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The Carchive: The 1978 Mazda 323

Chris Haining June 30, 2017 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 12 Comments

Think back to a simpler time. A time when the North America was resting between fuel crises, and Japanese imports had really captured the imagination of an increasingly value savvy and reliability-hungry buying public. It was also an era before lifestyle didn’t mean quite what it does now.

A look at Mazda’s car range today has the perky, zingy fun-size MX-5 at one end, and the upscale, rakishly contoured CX-7 at the other. Neither of these thoroughly modern offerings sell purely to folk who ‘need a car’, but that’s exactly what this sealed-beam marvel was in 1978. It’s the Mazda 323.

Welcome back to The Carchive

Click on the pictures to make ’em bigger and the words more legible. You know you want to.

“The Mazda Hatchback. We promise you’ll be together a long time”

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that, aside from 323 being mentioned on the front cover, everywhere else from then on in it was referred to only as the Mazda Hatchback. Or, more precisely, the 1000 Hatchback and the 1300 hatchback. Statesiders got it as the GLC, or Great Little Car, which makes me a little queasy just thinking about it. But then, Mercedes obviously like it…

Those UK designations, of course, referred to the choice of a 985cc 45bhp engine, or a ‘more muscular’ 60bhp 1272cc engine. Both were inline overhead-cam ‘fours’ of entirely routine design, being an update of an engine Mazda had used since 1965.

They also had what I consider to be one of the most handsome rear light cluster designs of any small car.

“The Mazda Hatchback offers you everything you expect from a modern saloon. And more besides.”

Part of the 323’s considerable success was doubtless due to its extraordinary simplicity. Around the late ’70s, European cars were beginning to shift towards far more modern front-wheel-drive layouts, the Renault 14 was making waves and Germany’s Volkswagen Golf was doing alright for itself, too.

The notoriously conservative British market was still buying the ancient, state-of-the-ark Ford Escort and Vauxhall Chevette in colossal numbers, and of all the Japanese equivalents, it was the 323 that matched those home-grown models for mechanical inertness.

“The Mazda Hatchback 1300 deluxe with three and five doors. A lot more for those who can afford a little more”

There was one big way in which the Mk2 Ford Escort was soundly thrashed in the family car stakes by the Mazda: it was a hatchback. Fords fuddy-duddy favourite was only available as a two or four-door saloon, or as a three-door wagon. You could buy a panel van version if you were determined that your children really should be heard but not seen, nothing Ford offered was vaguely as family-friendly as the five-door 323.

Of course, as the brochure reminds us, those extra doors didn’t come for free. The luxury of additional openings could only be had with the bigger, more expensive engine, and only if you opted for bells ‘n whistles Deluxe trim. But what bells, and which whistles?

Well, you got a dashboard rheostat (dimmer, to humans), rubber inserts to the bumpers and waistline rubbing strips (a feature sorely lacking from todays cars for reasons of fashion), a trip distance recorder and a cigarette lighter. You also got an analogue clock, mounted way over in front of the passenger, to make “we’re going to be late” tut-tutting that much easier and more convenient. One feature stands out above all others, though – an electric tailgate release.

“Like all Mazdas, the Hatchbacks are well-built. For safety and to last”.

These 70s Mazdas were built well, but from materials that were impatient to rust. They weren’t especially inspiring, either – with no special performance version to provide a halo-effect that made the cooking models seem interesting. As a result, they trundled around in noticeable quantity for a while, and then they were all gone. Replaced by Another Car.

Of course, it wouldn’t take long before Mazda started to appeal on more than just the usefulness of its products. When this brochure was produced, the original RX-7 was about to take on the mantle of “most interesting car you can buy”, and suddenly Mazda was a maker of Cars, not just consumer durables. Today, Mazda, like everybody else, fully realizes the immense value of image in marketing.

And yet, a simply engineered, bare-bones, rear wheel drive hatchback has never been more appealing.

(All images are of original manufacturer press materials, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of Mazda, who, in 1978, didn’t inflict its buyers with a slogan, let alone something as naff and meaningless as ‘Zoom Zoom’.)

  • Rover 1

    I haven’t seen a standard one of these for ages. All the ones left around here, and there are quite a few, have been retro-fitted with Mazda rotary motors. Taking some advantage of the way that the 808/RX3, RWD 323, and first RX7 share essentially the same platform. The very slightly later wagon version was kept on after the release of the FWD 323 until the second gen of that got a wagon. So there are a few more of those left. But even here, in temperate no roadsalt NZ, rust has claimed many.

  • Topokon Guy

    I have just inherited one unit of this GLC (Great Little Car) from my beloved father.

  • tonyola

    Mazda was in bad shape in the US in 1975-1976. The rotary sales (RX2, RX3, RX4, and Cosmo) had fallen off a cliff due to post-fuel-crisis thirst and mechanical issues. The only car that sold anywhere near decent volume was the piston-engined 808 (called the Mizer in the US). According to car mags at the time, the 1977 323/GLC was Mazda’s intended savior in the American market. Fortunately, it succeded. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a56d81727f05b6fd47c86fa64006e204dfd17f1c2b3aecf50ea5312d5e6463bf.jpg

    • NapoleonSolo

      I came very close to buying one of these in 1978 as a newlywed on a budget. Also looked at the Chevette. I remember being impressed with the quality of the GLC’s construction. Under the hood, the Chevette was a mass rubber hoses flopping all over the place (typical of the era). The GLC had cadmium-plated pipes running neatly around the engine and along the firewall. It was really beautiful for such an inexpensive car. The car was generally superior to the Chevette in just about every way including useful space, and I think it had a 5-spd versus the Chevette’s 4-spd transmission. Ended up not buying a new car that time, but it would have been my first new car and I have fond memories of it.

    • dukeisduke

      Some 808s were badged as 808s at first, before they became the Mizer, to increase their fuel economy cred.

      I knew a few people that owned GLCs, and they were really were Great Little Cars.

  • SlowJoeCrow

    Mazda sold these in the US as the GLC (Great Little Car). In general appearance and layout they struck me as a Chevette done right. I thought the same thing about the Honda Element, taking the concept of a Pontiac Aztek and executing it as something competent and desirable instead of a typical circa 2000 GM clown car.

    • Desmo

      Afaik these Mazda engines were derived from Ford Europe (*). I never understood why Ford allowed/licensed this. Maybe because Ford feared that selling Euro-Fords in America would harm their image. Dead wrong. Euro-Fords were better than anything VW at that time.
      (*) I´m not an expert on Fords, but when I take a closer look at the Mazda engine in this brochure, I see an ancient Ford Anglia engine hanging around.

      • outback_ute

        Chris said that Mazda’s OHC engine dates from 1965, Ford didn’t have one then afaik, and it is quite distinct from the Pinto engine.

      • Rover 1

        Hah! Ford wishes. If anything it’s the other way round.

        Mazda have a proud engineering tradition going waay back. Don’t forget, they made the rotary work when the motor’s inventor NSU couldn’t. Even after Mercedes Benz’s former budget brand, Audi, took them over with the VW group’s engineering might, they didn’t make as much progress as Toyo Kogyo did. Mazda piston engines have always had alloy heads and at least OHV and were early adopters of OHC(’65) and DOHC(’88). Ford were making all iron pushrod engines right through this era.

        Which is why Ford bought a controlling interest starting in the 70s with 7% and ending up with 33% in ’96. With recent troubles Ford has sold down to 2 ish % now. In the Asia-Pacific region we got whole Mazdas badged as Fords to replace Ford Europe’s RWD models. The Cortina and Escort being replaced by the Laser (323) and Telstar (626) while we all remember the Ford Courier/Mada Ute twins worldwide.

        It all finally culminated in Ford worldwide not being bothered, (or able?) to develop a new largish four cylinder engine to replace the ‘Pinto’ range. So they took the all alloy evolution version of Mazda’s own ‘F’ engine, the new ‘L’ series and bunged some ‘Duratec badges on it.(Later, ‘Ecoboost’ badges as well.) Voila! New ‘Ford’ engine worldwide, (including Volvo). Ford still uses this engine but Mazda has already dropped it, in 2011, for a further evolution, the new Skyactiv range.

        So no Mazda engines aren’t Ford derived. It’s the other way round, thank god.

  • David Peterson

    These sold like hotcakes at $3895 in 1978. The little Pickup was around $4000 and the equally archaic 626 in the $5k area. The Pacific Northwest couldn’t keep them on the lots, especially after the gas shock of 1979. A different world back then with much more modest expectations.

  • ptschett

    I do have to wonder why Mercedes seems compelled to reuse the TLA’s* of letter-named cars from within recent memory. First they called their sportscar an SLS (following the Cadillac Seville’s more comfy / less sporty trim level that was built well into the 2000’s), then the little SUV is a GLC (which is this Mazda as far as I’m concerned)…

    *three letter acronyms. Also, an Acura more recently.

  • Gavin Luckens

    My mother replaced her aging Fiat 127 for a 78 Mazda 323 with the 1300 engine in 1980. In fact, it was identical to the cover car and finished in the same blue with what I thought at the time (I was 5 years old) were 911 style seats with blue plaid inserts. Needless to say, we all absolutely loved that car but we had to replace it with practicalities of a 4 door hatchback in 1983, namely a brand new Toyota Tercel.