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
Sounds like they dropped the Cronos engine into that, they had a 1.8 V6, I think these are here under the Autozam brand certain Mazdas were rebadged in the JDM market and gravitated here used, Ive seen these MX3 about but not under that name cool little bomb though.
I didn’t know Mazda used the Autozam brand outside of Japan. I’m a big fan of the AZ-1 mid-engine Kei and hope to pick one up next year when they reach 25 years of age and can be legally imported.
New Zealand gets a lot of ex JDM cars.
Almost bought one once, in the car hunt that eventually got me my Porsche 924S. Rebuilt by a young kid who’s father was handling the sale, he was willing to give me rides in it, but not let me behind the wheel. Obviously, no sale. I was quite impressed with the car, however. At least as much as I could be from the passenger seat.
I owned a 1994 Mazda MX-3 just like Lillian II. I bought it new in ’94 and kept it until 2008. It was a 4 cylinder twin cam 1600 with a five speed stick. It had the alloy wheels and rear spoiler, too.
I swapped out the original 14 inch alloys with a set of 15 inch alloys from the V6 version – same style, but an inch wider. I think I put 140,000 miles on it before I traded it in.
It was a fun car and reliable, too. The handling was great.
I had only two complaints about it. I found the seats to be uncomfortable for any long drive and the upholstery ripped at the seams. Also, the fuel filter was squeezed between the engine and the firewall, down below, and you needed to be a contortionist to change it! Luckily, the fuel filter really didn’t need to be changed very often.
But aside from those two minor complaints, I enjoyed it and would recommend a Mazda MX-3 to anybody who can find one in decent shape. They are rare around here in eastern Pennsylvania USA.
Here is a photo of my Mazda MX3, described in the previous post.
Well, apparently the server doesn’t like my photo!
The MX-3 always reminded me of a Honda CRX that was just a little bit bigger. I had the chance to drive a V6 GS for a while on several occasions and was an absolute blast. Imagine a CRX Si that sounds like an Alfa Romeo GTV-6 and you’ve got the general idea. I haven’t seen a nice MX-3 in years but it’s good to see that at least one is in good hands to be preserved and enjoyed.
Besides the much loved CRX Toyota had the Paseo and Nissan had the NX. That’s four small coupes chasing a small market. Today people only remember the CRX, especially the Si.
I have a fondness for the NX as well. Enjoyed a test drive in one, but it was just too small for what I needed at the time. Fun car, though.
I have seen these only rarely, and never had an appreciation for what they were. You know that a car has a hold on you when you go back to the well for a second one after you have moved on from the first example. There are lots of cars I have enjoyed, but can only think of one that I have repeated out of love (rather than out of expediency) – the 65-68 Mopar C body.
Not certain, but I think calling these engines a ‘V6’ is a marketing-driven misnomer. It’s actually I6 with a slight offset between cylinders to reduce overall length (Firing order is I6, which is where it gets its smoothness).
Technically I admire Mazdas from this era for their oddball engines – rotary, Miller-cycle supercharging, this narrow angle ‘V6’. Funny though that the staid old I4 from the Miata proved to be the most successful.
Although the ‘V6’ from this in a Miata would have been quite a nice competitor to the Z3…
With the V6 you can swap in the 2.5 liter used in the Mazda 626. On the I4 there are lots of options as well. Just add $$$ and stir. I think Mazda, like Honda, does nice engineering on engines.
Mazda has definitely been willing to go where others hesitate to tread regarding engine tech. Unusual for such a small automaker, you have to figure they’re spending vastly more money on engine tech than larger manufacturers who are taking a more conservative tack.
I hope they find a way to continue without becoming bland-ified.
These engines are genuine 60 degree V6s.
Good to know . It must be the VW I’m thinking of then.
Yup, your description is for the Volkswagen VR6 family. I would agree that a K-series V-6 in the Miata would have been entertaining for the sound if not the performance. (Mazda also made a bored-out 1,995cc version with about 20 more horsepower. It wasn’t sold here, but it was offered in the Japanese version of the MX-6.)
Micheal, you have great taste in cars. I know most Mazda are very smart cars. Ivy league, even!
I once test drove a MX-3 but found it to be of the high mileage beater category. It ran on 3 cylinders only and the ignition parts were heavily coated with some silicone spray. I suppose this was the mechanic on duty’s idea of a fix.
The internet played a roll in my MX-3 experience as well. On a Mazda forum a guy asked for help with his GS. Even though I never had seen the V6 in the metal myself and a few other posters were able to help the guy getting his running like a top again. The trick and tricky part of that engine was the VIRS (Variable Intake Runner System) that provides the impressive power band. It used vacuum motors to play with, I believe, 4 intake runner lengths.
And there is more on the V6: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-classic-1992-mazda-mx-3-gs-smallest-production-v6-engine-ever/
Now if I only could take one through it’s paces.
My friend has a gs with a larger v6 swapped in from a mx6. I got to learn manual in it, was pretty fun
About 75% of the MX3s I’ve seen in my area are 4 cylinder models, and at least 50-60% have automatic transmissions, and all have huge mileages. CRXs are more common, and Nissan NXs have pretty much disappeared. Paseos? Barely in this league.
I like the idea behind these cars, but the execution is borderline, especially that “Mothra – inspired” front end. It almost looks like the stylists got the car nearly finished and left the front clip for the cleaning woman to finish.
Nice story, and good to know that you can go home again.
I briefly considered getting an MX3 when my RX7 was on it’s last legs, but at the time I couldn’t afford a new one and they were very expensive used.
I always thought that the designers had a plastic pail in mind when they designed the rear seat. Similarly sized and shaped!
“It was in Worcester, Massachusetts.”
Hey, that’s where I am! I have to admit that I’ve never heard of M&D Motors before. In my defense, Worcester is a decent-sized city (pop. 180,000, second-largest city in the state behind Boston), and I neither live near nor often pass through the neighborhood where they’re located. It looks like they’re a small operation that you might never encounter unless you’re looking for a budget-priced used car, or happen to be searching for a specific car on the internet as Michael was.
According to their web site, M&D’s current special is an ’87 Chevy Caprice base model (the trim level that replaced the Impala, not a “Caprice Classic”) 4-door sedan with a 4.3L V6 and 112K miles, for an asking price of $1,200.
Other classics in their inventory include a first-generation Mustang convertible with a straight six, which is identified as a ’65 model but is shown wearing ’66 Mass YOM plates, and a ’91 Celica GT hatchback. Every other car they have for sale was built between 2000 and 2009.
M&D was a little hole in the wall and, as you could tell from Mike’s web page he specializes in very basic transportation at an average price point of about $3,000. He was a little surprised that someone would hop on a plane and fly up to buy one of his cars.
Looking at some of the inventory I worry for the people who will buy them. You buy a high mileage Volvo for $2,600 you are probably one repair away from doubling your investment and I suspect that would be a hardship for many.
I think they are a neat looking little car. On the increasingly rare occasion l see one on the road now they still catch my attention. Ex girlfriend had one, a 93 that was six yrs. old when she bought it. Good mpg with the 5 spd. The only issue was those problematic noisy motorized shoulder belts gave out. After doing a little checking l discovered this to be an outstanding recall and the dealer replaced them free of charge. Later the clutch went, as she was never the master of the manual transmission. Once l was driving and turned on to a down hill road. I wound out first gear a little then simply went to fourth. She said “l didn’t know you could do that”. Now I’m curios how many were sold in the states. Seems l don’t recall seeing many in their prime .
We had these under the Eunos brand in oz. I remember a work colleague buying one; he was taller than average and it seemed like he had to fold himself into the car.
My take on the ultimate Japanese/German mashup from the hand of Goertz. Looking forward to yours.
Interesting story on the cars Michael, and what a surprise to get the red carpet treatment at Watkins Glen!
I had a ride in one about a year ago, I think it was the V6 and the driver was very keen to explore the redline… despite that it didn’t feel terribly fast.