Curbside Capsule: 1990-97 Mazda 121 – A Bubbly Design That Really Pops

(first posted 10/5/2017)    So, I’m led to believe that older people in North America typically drive big Buicks, or beige Camrys, or maybe a Mercury Grand Marquis with a vinyl roof. Well, let me show you what I consider to be the archetypal old person car here in Australia: the 1990-97 Mazda 121.

Older people tend to gravitate towards smaller cars here, and I have a good feeling this little 121 is owned by an older person. I base that on a few things. The RACQ (auto club) sticker stuck to the back. The steering wheel lock (remember those?). The excellent condition overall for a car of this age. And, most importantly, the car itself. All that’s missing is a dashboard mat and a wool steering wheel cover.

Parked next to its successor’s successor, the Mazda2

These 121s – sold in Japan as the Autozam Revue – are a quirky mix of Japanese cute and K.T. Keller hat-wearin’ practicality. Perhaps they might have had a more youthful image in North America as, after all, sometimes things are flipped in different markets. Just look at Honda’s more senior citizen-friendly image in the UK and Australia, for example. Then again, I could also see these becoming the butt of some ugly car jokes in North America. I guess we’ll never know.

What we do know is these cars were affectionately referred to as “bubble cars”, “jellybeans” and even “top hats on wheels”. Fun fact: the 121’s design drew its inspiration from the female derriere. Yes, I’m serious.

Here, B-segment sedans are always slower sellers than their equivalent hatchbacks, if manufacturers offer them at all. This 121 did buck the trend more than most and enjoyed a decent amount of popularity. Despite this, Mazda went in an entirely different direction with its successor, the 121 Metro, shifting to a still upright but two-box design much like that of the first-generation 121 subcompact. While even more practical, it was less distinctive and less popular.

I can’t help but associate the 121 “bubble car” with older buyers. Maybe that’s because of a teacher I had in primary school, a retired principal who came back as a substitute and who I recall drove a white 121 just like this.

Mr. B always wore an Akubra hat, a button-up shirt, tan shorts with a belt, and white tube socks pulled almost to his knees. A consummate professional, he was a pretty old-school teacher and therefore not the most entertaining of the substitutes. Given his age and serious disposition, seeing him in a 121 made more sense than, say, a Suzuki Swift.

The 121 was ending production as I was entering primary (elementary) school. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like 20-somethings gravitated towards B-segment offerings like the Hyundai Excel (Accent) and Ford Festiva (Aspire).

When I was in high school in the early/mid 2000s, some of us were getting our first cars and they were almost entirely B- and C-segment cars from the 1990s. Cars like the Mitsubishi Mirage and Hyundai Excel were the most popular in the high school parking lot and I never met a young person who had a 121.

Note how much taller it appears than its rival, the Holden Barina (Opel Corsa).

Perhaps this fact, and my memory of Mr. B’s 121, clouded my memories of the little bubble car. Young 121 buyers did exist and I dare say one of them owns this example, judging by the more youthful wheels and decals on it. And these were among the more engaging cars to drive in their class, handling confidently and without the level of body roll you might expect from its tall-boy styling. Well, we are talking about a Mazda, after all.

The 121, like many Japanese cars in the 1990s, was crippled by the rising Yen. Initially available in Australia only with color-keyed bumpers, 14-inch wheels and good feature content – even, briefly, an optional folding canvas roof – a decontented model arrived in 1994 with prices slashed by $2k. This new poverty-spec model was manual only, with optional power steering, 13-inch wheels with no wheel covers (not the only Japanese model to suffer this indignity at the time), gray bumpers, cheaper interior trim, and no tachometer. You could still get all the nice trim and features of the older model, however, and up-spec models also came with a bigger DOHC 1.5 16v four-cylinder engine (with 87 hp) in place of the DOHC 1.3 16v (72 hp). With its cheeky styling and comfortable interior, a top-spec 121 made a compelling alternative to a poverty-spec car from the next class up.

Solid Mazda mechanicals and build quality means there are still a decent number of these around. More than I had realized, in fact, as I’ve spotted a few since I started writing this. While I’ve been writing this, I’ve also realized just how adorable these cars are and why they ended up being popular, even with young folk.

And yes, even with Mr. B. He had a well-built, reliable, economical car. The best part? He didn’t even have to take off his hat.

121s photographed in and around Indooroopilly, QLD.

Related Reading:

Vintage Road Test: Ford Festiva L

Curbside Capsule: 1996-2004 Mitsubishi Mirage – A Gremlin Without The Gremlins

Curbside Classic: 1995-99 Hyundai Accent/Excel – A Strong Foundation