COAL: 1981 Mazda GLC 4-door Sedan – Respiratory Failure

(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.