If the expansion tank has signs of oil residue, the cylinder head may have already cracked. Avoid LPG-converted cars, as the valves can burn out over time, leading to high consumption and an expensive rebuild.
Both two-wheel and four-wheel-drive variants of the Bongo can be found. There is a small consumption penalty when going with the 4WD option, but the additional traction can be useful to get out of a wet and muddy campsite. They do, however, tend to need more frequent CV joint replacements.
Most cars are fitted with four-speed automatic transmissions, which are robust and should shift smoothly between gears. If you notice a hesitation, lurching or reluctance to engage reverse, then be sure to have it checked over, as a rebuild can be pricey. Watch out for a flashing ‘hold’ light on the dashboard when on the test drive.
A small number of five-speed manuals were also imported to the UK. These tend to be pricier than the automatic equivalents due to their rarity, but the auto box is the easier driving of the two.
Suspension and brakes
The brakes are relatively robust, although the front discs are known to stick if the caliper slider bolts are not greased regularly. Brake hoses can perish, which can lead to a loss of pedal pressure and eventual failure.
The suspension may develop a knocking noise, which can usually be traced back to the anti-roll bars. Replacing the bushes can often resolve this problem. The power-steering rack can leak, which will result in very hard steering once the fluid runs out, so check the reservoir under the driver’s seat.
Rust is not a major issue, although poor repairs or a lifetime spent parked outside can mean that corrosion may have set in. The rear crossmember and arches should be checked thoroughly, as well as underneath the carpets in the front footwells.
Aftermarket camper conversions can lead to all sorts of structural issues if done incorrectly, so check around roof extensions and anywhere the body has been cut.
The interior is well laid out in a fuss-free mid-1990s Japanese style. The cup-holder-festooned centre console is set high so that the gearlever falls easily to hand, and most Bongos come fitted with a full complement of luxuries so be sure to check that everything still functions as it should. Heavily used Bongos will often have worn-out front seats, but they generally tend to weather the years rather well.
All standard Bongos came with an eight-seat configuration that could be folded flat to form a large bed. Camper-converted models can have a variety of seating layouts based on the type of modifications that have been carried out.
There are a number of specialists out there but not all worked to the same standards, so take a good look at any aftermarket conversions. Ensure that the waterpump for the sink, gas hob, and any electrical modifications have some form of compliance certificate to ensure you are not buying a potentially dangerous vehicle. Check that the leisure battery, if fitted, has enough charge in it.
Some models came fitted with something called an Auto Free Top. It was neither automated nor free, but the oddly named attachment could be popped up to increase headroom when the vehicle was being used as a campervan. Check the rubber seals around the AFT, as well as the tailgate and side door.
- 1995: Mazda Bongo Friendee introduced to Japanese domestic market. Available in 2.0-litre inline-four or 2.5 V6 petrol variants as well as 2.5 turbodiesel. Five-speed manual or four-speed auto could be specified, and both two and four-wheel-drive was available
- 1999: Facelift carried out with a number of detail cosmetic and mechanical changes
- 2001: Second facelift carried out with uprated engines and refreshed exterior styling
- 2005: Final Bongo Friendee built
Seeing as the Mazda Bongo was never officially imported into the UK, all the vehicles that you see for sale in the country would have been brought in second-hand from Japan. This means that a fully comprehensive service history is not always available, and mileage verification can be an issue.
It is best rather to assess a potential purchase based on overall condition rather than mileage, and check any UK-based service records. If you are looking for a campervan conversion, be sure to check that a reputable specialist has carried out the work. A poorly converted car will be the cause of endless headaches.
There is a thriving enthusiast community that is well worth joining to get the most out of your ownership experience. The www.igmaynard.co.uk website is a great place to start. While a 2.0-litre petrol model, especially in post-1999 facelifted form, is possibly the pick of the bunch, any well maintained Bongo can make for a great holiday car.
Looking to buy a classic Mazda?
2.0-litre 8-valve inline-four