Most of you know me primarily as a die-hard Ford, Panther and IH fan (yet with a heartfelt soft spot for Buicks). Over the years, a few other vehicles have earned a place in my automotive pantheon, especially those that potentially could be driven for free, or turn me a profit; Mazda is the first name among them.
After my now-wife and I had bought our first house together, it seemed that our next step as “grown-ups” should be to buy a new car. She wanted a small but comfortable car, I wanted something fun to drive, and so we found ourselves looking seriously at Mazda 323s and Mercury Tracers. For the benefit of our readers outside the U.S., the Mercury Tracer was a 323 beneath its slightly different sheet metal (as was the contemporary Australian Ford Laser, which is not to be confused with the later, Escort-derived 323 that also had a Tracer variant.)
Providing you were buying new and didn’t want a stripper, we quickly found the Mercury to be the better value. There were other differences as well: The base Tracer had a nicer interior, came standard with a five-speed manual, and even got more MPG with a 3.89 final drive vs. the Mazda’s 4.11. It also didn’t hurt that my wife liked the Tracer that a friend’s girlfriend had recently purchased after landing her first job out of college. At the time, the Tracer was available only as a hatchback, and since I was a hatchback fan anyway, we decided that was the way to go.
Even though we’d been shopping for quite a while, we hadn’t had much luck finding one equipped the way we wanted it; what’s more, the better half still wasn’t all that sure about spending quite so much money on our purchase. Tracers were pretty poorly stocked by the Mercury dealers in our area, and all too many of those on hand were automatics. To complicate matters further, finding one that wasn’t red (which my wife absolutely didn’t want) or pale yellow wasn’t easy. The bottom line was that she wanted a blue car and I wanted A/C, and most of the cars that had it were automatics.
The process wore on until the night she happened to check the newspaper before I got home and found a year-old 323 two-door hatch. Since we were set on that platform anyway and the price was so low, we had to take a look. The car had been purchased by the son of an owner of a local restaurant chain who’d used it to travel to various Seattle-area locations to oversee operations. It had been the loss leader featured in a weekend dealer ad (remember those Saturday morning newspaper auto sections trumpeting “one only at this price” specials?), and as such it was stripped; in fact, the lone factory-installed option was the rear window defroster, although an aftermarket AM/FM Cassette stereo had been installed.
He was working that night at their downtown Seattle restaurant so we’d have to go there to see it, but he did offer us a free dinner for our trouble. The miles on the odometer were a touch high for a year-old car, but the price was right. We snapped it up. He did point out one “flaw” that it had since new: Somehow, during assembly it ended up with a deluxe-model chrome interior handle on one door and a proper black one on the other.
In my wife’s new job–her first real job since graduating college–she wore “business attire”, which often meant skirts or dresses and high heels. Since her commute was mainly in stop-and-go traffic, she quickly tired of the four-speed, despite the fact that all her previous vehicles had manual transmissions. She also preferred four-doors and sedans to hatchbacks, so she was never really in love with the car. While I loved the 4.11 ratio, the lack of a fifth gear made for not-so-pleasant long trips.
Still, it was fun to drive around town, nimble and very quick for that class of car at the time. It definitely was one of the cars that gave Mazda a reputation for “Zoom-Zoom” before it became their slogan. One day my boss told me he was looking for a car for his wife. She had taken a new job as a sales rep, and his Firebird wasn’t well suited for her use, so we quickly made a deal. In the end, I got the Firebird and his wife got the 323, for almost as much as we had paid for it.
As I mentioned, my usual way is to buy cars that will ultimately either net me a profit or work out to my driving them for free. I was back in that mode when one evening I spotted a potential money maker in the classifieds. This one was a red 1980 Mazda 626. The story was that it had a vibration at various speeds that the owner’s mechanics had been unable to cure, even after replacing the U-joints for a princely sum. He had already bought another car and just wanted this one gone. It was a top-of-the-line two-door coupe, in immaculate condition, with every option but an automatic.
Within hours, I drove it home for the price of $600. The wife wasn’t too happy about the color, but I assured her that she wouldn’t have to see it for that long since I was going to flip the car for a profit. The drive home made it apparent that the vibration was a drive shaft issue. It would come and go whenever you hit the right speeds for the harmonics, becoming noticeable at around 30 mph and really noticeable at 60. Since the Seattle area had a 55 mph speed limit, that’s where I kept it on the cruise home. After a weekend trip to the wrecking yard for a used drive shaft, all was good once more.
For a while we drove it happily, until the day when a bypass hose decided to spring a big leak with my wife behind the wheel. For some reason, she decided it could make the few remaining miles home, and it almost did. She walked the last mile or so, and once I got home we went to retrieve it. In the two hours since the breakdown, it had cooled down enough to make it the rest of the way home once I’d filled the radiator with water. Closer inspection revealed a blown head gasket, which I quickly replaced; however, the engine had obviously suffered more damage. It was burning oil and didn’t have the power it once did. It got the job done, but it still wasn’t “right”, so I started looking for a new engine.
A fairly brief scan of the classifieds turned up an ’81 four-door, with an automatic reluctant to get into gear and barely able to back up, a trashed interior and rough exterior–and all for $200. Nevertheless, the engine still ran strong and the car didn’t have that many miles, so I limped it on home. After spending a weekend pulling that engine and other useful bits and another weekend sticking it in, our ’80 was running right again. We enjoyed its precise, nimble handling, A/C and peppy engine.
Eventually I came across a deal I couldn’t let go. So with it’s replacement in the driveway, I detailed the 626 to get it looking its best, parked it on the street in front of the house, and stuck a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window. My asking price was $1,250. Literally minutes after I’d put that sign in the window, a kid with a brand new driver’s license and a ’71 Mustang Sportsroof found himself where he didn’t want to be, and he pulled into the driveway across the street in order to back up and turn around. The combo of a 16-year-old driver and the terrible rear visibility of the Sportsroof resulted in his backing into my Mazda.
The impact broke the taillight, slightly dented the metal around it, and bent the edge of the trunk lid. Despite its age and condition, it wasn’t totaled by the insurance company. The good news was that the adjuster–formerly a automotive painter by trade–had been looking for an economical car that he could use in his new job instead of racking up more miles on his good car. Between the insurance check and what I got from selling it to him, I not only got my $1250 asking price, netting me a few hundred dollars for my labor and about 1 1/2 years of driving.
A few months later, I was working part-time at an auto parts store (mainly to get parts for my cars at prices even lower than store wholesale), he came in for parts to tune it up. He had fixed it nicely, and had completely repainted it metallic grey. It looked great, and because I’d occasionally see him around town and in the store, I know he drove it happily for at least a while longer.
[curbside shots by PN]