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13 Mar 2013 | Believe it or not, this is what Mazda used to enter the Aussie market

Story/Pics: Ged Bulmer/Nathan Duff

In tourist literature and folklore, the small south-east Queensland town of Kilcoy is best known for its Yowie – Australia’s answer to the Yeti or Bigfoot. Frequent fleeting glimpses of the mysterious half-man, half-beast creature have been recorded over the decades throughout the heavily-timbered hills and valleys of the nearby Conondale Ranges.

But locals know there’s another strange and unusual creature that occasionally scampers along the D’Aguilar Highway, past the statue of the Yowie that stands long-armed and mute in the town’s park.

The critter in question is almost as elusive as the famed Yowie and every bit as rare, as its keeper Tim Holland will attest.

A 39-year-old mechanic by trade, Tim runs a mobile mechanical business from his home at nearby Villeneuve and is quite probably the biggest Mazda tragic you’re ever likely to encounter.

Tim’s love of cars dates back to before he can remember, but he recalls precisely the time and place that his decades-long love affair with Mazda began.

It was back in the late-’80s, he was 16 and on a learners’ permit and busting to get into his first car. A Holden Torana GTR XU-1 and an SL/R 5000 stood gleaming in the forecourt of a dealership on Brisbane’s Stafford Road, but he soon found himself digesting the difficult news that his pancake-flat apprentice’s wallet wouldn’t go the distance.

The dealer wandered out the back and came back with a tired-looking little sedan that Tim initially mistook for a Hillman Hunter. Turned out it was a 1970 Mazda Capella with a blown head gasket and six months rego, but it was all his for the princely sum of $250.

Today, the ‘vintage’ Capella forms part of his collection of 45-50 mainly Mazda cars and utes scattered about his property and those of understanding friends in and around Kilcoy. While the ravages of Mother Nature may mean the Capella’s star has faded somewhat, another far more significant Mazda has become the centre of Tim’s automotive universe.

That star is the humble little workhorse you see here, which by its full technical name is a round-body BUB61-series Mazda B1500 Styleside. Tim believes it’s not only the best in Australia, but the only one in the country, anywhere.

He first became interested in the B1500 about eight or nine years ago when he came across a couple of round-headlight versions owned by the former dealer principal of Brisbane’s Westco Motors. In the early-’60s, Westco held the Mazda franchise rights for NSW, Qld and the NT, and at one time was Australia’s biggest Mazda importer.

Tim already knew a little about the later square-cab, quad-headlight BUD61, but he’d never come across the round-body BUB61. "I thought, ‘this is an unusual old girl’," said Tim, who subsequently bought the remains of one and another that "wasn’t too bad" for $250.

The plot thickened once he began researching the history of the B1500 and discovered they’d only been imported into Qld by Westco, and only sold to dealers in and around Brisbane and nearby Toowoomba. The ute’s Aussie origins date back to the early-’60s when Westco went looking for a Japanese rival to the established British Vanguards, Bedfords and Morris trucks. They settled on the B1500, Mazda’s first attempt at a four-wheel light truck.

"Basically, they were looking for something Japanese but something reliable [and] the engine and drivetrain was what drew to them to [the B1500], because they were such a tough old truck. The Toyota Light Stout and Datsun 320 were good, but just didn’t have the build quality of the Mazda," he said.

The B1500 was built in three distinct model designations. The first, the BUA61, ran from August ’61 to September ’63, and never made it to Australia. The next generation BUB61, manufactured from September or October ’63 to November ’65, heralded the little Mazda workhorse’s arrival in Australia. It had the same drivetrain and rounded styling as the original, but with a number of mods specific to the local market.

Tim jokingly calls this "the blinged model", as Aussie versions got a larger 13-bar grille for additional cooling, a bigger radiator, twin wing mirrors on the guards, chrome hubcaps and side stripes.

In total, Tim believes only about 75 of the second-generation B1500s ever made it here, mixed in with shipments of the tiny rear-engined 600 Carols. This makes the BUB61 B1500 a rare enough beast in its own right, but the styleside body on this example is rarer again.

Soon after importing the first batch of B1500s, Westco realised the tray walls were Alfoil thin and totally unsuited to a knockabout life on an Aussie farm. So they ditched the trays and fitted a more durable, locally-built dropside.

The fact so few of the second-generation were imported, coupled with hard farm lives, plus most of the parts for the heavily re-engineered, third-gen BUD61 of 1966 being not interchangeable, made restoring his earlier model that much more difficult.

Nevertheless, over the years he’s ferreted out a couple of "paddock wrecks", plus another ute he tracked down in Victoria, and together amassed enough to create the "best of" compilation you see here. Tim’s happy to concede that the condition of his ute is far from concours, but points out that he’s also "never found two built exactly
the same".

"Build quality was good back then but it wasn’t down to the precision they have these days, so it was quite difficult when you were blending a couple of cars to match the two."

Given the scarcity of the B1500, he’s had to "make probably 50 percent of the car" , including gears for the old crash ’box and other components long since disappeared. "I’ve tried to take it back as close as I could find to its original condition, but just modernise some of the electrics and things like that," he said.

With its working-class origins, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that Tim’s B1500 is no trailer queen and he drives it at least once a month, describing it as a "very challenging old girl to drive". With no synchro on the extra-low first gear, single lined four-wheel drum brakes, cross-ply tyres and a half-play of turn in the steering wheel, we have no trouble believing it!

While the 40-odd 586cc Mazda T600 three-wheelers that landed in Perth in 1959 claim the mantle of the first Australian-delivered Mazdas, Tim believes the outstanding ruggedness and durability of the B1500 played a more important role in establishing the Mazda brand here.

"A lot of people started to look past the fact that, yes, it was Japanese, but these trucks were far superior, they carried more and they drove better, so it was probably a turning point for the Japanese car in general," he said.

The blue B1500 project has taken Tim five years of tinkering thus far and there’s still plenty to go on with, including a second drop-side version which he hopes to have on the road in 2013.

Tim admits he’s had "a few fairly sizeable offers" for the ute from Japan over the years, but believes "its history here is far more significant" than it is there.

"It’d be nice to sell it but I couldn’t replace it and I’ve spent a lot of my life researching and getting it going, so even if it was a massively huge [offer] I don’t think I’d sell it," he said.

"It’s just an interesting car and I think it’s worthy of at least trying to save one and put it back on the road … just as a bit of rolling history more than anything else."

FAST FACTS

1964 Mazda B1500 ute

Engine 1494cc 4cyl, OHV, 8v

Power 44kW @ 4000 rpm

Torque 102Nm @ 3000 rpm

Weight 1150kg

Gearbox 4-speed manual

0-100 km/h About three weeks

Top speed 110km/h

Price new £850

Value $50,000-plus