My brilliant Bongo.

Mazda Bongo

My brilliant Bongo.

It sort of crept up on us slowly.  Camping – love it.  Packing and unpacking the endless paraphenalia – not so keen.  And then I met a friend who had a campervan. She talked about how quickly they could go from making the decision to camp to pulling off the driveway on their way for a weekend. Now that sounds ideal. I mentioned it to the husband but he was a bit taken aback. It wasn’t something we’d ever considered before.  It wasn’t a long held dream.  I always thought campervans were a wee bit whimsical.  The practical application hadn’t really occured to me.  Daft.  Plus the cost seemed prohibitive.  Have you seen the price of a VW?  A new VW can set you back – well a lot. A lot more than we have, more than I would ever contemplate spending on a vehicle. And a second hand one? Well either you are going to need 20k or not be worried about very high mileage.  So anyway, for all these reasons the idea was summarily shelved.

But then, the husband came home one evening all excited about a conversation he’d had with a friend who had a Mazda Bongo campervan.  ‘A what?’  I think was my response.

The Bongo was made solely for the Japanese market. It is basically a people mover with 8 seats.  However, the cunning twist is that the Auto FreeTop model has a factory built pop up roof, designed for two people to sleep in. And all the seats lie down completely flat to make a bed ‘downstairs’ too.  What an interesting concept,  who knew camping was popular in Japan?  The original advert is brilliant 80’s cheesiness.  You can keep the original configuration, the footprint of the Bongo is suprisingly compact so its perfectly possible to use it as your everyday vehicle. Or you can have it converted into a full on camper, there are loads of different options.  The best thing about it?  Its much cheaper than a VW.  And so the search was on to find our own Bongo.

The Search: They are no longer being made so all Bongo’s for sale are second hand.  They have also all be imported at some point from Japan either by an individual or by a dealer.  Mazda never sold them in the UK.  This is important to know because there is one problem that Bongo’s suffer with.  Rust.  But there is a way round it.  The Japanese do not use salt in their roads, of course, their climate is very different to ours.  As a result cars for the Japanese market do not have the same undersealing and protection that vehicles soled in Europe have.  As a result a perfectly sound Bongo can arrive on British soil but within a few years have some seriuos rust issues.  The solution? Have it undersealed and Waxoyled (potects the cavities). No i’d never heard of either thing before, but there are plenty of garages around that will do it.  It should cost a couple of hundred pounds and is well worth the investment!  We looked at quite a few which had been in the UK for while but hadn’t been properly treated.  Look great on the surface but underneath.  Not so good.

After maybe the 4th disappointing long distance drive the husband undertook, only to find rust, we realised that we would have to go directly to the source and import one ourselves.  There are quite a few companies you can buy fresh imports from and quite a few who will send you details of a van in an auction, carry out a very thorough inspection and send you a report and then bid on your behalf.  The second option works out cheaper, though of course you do have to wait much longer for your Bongo as it thenhas to get shipped to the UK.

It was all quite frustrating at the time.  The right specifications weren’t coming up, we had to compromise on not having a 4wd, and getting a V6 instead of a diesel, and had to accept we weren’t going to get the colour we hoped for.  We lost out in two auctions on vehicles we wanted.  To be honest I was losing hope.  Then suddenly it happened.  We bid succesfully and a shiny, silver Bongo was sent off on a long, long journey across the oceans from Japan to the UK.  The company who bought it for us sent us a link to the container ship it was on and we could watch its progress on a map online.  Oh the miracle of modern technology!  There was a panicky moment when the ship disappeared from the map near Somalia, pirate infested seas!  A witty friend sent us a photo of a Somali pirate, with AK47 slung over his soldier saying ‘This man is driving your Bongo’.  Ha ha. Not.  It turned out the signal was turned off in that area in order to  hide from the pirates. Phew.

Finally, the ship arrived in port and we could collect it from the dealer.  However, the long journey to campervan ownership was not yet over.  The Bongo was still a people carrier.  Next the conversion.  The husband had to get a train to Coventry to collect it and then drive it all the way to Bideford for the conversion! Look here for more about buying a Bongo.

Mazda Bongo

This is what it looked like inside before the conversion!

The Conversion.

As you may expect there are lots of different conversions you can do to a Bongo.  Some people have a full side conversion which includes sink, fridge, hob and storage cupboards. You then add a ‘rock and roll’ bed, which is a seat which rolls out to form a bed.  Astonishingly these types of seat are not crash tested and do not have head rests.  Maybe we are a bit paranoid but I didn’t fancy puttig the kids in this to travel long distances!  We opted instead to retain the original back seat, remove the middle seats and have a bench added to make a family space. This is called a mid conversion, we still have a fridge, sink and hob, but less cupboard space. Find out more here.

This is what it looks like inside.

Mazda Bongo side conversion

The inside

Mazda Bongo side conversion

The bench seat and sink, fridge and hob unit.

We also had a very useful roof converion.  The original design includes a hatch in the middle of the roof for access up to the roof space.  Not much good for easy access to squealing small children in the middle of the night.  The conversion is quite hard to explain but basically you are left with a hatch at one end which we leave open so we can easily reach up to them. For a full size person (umm adult I think that’s called) you put down the hatch to make the bed full length.

Bongo roof hatch conversion

The roof conversion. Looks a bit odd in this picture but they are snug as bugs. My eldest says she sleeps better here than in her own bed!

The inside is a bit on the grey side so we (actually the husband, I don’t know a bobbin from a treadle) have been making cushions to brighten it up.  And we have just had the back seat re-upholstered to get rid of the car seat contours.  Much comfier as a bed!

Mazda Bongo

It’s looking cheerier now!

As you may imagine, there are lots of tempting things we can do to make the Bongo funkier.  I have been eyeing up these gorgeous crocheted lambswool blankets from Rocket and Bear, and I would love some kind of bunting or flags.  Haven’t seen the right thing yet though. But looking is all part of the fun!

The Best Bits

  • It’s reliable
  • It has lots of comfort gadgets – electric roof and blinds, dual climate control, privacy glass, reversing sensors.
  • It was a lot cheaper than an equivalent age and mileage VW
  • It is very easy to drive around
  • It’s called a Bongo!

The Worst Bits

  • The V6 is a very thirsty engine, expensive and not very ‘green’.  The diesel is much better.
  • There is less space than in a VW because the front seats don’t swivel and VW’s do have a slightly longer wheelbase.
  • It doesn’t have the kudos of a VW
  • It’s called a Bongo!

Campervans are great.  VW’s are great. Bongo’s are great. It is June we’ve had a rubbish summer so far but we’ve already had 4 trips out in the Bongo, each time taking advantage at short notice of a window of better weather.  This is what its all about!

Find out more :

‘How to buy a Bongo!’

Things you should know about Bongos‘,

‘What are the conversion options?

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57 thoughts on “My brilliant Bongo.

    • Hazel says:

      I fear 6 would be quite a squeeze, though I do know a family with three kids and a dog who have a Bongo. The perfect companion for a campervan is, of course, a Bell Tent!

  1. Recipe Junkie says:

    Great post. We hired a Bongo before we bought our own van – just to see how we’d get on with campervanning generally. We were totally won over by campervanning, but I really hated the roof arrangement for the kids. Each night, mine ended up sleeping on top fo the hatch so if one of them needed a wee, he or she had to try and shift the other one to get down. And I did my back in hoiking them up and down.

    We managed to get an F reg VW with only 57,000 miles on the clock for a very reasonable price (no where near £20k), but I think we were lucky.

    • Hazel says:

      Yes, the roof conversion is essential if you’ve got small ones. That was my main concern when we were buying it. Sounds like you a good deal on your vw!

  2. emilymv says:

    Wow, just found your blog, love it! Just got back from a camping weekend in Dorset. We too have young children and would love a campervan, hopefully we will sometime in the future. We also live in Bath!

  3. emilymv says:

    We went to Norden Farm (http://www.nordenfarm.com/), right next to Corfe Castle. We went with a group and camped in the top field (Pond Field), we didn’t have fires but the field had lovely hill views. And that magical thing happened when there is a critical mass of children- they all played together leaving adults to have complete conversations! We live just outside of Bath, in Peasedown St John.

  4. Antni says:

    Hi
    We have just purchased an unconverted Bongo, and love what you have done with yours. Also checked out the clearcut site and now swithering as they say in scotland to take plunge and go for this conversion? We have a 5 year old and 12 month, how old were yours when you had the bongo any advice on where to sleep the 12 month?

    • Hazel says:

      Excellent, go for it! We were very pleased with the work they did. We only bought our Bongo last year so we haven’t had such a little one in it. Would be a bit risky putting him/her in the roof I reckon. I have heard of some kind of hammock thing you can get to go over the front seats for smaller chldren like this bunk bed . Or maybe one adult could sleep up in the roof with the older child and one down with the toddler, until the little one is bigger. My youngest was three when we bought it, I think she would have been alright when she was two though. Kind of depends on the child I guess. I would say you def do need the roof conversion though. Life would be a total pain without it. Hope that helps!

  5. Michelle says:

    As you know we are Bongo owners too and we love it. I had never seen the Bongo advert before and love it. That’s going straight on my Facebook page. Cheers Hazel and happy camping x

  6. Mel Boffey says:

    Hi,
    Big fan of this blog; just bought an unconverted bongo and showed your pics to a company we’re asking to carry out the conversion! One question though, our rear seats don’t have head rests- they are the kind that when flat they can be swung up and attached to the sides to leave extra large boot space. Were your rear seats like this and you moved the middle seats back ( we might have to do this- not sure if child seats can be fixed to seats wth no head rests) or were your rear seats always like this?

    • Hazel says:

      Thanks! We have the newer version of the Bongo (1999, new shape), they don’t do the seat foldy up thing, we removed the middle seats, the rear ones are original. Not sure about attaching car seats to chairs without headrests, but I imagine if the head rest is integral to the child seat ie the baby, rear facing and toddler front facing seats, or the booster with back and headrest they should be ok. Our concern re headrests was more to do with when they no longer have car seats, then there will be no head support. Sorry can’t be more help. I imagine you have found http://www.bongofury.co.uk where all the Bongo geeks hang out? I would suggest asking on their forum for advice, I’m sure they will be delighted to help! Enjoy your Bongo! (Have you had it undersealed and waxoyled?)

    • Hazel says:

      Tricky. It varies a lot. We had quotes of 600 but in the end a specialist bongo garage (bell hill garage, near bath) did it for 180. If it has been done you should be able to see brown sticky stuff in the cracks and crevices underneath. The key is to get cavities (doors and sills) and exposed underside done. Don’t know if you live anywhere near bath I’m sure there are other specialist garages, get advice from them if you can!

  7. Michael Stobbart says:

    Hi Hazel,
    We bought a Bongo a few months ago for our family and now I know exactly what I want to do with it…… convert it just like yours!
    Keeping the rear seats is a great idea. It seems so obvious now I see it.
    Also the roof conversion looks great. We havent slept in ours yet but I was wondering just how sleeping might work (or not) with a 4 year old and a 2 year old.

    First priority – a roof conversion.

    Great website.
    Thank you

    Michael

    • Hazel says:

      Hi there, sorry for delay in replying I have been away enjoying a ridiculous amount of snow in the Italian Dolomites! Welcome to the wonderful world of Bongo ownership, such a lovely thing to have with a young family! Sleeping wise, it depends on your kids really. They could easily sleep in the roof, it’s very easy to get to them once you have had the roof conversion. I might worry slightly that a two year old might not show a proper amount of respect for the drop down from the roof, but only you can judge that depending on your child. Ideally they would sleep ‘upstairs’ so you can still move around in the van after they have gone to sleep. But perhaps with a small child you could get them to sleep on the bench seat until you are ready to turn in and then one adult go up with the four year old and one stay down with the 2 year old. I’m sure you will find a way for it to work for you! Have lots of fun and thanks for kind comments.

  8. Alyson Deaville says:

    Hi, I love your blog and found it via Mumsnet!
    I really want a Bongo but there is so much info out there about them. Yours is gorgeous – could you tell me how much I should expect to pay to get a reliable Bongo and a cool conversion? I know it’s like asking how long is a piece of string but I just need an estimate and you seem to be pretty clued up! Safety is paramount as I have a six year old son so would follow your set up. Many thanks and look forward to reading about your summer adventures!
    Alyson

    • Hazel says:

      Hi Alyson, that really is a very difficult question to answer, have you read my post on Buying a Bongo? There are so many different ways to but a Bongo. we bought ours in an auction in Japan and had it imported, the van cost about 9k and the conversion about 3k. But if you can find a decent one in the Uk I guess around 10k. It really is a complete estimate though. Older versions are of course cheaper. We wanted something with reasonably low mileage and in really good condition so it would retain its value, if you just want something to gad about in and you aren’t too worried about it as along term investment you can probably get something a lot cheaper. Just watch out for rust or you’ll spend a fortune fixing rust all the time. Sorry don’t feel I’ve helped much but I think you have to start with a budget and see what compromises you are prepared to make. Look at http://www.BongoFury.co.uk to get an idea of prices people are selling for. Good luck!

      • Alyson Deaville says:

        Thanks Hazel, I was hoping yours cost around 12K as that would be my budget for something so nice! I’ve spent way too much time on Bongo Fury, just need to convince the husband now!

  9. Katie says:

    Hi there. We are considering buying a bongo (older version), but are a little worried about how uncomfy the seats would be folded down into a bed. I love your idea to get the seats reshaped to make them more comfy. Any idea how much this would cost? thanks for this article, it’s made me more excited to get one!

    • Hazel says:

      Hi katie, it cost £500 to get the seats re-upholstered. Not an insignificant amount but I think it has been worth it. More comfortable and good to see the back of all that grey upholstery! Alternatively some people put something like memory foam or some SIM’s over the top to make it more comfy but that does mean more stuff to transport and more faff to set the bed up and down each day. Hope that helps.

      • Katie says:

        Great, thank you! Do you have the contact of who did this for you? How much of a difference did it make to the sleeping comfort – Worth the £500?

      • Hazel says:

        They were done by a company called Motortrim in Bristol. We just searched for a local car upholstery company. We had to go back and have the seats re-done as they started to split around the seatbelt holes. To be fair they were very apologetic and fixed it with no quibbles and did a much better job but the inital job wasn’t so good. I think the seats are much more comfy for sleeping, and look better too.

  10. Bernie says:

    Great website. We’ve had our Bongo for about 18 months now, it’s older than yours though and not in such good condition, funnily enough we bought it from Bath! It has a tiny fridge and sink in the back but this isn’t an ideal set up and we plan to change it for next summer. I love the layout of yours.

    We have two 12 year olds and they’ve very comfortable sleeping up in the roof but it is a hassle in the mornings as one is an early riser and one isn’t! So she has to roll her sister
    out the way to get out the hatch for a wee! I think we’ll move the hatch like you have done. Even though, at 12, they will need it down to sleep I’m sure it would be easier to move feet out the way than whole bodies! How much did moving the hatch cost out of interest and who did it for you?

    We use ours as an everyday car and it has been incredibly reliable, but as you say, quite heavy on diesel. We’ve had so many lovely weekends away in it, often last minute, and occasionally just for one night which we would never have bothered doing with a tent, too much faff for one night.

    • Hazel says:

      Hi Bernie,

      Thanks for commenting Bernie. We had the roof hatch conversion by Clearcut Conversions in Barnstaple, it cost £250 (3 years ago) as part of our refit. I’m not competely sure if they will do it as a seperate job but worth asking them they are very helpful. As you say your children will need the hatch down top sleep but it easier to move your feet out the way than a whole body! A note of caution, if you are thinking of having a side conversion we have found the bed a bit awkward for two adults and I now sleep upstairs with my daughter. Happy bongoing!

  11. amanda says:

    HI Hazel,
    Thanks so much for sharing your bongo info. We have just bought a bongo and were inspired by you to have the same conversion, picked it up on Friday. Now we just need to choose fabric to re-upholster the back seats. I was wondering do you use child car seats in the back, if so do you believe that flattening the seat has affected the safety of carrying child seats in anyway? Our conversion guy seemed to think that flattening the seats could compromise safety. We have a 4 year old and have found that her car seat isn’t sitting properly anyway which seems in part due to the contours of the seats, and it is also experiencing ‘buckle crunch’ (thanks google for the definition), so we need to find a solution for that. Any advice would be very much appreciated.
    Amanda

    • Hazel says:

      Hi Amanda and thanks for your kind comments. I am not really in a position to advise on the safety I am not an expert. However, I know quite a few converters do offer re-upholstering seats as an option in a conversion. I would suggest asking a few other converters for their opinions. I first heard of it from Imperial Leisure. You could try contacting them they are a very big importer and converter of Bongos. My feeling is that as long as the seat belt points, the headrests, the way the seat is attached to the floor and the intergrity of the frame aren’t messed with the safety shouldn’t be compromised by changing the contours of the seats. Hope this helps a little! Hazel

      • amanda says:

        HI Hazel,
        Thanks for your advice, yes I agree with your last comment, although I will contact Imperial Leisure to see what they say. Once the seat is re-upholstered I am very much looking forward to making curtains and cushions! Thanks again. Amanda

  12. annewall7 says:

    Hi Hazel I’d just like to say thanks for all the info that you’ve shared on here – it’s been a real inspiration for me. Not only did I buy my first unconverted bongo in August, (we’ve already had lots of weekends away and I use it as my everyday car) she (her name’s Phoebe) is now booked into Clearcut Conversions for a mid conversion. Not only that but I’ve now bought a second bongo (his name’s Ozzy) and I’m in the process of setting up a camper hire business! After years of camping, buying a bongo is the best thing I ever did and your blog has helped me to make some important decisions along the way. Thanks again! Anne

    • Hazel says:

      Gosh thanks. So lovely to hear! Whereabouts are you? I would like to do a post on places to hire a Bongo so let me know when you are rolling. So glad you are enjoying your Bongo and so glad if I have helped along the way. Happy camping!

  13. annewall7 says:

    Hi Hazel
    That would be brilliant! I’m in Sheffield (about as far away from the sea as you can get!!
    And on the plus side being central for anywhere and everywhere and on the doorstep of the beautiful Peak District National Park. Thanks and I’ll let you know when I’m rolling :)) Anne

  14. betsybethandbeer.com says:

    What a great blog! I can’t believe how open she looks without a rear cupboard as supplied with most side conversions. We bought ours (called Betsy) in September 2013 and have been out in her pretty much every week. They’re brilliant day vans. Keep up the good work! Sean, betsybethandbeer.com

      • Jason Scott says:

        Thanks Hazel. We’re really tempted and have seen this locally which looks nice: http://www.gumtree.com/p/cars-vans-motorbikes/ford-freda-mazda-bongo-aft/1042835966, with a view to converting in the future. But I’m concerned that most of the car parks here have a 2m height restriction, which means a Bongo with AFT is no go. Have you run into that problem much?

        Also, where do you put your clothes etc. when on a camping trip and you’ve laid out the seats for sleeping?

      • Hazel says:

        Suggest you find out if it has been undersealed after import and check very carefully for rust! Aft is 2.1m so can be a problem but to be honest only a problem I have encountered in our local town centre rather than when we are actually camping. Good luck with your bongoing!

      • Hazel says:

        Sorry, regarding clothes we have a small pop up tent that we use for storage on longer trips. For a one nighter when carrying much less stuff we just use the front seats. If you have young children you will also need this to store children,s seats. Have a look at my post about which type of awning to get for more info (Bongo Campervan Awning Options).

      • Pip says:

        Hi

        I love your blog. You have answered so many of our bongo queries. We have just bought and had our first trip away. Our three seats are currently in the middle with our sink hob unit in the back. I want to move the unit in to the middle and the seats to the back like yours. We are on a budget so re-covering seats seems ideal. does it remove the bumps. Also love your bench seat. did you buy or make this? basically I want your bongo interiors 😍

    • Hazel says:

      Yup, bench seat slides back and lies flat and rear seats slide forward and lie flat. Makes a nice, comfy bed although with the mid conversion it is wider at the top than at the bottom. We had the seats reupholstered to get rid of the seat contours too.

      • Emsy girl says:

        Great..we have just purchased our first bongo and are deciding on our conversion and really like the look of what you have done!

  15. positivagirl says:

    I love your blog. Whenever I do a search comes up with your blog.

    Thanks also for the tip where to get vehicle waxoyled as I don’t live too far in Bristol although worked 10 years in bath.

    Am just wondering whether one I am looking at is too expensive. It has a mushroom top and unsure whether value wise and investment I should get auto freetop. Decisions decisons.

  16. lesley Chatterton says:

    Hi I’ve just found this blog, it s really good.
    We bought an older bongo a year ago and have had some fab breaks. The original conversion was that the back two seat were taken out and a kitchen using both sides of the van were used for this. The middle seats were facing forward but that made it awkward for getting in and out of the van. The only downside to this conversion is the very small fridge, if you know where where we could get one from, that would be fantastic.

  17. Duffy2000 says:

    Hi, love your blog…. We are just about to embark on a bongo purchase and we are considering buying bongo direct from Japan through an agent/import company…can you advise who you bought from please? We have found a company online that we are interested in going with, but can’t find any reviews online. (Bristol based) I imported a Figaro some years ago and that was fine but this is a bigger investment and now have little people to think of! Thanks for the advice!

  18. nigel mainprize says:

    Hi. My newly imported 2005 Bongo has the 4 electric blinds down the sides…but what can be done, if anything, front and back for privacy? Great blog ☺

    • Hazel says:

      Thanks Nigel. We have fitted curtains across the back window and behind the front seats which creates perfect privacy. The middle curtains were from Van-x. I am struggling to recall where the back curtains were from but they are fitted tightly to the back window with a lower and upper tracks so they don’t flap around. Hope that helps and hope you have a great time with your new Bongo!!

  19. Mike says:

    Like many many others have said, your blog has truly helped. So much so that 24 hours ago we bought our Bongo! At last! The next step is the conversion and I really can’t find anything as remotely sensible as the Clear Cut Familyvan conversion.

    Would you therefore indulge me a couple of questions?? (which mostly revolves around the most important person on board… the dog)

    Basically I want to know how much movement remains keeping an original rear seat. So when on the road, can the seat still be brought forward to, for example, give plenty of storage space at the rear to pop camping chairs and such while travelling. And then when parked up and the camping chairs are removed can the seat slide as far back as possible to give as much living space as possible? And if that’s all correct, can you give me an idea of how much floor space there is with the rear seat in it’s “on the road” forward position? (i.e. space for the dog while travelling whilst storing camping chairs behind in the rear)

    Many many thanks for your help and indeed for such an inspiring blog!

    • Hazel says:

      Hi Mike and Hurrah! for your recent purchase. Sorry its taken me ages to get back to you. The seats in forward position leave room for a pretty decent amount of storage. We put camping chairs upright and secure them with a strap around the seat hinge so we take advantage of vertical storage space. We also store sleeping bags,roll up camping table, wood, holdall of clothes, box of toys and bbq back there so there is a fair amount of room. The room left in the cabin is easily fine for all but a huge dog, though they will find it a bit slidy if you have put a vinyl floor in. I’m sure this can be sorted if they are in a bed with a bit if judicious wedging! This may be trickier if there are passengers in the rear – not so much because of space but because of the sliding around issue. I think it will work out fine for you though. Hope you enjoy many happy camping trips in your Bongo!

  20. Mike says:

    Thank you so much for your reply Hazel… that’s exactly what I wanted to hear, it sounds perfect for us so a trip down to Barnstaple will definitely be on the cards. Thanks again 🙂

  21. Pip says:

    Hi ! Sorry if I am repeating previous questions. We are looking to buy a bongo with a small rear conversion (sink and hob). One of the options we are considering is re-upholstering to get rid of the contours. Did this task involve removing the foam or just new durable fabric on the existing seats? We are Bongo rookies so a little nervous about what we can achieve on a small budget. I don’t want to lose the functionality of factory fitted and tested seatbelts!

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