Keeping it in the family, Greg writes about the all-original Japanese coupe owned by his son and daughter-in-law, Jonny and Jo Price

This little Japanese gem has managed to remain unmolested since new, primarily because it stayed in one family’s ownership, in a garage and off the proverbial radar, for some 36 years in Christchurch. Back then, in 1974, New Zealand was in the midst of what was then known as the ‘no-remittance scheme’ for new car purchases. Such were the very tight import controls in place at the time, prospective new-car buyers had to have overseas funds in order to purchase one. Overseas funds generally meant that one had money lodged in an overseas bank account — usually Great Britain. Some franchise car dealers also used to insist on a trade-in, which invariably was passed to the dealer at considerably less than its true retail value (as indicated by the dealers’ Red Book), but then on-sold at a considerable profit — the sale price in most, if not all instances, being far in excess of the price of the new car being sold. 

Prospective new-car buyers would have their names on a dealer’s waiting list for, in many instances, several years before managing to get their hands on a brand-new model. Often, too, there was no choice of colour or even body style. It would seem that at the time the country’s farmers all had overseas funds, as many of them seemingly acquired a new car every year. On reflection they were probably able to claim the loss of the trade-in as a tax deduction. It was common knowledge that many car dealers made heaps of money on what plenty would have described as a racket.

Aspiring car owner

When this Mazda first rolled off the assembly line in Japan in 1974, Jonny hadn’t even been born, but of course he grew up with a dad who was into cars, and he even came home from the maternity ward in a 1936 Ford V8 — no seat belts, either! Everyday transport for the family at the time was my 1953 Ford Zephyr, so there was no hope for Jonny developing into anything other than a car enthusiast. 

By the time he was a teenager, Japanese cars were the vehicle of choice for young, aspiring car owners, and especially those seeking performance — with rotary-powered Mazdas being the most sought after. Mazda 808s were, however, easily modified with the replacement of the front end to now look like an RX-3 — with or without the rotary engine. 

Jonny’s first Mazda 808, purchased in 1995, was a four-door sedan that was, in all honesty, well past its sell-by date at the time of acquisition. Indeed, it spent most of its time parked in the driveway desperately needing attention, not to mention registration and a warrant of fitness. 
These Mazdas were prone to terminal rust, and ‘Mr Boggy’, as Jonny’s car was affectionately known for obvious reasons, was already living on borrowed time, so it wasn’t long before it was dispatched to the local wrecker’s yard. Once some more folding stuff had been accumulated, Jonny’s second Mazda 808 was a really tidy four-door sedan, albeit in a lacklustre shade of orangey-brown with green upholstery. Jonny was proud as punch with his choice Mazda, but around that time Mazda 808s became the car of choice for car thieves, and unfortunately for Jonny his dream car was stolen in broad daylight while it was parked in Takapuna. Needless to say, he was gutted.

Following that, he eventually departed these shores for a lengthy OE to the UK, totalling some eight years, during which time he got married to the lovely Jo before returning to New Zealand. 

In late 2010, and being an avid watcher of the online auctions with ‘Mazda 808’ as one of his popular searches, Jonny spotted our featured Mazda 808 listed for sale in Christchurch. Surprisingly, there was just the one photo of it online, and the seller seemed reluctant to add more photos for some reason, despite several requests for some. I was summarily dispatched to inspect the car, as it was located on a rural property in the south-west of Christchurch.

First impressions

I would have expected the seller to have at least cleaned the car before putting it up for sale — its dull red paint desperately needed a good cut and polish, while the black interior was very dirty, with signs that a dog had chewed the gear lever. Fortunately it seemed that the original plastic sheeting, which used to cover the seats and side panels when new, had only recently been removed — probably by the dog! This probably explained why the upholstery was still in very good condition. After removing the vintage tennis racquet collection from the boot space, a quick inspection revealed that there was no rust in the boot or spare wheel well region — apparently an area of concern with these old Mazdas, but there was the original factory Bridgestone whitewall-tyre spare wheel, and original tool kit.

The owner turned out to be the seller’s sister-in-law, who had inherited the car from her father. When she moved to Australia, her brother-in-law was tasked with selling the Mazda. I gathered from the discussions I had with him that there had been several requests for a trade/swap of some sort from potential buyers, not to mention various time-payment plans, but as is the norm — particularly for the boy-racer category of buyer — folding stuff was not always immediately available, or a purchase must first be funded by the sale of their existing set of wheels. 

After a thorough inspection of the car I decided that it certainly had potential, drove very well considering it was Japanese (my prejudice), and although I wasn’t a great fan, it was certainly worth a punt. On conveying this information to Jonny, at first he seemed a little reluctant to commit to the purchase, despite my having negotiated what I thought was a very reasonable price. In an attempt to persuade him to buy it, I made an aside comment to the effect that if he didn’t buy it, I would. I then found out what Dads are useful for — ready cash no-interest loans for spur-of-the-minute car purchases by cash-strapped sons! So the deal was sealed, folding stuff was handed over, and the Mazda briefly remained a resident of Christchurch until being shipped via Jeff’s Transport to Auckland. 

Upon arrival in Auckland, after two previously unsuccessful attempts at owning a Mazda 808, Jonny and Jo now found themselves the proud owners of what is probably the only remaining unmolested Madza 808 coupé left in New Zealand — and judged by today’s prices, they got it for a song.

The Mazda’s background

This Mazda coupé was assembled in Japan, and then imported for sale new in New Zealand. Only the four-door sedans and station wagons were assembled here.

It would seem from the history available (original sales documentation was still in the glovebox) that the original owner purchased this 808 from Mazda Auto Services Ltd in Christchurch on February 22, 1974, and owned it for 28 years, after which his daughter acquired the car and owned it for the next eight years. 

The original purchase cost was NZ$3147.95.

Interestingly this Mazda, being resplendent in red with black upholstery, was uniquely different from the then run-of-the-mill models available at the time, which were generally brown/orange with green upholstery, or white with brown upholstery, and then mostly in the four-door version, or the less-common station-wagon version. Coupés were not generally the type of family car purchased in those days. 

A shiny red car with black upholstery must have looked spectacular in the Mazda showrooms of the day — in fact, I can recall the impact a brand-new Honda S600 convertible coupé, also in red with black upholstery, had when it arrived in the showroom of the then MacMillan Rover dealership in Greenlane in the mid-1960s, where I was an agency teller for the Bank of New Zealand. Back then Japanese cars were a novelty, and literally crowds of curious passers-by frequented the showroom for a look-see. 

Jonny’s Mazda 808 had been regularly serviced for a while from new, as evidenced by the service documentation that was also still in the car. It is not exactly clear what was behind the daughter wanting to sell the family Mazda, but the September 4, 2010 earthquake may have had some influence, as there was some very minor panel/paint damage. What was also evident was that the brother-in-law’s rural property was right in the path of the new Southern Motorway project, and they had to move off the site. Thus, storing the Mazda long-term until it was sold was no longer a viable option, and also a possible reason for the seeming lack of interest in marketing the car to the fullest extent. I gathered too that the number of time-wasters that this sort of car attracts when offered for sale may also have been the catalyst for the quick sale.

In Auckland

Once Jonny got his grubby hands on this pristine little gem, he set about continuing the makeover. First up was to tidy up the front passenger-side mudguard and remove some minor dents, and touch up the paint. Next job was the addition of the dress-ring wheel trims and whitewall tyres, as these were period correct — although Jonny has also managed to source a set of original 808 hubcaps that he also uses. Then it was time for a full service. 

Upon closer inspection, it seemed that this little car still had all its original running gear — now nearly 40 years old, and much of it needing replacing or refurbishing. So, a new set of rubber suspension bushes was installed, together with new tie-rod ends and ball joints. It also needed a full fluids change as the differential oil looked like it was still that installed at the factory, as it resembled a treacle-like substance when removed. The brakes required attention, so the rear brake drums were machined and the hydraulic fluid was drained and replaced. 
The factory AM radio was not working, but a quick phone call to me got this sorted, and an original-type gutter aerial was obtained from Australia.

On the whole, Jonny considered it was a great little car, and it had clearly been garaged all its life, as the red paint was still the same shade on all the panels — the only ongoing risk to the paintwork is Jonny polishing it all off! The best aspect is that the Mazda has negligible rust, unheard of in early Japanese cars where terminal rust has become an almost standard feature.
Even though the Mazda was sporting its original handbook and service book, Jonny decided to add to these with additional Mazda 808–related documentation. This included several original colour sales brochures, a copy of Mazda News — a factory publication at the time, this particular edition having a red 808 coupé on its cover. 

Future plans include replacing the noisy timing chain and tensioners and ensuring that it never gets a rotary transplant or nose cone — despite there being such a nose cone hanging up in Jonny’s garage!

During Jonny and Jo’s ownership to date, the little red Mazda has attended various car shows and runs, including the NZ Classic Car–sponsored Ellerslie Intermarque Concours in Auckland in 2011 and 2012 as part of the Japanese Nostalgic Car Club, and it is also a regular attendee at Caffeine & Classics. In 2011 Jonny and Jo attended the Steel ’n’ Wheels car show in Waiuku and the Ardmore Showdown, which was a wings and wheels arrangement with the Japanese Nostalgic Car Club. There have been other shows as well, so this little classic has certainly come back into the limelight. Jonny and Jo were chuffed-as when they received a prize at a recent Caffeine & Classic show.

Jonny and Jo’s beloved coupé shares garage space with an all-original 1989 Mazda RX-7 and a 1962 Morris Minor — clearly, the apple never falls far from the tree!

1974 Mazda 808

  • Engine: In-line four-cylinder           
  • Bore/stroke: 73 x 76mm
  • Capacity: 1272cc               
  • Valves: SOHC               
  • C/R: 9.2:1
  • Max power: 65kW at 6000rpm          
  • Max torque: 108Nm at 3500rpm
  • Fuel system: Two-barrel carburettor
  • Transmission: Four-speed manual          
  • Suspension F/R: Independent via coil springs and shock absorbers/live axle
  • Steering: Recirculating ball          
  • Brakes: Disc/drum
  • Overall length: 3970mm
  • Width: 1595mm
  • Height: 1355mm
  • Wheelbase: 2310mm
  • Kerb weight: 820kg
  • 0-60mph:  14.5 seconds          
  • Standing ¼ mile: 18.3 seconds
  • Production: 1971–1978