Last year, the National Caravan Council saw registrations grow 71% from 2019, a number that will continue to rise this year as the nation returns to vacation on wheels. But we don’t all have to pounce on a flashy Hymer or a blinging Winnebago. For me, it’s my Mazda Bongo Friendee, an eight-seater Japanese minivan, affectionately called Bingo Bango, that has been the savior of many family camping trips.
After moving to Brighton in 2011, it was only a matter of time before I joined the camper cult too. My own magical mystery machine is a 2004 fourth generation Bongo Friendee that was imported second hand from Japan (these are referred to as gray imports as Mazda never officially exported them to the UK) that I bought fresh off the boat, complete with chopsticks and Japanese coins between the seats.
There are three other bongos on my street alone. My neighbor Lee Taylor is in third place and swears she will never drive anything else. “I just love her,” she says. “I love the big steering wheel, the high seats in the front, and the fact that I can tell three children apart on long journeys (and am therefore happy). And it feels like I’m in a gang like the VW Camper Crew, only cooler and with the added benefit of starting the first time! “Apparently I not only bought a minivan, but also a lifestyle.
In the early 2000s, enterprising car dealerships decided to import the Mazda Bongo as a cheaper alternative to the VW Camper. The bongo boom in the UK was partly due to Japan’s strict inspection policy for road vehicles. New cars have to undergo an expensive inspection every two or three years, while older vehicles have to pass an inspection every year. As a result, most of the car owners in Japan write off their cars and buy new ones after 10 years.