(welcome our new Sunday COAL series contributor, Matt S.) Maybe this doesn’t even need stating, but breathing is a really important function. This is true for cars as well as people. The first car my wife and I owned demonstrated this point vividly in the summer of 1988 when we drove it across the southern Oregon Cascade Range. But first a little background.
It was the summer of 1987 and my then-fiancée and I were looking forward to our upcoming wedding that December. We were both attending George Fox College (now University) in Newberg, Oregon. Yeah, I know a winter wedding in the Pacific Northwest is maybe not the brightest idea, but when you’re 21 you don’t always think things through. Case in point, we were mere months from our wedding and neither one of us had a car. I was a city kid. Growing up in Portland, I rode the bus or my bike everywhere. My fiancée, who was from across the river in Battle Ground, WA, borrowed her parents’ 1979 Audi Fox when she needed wheels. We bummed rides from friends on campus when we needed to. But we knew we had to procure some sort of conveyance we could call our own that also had more than two wheels. We weren’t worried about having all our ducks in a row before we got married, but a car is a pretty big duck. That one we needed.
A few months before our wedding date, my parents surprised us with an early wedding gift: a white 1981 Mazda GLC 4-door sedan. It was the car my parents (who also happened to both work at George Fox) had been using as their daily driver. My dad had purchased the car new and it was in decent shape having about 100K mostly highway miles. Not an exciting car, but it had 4 wheels, an economical engine and a clean body. Even in 1987, this car looked fresh as the sheer ’81 styling (new for that year) was a bit ahead of contemporaneous offerings by Toyota and Honda, in my opinion. The photo at the top of the post is the very car we received, seen here in 1984 getting some wheel/tire service at the local Monkey Wards auto department. This is the only picture I could find of it.
But thanks be to the gods of the internet, because this photo I found online shows an ’84 GLC that looks nearly identical to our ’81. The Mazda checked all the boxes to qualify as “basic transportation”: engine was a 1.5 L I-4 that made all of 68 hp and it was mated to a 4-speed manual transmission. Inside, the Mazda coddled us with that oh-so-lovely early 80s “mouse fur” cloth seating (I think I had several shirts made from the same material). The interior was otherwise awash in beige and brown vinyl and plastic, though fit and finish were excellent in keeping with Japanese practice from that era. A/C? Natch. That’s what windows are for. Power steering, windows, and locks? Who needs ‘em!? The few nods to “luxury” were an AM/FM radio and–hold on to your hats–dealer-applied pinstriping! Now we’re talking. That pinstriping was perhaps the only thing that kept this car from being completely and utterly bereft of any sort of thing that even hinted at excitement. You can see that pinstriping if you look at the main post photo. I think it was brown (because of course it was).
This page from an’84 GLC hatchback brochure shows the basic dash layout our car had, except ours, as I noted above, was beige/brown. I still remember the peculiar “ribbing” on the steering wheel. I guess it was for better grip (or a gentle hand-massage while driving?). I think the seats in our car were a little jazzier as I seem to recall they had some sort of stripe pattern on them.
When my folks owned this car, it faithfully ferried them between Portland and Newberg and back five or six times a week, with nary a hiccup. Just routine oil changes and maintenance was all that was needed to keep the GLC’s sewing-machine engine humming along. Mazda really did have a decently-built product on their hands, if not an interesting one. When we first inherited it, the car ran and drove like a top, but it wasn’t too long before it started to develop breathing problems. This, of course, being an era when many cars still breathed through carburetors, so you may see where I’m going with this.
In early 1988, my now wife and I moved down to Ashland to finish out our educations at Southern Oregon State College (also a university now- I guess that’s the “thing” these days). Newberg is in the Willamette Valley, a mostly flat landscape occasionally broken up by gentle hills. Ashland, on the other hand, is situated at the south end of the Rogue River Valley and is more or less built on the side of a mountain. To top it off, there are steep mountains and mountain passes to cross if you drive any direction outside of town spare due north. And even driving north, you’ll hit mountains north of Grants Pass.
A car with carburetor problems paired with steep terrain does not a winning combination make. What was wrong with the carburetor? It may be better to ask what wasn’t wrong with it. It most likely was dirty, of course, but the list of symptoms was myriad: hesitation/stall at idle, hesitation and loss of power under a heavy load (like climbing up a mountain), hesitation and stumble during acceleration…you get the basic idea. These problems started subtly but grew worse with each passing month during 1988. The car performed acceptably cruising at highway speeds on a flat surface (driving to Medford on I-5 wasn’t too bad, the downside being that you had to drive to, well, Medford), but in most other driving situations you are likely to encounter in a mountainous area, it was a royal pain in the keister.
With me being both mechanically challenged and a broke college student, this meant the problem was not going to get fixed. We limped along with this car for months. In the summer of ‘88 I had the exceedingly not-so-bright idea to drive to Klamath Falls to visit my grandparents. The visiting the grandparents part was okay and we could have taken Oregon 140 out of Medford, which–although steep in spots–climbs the crest of the southern Oregon Cascades gradually, taking about 30 miles to go from 1,500 feet to 5,000 feet in elevation. The not-so-bright part was that I wanted to take an arguably much more interesting route: Oregon 66, the “Greensprings” Highway. This route had been designated as a historic highway. Even in the late 80s it was still the steep, winding, tangle of a road it had been when first laid in the early 20th century.
Once it leaves the valley floor, Oregon 66 reaches the 4,551-foot Greensprings summit quickly- in a little over 11 miles. The trip up starts just a few miles east of Ashland as the highway winds up the side of the mountain, a steep slope on one side and an increasingly precipitous drop on the other. With nausea-inducing curves and non-existent shoulders the Greensprings is definitely not suited for a peaceful Sunday afternoon drive. But if you’re into white-knuckle driving, this highway is for you.
This photo is from a 2005 trip to southern Oregon and shows a stretch of Oregon 66, in case you think I am exaggerating.
Once we passed Emigrant Lake and started the climb, the poor little Mazda huffed and puffed its way up the dizzying grade. I would liken its performance to that of an out-of-shape jogger trying to get up a hill: wheezing and sputtering the whole distance and any moment ready to collapse. No doubt the load on the little 4-pot was increasing with each mile as the highway only gets steeper the higher you go. The resulting leaner and leaner mixture in that overworked carb severely compromised power. It may also have had other issues (someone suggested to me that it could have had a vacuum leak, for example). Whatever the case, the car was out of breath going up that mountain. The best we could manage in spots, even after down-shifting, was about 15-20 mph. It felt as if we were pulling a trailer full of bowling balls where the finger holes had been filled with lead. The car had roughly the motive properties of a wet sponge. The situation was so absurd, I think we both erupted in laughter at one point. What else could we do?
At long, long, last, we finally crossed the summit and both we, and the car, breathed a lot easier. The rest of the drive to Klamath Falls was fairly uneventful save for a quick stop at Tub Springs Wayside which, at least at that time, had to have had what is likely the most disgusting outdoor toilet in the entire state. But, hey, the drive up took well over 35 minutes and when you gotta go, you gotta go. The highway levels off at that point, never dropping or rising significantly enough to create serious grades the rest of the way. Klamath Falls is 4,500 above sea level, so on the trip back gravity was our friend.
I think the whole experience soured my wife on the Greensprings drive, which is a pity because it’s a truly spectacular driving experience in the right car. Even when we finally got a better car, we were taking 140 across the Cascades.
And we did get a better car not long after that Greensprings experience. Or so we thought at first. Stay tuned for my next installment for all the gory details.
Welcome to the CC COAL cohort PonderosaMatt.
You have an enjoyable writing style and, as a life long flat lander living in the east coast NYC metropolitan area, I must admit you lived in a spectacularly beautiful part of the USA.
Because of what are probably outdated opinions and experiences, I’ve never been a fan of turbocharged vehicles. You known the geezer argument, any thing that spins that fast (more than 100,000 rpm) and is that hot (powered by exhaust gasses) can’t be all that reliable long term. But in the mountains, well, they are a blessing. In addition, automakers are using them on small engines in not so small vehicles to get better CAFE numbers.
I was hoping you would reveal the issue with the little GLC, but I understand the circumstances of that time and taking a flatter route certainly was a viable solution. I once found a mouse nest (with real mouse fur) in the air cleaner of a neighbor’s little used Cadillac 4.1 V8 where the filter was almost totally clogged. She was complaining that the car did not run well and asked me to look at it. Truth be told, it didn’t run much better after I cleaned the whole thing out. Well, maybe a little better.
Looking forward to the next chapter.
My guess is that it wasn’t perhaps actually the carb. Ashland is only at 1900′, and the passes he refers to are at about 4000 to max. 5000; not that high actually.
I suspect that there was something else wrong with this GLC, as these were pretty good running cars back then. And a “dirty carb” might possibly have caused those symptoms, but there’s a whole lot of other and more likely suspect; a vacuum leak, timing off, other ignition issues, low compression in one or more cylinders, plugged catalytic converter, etc..
I’m not a good diagnostician, but these cars were reasonably decent performers for the time, especially with a stick.
I alluded to my level of mechanical knowledge when I wrote that I was “mechanically challenged.” So I don’t know if I will ever know the cause, though some have made some plausible suggestions in the comments. The carburetor must have had some problems because we had those hesitation symptoms even on flat ground. But I have decided to contribute to the COAL series not to bestow my great knowledge of the workings of cars (because I really don’t have any), but to write about how cars have been a part of my life- almost like another member of the family. Sometimes you love them and sometimes you want to leave them by the side of the road.
Isn’t the 1st-gen North American Ford Escort related to the GLC? It came out in 1981 (same year for both models) and I definitely see styling similarities.
Your car could have definitely benefited from fuel injection! 🙂
Yes. The US Ford Escort is closer to the Mazda 323/GLC than the European Escort, despite the superficial resemblance.
The second generation escort was based on the GLC/ Mazda platform….The first generation,(world car) was based on the European platform, albeit with some huge differences…more than originally intended
The second generation North American Escort (1991-96) has a lot of Mazda DNA – it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to describe it as restyled 323/Protege that Ford built in its own factories and installed its own engines in. Ford had already been selling Mazda-derived cars in Australia and elsewhere for several years, and the second generation Escort essentially brought the concept to North America as well.
I’m not aware that the first generation North American Escort (1981-90) has any relationship to any Mazda product.
Fuel injection was added to the 1985 redesign, and then only in the top models.
I didn’t own one of these specifically but I know the type. I do NOT miss carburetors.
Welcome to COAL, PonderosaMatt!
Much of that old engineering, like carburetors, just wasn’t suited to sophisticated emissions controls.
Some manufacturers adapted better than others, but EFI was a Godsend, and the simple fact that not as much fuel was washing down the cylinder walls meant engines would last longer.
Looking forward to your next installment!
Great first entry, Matt. Welcome to the COAL club!
That ribbed steering wheel is, well, strange. Also strange are steering wheels with finger indentations going all the way around. I understand that in both cases the goal was to increase grip, but they could have just made the rims thicker and out of a less slippery material.
I seem to recall that the steering wheel of our little GLC was otherwise very slippery indeed. So I guess the ribbing was the solution?
I was likewise unimpressed with my 323’s steering wheel (mine was a GTX, but user the regular 323’s wheel). It was skinny and slippery, if I remember correctly. My father happened to have an old steering wheel lying around, which he’d installed years before on his ‘75 Scirocco, and he offered it to me. So for years I used that steering wheel even though it in no way matched the rest of the car’s interior.
Welcome! Your writing is winningly evocative, and I look forward to more of your stories. I grew up near Denver at 5,500 feet, with much higher elevations within an hour’s drive, and yup, there’s really nothing like huffing and puffing and hazard-flashering one’s way up a steep hill in an underpowered car to bring life to dull figures like “3% power loss per 1,000 feet above sea level”.
And that’s just the power loss due to the thinner air (less oxygen). An engine with a carburetor without an altitude compensator loses a lot more power as the fuel/air mix goes further and further from what it should be. But it doesn’t grow leaner and leaner, it grows richer and richer: same amount of airflow, so same amount of fuel metered in, but less and less oxygen.
And that has long-term knock-on effects, too: the rich mixture means lots of unburned fuel in the exhaust, which makes the catalytic converter run hot, eventually melting down the core and causing severe exhaust restriction. It also fouls the spark plugs, further reducing engine power and making the exhaust dirtier so the cat gets even hotter. Bad feedback loop.
Ashland’s elevation is 1900′. This road, which we just took a few months ago, might peak at around 4500-5000′, although I might be optimistic even at that. Meaning, it’s well below the city of Denver. It’s not really high elevation.
Fair ’nuff. Still, 1900 feet subtracts around 6% from the 68 horsepower (assuming the engine’s still putting out as new), so now we’re down to 64, which is roughly equivalent to engaging an A/C compressor, i.e., you can feel it. And at the top of that hill, say 4500 feet, we’re down to 59 horsepower without factoring in the rich fuel/air mix. It’s no Vail Pass, and the GLC probably did better than a VW bus, but I can still picture it as not a swift or easy climb.
No, it’s not a high elevation by Colorado standards (I’ve driven over Loveland Pass), but the road is steep. Gravity was the primary enemy here, I suppose.
It’s hard to design a small sedan and have it look good, and in my opinion some of the best examples are Mazdas of this period (GLCs, 323s). This was a great little car, and would have been my first choice among subcompacts of its day.
I am biased a bit, having owned a 323, but I also spent some time driving a GLC sedan like yours. The one I drove was owned by an aunt of mine, who acquired it used from a relative — hers was an ’84 or so, and a 5-speed. I remember driving it and thinking it drove much better than I’d expect a cheap used car to drive. Very nice driving car, and it lasted for years without giving her any trouble.
Agreed. Other than the breathing problems, it really was a nicely-built little car. My parents loved it, though they never dealt with the problems I had. My dad liked it so much that it made him a Mazda believer- they replaced the GLC with a brand-spankin’ new ’88 626.
Having lived in Vancouver, WA and for a while with a girlfriend in Eugene, I know the area well and get the joke about Medford! I never did drive Hwy. 66, most of my explorations involved either driving I-5 to California or over the various passes in the Cascades to eastern Oregon to Madras, Bend and beyond.
I remember my folks looking at VWs at the local VW/Mazda dealer and buying a Westmoreland PA sourced VW Rabbit instead of the 4 door GLC (in rootbeer brown) that was on the showroom floor. Even at 16, the GLC impressed me more than the Rabbit L, which turned out to be a Lemon Extraordinaire of such sourness that it turned all of us away from the Cult of Wolfsburg permanently. My folks mightily wished they’d gotten the GLC instead.
I’m glad you got the Medford joke. We ended up moving to Medford after college (it was closer to work and a little cheaper to live there). But I remember the nicknames: like “Deadford” and Dreadford.”
As someone who frequently drives I5 between the Bay Area and Portland to visit family, I didn’t get the Medford joke. To me, everything between Ashland and Eugene is pretty indistinguishable 😀
But a great COAL, about a car that was almost as significant as the ‘76 Accord. But not quite. And as a carb malady can affect power; performance on grades can be due to a carb issue regardless of altitude. Some of those I5 grades are fairly steep and sustained. The trucks sure go slow, uphill at least.
Having some wheel time in an 81 GLC sedan myself, a couple things come to mind.
Stalling at idle: the idle circuit of the carb seemed prone to clogging. The 81 had been my mom’s for 15 years, and not kept all that clean. A number of times it would exhibit that stalling behavior and, sometimes, stiff doses of fuel system cleaner would correct it.
Lack of power under load: As with most carbed cars, it had an intake air heater which fed into the air cleaner intake. A spring loaded flap inside the air cleaner snorkel would switch between air from the air heater, when the engine was cold, and outside air when the engine was warmed up. Over the years the spring had gotten fouled and lost it’s springyness, so that the flap did not move as it should. This resulted in the engine getting the heated air, when it was fully warm and running exceptionally rich.
Another issue was stumbling under load. The car would idle fine at the light, but stumble as soon as I tried to accelerate. I noticed a snap…snap…snap sound while sitting at the traffic light. Drove the car into my garage, where it was dark enough to see where the sparking was. Sure enough, I saw a spark at the coil wire. I had changed the plug wires on my own 85 GLC some years before, but kept the old wires, so replaced the sparking coil wire with the one from the original set from the 85. For the heck of it, I replaced the plug wires while I was at it. The wire did not want to plug in to the #1 sparkplug, so I took a look. The plug still had the connector from the old plug wire on it. Looking in the old plug wire, I could see where the current had been arcing from the end of the wire to the broken connector. That cured the missing under load.
Both the 81 and the 85 I bought new were the best bad gas detectors I have ever seen. They ran wonderfully on Amoco or Shell, but stumbled terribly on Mobil or Speedway.
Both of those GLCs were bulletproof, until about 75,000 miles, when things started to go wrong, lots of things.
This was the 81, just before I called Charity Motors to haul it away, with 96000 on the clock.
And now my brain won’t quit serving up the GLC song on infinite repeat: “Great Little Carrrrrr, it’s a…Great Little Carrrrr…”
Oh, man, I remember that jingle. Thanks for the earworm!
Hey, another Oregonian; sweet! The drive from Tualatin to Newberg is nice and scenic, but I bet it was more so 30 years ago when Oregon had fewer people. Great writeup and poor car, glad you upgraded.
I drove my 1993 Camry stick shift roundtrip from Tualatin to Medford late last year and I agree some of those hills are a doozy. Downtown Medford still is sleepy and I bet that mall does not help, but hey, they have a nice library. Driving U.S 26 to Government Camp or Seaside can be interesting since sometimes I can only muster 35MPH or so.
Did you ever drive the highway over Chehalem mountain, between Newberg and Hillsboro? That’s almost as twisty as the Greensprings, though not as steep and without the sheer drop on one side.
I have not been on that road and I will have to check it out on a nice day. Thank you.
I did, and it’s fun. It made me wish I had a Miata instead of what I had.
I worked with a guy who owned an older GLC. He thought I was a genius when I fixed an immobile windshield wiper arm by tightening the nut that holds it on.
I always liked these, but never had any firsthand experience. They scratch my itch for a simple, austere little car.
I enjoyed this a lot and look forward to more.
A girlfriend had one of those Mazda 323s that ran like a haunted shithouse clogged airfilter and frozen bob weights in the distributor turned out to be the dual problems a new airfilter and a used distributor from a wrecking yard installed and it ran great again, those were really good cars in their day.