Classic Curbside Classic: 1981 Mazda GLC/323 Truly The Greatest Little Car Of Its Time?

It may now seem in the far distant past, but there really was a time when Japan’s reputation was for imitation, of the most sincere variety. Cameras, toys, radios, all kinds of consumer goods, and of course cars. It was the China of its day, but there was a difference: its relentless striving to actually improve upon the original. One of the most superb examples is this Mazda GLC/323: yes, it’s a blatant riff on the category defining 1975 VW Golf/Rabbit, but in many key metrics, a substantial improvement. And, no, I haven’t forgot about the Civic: it bests that too. Mazda wasn’t pulling a Joe Isuzu with its Great Little Car.

Which was hardly the case for its predecessor. The original GLC (323 in the rest of the world) was the last member of Mazda’s old RWD Familia/GrandFamilia family, which included the 818/Mizer/and the rotary powered RX3 in its genealogy. Yes, it looks like a blatant Chevette rip-off from its bug-eyed nose back. It may well have been one, in which case the Mazda developers were mighty quick, since this GLC/323 appeared just two years after the Chevette. Or maybe not-so-great little car minds just think alike.

CC 161 100 925gen1 GLC

I’ve been rather desperate to find one of these RWD GLCs, but have pretty much given up (Update: I have, in what looks like the same color). Like all of its ilk, they were rugged and simple little beasts, as well as cramped and primitive in all its dynamic qualities. Early nineteen sixties technology in a seventies polyester jump-suit.

After giving up on finding an old GLC, it occurred to me I’d better focus on its successor, because of its historical significance. That took quite a while too, and this one, shot in two locations, appears to be the last of its breed in town. Time stops not even for the greatest.

The 1975 Golf defined the modern hatch class, known in Europe as the Golf class. And it really sent the Japanese scrambling. Well, not Honda, which of course already had been building FWD hatchback Civics for some years. But there are pros and cons to being the first, and in this case, the Mazda designers’ ability to start totally from scratch gave them the edge.

The first gen Civic was a tiny little thing, and the second generation, which came out the year before this FWD GLC/323 (code name “BD”) was only marginally bigger. Mazda created a larger car, and this BD 323 had a not insignificant jump on the Civic in terms of overall size and interior accommodations. It really was almost a class up from the Civic, and the next generation of the Civic had to stretch to meet it. The BD Mazda was also a bit larger than Mitsubishi’s new FWD Mirage hatch, known here Dodge Colt/Plymouth Champ. Mazda had essentially defined the new FWD hatch category that was so huge in the eighties in the US.

By the early eighties, the Rabbit/Golf was already in serious trouble, as the Americanized version built in Pennsylvania was not delivering the VW experience buyers were hankering for. And the Rabbit/Golf was anything but a paragon of reliability. This is how, where and when the Japanese really ate VW’s many-coursed lunch. And quick.

Mazda’s reliability image had been seriously rotated the wrong way with its Wankel engine travails. But in reality, that was always limited specifically to the problem with the edge seals, and in every other possible way, Mazdas were consistently paragons of the classic Japanese fetish with high quality materials and construction. Mazda’s four cylinders, like the UC/UB/NA family which powered their mid-sized cars and the earlier Mazda B-Series/Ford Courier pickups has a legendary reputation every bit the equal of Toyota’s famed R-family of fours. And the mid-eighties 626 topped the charts in Germany’s fastidious national record keeping on reliability.

There may not be a lot of collective knowledge left on these cars (I could be wrong), but to my awareness, these BD Mazdas, and its quite similar evolution, the BF 323 (1985-1989), did nothing to sully the family name, no joke considering it was a totally new car in every way. This is what really defined the difference with Detroit: Americans were endlessly subjected to being the beta testers of the latest all-new FWD and other technology, with almost predictably disastrous results.

We had a couple of the second generation 1987 BF 323s at the tv station in San Jose. They were used for the brutal daily grind of shuttling our news reporters and camera crew (we couldn’t afford a live satellite truck yet). The male members of our crews felt a bit insecure next to all the giant extended-length Econolines with their tall masts that erected so quickly and proudly, but our operating costs were a tiny fraction of theirs. These Mazdas took their beating for years without ever the slightest whimper.

And although Mazda chose not to accentuate the sport aspect of the GLCs sent this way (why bother, when folks waited in line for them during the Voluntary Export Restriction years?), it was not lacking in that regard either. The Civic really had nothing on the Mazda in that regard. Typically for those times, the Japanese markets were treated to high performance versions including the hot XGI Turbo R.

This new GLC was the last to use that name, reverting to the global 323 moniker with its successor. Well, there was the Ford Laser version sold in Asian markets. And let’s not forget that this car was the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaddy of the current Mazda 3. By that I mean that every Mazda in the 323/3 families have consistently scored at or near the top in key metrics, especially in their dynamic aspects. The two generations of the Protege 323 were the final culmination of the direct lineage to this GLC, as the 3s are of course based on Ford’s C1 platform.

Mazda’s 626 was once a solid competitor, but in more recent years the 6 has slipped in market share. Mazda’s main toe hold in this brutal market is still the 3, and it can thank the GLC/323 for getting it off to such a superb start. Great Little Car indeed.

Companion piece on the old-style RWD GLC/323 wagon here