COAL: 1986 Mazda 323 DX Hatchback – My Great Little Car

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’86 Mazda 323 DX 1.6 in front of 50’s ranch house.

In August 1986 I packed my stuff including my race bike and flew to Des Moines, Iowa, via Chicago O’Hare airport.

But let’s step back to April of that year. The Heidelberg crew was attending a workshop at the University of San Antonio. I purchased a ticket for Delta Airlines that allowed me to fly anywhere in the lower 48 states on a stand-by basis for a whole month. I used it to fly to Des Moines, IA; Knoxville Ky; and La Jolla CA. I took a train ride to San Fransisco and flew to new York, NY, and from there back to Germany with another airline. That was a trip of a lifetime, getting to know my future homeland.

While in Knoxville, the TV kept showing the fallout of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster.

Imagine a wide eyed tourist, taking in the myriad of impressions that are inundating him. Things that stuck in my mind were the Chevrolet’s slogan: “The Heartbeat of America”, the incredible size of 18 wheelers, and a NASCAR race where Rusty Wallace was two laps down and still made them up to finish near the top. At the end, in New York, I was too tired to really enjoy myself. The noise in downtown Manhattan was unbelievable, and that’s what I associate with the “Heartbeat of America”.

323 hatchback

The Mazda 323 was a success in Germany as well.

I was in America for a new job. The jump across the pond included also a jump in income. I got some advice from my new colleagues: “Don’t buy an American car, they are all junk”. One of them helped me with a few test rides during lunch hours. I definitely wanted a hatchback because they are so versatile. We drove a Honda Civic hatchback that was very strong and fun to drive but also too expensive. A Toyota Corolla was alright, then I tried the Mazda 323 DX hatchback. I liked it the best, and bought it with a bank loan.

It was an ’86 model, a demo car, but deemed to be new for the loan officer’s purposes. It was blue with gray velour interior and DX trim. DX is supposed to stand for Deluxe. Yeah, right: crank windows, no A/C, but the rear windows tilted out. The cruise control was added by the dealer. It did not even have that small digital clock in the center pod on the dash. It had a decent Stereo Cassette Radio. It had the 5 speed manual transmission and 1.6L, SOHC with Bosch Fuel Injection producing 85 hp.

Except for the FWD, I thought it came pretty close to the specs of my teenage dream car, the BMW 1600. Even though it was not a BMW it was so much better than the VW 1302 I left behind. It was lightweight, so it did quite well on the straight line. It had fully independent suspension and it did well in the handling department too.

Then I flunked the DL test because of my European driving style. I Americanized my driving for a week and then I passed the test.

Of course FWD made it understeer if I overcooked a corner. I did that once but I saved it – or it saved me – without going agricultural. Another time I was forced to perform the moose test: on an undivided 4 lane inner city road this high school student in the oncoming lane was turning left in front of me. I was in the far right lane, swerved into the cross road and out into my lane again. All under heavy braking. My heart was racing. I got out of the car and ran after the student. She ducked inside the car and kept going. At least I did not crash like in 1975.

It was an exciting time with new challenges. The English language would be one of them. Immersion is the best language teacher. The second best are the ads on TV because they repeat so often. And once I understood Johnny Carson’s jokes on the Tonight Show I knew I was pretty well acclimated.

The hardware store vocabulary was kind of difficult to learn. I kept mail order catalogues around for reference.

Elmer's Hardware: 'I want one of thingamajigs! You know what I mean, a doohickey!'

Elmer’s Hardware: ‘I want one of thingamajigs! You know what I mean, a doohickey!’

Actually, I was looking for watchacallits.

I found nifty little cassette holders that I mounted under the dash. I had always 12 cassettes handy. Some of them were radio recordings from back home: SWF3, Baden-Baden. Yes, I was listening to the German radio announcer reading a long list of closed alpine passes while on the road to North Carolina in the July heat. And, no, it did not make up for the lack of A/C.

If you don’t have A/C, you have flies in the car. They gather at the door seals and as soon as you open they are in the cabin. My girlfriend was busy swatting them for the next 10 miles after we opened a door. I was too cheap to have the dealer install the A/C. It would have been $800.00 and well worth it. To deal with the heat we bought a cooler to have fresh cold water handy and took frequent breaks.

Wedding Carriage 001

Cute wedding carriage

Pretty soon I heard some strange noises. They did not come from the car though. They were wedding bells. In 1988 the Mazda 323 DX became our wedding carriage. It was quite unusual as the typical wedding carriage would have been some Cadillac or Lincoln. But my new family decorated it nicely. It got a lot of “cute!” comments.

The trip to “Mama ‘n them” in North Carolina became a yearly event, sometimes in the summer, sometimes for Christmas. The 323 always delivered 34 mpg and a headache caused by its buzzy engine. I loved the hatch. With a little ingenuity that car could swallow unbelievable amounts of stuff. Mrs. W comes from a very large family and she took her extra clothes back to hand them down to her many nieces. I stuffed socks into shoes and placed them around the spare tire making use of every cubic inch back there. I removed the cover behind the rear bench, folded the seat back forward and loaded more stuff up to the head liner. It was like Christmas in July for the folks.

cherokee nc 001

Cherokee demonstrate the art of making dugout canoes.

We visited with friends of hers and mine on these trips and I have fond memories of them and the little excursions we made. I learned about the Shakers in the Lexington, KY. area and we also went to Cades Cove and Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains. A highlight was taking highway 129 and N.C. 28 to Cherokee, NC. This is where my car and my soul were at home: switchback roads, mountains and forests, lakes and a snickety-snick 5 speed stick shift. That was heaven to me – and it was hell to my wife. It really put a damper on my and her enjoyment of the trip. I suppose I will have to do it again by myself. I still have to visit the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley. That could serve as an excuse. Really, the mountains is what I miss the most of Germany. The friendly people make up for it.

We used our Mazda 323 for a very long trip when my brother and mom flew in from Germany to visit. I picked them up at O’Hare and took a break outside of the big city. I still recall him placing his order at McDonald’s with a big fat German accent: “ A Big Mac, great pom Fritz and a Cola, please.” The cashier girl was going: “Huh?” I translated for her: “A Big Mac, large order fries and coke.” He was so embarrassed.

in Toronto cropped

Visiting distant family in Toronto.

After a few days in Ames, all four of us piled into the 323, drove to the Niagara Falls to visit a relative nearby. In Toronto we visited other relatives and friends of mine. From there we went south to Pennsylvania Dutch Country to get a feel of the Amish culture. Then we went to Eastern North Carolina to visit the in-law family. A few days later we went back to Iowa. The Mazda was flawless but air conditioning would have been really nice. The little ice chest was helpful but no match for the merciless heat and humidity.

Since purchase, the 323 needed only a drive shaft seal replaced and the usual maintenance items. That was a learning process in dealing with automotive garages. Brakes at Midas, oil changes at various places. The Mazda dealership changed hands and location and I had the new guys replace the timing belt. A lot of people learned about the timing belt the hard way. I was following the owner’s manual.

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Someone had to do it.

K-Mart put on new tires: Uniroyal Tiger Paws. Back then Uniroyal was a Canadian company and the tires were awful. Their steering response was spongy at best. I hated these tires. I pretty much bought them on looks and price only. I found it difficult to get any objective information on stuff in general in these pre-internet and nascent internet times. After these were worn out I was lured by a newspaper ad of the Sears Roebuck Company. They had their Weatherhandler tires on sale. I had it figured out: I wanted the tires with the highest mileage warranty for a best value deal. It looked like it was worth going to the mall in Des Moines one night after work to get these mounted.

When I arrived I was tired and stressed. They had all kinds of tires but not the ones I picked in the size I needed. I was miffed but agreed to get a lesser set. I was standing 2nd in line to pay the bill when the mechanic pulled up my Mazda with fresh tires. I peered through the window to have a glimpse. The clerk  cheerfully asked: “How do they look?” ‘Stupid question’ went through my mind and I uttered: “Round.” The customers in ear shot burst out in laughter. One of them said: “I guess the square ones didn’t fit!” I told you I was not in a good mood. People are friendly here but sometimes it feels good to be rude.

wiper spoiler

A smaller aggravation came from changing the wiper blades. I bought new Anco blades, changed them and threw the old ones in the trash. At the first downpour I realized that was an error. At highway speeds the Anco blades lifted off the windshield and I had to slow down. That never happened with the original Mazda blades. I should have kept my old ones. My solution was to add little spoilers to the wiper arms. They worked but there is no free lunch. They directed the air stream onto the windshield right in my line of view. Now when the temperatures were near the dew point this spot on the windshield fogged up inside. Air conditioning would have been great for defogging.

Headlights always die in the deepest winter. I changed my own bulbs and of course the little plastic tabs on the bulb holder broke off as soon as I touched them. They worked without the tabs but from then on I avoided working on anything plastic when it is cold.

Driving at highway speeds creates low pressure at the sides of the car. When I opened a window the low pressure pulled the glass outward and prevented it from going back into the channel so it was impossible to close it all the way unless I slowed way down. I noticed that many cars had guide tabs at the front windows to deal with this issue. I found some of these tabs in a junkyard and adapted them to my great little car.

It received a minor dent when parked on the side of the street at a garage sale. The left turn signal lens broke, the fender was slightly dented and the bumper had a scrape. The person responsible turned it into the insurance. The insurance money came in handy. I glued up the lens, pushed out the dent and left the scrape on the bumper alone.

Another dent was left by a less ethical person. I had it repaired on my insurance paying my deductible only.

1988 Mazda 323 GTX. - 02

Rare find at OLD PARKED CARS.com

A colleague noted my car was rated tops for customer satisfaction in 1986. Another colleague saw me pulling away from a traffic light. He was surprised by the acceleration. Obviously, the wedding decorations earned the car a bunch of “cute!” calls. Then in the later years of ownership BiL Junior tenderly stroked the velour of the driver’s seat and said: “How nice and clean it is.” I answered: “Having no children helps.”

Then I heard another strange noise. This time it was the cries of a baby. In 1993 our first son arrived and Mrs. W wanted me to buy a minivan right away. “Not so fast”, I said. “Between your station wagon and my hatch the family’s transportation needs are well met.” Not until 1995, after our second son was born, did I cave in to her demands.

I truly enjoyed this car for 9 years, from 8,000 to 105,000 miles. Compared to the previous cars I owned this one was boring. There was no busted engine, no oil pressure loss, no overheated brakes, no electrical shorts and it always started. As a result my automotive mechanical skills declined.

1985_Mazda_323_30446

This Mazda 323 aged well, like mine.

I was a bit sad to trade the 323 in. However the miles and elements made themselves known. There was just the beginning of rust on the hatch and some clear coat started to peel. The clutch, too, was at the end. In humid weather it shuddered wildly until it was heated at least once. It shook the whole car and the cassettes fell out of my nifty holders onto the floor. I made sure to put some heat into the clutch before the dealer‘s mechanic evaluated the car for trade in.

1986-mazda-323

Looks pretty in red too.

In 2012 or so I happened to see a run down red 323 hatchback in a dealer’s back row. (Hello, don’t I know you?) It was unlocked and I took a seat. Then I wondered what exactly I liked so much about this car. Everything seemed so basic if not cheap. Have my attitudes changed that much? It seems the American middle class swallowed me whole. Suddenly I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage and a car, along with raised expectations of durable goods.

My metallic blue Mazda 323 DX 1.6  was a great little car for us and holds a special place in my heart. It provided excellent service during the best phase of my life so far. Not even the lack of air conditioning can take that away.

The links to my previous COALs are here:

Hercules MK IV

BMW R 26

Taunus 12 M

VW 1300

Peugeot 304

VW 1302