MazdACT Stories – Frank’s 1977 Mazda 1000 Ute 

Winter has returned to the capital region for another year. Though it’s only May, the temps have begun to dip into overnight lows in the minuses. An early morning fog and frost greet the Carlective as a story of family and generational vehicle ownership takes the crew to a property near Springrange, New South Wales.

Down an unsealed lane and through rolling hills of sheep and cattle, framed by ancient gums and tall grass is the home of Frank Barbaro. His generosity and friendly nature are on show with fresh coffee, snacks and the joyfulness of pet kelpie Maverick bounding about the scene. 

Frank presides over the ute with pride and invested love such as that given to a family member. Understandable when one comes to learn that this is the second time the 1000 ute has called the Barbaro family home. Our story begins with Tony Barbaro, Frank’s father. 

In 1977, John Palmer Motors in the industrial suburb of Fyshwick is the home of Mazda in Canberra. Tony has owned and driven some big cars and is now on the hunt for a smaller vehicle that can assist his growing family, located in Flynn on Belconnen’s western fringe. He finds his match in a brand new Mazda 1000 ute and departs a happy man. 

The ute enjoys a busy and fulfilling life with the Barbaros. Frank’s mother takes her four children to school and back on the single cabin bench seat. It also becomes integrated into the family’s sporting passions with a ‘Wests are Best’ (Canberra Football Club) sticker and more as Frank recounts; 

“I think there’s two things that I was fond of and one of them was the fact that my whole family grew up driving the ute. Each of us kids drove it. One of the others is that Dad used to drive around the football team in the back of the ute and there were like 8 or 9 kids – he’d take us all to training and games!” 

As each of the Barbaro children grow into young adults, they are united in experiencing the ute as they enter teenagehood. As all learn to drive on Canberra’s roads in the vehicle, Frank’s brother adds to the tray by building a metal canopy for times traversing the South Coast. It comes complete with a dodgy speaker in the rear so music can be played back while inside. They later discover the canopy is heavier than the car! 

This will turn out to be far from the only experience the ute will find itself in, as Frank’s brother discovers during his years at Melba’s Copland College; 

“My brother drove the ute to college and would sometimes come out for lunch or to head home and find it placed between two trees. His mates would pick it up in his absence and put it between things so he couldn’t get out. The only way he could get in was to have his mates pick it back up and move it!” 

As the end of the 1980’s nears, the original motor blows up. Tony wastes no time in sourcing and inserting a reconditioned engine but it, too, becomes a source of frustration. A Mazda 1400 Capela motor takes its place with an upgrade to the front brakes and discs soon following. This work is carried out by a young Jon Waterhouse. 

The Barbaros come to nickname the ute the ‘Matchbox’, for obvious reasons. 

At the turn of the millennium, Tony decides he requires a bigger vehicle and reluctantly puts the ute up for sale. A local buyer takes possession of the vehicle but, in perhaps one of the worst outcomes one can imagine for their beloved pride and joy, it becomes plinthed in the front yard of a suburban Canberra home. 

Strangely, this owner keeps the vehicle registered as if almost baiting history. The Barbaros attempt to re-purchase the ute on multiple occasions but all efforts are futile. In late 2022 fate finally strikes when, with the passing of the owner, the estate gives the ute back to the Barbaros at last. 

“I picked it up and took it out to our property to show Dad and the look on his face when he saw it was fantastic. Although he did say ‘what are you going to do with it? Will you dump it on the farm?’ I responded ‘no Dad! We’re going to fix it up’”

We move to Frank as his journey with the ute begins. The first port of call is Gus in Mitchell for a roadworthy certificate and an attempt at a mechanical restart. Frank credits his cousins Dominic, Joe and Tony for their assistance at this time and on numerous occasions to get the project off the ground. 

(Images supplied via Frank Barbaro)

The ute is stripped to the bones. A repaint from the chassis up gets underway and the motor is pulled out and flushed of two decades of gunk. A new tub is ordered as the original has rusted and it joins several other parts that make the journey from Phils Rotarys in Brisbane.  Phil becomes a source of knowledge for the Barbaros as progress continues. 

The interior is reupholstered by Steve’s Upholstery, with a patient Steve applying the final door cards a year after first completion. Franks wishes to keep the bench seat but redesigns them so they now look like bucket seats. With final reassembly approaching, the ute is sent away to PSR Racing Solution who complete the electrical wiring and upgrade the exhaust system. 

Capital Steering and Suspension perform their own modifications. Frank’s cousin and business owner, Tony, brings the platform back to operability by way of full suspension bushings and ball joints replacement, custom lowered front coil springs, fabricated positive mounted rear springs blocks, custom rear leaf spring shackles and obsolete bushes, Koni adjustable shocks front and rear, rebuilt brakes hoses and lines, dual circuit brake master cylinder, column bearings, tuned carburetor and vacuum advance diagram to suit factory style distributor. 

The final application toward completion is the wheels, and while the stalwart of the rotary world is thrown around by mention of Simmons rims, Frank desires something bigger with a more original look. As Southside Kustoms paint the tyres with white walls, Frank visits old friends Nick and Jim at Bentleigh Garage in Melbourne to see if something might be available in the shop from another time.  Frank strikes gold when, guided to the rear of the business, he is shown a set of original metal hub caps that have been on the wall for 30 years. 

Frank buffs the hubcaps and puts them on.  The application of Mazda decal stickers takes the car to completion and suddenly, there it is. The family icon, a world of joy and despair and of hard work and committed love is back where it belongs in the Barbaro family. As Frank points out; 

“I think I’ve got it to a point where I want it. I don’t think there’s anything I’d change. It turned out better than I ever expected. It’s not like a 100 percent a show car and I never want it to be that. The fact that my cousin and I tried our best to get it where it is is good enough and I think we’ve done a pretty good job”

Tony joins the team at the property as the shoot wraps up. He’s a man who’s seen a fulfilling life and one can’t help but feel the connection he has to the vehicle as, with a hand placed on its bonnet, he poses for our portrait with the ute and Frank.

While both have entertained other vehicles through the years, including a Torana and Camaro; it’s the ute that brings them back to not only a source of longing pride; but a physical representation of the Barbaro family journey. 

The pair jump in and we head along a dirt roadway toward the Barton Highway; itself a story of frustration, setbacks and progress over multiple decades as duplication approaches. It’s fitting to watch Frank and Tony converse in the little cabin of a Mazda with all the escapism of a father and son bond that has traversed time and hardship.  

The ute faces a last challenge; one day falling to one of the many Barbaro children. But that’s a story for another time. 

Photographed at Springrange, New South Wales, by Tyler Parrott of Cutbackcbr featuring Frank Barbaro and Tony Barbaro. Cinematography and article hosted by Kevin Ha at StreetScene. Session assisted by Gabriel Bryant. Words, research and story by Justin Bush for MazdACT Stories, May 2024. 

Archival images supplied by the Barbaro Family. Mellis Motors image supplied by Mark Rowland via The Canberra Page.

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