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There’s a saying in the Philippines, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, di makakarating sa paroroonan.” And while we are still under the shadows of a quarantine, many have gone through  their personal “bauls” to dig up memories and keepsakes. This is a good practice to keep one’s sanity throughout this pandemic after all.

That is why we took some time to ask around and look into our treasure trove of local automotive memorabilia to refresh our perspectives. And one brand, Mazda, has an interesting story to tell about its love affair with the Philippines. Like the popular song by The Hotdogs says, the brand just keeps coming back to Manila. 

Apex Motors was the first distributor of Mazda in the Philippines in 1967 with its dealership located along Pasong Tamo Extension in Makati, and a few dealerships in the Visayas and Mindanao. Under the management of Dr. Concepcion Blaylock of Mitsubishi and Diamond Motors fame, Atty. Bonifacio I. Sison; Bennie H. Whisenhunt and Frank Gonzales, Apex was able to introduce to the country the Mazda 1300 sedan and van, which was actually a 2-door hatchback, and a couple of pickup models.

The first Philippine Grand Prix in 1969 in Cebu

Dodo Ayuyao, one of the founders of today’s AAP, raced a Mazda Familia in the 1968 Shell Car Rallye as shown in the main photo. According to his son, Dennis, Mazdas were also used in slalom and circuit racing by Ramy Diez and Butch Viola. It featured prominently in the 1st Philippine Grand Prix in 1969 in Cebu, with Viola as the driver. Diez would also join the rally scene in 1972 with a Mazda 1300 together with Ernie Dy-Liacco and Jun Espino as his co-drivers. 

But it has not been all rosy for Mazda in the rest of the world. As a small manufacturer, it was vulnerable to socio-economic fluctuations of the time. And it came to a point that it needed some help to get by. 

The Ford and Mazda link began in 1969. Together with Nissan, the companies put up the Japan Automatic Transmission Company (JATCO). Ten years later, Ford would acquire up to 24.5% stake in Mazda because of the Hiroshima company’s financial woes. And by 1996,  in large part due to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Ford acquired control of Mazda with its 33.4% controlling interest.

The partnership yielded interesting platform sharing models. In the Philippines, the early ‘80s Mazda 323 was sold as the Ford Laser and the Mazda 626 was released as the Ford Telstar. 

An occasional imported Mazda 323 1600cc, and later on an 1800cc,Turbo AWD hatch would make appearances with Mike Potenciano and Clifford Certeza behind the wheel in the rally scenes of the early ‘90s. 

The association with Ford also opened up the adoption of Mazda technology across Ford’s stable of brands. The Volvo S40, Ford Focus, Ford Lynx and Mazda 323 shared the same platform and technology. In 1991, the Ford Explorer was introduced with Mazda’s help. While Mazda relied on the Ranger platform to develop its own B-Series pickup line.  

The Mazda 121 was rebadged into the Ford Festiva and Kia Pride. Ironically, the Kia Pride was sold locally by Columbian Autocar Corporation as its People’s Car entry. The company would eventually distribute Mazda vehicles  in the country in 1993.

Columbian Autocar Corporation also assembled Mazdas in the Philippines. The 6th and 7th generations of the  323 Familia and Astina  rolled off the line at its plant in Bicutan, where a leisure condominium now stands. During its run-out period, the Astina was even sold complete with underbody street glow kits and striking neon colors straight from the showroom. The ‘90s was indeed an interesting era for automotive customization. 

During CAC’s distributorship, Mazdaspeed kiosks were set up inside its dealerships. Everything from original Mazdaspeed seats, shift knobs, gauges, suspension components, steering wheels, bodykits and of course, stickers, were available to the public. The presence of Mazdaspeed was also to support Mazda’s motorsports involvement. 

In 1996, the Mazdaspeed 323 Familia competed in the first Group N Touring Car series. The two cars were piloted by Jojo Silverio and Jody Coseteng. Efforts at the circuit  were also complemented by a rally car  entry under eventual 10-time National Rally champion Vip Isada.  

It was also under CAC that the first generation MX-5, or Miata, was sold in 1996. Around 200 or so Miatas were sold locally by the distributor. The units came without air conditioning to keep the cost down. The cars were eventually retrofitted with local Sanden units to make them at least livable in our tropical climate. 

But CAC will forever be remembered as the Mazda distributor that first advertised the  “Buy one MPV, get one Miata for free” scheme. For P1,000,000,  customers who bought a Mazda MPV van also got to drive home a Miata for free. It was a level of crazy higher than the street glow kits, but it eventually cleared CAC’s stocks as the new Mazda distributor was taking over. 

Remember Ford? By 1996 they controlled Mazda. And as the American giant arrived in the country in 1998, it brought with it the rights to distribute the Mazda brand in the Philippines. Tied up to this was the production of the Mazda 3 and Mazda Tribute at Ford’s Sta. Rosa plant starting in 1999. Although the units were for export, the manufacturing quota did provide an incentive for the company as it reentered the Philippine market. 

Wanting to beef up Mazda’s portfolio in the country,  Ford Group Philippines at the time wanted to bring in the RX-8 as a halo car. Despite the clamor coming from Miata Club Philippines members, the local Mazda marketing executives then were reluctant and did not show any interest in bringing in the second generation NB MX-5. They thought nobody would want to be seen driving a Miata. With the popularity of today’s 4th generation MX-5 ND, I guess we know by now who had the last laugh in that discussion. 

Suffice it to say FGP did manage to bring in a new generation of Mazda models. The Mazda 2, 3 and 6, along with the Tribute SUV, the CX-9, the BT-50 pickup and the CX-7 that took over the SUV mantle for the brand. Of course, we will always remember the overpriced third-generation MX-5 NC as well.  However, Ford’s losses in the global scene would see it slowly give up its stake in Mazda down to 11% in 2008, and just 2.1% by 2015. 

Today’s Mazda is a far cry from the marketing-heady days that cost it its independence. The company is now more prudent in terms of the products it develops and sells. It is now more conscious about its positioning as a premium alternative brand. Yet it still leverages on its strengths – design and engineering – as it attempts to sculpt a niche in the ever evolving automotive landscape. 

But the nice thing about doing research is this, you get to come by seemingly petty information along the way. Take for example the fact that the Mazda RX-7 made at least three guest appearances in the Fast and Furious franchise with no less than Vin Diesel’s character leaving behind Paul Walker’s green Mitsubishi Eclipse in the first movie. 

Or how about the two red car fans on the grandstands cheering for Lighting McQueen in the movie, “Cars?” Mia and Tia were their names and  yes, they were twin Miatas. Or that the MX-5 NA shares its interior door handles with the Aston Martin DB7. And the MX-5 itself has landed in the Guiness Book of Records in 2000 as the best-selling two-seater sports car of all time with more than a million sold. 

Then there is the Mazda brand logo which has had 9 iterations officially. There is a tenth one actually that is referred to as “the toilet bowl” logo mysteriously omitted from official press releases. If you have seen a Mazda from the ‘90s, you will know how it looks. 

And finally,  the word “Skyactiv” which is Mazda’s technology buzzword since retaking the helm from Ford, is actually derived from their belief that “The sky’s the limit” when it comes to optimizing and making their cars more efficient. With so much time in our hands now, digging up memories and reminiscing the good old days can be such an involving pastime. 

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