COAL: 1986 and 1991 Mazda 626 – Ongoing Love Affair

curbside pictures of blue sedan by PN since I have none of my actual ’86.

1980 saw my first foray into Japanese cars in a Honda Civic wagon with 5 speed. Yet, in early 1986, the engine was showing signs of trouble (two wiped cam lobes) despite my care, so another car was to take its place. That would lead to an ongoing 33 year association with the Mazda 626.

With the Honda issue any new Honda was now off the table in no uncertain terms. As most know the Accord, and Camry, were crazy expensive during this period with dealer markups on the windows. I had read good things about the Mazda and started to look into it. Val Strough Mazda in Oakland was close and the sticker was around $10,000. A friend, at the time, lived in San Jose so while down there I looked at a dealership. Here the cars had a dealer markup and when I mentioned the price in Oakland the salesman made the comment “if they want to prostitute themselves they can go right ahead.” I still remember that clearly.

With that I had my first introduction to car salesmen. My father had obtained the 1980 Civic on a lease so I wasn’t involved with it. This new car was to be my first ever purchase of a new car at the age of 28. So I came prepared and did my homework. I mapped out every Mazda dealer from Oakland to Sacramento. I would start at Oakland and move down my list as needed starting on February 17th President’s Day. Had my pre-approved loan from my Credit Union along with pad and pen. I drive the 5 miles to Oakland at 10:00am and by 11:00am I am already buying the car. What happened? I told the salesperson what I was prepared to do and showed my list. He said then how does $9600 sound for the $10,000 list Mazda 626 sedan 5 speed?

So I drive home by 12 noon in my new car. I’m happy, everybody’s happy. Within a few months my girlfriend bought a 86 Mazda automatic sedan. Then another friend bought one. Finally, my mother bought a 1989 Mazda 626 sedan later and all had great experiences with the cars. Mine would go 375,000 miles with one clutch change and one cylinder head change due to erosion around a combustion chamber near a water passage. My fault as I didn’t pay as much attention to coolant maintenance as to everything else. I think many probably fail to do that on a timely basis but that no longer occurs with me. Anyway, the cylinder head cost $450 complete and I changed it out myself. Outside of that the car gave me 34 mpg and care free motoring till 2005.

I had already bought my 2004 Ford Focus, another upcoming COAL, as I saw the Mazda’s power output declining. Plus I had been hit in the left rear quarter by a semi on the freeway causing the car to swerve towards the median divider. I got control of the car and missed the divider but lost the rear bumper cover. However, I made a visit to that freeway section at 2 am in the morning and found the cover on the shoulder and was able to put it back on. So in 2006 I bid adieu to my 626 as it was carted off one night. Sorry to see the car go.

Then in 2009, a former grad school classmate and colleague who had this ’91 626 above decided he didn’t need two cars. He had a Durango and this was parked on the street in front of his 90 year old father’s house in Los Angeles. There was weekly street cleaning which meant constant moving and he decided to pass it on. So he drove it up from L.A. and arrived one night, unannounced, and asked if I wanted the car? Free, by the way. Sure, and I quickly checked it out. Hey, Scott, could you have at least put the oil cap on before driving up here?

Before he retired he lived two years out of the back of his Durango just to save money while working in L.A. His father then passed away and with the inheritance he retired to Thailand. Yes, and I was the one who introduced him to Asia, via the Philippines, in 1997. He now swims every morning in the Gulf of Thailand living on one of the small islands.

The car had 185,000 miles on it and it is a 5 speed. I had a sedan and had looked at the hatchback but didn’t want to pay the extra. It was tempting as I really liked the rear treatment of the hatchback. Now I have a hatchback and I promptly go through every mechanical system on the car from ignition, to brakes, to suspension, and to coolant. Hit the junkyards as the top of the console was missing and signal light cracked. Picked up other odds and ends for parts storage. Put new tires on the car. It did need a new clutch and took it around for estimates. Two repair shops declined saying the car was too old to waste the money on. What?!? OK, so I changed my first clutch in the driveway and was successful.

The 2.2L engine, while not powerful by today’s standards is very reliable and I am getting 34 mpg once again. I found a guy on eBay who scours the nation for parts from defunct parts stores and dealerships. That got me an Mazda NOS compressor for $79, a Mazda NOS distributor for $45, and a NOS Denso alternator for $49. I have everything I could need for the next 20 years for this car.

The snowflakes rims are showing their age in that the clear coat is pretty much gone, but that I can correct.

When replacing the 10 year old tires a few days ago I learned that two of the wheels have slight dents in them. Couldn’t tell while driving and so will leave them alone as these period correct wheels are impossible to find. I did replace the Pirelli tires with General Altimax RT 43 tires which I like very much. They are on three cars now.

Being a 1991 car it has those automatically retracting seat belts. Boy, are they annoying. First couple of times out the car I practically hung myself on them. The other issue that happens when they retract is that sometimes I forget the waist belt till I get to my destination and reach down to release a belt that isn’t there. All in all not a great idea in function versus just grabbing the whole thing in one move.

Like bullet proof? The material used on the interior is that and more. It is a shame Honda, Toyota and Mazda have moved away from those fabrics used back then. I personally don’t care for leather and find fabric more comfortable. As you can see the interior has held up very well over the years. Although the headliner is not as bullet proof as many manufacturers seem to skimp on that. Not falling but easily damaged now if not careful.

The only item I am missing is the hatch cover that would have come with the car. I have seen a few wrong color cars in junkyards and they don’t have their covers either. The hanging lines are there but no cover. Was there an issue with them back then? I don’t know.

I have been so enamored by these cars that when my wife’s 98 Sable started to have an as yet undiagnosed engine noise (car is in garage) I found a 1990 626 sedan with 145,000 miles to use. Went through it top to bottom and as expected it was a great car. Peeling clear coat but mechanically solid. Then some dumbass decided to steal the car one night when the car was parked outside her friend’s condo. A condo surrounded by apartments where one would find this activity. Damaged the column and shifter, couldn’t get there the day after recovery as the police never answered their phone for a release on a Saturday, fees over $650 for the privilege of having my car stolen, and so I told the tow company to stuff it. I was po’d to say the least. The next week I bought a 2018 Mazda 3 for her and got an extra $500 off because I was a loyal Mazda owner. The funny thing that day was how many of them at that dealer had never seen that generation Mazda in their younger lives.

I drive this car usually twice a week, the Focus three times a week and then whatever I feel like on the other days. It has just past 198,000 miles. While the car is primitive in comparison to the Focus and Mazda 3 I still really enjoy tooling along in this car very much. How much? Well every week I check Craigslist to see if any 88-92 generation cars are for sale. They are extremely thin, even out here, where rust is not an issue. Besides, has anyone seen a 92, as I never have. Not that I need an 11th car much like a hole in my head yet I said that about the 10th car. However, if I see a nice candidate then I know the force will be strong. If it is a 5 speed coupe, since I had the sedan and have a hatchback, then I am a dead duck living on his own now.