Rob Hawkins looks at what can go wrong with a Mazda Bongo Friendee or a Ford Freda – so you can not only buy a good camper van, but head off trouble with a bit of general maintenance.
The Mazda Bongo and its sister vehicle, the Ford Freda, were never officially imported to the UK, but were numerous in Japan during the 1990s. These narrow-bodied commercials became very popular as camper vans.
The rules on older vehicles in Japan mean that servicable vehicles become uneconomic to run at a certain age and enterprising motor dealers in the UK realised that bringing well-equipped used, right-hand drive vehicles here was a good idea. The Bongo-based camper vans came to the UK in huge numbers during the early 2000s through companies such as Wellhouse Leisure. They are now a very common sight on the second-hand market and can represent incredible value. Care must be taken to avoid problems.
Common Mazda Bongo problems
There are a number of problems associated with the Mazda Bongo, which in some cases have given it a bad name. The most well-known dilemma is head gasket failure, resulting in expensive repair bills, especially if the cylinder head has cracked. However, problems such as this are often straightforward to avoid with routine maintenance and regular checks.
We visited KG Auto Engineers to discover the typical trouble associated with the Bongo and the best solutions for fixing and avoiding them. Aside from the aforementioned head gasket failure, most problems concern the brakes, steering, suspension and electrics, which are all relatively straightforward to fix.
KG is also an MoT testing station and they find most Bongos fail on the rear fog light (usually an import conversion), a worn lower front suspension ball joint, worn anti-rollbar drop links or D-bushes and poorly serviced brakes.
Mazda Bongo problems – how to spot them
The Bongo is best known for its head gasket failure. This can often be identified by lifting the bonnet and looking inside the header tank (located on the nearside). If there’s oil inside it, the head gasket will have failed. If the level is low, there’s a leak and this may cause the engine to overheat and the head gasket to fail.
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The oil filler cap is located underneath the driver’s seat on the petrol engine Bongo (above)
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On diesel models, the oil filler is under the passenger’s seat. In both engines, look inside the filler for a milky substance, which usually indicates head gasket failure.
The cause of head gasket failure is often down to the coolant hose located under the driver’s seat, which is attached to the top of the engine. It can balloon and crack, resulting in coolant loss, overheating and head gasket failure. It should be renewed if it looks at all suspicious.
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The Bongo’s disc brakes are known to stick if they are not regularly serviced. This is usually easy to fix by undoing the two slider bolts for each calliper (14mm rear, 17mm front) and greasing them, plus cleaning the brake pads and the surfaces where they sit.
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Check the condition of the brake flexi-hoses as they can perish, which would cause the Bongo to fail its MoT. On the rear brakes, look for oil leaks from the axle, which may contaminate the handbrake shoes, resulting in an ineffective handbrake on one side.
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Suspension knocking sounds are often caused by the anti-rollbars. At the front, the drop links usually wear and need renewing, whereas at the rear, the D-bushes wear and crack. Try waggling the drop links and anti-roll bar to see if there’s any play.
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Raise each front road wheel (secure with an axle stand) and try waggling the wheel by holding it at the top and bottom. The suspension’s lower ball joint is usually the first component to wear. If there’s play, look at the lower ball joint to see if this is the problem.
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Bongos don’t rot excessively, but rear wheel arches are known to bubble and crumble. Preventative care is the best approach, so clean behind the arch and lip and spray with underseal.
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A sliding door with dry runners will be difficult to open and close. Apply some multi-purpose grease along the three runners, found at the top and bottom of the door and along the rear side panel on the outside of the Bongo.
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If you have an electric elevating roof, there are a number of procedures to follow to ensure it will raise and lower. First, make sure the gearbox is set to park (applies to automatic gearboxes) and the handbrake is on. Press the button on the underside of the roof, just behind the front seats. When lowering the roof, press the safety button once (located inside the roof).
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The power steering rack can leak, resulting in loss of fluid (the reservoir is under the driver’s seat) and stiff steering. Also, the steering joints can get choked with dirt. The joints and pipes can be checked from under the front of the Bongo.
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If there are no electrics for the fridge and other leisure equipment (lights, sockets), then check under the bonnet that the leisure battery (passenger side) is charged. Also check its main fuse, which may be located next to the vehicle’s battery.
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Many thanks to KG Auto Engineer in Huddersfield for its help with this feature.
Tel: 01484 600 303
What do you think of these tiny campervans? Who are they best suited to? We’d love to hear your thoughts and tips!
Read more: 2006 Mazda Bongo motorcaravan review