Arts & Entertainment

Vintage Mazda had long trip to get to Tri-Cities

Richard Morton loved cars as much as he loved flying fighters in the Air Force.

So when he was in Japan 50 years ago, he bought a special seafoam-colored Mazda R360.

The vintage car will be one of more than 100 classic cars featured at the 2009 Cool Desert Nights Festival on June 25-27 in Richland.

The West Richland man gave the Mazda to his grandson Mike Morton in 2007 to be restored.

"Mike loves cars like I do," said Richard Morton. "He works in a body shop (in Smithfield, Utah) and had the means to restore the old Mazda. And he did a fine job with it too."

What's even more intriguing about this vintage automobile is how it found its way to the Tri-Cities from Japan.

Morton was an F-100 pilot in the 80th Tactical Fighter Squadron -- aka the Headhunters -- from 1947 to 1970.

When he was transferred to Japan in 1959, he bought a black 1958 Cadillac hoping to turn a profit because some businessmen and government officials in Japan were crazy about big American luxury cars, he said.

"But I kept the car too long and by the time I sold it, I didn't get the money I had hoped," Morton remembered.

Nevertheless, he took the money from the caddie and went to a Mazda dealership in Fukuoka. Mazdas were one of the new kids on the block in the car industry back then, and the salesman had to call the factory in Hiroshima to see if a left-hand drive Mazda R360 coupe was a possibility.

A couple months later, Morton drove his new car off the lot for $750.

It was the first left-hand drive car built by Mazda, and the first one to arrive on American soil, he said.

"My grandparents drove the car all over Japan, and even there it drew a lot of attention because there were not a lot of cars on the road back then," Mike Morton said. "Then, the steering wheel was on the wrong side, and to see an American in a Japanese car was not something seen every day over there."

The elder Morton returned to the states from Japan in 1961, but it took a little longer for his prized Mazda to make the trip overseas because the car required special dispensation from the Japanese government to ship the car out of the country, he said.

Morton and his wife were stationed in Idaho when the Mazda arrived in Seattle. They then drove it to Nebraska, where Morton had been transferred. A little more than a year later the family moved back to the Idaho Air Force base.

"My grandmother, with her three boys, drove this car from Nebraska, up over the Rockies and back to Idaho," Mike Morton said. "I have a set of tire chains that I'm sure were used on that trip."

The Mazda R360 is so compact he plans to haul the car in the bed of his pickup to the Tri-Cities for the Cool Desert Nights events.

The four-speed transmission car is a bout 9 feet long and 4 feet wide and weighs 837 pounds. Its maximum speed is 55 mph and it only has a four-gallon gas tank. And with two passengers, it gets a whopping 75.2 mpg. "I had a nice gift from my grandparents," Mike said. "And a great piece of Mazda and automobile history."