Back in the day, waaaaay back in the day, in my far-off native New Zealand, the likes of Land Rover, and the then relatively rare Holden, Ford Falcon and Chrysler Valiant ‘utes’ (Antipodean-speak for the car-derived ‘utility’ or pickup truck variant originally developed by Ford Australia in the 1930s) were challenged in 1969 by an upstart newcomer – the Mazda B1500. If you’d told the 12-year-old me then that, 41 years hence, the B’s successor potentially could soon be the world’s top-selling single model, knocking big-brother Ford’s F-series off its perch, I’d have just laughed. But it sure looks possible now.
That B1500 began its Kiwiland sales career when some far-sighted entrepreneur, looking to make a buck, saw a gap in the local market, obtained the franchise and contracted a company called Steels Motor Assemblies (later a Toyota NZ assembly plant long since closed) to stitch together a first batch of 400 units from completely knocked down kits (CKD) shipped from Japan. I remember ’em well as a chicken farmer friend of the family had one of the first. Dealers had to work hard to convince sceptical farmers – some of whom were a tight fit in the cramped Japanese-sized cabins of that era – to give the ‘B’ a try but those who did mostly bought, liked, found they were bullet-proof, recommended ’em to friends and came back for another. And another.
Fast-forward into the late 1970s. Post oil crises, Ford in the US is looking for a smaller, more fuel-efficient alternative for its dealers to offer as an alternative to the giant F-series line. The alliance with Mazda is formed, US dealers get a rebadged second generation B – now the B1600 – with a larger 1.8-litre engine to sell as the Ford Courier. For good measure, this also gets sold by Ford in ASEAN markets, Australia and New Zealand, the latter two already strong ‘ute’ markets. However, in the early 1990s, Ford US goes its own way, developing its own Ranger and building a spin-off for Mazda North America.
For that ‘original’ Japanese B, the rest, as they say, is history. Toyota (Hilux), Mitsubishi (L200/Triton), Nissan (Navara) and what was then GM’s affiliate Isuzu roll out competition from the late 60s/early 70s and all five major players battle it out, steadily adding more engines, four-wheel drive options, single, extended, and double cabs and wider choices of trim and equipment as they go.
Eventually, having already shared B truck assembly in some smaller ASEAN/Asia/Australasian markets, Ford and Mazda form AutoAlliance in Thailand and start jointly building the latest line under both brands. They’re joined by Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Isuzu (many of whose trucks are branded Chevrolet), all of whom have shifted production from Japan to keep costs down. AutoAlliance has since added Fiesta build and is constructing a new plant to make the Focus in a year or two.
This week, courtesy of Drive.com, we learned that the next generation B, designed by Ford Australia – and now called the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 – could well, thanks to Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s sensible one-size-fits-all ‘One Ford’ programme, eventually outsell the full-size US-made F-series line marketed mainly in North America, the globe’s top selling model for decades and once worth a million units a year on its own.
Who’d have thunk it? Certainly not the Mazda engineers who came up with that ’69 second generation B and the Kiwi entrepreneur who introduced me to Japanese ‘utes’. It’s a reflection, I think, of the Japanese auto industry’s tendency to take the long-term view of things and the ability of key automakers to constantly adapt and change with the world. I’ll follow this with interest.