We don’t often think about it, but we’ve all benefited from the popping of economic bubbles. You may recall the internet bubble of the late 1990s that burst at the dawn of the 21st century. When the bubble burst it was bad (in the short term) if you held technology stocks, but for the next decade all of us reaped the benefits of a glut of fiber-optic capacity through dramatically decreased internet and phone charges that led to new products, services and technologies that changed our lives. Twenty-five years ago I watched my first live computer stream displayed in a two inch square on my low resolution monitor and it was amazing. Last weekend I wirelessly streamed the Australian Formula One race in high definition on my laptop from my hotel room at the foot of Whistler Mountain in British Columbia and it was ordinary. That’s what a good bubble can do.
Those of us who are car nuts have benefited from bubbles as well. When times are good car manufacturers go a little bit crazy and we reap the benefits. Japan experienced a real estate and stock fueled economic bubble from 1986 to 1991. In response, Japanese car manufacturers introduced a slew of new and interesting cars that economically could not have been justified in ordinary times. This is the story of a wonderful and under-appreciated little car hatched in that era of bold ideas and plentiful money that at best qualifies as a minor footnote in sports car history – the Mazda MX-3. The car flew so low under the radar that I don’t think I was consciously aware of its existence until the day I bought one. Her name was Lillian.
It was 2002. My wife Debbie and I had decided to pass along our Audi Coupe to her nephew Kyle in the suburbs of Kansas City. Thinking about how I would get the Audi from Maryland to the suburbs on the Kansas side of Kansas City I hatched an entertaining challenge for myself. I would find a car for sale in the Kansas City area that I could buy and drive home to Maryland with the goal of reselling it without losing money. My budget was $3,000.
I spotted a late 1960’s MG Midget for sale in Kansas City on ebay. It looked a little rough around the edges with a cheap yellow paint job but appeared mechanically sound. I had my brother-in-law Daniel take a look and also talked with the seller who was part of the burgeoning community of internet car retailers. The seller assured me the car was sorted enough to make the 1,000-mile drive back to Maryland with the exception of a soft brake pedal that he would have taken care of prior to my arrival. I made the deal and set off in the Audi. Two days later on a Friday afternoon Daniel and I picked up the car. I drove it to Daniel’s house while he followed in his pick-up.
It was clear by the time I got to Daniel’s house that the brakes were not roadworthy. I called the seller and, likely wanting to avoid bad eBay feedback, he took the car back first thing Saturday morning. Daniel bought a newspaper and we began to scan the classifieds for Plan B. You don’t usually find the most interesting cars in the classifieds and the added $3,000 budget further limited the field. I spotted a Mazda in my price range – a 1995 MX-3. Not sure exactly what that was, I looked it up.
Here’s what I discovered. The MX-3 was a small 2 plus 2 sports coupe produced by Mazda only for the years 1992 to 1998. Further, it was only sold in North America through 1996. It was based on the Mazda 323. There were two models. On the low end was the RS which came with a 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine. There was also a GS that came equipped with a 1.8 liter V6 engine, one of the smallest displacement V-6 engines ever produced. If you ever get a chance to drive the six-cylinder you must. I had the opportunity once. Its silky smoothness and wide torque band were not dissimilar to the Jaguar XJS I had at the time.
The four-cylinder produced 88 horsepower through 1993, but that increased to 106 horsepower beginning in 1996 when it was upgraded with twin overhead cams. The much rarer six-cylinder variant produced 130 horsepower, but was only sold in North America through 1994.
I found the exterior design of the MX-3 to be stylish bordering on sensuous. With its large bulbous glass hatch I could pretend it was a (Japanese economy) Fiat Abarth 750 GT Zagato.
Lillian was a 1995 RS. She was being sold by her original owner, a nice young woman who had acquired (and named) her the year she had graduated from college. I had never had a car with a name before. I took an immediate liking to Lillian. She was white with a large electric sunroof that retracted up and outside the car. A five speed manual, of course, with 110,000 miles.
After assuring the owner I would take care of Lillian a deal was struck. I stopped by a tire store for new rubber all around and the next morning began the drive back to Maryland with some cash still in my pocket.
The front wheel drive coupe was surprisingly roomy for such a small car. The rear seats were big enough that I could sit comfortably in them, so they were plenty big for my young boys. The front seats were comfortable and the instrumentation was well laid out in typical quasi-futuristic Japanese style.
The drive back to Maryland confirmed that I had found the right car. It averaged over 35 miles per gallon. The engine could be a little buzzy, but rewarded when pressed for a few extra revs.
It was the era of the Japanese tuner and although Lillian was a bit of a wannabe and I was middle-aged I decided to play along. Shocks and bushings were upgraded and a strut tower brace was added. A custom-made cat back exhaust from Canada was acquired. Lillian was stiffer and louder. She cornered with aplomb.
Lillian proved to be entertaining and reliable with only one issue. She was an attractor – she attracted accidents. Once she hit another car, but more commonly other cars hit her. Over two years she was in three accidents. The third – I was rear-ended and pushed into the car in front of me – damaged both ends and because of her modest price the insurance company wanted to write her off. I argued on her behalf and once more she was made whole.
I sold Lillian in 2004 to a nice young woman who was fittingly in college. Lillian returned to her roots. But that’s not the end of the story.
Flash forward to January, 2015. I had been keeping an eye out for another MX-3 for a couple of years. Unfortunately, good US models were few and far between after two decades. The ones available fell into two camps. There were overdone tuners with tacked on body molding and upgraded engines or there were total high mileage beaters beyond restoration. I despaired until one day a black 1995 RS with 44,000 miles popped up in my search results. It was in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was being sold by a guy named Mike at M&D motors – he was the M and his wife was the D. Mike was a retired vocational teacher who now bought cars at auction. His niche seemed to be basic budget transportation. He and I talked on the phone and a deal was struck, subject to my seeing and driving the car. I flew to Boston and caught my first Uber to Worcester. The car checked out and that afternoon I drove Lillian II home. I paid $3,000.
Lillian II was a one-owner car and, yes, it was the proverbial little old lady. She had lived in the Princeton area for Lillian’s first ten years (per Carfax and a Princeton dealer sticker) and in New Haven for the next decade (per her Yale parking sticker and the car title) so Lillian’s pedigree was strong.
Once back in Maryland I treated Lillian to a new timing belt, new belts and hoses, new fluids all around and some brake work. I replaced the front axles on both sides and a few months later replaced the exhaust. Now with 54,000 miles she has been flawless and a joy to own.
The highlight of her first year was when Debbie and I drove her to the annual vintage sports car weekend at Watkins Glen, New York last September. By coincidence the featured marque was Mazda so I was able to join the Tour de Marque rally. I was looking forward to seeing some early Mazda rotary-engine cars from the 1970’s or perhaps the legendary Mazda Cosmo. There were 120 cars in the rally. 110 Miata’s, a handful of RX-7’s and RX-8’s, one rare 323 AWD turbo and Lillian II. Lillian II was the second rarest Mazda of all and was suitably rewarded by the organizers with a featured parking spot in Watkins Glen Village within spitting distance of the million dollar cars on display at the Councours d’Elegance.
I’ll likely have Lillian II for a while – my little Japanese bubble car.
Next week – The ultimate Japanese/German mashup?
Last week – 2002 Mazda Protegé5 – Small Wagon Zoom-Zoom