Ford's friendly little Bantam gets a facelift and gains a diesel engine

You could say that 1983 was an interesting year. The struggle for power in South Africa had reached its tempo, with bombs exploding weekly around the country. John Vorster died that year, and Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger Jnr were born.
The internet officially came into being, and president Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”, possibly after watching the first episode of The A-Team on television. And you could buy Ford’s new 1,3 litre Bantam half-tonne pickup for R6 605, right out the box. Even Bill Gates could probably afford one, back in ‘83, because that year IBM released its first personal computer, and things suddenly looked good for Microsoft.

How times have changed. The latest Bantam range—still remarkably recognisable as descendants of the first model—now starts at R101 950 for the basic 1.3i petrol version and tops out at a lofty R171 750 for the XLT 1.4 TDCI diesel—a new addition to the range. There’s also a 1,6 litre petrol engine available, and the line-up now consists of 12 models. The physical dimensions aren’t too far removed from those of the 1983 original—the latest incarnation of the 1.3i is slightly longer and narrower, stands 105mm taller and weighs in at 117kg more than the very first Bantam. Its fuel injected 1,3 litre eight-valve single overhead camshaft engine produces 55kW at 5 500rpm and 110Nm at 3 000rpm, compared with its venerable great-grandparent’s 48Kw at 5 600 and 91Nm at 3 250rpm.

Ford’s old Kent 1,3 litre overhead-valve engine, said Car magazine in July 1983, gave “lively performance”, hauling the car up to 100km/h in 16,1 seconds (about 12,9 for the 1,3 litre newbie) with a top speed of 150km/h (158 in 2009). And, where the old car was rated to lug 640kg of freight in its bin, the new one is good for either 630kg or 650kg, depending upon which version you choose to splash out on. Judging by all this, it seems that the designers of the current Bantam have stuck very closely to the design brief their predecessors were given for the original project, for which the budget for the entire development and manufacturing programme was a whole R7-million!

After the launch I was given the new addition to the range, the range-topping XLT 1.4 diesel, to drive for a week. The Bantam has always been a good-looking half-tonne pick-up—so much so that they’ve achieved a sort of cult status with younger surfing, motorcycling, outdoor-loving youngsters. The interior is pleasant enough, although the all-black plastic trim appears in places a little too cheap and brittle for my liking. Interior space is good, with plenty of seat adjustment available for Lanky Larry and Petite Pamela. The Bantam’s spacious and deep load bin comes in very useful for small businesses, and the fact that the VAT on the purchase price can be deducted by VAT vendors if the vehicle is registered for business purposes is a bonus.

The basic Bantam doesn’t offer much in the way of luxury, but the XLT specification level comes with most of the luxury features you’d expect in a modern, well-equipped pick-up. These include body colour mirrors and bumpers, a rear step bumper, alloy wheels, electric body-colour mirrors, a rear sliding window with protective bars, fog lamps, a tonneau cover, air conditioning, electric windows, a radio/CD player with four speakers, an immobiliser, and a high-level stop lamp. I find it unforgivable that a car selling for this price has no airbags or anti-skid ABS brakes though—these are nowadays mandatory safety features in many countries, as they should be here in South Africa, and soon will be. 

The car I drove in Durban came with a five-speed manual gearbox, which of course is a huge improvement on the four-speeder of the original. The engine’s relatively puny 50kW at 4 000rpm was more than compensated for by the 160Nm of torque that was on tap from just 2 000rpm, so lugging ability is terrific. I don’t believe that the additional R28 250 asking price for the diesel model over that of the 1,6 litre petrol version (70kW at 5 500, 137Nm at 2 500) is justified. You’d have to cover a lot of distance to save enough in fuel costs to make up for that. Of course, if I could buy a mint 1983 model, complete with contact breaker points, skinny tyres and a four-speed gearbox for R6 605 there’s no doubt whatsoever where my money would go!

The Ford Bantam always was and still remains a popular vehicle that drives and handles like a car, but does sterling service as a pick-up. It’s a pity that there’s no ABS or airbags—particularly the former—but that’s a shortcoming shared by most of its lightweight pick-up rivals. It’s a little expensive for what it is, in my opinion, but I’m sure Ford will have no problem selling the friendly little bakkies for another 25 years.

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