COAL: 1973 Mazda 808 Coupe – Piston Powered and Groovy

1973 Mazda 808 Coupe 1

In an attempt to lessen the sting of disappointment over selling my long term Seven roadster project, I was on the lookout for an interesting replacement. It would need to be less ambitious and less expensive, since family commitments had gobbled up most of the proceeds from the sale. What I found would check almost all the boxes: affordable, stylish, reasonably rare, and needing only minor fettling before a return to roadworthy status.

I first spotted this Mazda 808 back in September 2010 parked on a reasonably busy road in all its seventies glory. Yellow paint with black stripes, slot mag wheels with skinny tires, wood rimmed steering wheel and vinyl roof. Taken as a whole it gives off a mini muscle-car vibe. It was for sale as well, but sadly I owned four other vehicles at the time and the price was a little higher than I could scrape together. It disappeared shortly after and I figured it had sold quickly. Surely I wasn’t the only one that lusted after an early Seventies piston powered Mazda.

The 808 (also known as the 818 in other markets like Europe where it was assumed Peugeot owned the rights to any numerical name with a zero in the middle) is the piston powered version of the more famous Rx-3. Beyond the lack of a rotary engine there are some detail differences as well, with the Rx-3 having round tail lights, rotary badges, and different trim.

Mazda 808 engine

This 808 is powered by a 70hp 1.6L four cylinder engine, but other variants used 1.3L and 1.5L four cylinder engines. It is almost the same engine as what you find in a same era B-series truck and RWD 626s (1.8 and 2.0 L versions). This car was also sold as the Mizer in the US for the ’76 and ’77 MY, with the smaller 1300 cc engine.


The specification sheet indicates it might not be the sportiest thing ever with a simple live axle and leaf springs at the rear. The 808s seem to be more plentiful in Canada than the Rx-3, likely due to frugality of the typical Canadian buyer. Mazda claimed 30.5mpg when these were new, which is likely twice what the Rx-3 could manage.

But months later as I was scanning the local online ads as I habitually do, I spotted an ad for the Mazda 808 coupe, using my pictures no less! I called up the seller, who was an easygoing, friendly guy, and set a time to view it. Once I saw it, I was smitten all over again and made a cash offer right on the spot despite it being in non-running condition.


The seller said the starter was stuck and the engine needed some work done but the interior was in fantastic shape and the all-important trim was there. I dragged it home and once I verified that the starter was indeed stuck, I pulled it off and ordered a new one. Despite being a rare survivor, mechanical parts were neither expensive nor hard to come by online. The starter was cheap, but once it arrived I was disappointed to find it had the wrong number of teeth on the ring. At least the seller had affixed a helpful label. Fortunately I was able to combine my existing starter with the new one to assemble a functional starter. The car fired to life and ran quite well, with a hint of blue smoke from the exhaust.


There were a few other issues to take care of in order to get the Mazda roadworthy. The front brake pads were scary-thin. The previous owner had been unable to source replacements but he cannot have looked far, as I was able to find some easily online. What was impossible to find were the rotors, which luckily were still in good shape. Either I actually accidentally ordered wrong, or my order got screwed, up as I received four sets of front brake pads. Fortunately they were only about four dollars a set. The next pressing issue was the tail pipe which was completely missing. A local muffler shop hooked me up with something out of their existing stock. The muffler shop guys first reaction was “what the heck is that?”


Oddly, the Mazda came with no horns. I guess a previous owner must have harvested them for something else. Luckily I still had a set of horns from my old Hyundai Stellar kicking around. They weren’t the self grounding ones like what the Mazda probably had but I added a ground wire to each. I even had a spare bolt that fit perfectly from the bolt bucket so it was a zero dollar repair. I believe the red showing through in places is primer as the VIN indicated it was always a yellow car. I bled the brakes but unfortunately managed to overfill the cylinder a bit, which promptly blew the rear wheel cylinders. Again, spares were cheap and available, so it was not long before the brakes were again functional.


The trunk contained an unexpected accessory in this tow hitch. Its has two bolts that connect to the bottom of the spare tire well and two that connect to the license plate holder. I can’t imagine it would be rated for much weight with only those thin sheet metal connections but it is an interesting curiosity. I found a Rx-3 owner who also had one so they made at least two.


The 808 came with both the original owner’s manual and service book. It let me know that the car was sold new at Kramer Mazda in Calgary in 1972. The previous owner had told me a guy from Magrath, Alberta then bought it, followed by his neighbour, then himself.


The interior was one of my favorite parts of the 808. The black vinyl seemed untouched by the years, and only a few small cracks marred an otherwise perfect dashboard. The coupe had the upmarket wood-look steering wheel and genuine wood shift knob standard. I have seen a few sedan and wagon 808s and their interiors are much more plain.

808 rear

After a quick adjustment back to “armstrong” steering and vintage brakes, the 808 Coupe was my new daily driver. Only then did I notice that the rear seats did not have any seat belts, which limited me to make taking one son at a time as a passenger. While the four-speed had great gear spacing for around town, the engine got very busy at highway speeds. It was a good thing that most of my driving was strictly in city, as a mere 50mph saw 3,000rpms on the tachometer.


A set of first generation Rx-7 wheels and white letter tires were picked up cheaply at a local swap meet some months later. While I loved the look of the vintage slot mag style rims, I thought the wider tires might give it a handling boost. To use first generation Rx-7 wheels on my 808 I needed a thin spacer, otherwise the wheel would hit the front brake caliper. Luckily I had one from a previous car which was only 5/16″ thick, and I used lug bolts from a late seventies BMW 320i. The back did not need a spacer but I had to use Mazda 626 lug nuts. Very oddly, the front uses lug bolts and the rear uses lug nuts.


This is where our story turns from love story to a sob story. I was in the midst of some rather poor luck with mandatory safety inspections at the time. The last two cars through the process had been running quite sweetly when taken in, but both were returned in non-running condition. This time the timing chain snapped on my Mazda 808. Not really anyone’s fault (unlike last time with my Nissan Micra), but frustrating none the less. They also over filled the brake cylinder (just like I did months earlier) and blew out the rear brake cylinders again. This proved to be the last straw for my wife, who had been on me to for years get a sensible vehicle.

Sadly, I towed my 808 home, and as luck would have it I needed to store it outside for a few days rather than park it in the usual spot in the garage. An owner from the local Mazda dealership slipped his card under a windshield wiper and was looking to see if I would sell. I really was not ready to, as I had planned for the 808 to be a “keeper,” but as a concession to martial bliss a deal was struck were he bought my 808 and and I purchased a brand new Mazda 2. He was planning to do a light restoration and use it for promotion, but I have not seen much movement on it since.