The Ford Spectron was a courier for everyone outside of America
In the early 1970s, Ford rebranded the Mazda B-series pickup to make the Courier compact pickup. The tables turned by the early 1990s, as Mazda rebadged the Ford Ranger and Explorer to expand its North American offerings. And while Mazda, somehow, earned Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year with a far less versatile and accommodating version of the Ford Explorer, Kia made the Ford Festiva to appease CAFE with a compliance vehicle provide Ford a value-conscious hatchback on the cheap. It’s been a weird three-way of sorts, and it’s even stranger than you may realize.
Enter the Mazda Bongo minivan, a JDM workhorse that in its second, and third generations was rebadged by Ford for their product portfolio in Australia, Asia, and possibly even South America and Africa. But this van wasn’t just for Ford; Mazda shared the Bongo with Kia (and Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Daihatsu, but who’s counting) with whom it lives on to this day as a utility vehicle available in South Korea and Brazil with Kia’s “tiger nose” grille.
Right, so back to the Blue Oval’s rebadged Mazda Bongo. While Ford had a respectable footprint in Australia and was looking to grow in Asia, it needed vehicles such as a compact car, mid-size sedan, and a JDM-sized utility van to make its goals a reality. Salvation came from Mazda. A Mazda 323 became a Ford Laser, the 626 morphed into the Telstar, and the aforementioned Bongo gave Ford a van. There were two versions, the cargo van was called Econowagon and the luxurious eight-passenger version was the Spectron.
For fans of Nissan Skylines and the like, the JDM craze is today getting more and more expensive. Thankfully, the cottage industry now dedicated to importing JDM icons has a trickle-down effect that leads to certain more, uh, mundane vehicles arriving in America. And while the phrase “Van Life” has been a thing for several years, the convergence of modern vanning and JDM appreciation is made manifest upon meeting Michael Block and his 1993 Ford Spectron XL-T.
Michael is an accomplished IT professional in automotive retail. He has had a deep passion for cars since childhood, which is an interesting context for how he views his Spectron. “It has a kind of an innocent eagerness to it,” he explains. “It’s slow, almost dangerously slow by today’s standards—not surprising since it only has 75 hp—but its willingness to try its absolute best to take me wherever I want to go is why I’m so enamored with it. That spirit is something I’ve never experienced in any other car before.”
Thanks to his connections at noted vehicle importer SODO Moto in Seattle, Michael got a line on a Ford Spectron that was put up on consignment. Since it was located in the U.S. and the bulk of the legal paperwork was already done, Michael simply bought it and changed the alloy wheels (lifted from a Nissan Bluebird) to a set of proper 14-inch steel wheels (from a Daewoo Lacetti) with 1983 Mustang disc wheel covers. Now he is quite enjoying his quirky little Ford van.
Michael has always appreciated the cab-over van, in which the engine is located under the passenger seat, with the driver sitting atop the alternator and turbocharger. He has no complaints about unintended seat warming from the 2.0-liter turbodiesel, and Michael thinks the van’s coolest party trick are the second-row seats that swivel 180-degrees so the second and third row passengers can face each other.
Living with a JDM classic poses its challenges, and Michael has concerns with the availability of maintenance parts over the long term. These bits come from Japan, and he states that the labor to perform “just about any extensive engine maintenance—like a timing belt—requires the vehicle on a lift and the engine dropped down from underneath it.” Not ideal, but perhaps it’s not unlike a modern luxury car in that regard?
No matter. True love glosses over such details. Michael believes that the growing interest in JDM vans is because of their personality above all else. “Park my Spectron next to two Vanagons, and the size difference is shocking. A Vanagon dwarfs a Spectron. A JDM van won’t be nearly as practical as a Chevy G-series, Sprinter, or even a VW T2/T3, but their unsullied charm has yet to be replicated.”
You need only spend a few minutes with Michael to witness both his pride and deep knowledge base for these Mazda-based JDM vans. An extra bonus from the mind of Michael was the fact he’s found the other five Spectrons living stateside. Witness this postal delivery vehicle, one that surfaced on Bring a Trailer, this 4WD example with an automatic, another one retailed at SODO Moto, and the following Spectron video showing the JDM van’s wares for all to see:
It’s pretty clear why Ford needed this van in global markets. But having it here in America? You can’t put a price on its rarity and its ability to tell a great story at a car show, which is part of the joy of owning a classic vehicle. And the Ford Spectron has a fantastic tale to tell.