Thursday, September 1, 2011

History: Farewell B

Back in the 90’s when I got my drivers license, it seemed that everyone, at one time or another, were once the proud owners of a venerable little Mazda B-2200. As a teenager, the B-series was ideal, with a good sized bed to haul around mountain bikes, snowboards, hockey gear, camping gear, car parts and in some cases, stockpiles of beer or people. It was cheap to buy, was as reliable as the day was long, and with the perfectly suitable 2.2L four-cylinder pumping away under the hood, the B-2200 was ideally fuel-efficient for someone working for minimum wage to operate. As a freshly graduated 18 year-old, the Mazda B-series was the perfect fit.

The story of the B-series goes back a long way from the land of the rising sun. Believe it or not, the Japanese built rather large pickup trucks back in the 50’s and 60’s, as these kind of vehicles were mostly snapped up by workers in the farming and industry sectors, for use as work vehicles. Mazda, however, saw that there was a market that wasn’t being taken advantage of, a market for a small, light duty personal pickup. In the cramped environment of narrow roadways and short distance driving in Japan, as well as all of Asia, Australia and New Zealand for that mater, a compact pickup made a lot of sense. And so, the first B-series pickup was introduced in August of 1961, branded as the B-1500, referring to the trucks engine displacement. The little 1,484 cc four-cylinder pumped out 59 hp and had a one-ton payload rating. The B-1500 soon made a name for itself as being a hard worker and extremely reliable little truck. With the suspension set up with a torsion bar front end and leaf sprung solid rear, the B-1500 also became well known for its comfort. And with that, Mazda created the compact truck market.

Soon, the other Japanese domestic brands began to see that Mazda were making great use of a rather large hole in the truck market. In 1965, Datsun jumped into the game with a slightly smaller 520, which used a 1.3L engine. In 1968, Toyota countered Mazda with the now famous Hilux, which matched the Mazda in size, engine displacement and power. Isuzu, along with GM allegiances, created the Faster, in 1972, which would also see limited importation into North America.

By this time, these small pickups hadn’t properly penetrated the North American market with any great success, and Mazda kept the B-Series out of the market here until Toyota and Isuzu had properly tested the waters. However, in Asia and Australasia, the small trucks were a hit, and the Mazda B-1500 was leading the way in these compact pickup friendly lands.

In 1965, only four short years since its introduction, Mazda gave the B-1500 a slight refresh, adding a four-headlight front fascia, improving the cylinder head and adding down draft carburetor rather than a side unit that upped power from 59 to 73 hp. 1971 would see the B-series finally make it to North America in the form of its third generation. This new truck would see very little in the way of cosmetic changes, however, power was increased yet again with a displacement change from 1.5L to 1.6L, thus changing the vehicles name to the B-1600.

At this time, Mazda were also heavily invested in the Wankel engine technology, now popularized with the Mazda brand and dubbed the rotary. Mazda would use the 13B rotary engine in the B-series from 1974 to 1977, creating the world’s first rotary powered pickup. The rotary powered B-series featured flared fenders, a battery mounted under the rear bed and special edition designed dash, grille and headlights. However, while the twin rotor, 1.3L, 13B was ideal in Mazda’s sports car, the Cosmo, and the RX-4 and RX-5 coupes, the engines low torque rating did not make a good match with the pickup trucks needs and was soon cancelled. Like most rotary powered Mazda’s, it didn’t go out without a fight, as Mazda raced one of these special editions at the 1975 SCCA Mojave 24 Hour Rally.

It was in this era that also saw Mazda’s first truck cooperation agreement with Ford, which would see the new B-1800 be rebadged as a Ford Courier. Ford was in need of small truck to combat the influx of small Japanese pickups like the Toyota, Isuzu and Datsun. The Courier was produced by Mazda in Japan and imported into the US minus the rear bed to combat tariffs.  With the new 1.8L engine increasing torque to 92 lb-ft, the Courier/B-1800 had an impressive 1,400 lb load capability combined with a cheaper price tag than the F-100. The only real difference between the Mazda and Ford variants were the badging on the tailgate and hood, while the Courier had a unique grille to mimic that of the F-100.

1978 would see another generation of the B-series created, this time the truck got the full treatment with an all-new 80’s body design and the usual increase in displacement to 2.0L, however this time with the introduction of fuel injection. Soon after, one of the most popular versions, the aforementioned B-2200 and B-2600 would be introduced in 1985. This marked the height of small truck production, and the B-series saw a whole host of both body and drivetrain upgrades. The B-2000, became the B-2200, then B-2600 with the later producing 121 hp. The body was modernized with plastic bumpers; upgraded grille and headlight assemblies while part time 4WD could now be had for the first time. Customers now also had the choice of a long box or a king cab option on their vehicles. The B-series was sold in North America in this guise for well over a decade, from 1985 to 1998, and while the Courier was still based off the B-series platform, it was not offered in North America, as Ford had now created the Ranger for itself.

However, this would change in the later half of 1998, when Ford changed the B-series forever. They flipped the table on Mazda, effectively killing off the Japanese built truck in North America, and now chose to use the Ranger as the base platform, pumping out Mazda equivalents as thinly rebadged Rangers.

In its new North American cloths, the B-series not only received much larger engine packages, but its size grew exponentially to meet the North American needs. The choice of a 2.3L (B-2300) or 4.0L (B-4000) engines were now mated to either rear-wheel-drive, or optional 4WD with a dash mounted switch. Several of these new 4WD’s were now on par with the more popular Toyota and Nissan trucks in terms of off-road modifications and capabilities. However, with Ford now calling the shots, the only improvements made to the vehicles over their 12-year lifespan was little more than the addition of trim options. As a result, both the Ranger and B-series began to loose favour in a market that saw an every increasing move towards larger full-size trucks, as those trucks reaped the rewards of increased attention, allowing automakers to sell them for nearly as cheaply.

Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall as early as 2009, when word of the B-series demise began to leak. True to their word, with sales dwindling, the B-series was finally executed in 2010, with only a few unsold units still sitting on dealer’s lots. It’s an unfortunate end to what was a great vehicle, and so we pay tribute and homage to the first popular mass-produced compact pickup. RIP B-series.

1 comment:

  1. Looking for a B-1800 Engine, Used, for my Courier. any help or ideas, Thanks