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Night Rider – 1990 Mazda 323F

Mazda 323F. White on black.

I’m a hidden headlight enthusiast. Not one to keep my light under a bushel about it, I think the best feature on a sporty ’80s-’90s car is the ability to pop up the headlights at will – even when the car is an affordable little FWD hatchback with sporting pretentions. So, the logical thing to do when shopping for a cheap daily driver is to check out the ones with the pop-ups first.

Here’s a black counterpart to my own red devil of a Mazda.

It’s parked close to a water tower roundabout. You have no idea how much I’d like to rally around that roundabout.

Steel wheels do not a 323F ruin, but the improvement that can be done by ditching the 13″:s is incredible.

Aftermarket/dealer-installed DRL:s are almost a necessity on 323F:s; even if I’ve never ever (alright, once. Just the once) had a problem with the pop-ups in winter, it’s good for the motors to be able to keep the lights at bay when it’s freezing outside. You can choose to keep them up at all times at a poke of a button, too, if you’re that kind of guy.

The tow bar, however, looks so unnecessary and out of place on this car, I can’t tell you how happily I’d lose it the first instant were it my car. I know it’s a good lookout device against people having trouble at parking, but looks-wise I’m never happy with them. And since this one seems to be detachable, it would most likely come off easier if the owner actually took it off every now and then.

Judging by the white mazda logo in the front instead of a later gawky rounded emblem, this is most likely a 1990 car; some were registered in 1989, but the ‘F was such a headturner at launch that demand couldn’t be quite satisfied at first. This one doesn’t seem to be too rusty at the usual points like the wheelarches, but I’m betting the trunklid is rotten from the inside, as there are a couple of bubbles already visible outside. The rockers have probably had something done to them at some point. Doors’ seams are possibly bubbling, too, as are the fenders’ bottom corners. Yes, sourcing replacement 323F body panels helps you keep the usual suspects in mind.

But all Japanese cars older than delivery kilometres are bound to have some rust on them, and the 323F is not the worst ruster in its price class (hello, Civic and Volvo 440). If in solid condition, it’s a great cheap buy and a good starter car for any 18-year-old hoon who can keep his Mazda pointing in the right direction. With the weight in check at just at a ton, it’s light enough to fly with even the regular 1.6-litre engine. With the 1.8-litre GT/GTi (133hp at most) it’s a certified hoot.

  • FuzzyPlushroom

    Given that the only 323 of this generation that we didn't get was the five-door, I wonder how poorly the nose would fit on a sedan (Protegé)? Oh, to Hell with it, I'll just wait another twelve years.

    Actually, at that point, I'd probably talk myself into a later Volvo 480.

  • sport_wagon

    My second car was a 1994 Protégé LX with the DOHC 1.8 and a manual transmission in "mocha frost." That car was fast for a little beige sedan, lemme tell you. Faster than my current 2003 Protege 5, that's for sure.

    It was badged with the candle flame Mazda logo. Never really liked that logo and thought they should've just stuck with the '80s "MAZDA" shown above.

    It was a fun little car, but I'd rather have a 323F. Pop-up headlights FTMFW.

  • Devin

    Also, the taillights were used on the DB7, which is something to be proud of.

  • Tragic to think we live in an age where pop-ups (or poop-ups when reliability is questionable) are things of the past.

    Saying that, as much as I love the 323F and the Honda Integra (mk 1) I have to say the later "teardrop" 323F (Lantis) is even sexi3r.

    <img src="http://data.motor-talk.de/data/galleries/0/18/3395/8681118/mazda-323-f-2-0-v6-1994-1997-1483.jpg&quot; width=400">

  • craigsu

    Pop-ups were one of the reasons I liked my first gen Integra so much. Like the Mazda the lights could be fixed in the up position by the push of a button. Even if the headlamp motor failed you could still raise them manually. Winter driving was no problem with these lights.

  • The four criteria for my first car were: (1) hatchback, (2) manual trans, (3) tachometer, and (4) pop-up headlights. I got two of four with my Geo Prizm hatch, but had the 323F been available in the states, I'm guessing I would have ended up with it instead. Funky-cool little car!

  • wunno sev

    When I bought Mr Two, the best part was the pop-ups. I get so excited when they pop up. I showed the car off to everyone I knew, and the first thing was the pop-ups.

    The horn doesn't work, so I take great pleasure in flicking the brights at a stop sign or to a jogger. Pop-ups pop – lights flash – brief delay – pop-ups unpop.

    • sport_wagon

      The pop-up headlights were one of the best things about my first-generation Miata. So much drama for just turning on the lights. Love it. I'll own one again one day. It will be mine. Oh yes… it will be mine.


    I once decided my next car would be a Mazda 323F of either generation (with the pop up headlights or the successor) on LPG. I failed to find one that was not half rusted away or terribly abused by previous owners, and I ended up getting a Mazda 626 coupe instead.

  • tonyola

    In the 1990s, the Mazda 323/Protege was the only small car that posed real competition to the Honda Civic, outside of a couple of specials like the Nissan Sentra SE-R. The Civic was still unbeatable for the overall togetherness of the package, but the Mazda came really close. It's sad that we never saw these slick 323 hatches in the US.

  • dukeisduke

    Antti, why do all your pictures look so well-lit? It looks like you could drive around without headlights. Also, does the "F" in 323F stand for something? We never got the 323F in the states; only the Protege' sedan, and the inverted bathtub 323 hatchback.

    • julkinen

      I try my best to shoot cars that are already well-lit; it's so damned dark here most of the time that a black car parked anywhere else than under a streetlight is unshootable. That and I've got a decent Canon DSLR at my disposal. Most of my pics, however, are iPhone snaps, and thus either shot in midday when you can see where you are going, or slightly grainy parking garage shots.

      The "F" probably stands for "Fastback".

      • dukeisduke

        Thanks. I used to know someone that worked for Nokia here in the US, and he frequently traveled to Helsinki and Oulu. He told me once that one of the winter hazards in Helsinki was frozen vomit on the sidewalk (from too much vodka). Is that true, or is that an urban legend?

        • julkinen

          It's true. The alcohol still present in the vomit also makes it a little less frozen than the underlying concrete, so it's deadly slippery. That's where the headache in the morning comes from; it's not the drinking but hitting your head on the sidewalk while walking drunk around Helsinki and slipping on the vomit.