[Jim Klein’s COAL series was exceptional in its diversity, technical details and just Jim’s passion for his many cars. His series first ran in 2013, when a good number of you may not have been around. if you were, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy re-living it. So here’s the kick-off to our first COAL Gold series. Normally this will run later on Sundays, but our regularly scheduled Sunday COAL didn’t make it this week, so this will stand in its place. PN)
The calendar said late 1985, the view out of my window said Southern California (unlike this car and view). The day I passed my driver’s license test I handed my dad $1500 cash for the car which he had bought used two years prior for $3000. The car was a 1979 Metallic Blue on Blue 5-Speed Mazda 626 coupe with about 55,000 miles on it, and it was all mine. Why my dad had bought a 2-door coupe as primary family transport for the four of us will forever remain a mystery, but I was just happy he chose it over the beige Toyota Corona that was also in the running. Maybe he knew it would end up as mine.
Anyway, the car: The 626 (along with the RX-7) was introduced for the 1979 model year in the US. My car came with the same 13” aluminum rims as that year’s RX-7 – (the wheels looked a lot like those on a Ferrari Dino to my teenage delight), a 5-speed stick, and the same 2-liter, SOHC 80hp engine as all 626’s of that vintage. Interestingly (to me) in not-very-scientific side-to-side testing against my buddy’s 1980 240SX with a more powerful 100hp engine, the 626 kept up surprisingly well. This engine powered all 626’s through 1982, until the newer, more streamlined FWD 626 appeared for the 1983 model year.
Brakes were discs in front, drums in back. Steering was recirculating ball (who else still used this except MB?) and suspension was struts in front, solid (but driven) axle in the rear with coil springs. The ride was pretty good; it more or less went around corners, albeit with a lot of body roll. Tires on the coupe were 187/70-13 (!); sedans had skinnier rubber IIRC.
Performance – Not bad, enough to get me into trouble with the law, but not enough to kill myself with. Rear-drive, so while SoCal was mostly dry, on the rainy days I had a lot of fun learning to powerslide, using opposite lock, and generally trying to emulate the antics of Ari and Hannu that we occasionally lucked into on late night ESPN. On dry days, making high speed runs either along Mulholland Drive or through Kanan Dume Road were a blast.
I did one auto-cross with it my first year in college, my pre-track prep consisted of inflating the tires to about 45psi and practicing side-stepping the clutch at full throttle. Let’s just leave it with me saying I did one auto-cross with it…Top speed (measured very late at night with a co-driver and another guy looking backwards out the rear window for the law) measured in at 106mph on a flat stretch of the 101 near Thousand Oaks.
Interior – Generally a comfortable place to be (well, in front anyway), the backseats were somewhat cramped with a low roofline. The 4-door version was better in this regard as the roof is higher. Dash was laid out nice and logical and the ‘79’s even had the 120mph speedometer which changed to 85mph in ’80. The steering wheel, like the wheels, was straight out of the RX-7, with black metal spokes. The seats were cloth (well, they were at one time, the SoCal sun took their toll and the fabric literally was falling off in strips by the time the car was six years old.) A set of faux-sheep-skins (in blue!) and a blanket over the backseat fixed all of that.
Exterior – Great shape (to my then-16-year old eyes) – in 1981 the 626 was facelifted on the outside, and looked a little more modern with an egg crate grille and black rubber bumpers vs. the original chrome ones. The wraparound back window was nice and visibility was great. The European version for some reason has a different front end and a sunken hood that looks inferior to my eyes. The coupes look much better than the sedans which always looked a bit too stodgy and formal to my eyes.
Reliability – Well, let’s just say it became predictable. The brake pads needed replacing literally every 10k miles, the clutch every 30k, and the head gasket at 60k and 120k. However, I BEAT on that car and it did way better than it had any right to. Oh, and something in the transmission started making a rattling noise that never went away. My dad and I took the gearbox apart in the garage and found that it was a needle bearing that was pitted, however over time it had also pitted the shaft it was attached to. When we found out the price of a replacement shaft, we said forget it, put a new needle bearing in, put it all back together and back in the car. A couple of thousand miles later the noise came back due to the shaft now damaging the bearing and I just lived with it.
In the end I sold it with about 125,000 miles on it to another college kid after almost three years of ownership and 70,000 or so miles with me behind the wheel, and looked forward to my new acquisition…. But that’s a story for another Sunday.