Curbside Classic: Mazda GLC, Gen Two: The First Really Modern Mazda

Mention Mazda GLC to the average auto enthusiast and it’s likely they’ll think of the rear-wheel-drive GLC of the late 1970s. Mention GLC to the average Joe on the street and you are likely to get a blank stare. However, both iterations of the “Great Little Car” were massively important to Mazda. In the 1970s, the first generation certainly helped rescue Mazda from its then rotary-heavy image, but it wasn’t really a car that could continue into the 1980s. What was needed was a modern car in the Volkswagen Rabbit vein. The second-generation GLC was that car.

The rear-drive GLC (or 323 / Familia in other markets), introduced in 1977,  was far from a clean sheet design. While Europe was leading the way with front-wheel-drive, “two-box” cars,  Japanese manufacturers other than Honda were being much more conservative. Thus were the GLC’s important mechanical bits carried over from the earlier 808/818/Grand Familia/Mizer. It followed the contemporary general concept of a small, OHC four cylinder engine, old-school steering box and live rear axle, but its rear suspension was updated from leaf springs to a four-link setup very similar to the Rx-7. It also returned excellent fuel economy. Actually, you might think of it as a well-built Chevette. The blue GLC pictured above is the only one I’ve seen in years.

Paul had covered the GLC once before, but I think this mostly forgotten but important car deserves a second look. Mazda moved into the 1980s with second-generation GLC hatches and sedans. The wagon version stayed with the first-generation RWD body. What Mazda cooked up with the new GLC was a front-wheel-drive car whose MacPherson front struts were now accompanied by rack-and-pinion steering. Finally, the GLC had steering feel to match Mazda’s trademark sporty handling. (Something that would be appreciated by anyone who has driven a first generation Rx-7 , an otherwise fine car saddled with a rather industrial steering box.)

The new GLC’s independent rear suspension with struts was the class norm. Ford provided input for the design. It’s hard to imagine they didn’t borrow an idea or two from the Fiesta that had been introduced a few years earlier. Also, Ford marketed their own version of the car as the Laser/Meteor in other markets; often, it outsold the GLC donor.

The GLC/323/Familia was not Mazda’s first front-drive car; however, it was the first such Mazda produced in significant volume. The Luce R130 of 1969-1972 was their first front-driver, but its compact, rotary engine sat longitudinally. It was the transverse- engine 323 that set the mold for most of the volume Mazdas that followed.

This generation of GLC was a fantastic success, and for a time outsold even the Corolla in its home market. The sedans were never as popular as the hatchbacks, due to their  hefty price premium over the far more common five-doors. The North American engine was a 1.5L four with a two-barrel carburetor that put out all of 68 hp; that figure sounds pathetic today, but was then pretty much average for the class. These days GLCs are a rare sight, as many of them were likely scrapped when a minor issue or rust arose. I consider them victims of pleasant but unremarkable styling, and of being overshadowed by the more well-known Civic and Corolla.

Our example today is a GLC in Sport trim, which I’m going to guess consists of alloy wheels and upgraded seat fabric. There certainly wasn’t any extra performance on board, at least in North America. The car’s front plate indicates long-term ownership, since these models were phased out here in the late 80s.

It looked pretty solid with no apparent rust but a bit of faded paint. Pretty good for a relatively inexpensive-when-new subcompact. Hopefully it can survive many more years.

One last shot of the GLC, parked next to its spiritual descendant, the current Mazda2.