Mom cars. The phrase itself conjures up images of bland practicality, sparingly-chosen options, and insipid family transportation. But when I was a teenager in the late 1980s, my mom broke that mold, and purchased a car so rare that it hasn’t yet been covered among Curbside Classic’s thousands of articles. Nine years later, I bought this car from my parents, and kept it for another six years. It was my favorite car – undoubtedly the most unique car I’ll ever own – and the thought of driving it still makes me smile. Please allow me to introduce you to my Mazda 323 GTX.
GTXs were never common – Mazda racked up only about 1,200 US sales of the little turbocharged hatchbacks in 1988 and ’89. Produced to satisfy FIA Group A rally-racing homologation rules (mandating that race cars have a production equivalent), the GTX offered a turbocharged engine, outstanding handling, and – importantly – full-time 4wd. But despite its attributes, the GTX proved to be a tough sell to customers, in part because it didn’t look like a serious performance car… and it cost significantly more than its competition. Just who Mazda considered to be the target market for new GTXs is unknown, but it probably wasn’t 45-year-old suburban moms. So how this car wound up in our driveway deserves a bit of explanation.
My family’s road to GTX ownership began in the winter of 1980 when, intrigued at the thought of a 4wd passenger car, mom and dad drove to our local Subaru dealer during a snowstorm, and bought a new wagon. 4wd passenger cars were quite a novelty then, but although our Subaru performed exceptionally in the snow, it was overall an unreliable car. My folks kept it for six years, and then looked for a something new.
By then, mom and dad were sold on the merits of 4wd, but didn’t want another Subaru – and being skittish about unreliable cars, were hesitant to buy a Jeep either. So in 1986, they bought a Mitsubishi Montero, to be mom’s daily driver. Monteros were great off-roaders, but not so suitable as family cars. Mom quickly tired of the bouncy ride and the instability on highways, and within two years wanted to get rid of it.
My parents still wanted 4wd, but not a Subaru… or an SUV. In 1988, that left few options. And since mom prided herself on being somewhat unconventional, dull sedans like Ford’s AWD Tempo didn’t interest her at all. However, dad and I had an idea that we thought just might work.
Back in 1986, Mazda began producing 4wd versions of its Familia (323) hatchback for Japanese domestic consumption. Rumor had it that Mazda, in the process of bolstering its high-tech and performance image in the US, would import the top-tier turbocharged GT-X version… and those rumors became reality partway through the 1988 model year.
One might think that it would take a good bit of arm-twisting to convince mom to buy a homologated rally car, but that wasn’t the case. Though not rally fan, mom had been hoping for exactly this type of car – small, fun, 4wd, and well-built. Importantly, mom didn’t mind spending $15,000 for such a car. While not a high-dollar amount for 1988 standards, the price probably kept many customers away, since GTXs cost more than the class-leading VW GTI, and they looked awfully similar to Mazda’s entry-level econobox (a base 323 hatchback could be had for under $7,000).
Finding a GTX to test drive wasn’t easy, but we eventually located a dealer in nearby Philadelphia with a black demo in stock. Mom and dad both loved driving it – and 15-year-old me was mighty excited that my parents might actually by a car with a legitimate racing heritage. I assumed it was too good to be true – but for once, my pessimistic nature was wrong. My parents actually ordered one (it was dealer-traded from Vermont), which was delivered the following week.
GTXs came in four colors, and with a variety of options. But most buyers just took what they could get. The $12,999 base price could be supplemented by air conditioning ($760), digital dash ($450), cassette stereo ($415), and power windows and locks ($295). Mom’s car ended up being Sunrise Red, and fully-loaded.
In what must have been a relief for my folks after their frustrations with the Subaru and Montero, the GTX satisfied all of their requirements. Mom and dad loved driving it – as did I. In fact, this was the car in which I took my driver’s test when I turned 16 in 1989. Tests, actually, since I failed my first attempt when I hit the curb and then stalled while attempting a three-point turn with the test instructor sitting right next to me. I passed the second time, and have loved driving ever since.
Later that year, my father and I undertook a three-week summertime road trip that remains one of my favorite vacations. We drove across the United States and back, for a total of about 6,000 miles. Of course, long-distance highway driving wasn’t quite what the GTX was designed for. For example, in a 64.8” wide car, our respective elbows got well acquainted with each other. And the Mazda’s 5th gear was lower than ideal for highway driving… turning a buzzy 3,000 rpm (if I remember correctly) at highway speeds. Also, the GTX was not offered with cruise control, though with the buzzy engine, it was easy to maintain a steady speed just by ear.
None of those those minor faults prevented my father and I from having a terrific time – I can only hope that in the coming years, I’ll be able to take a similar type of trip with my own children. While all of that trip was memorable, one particular destination stands out: We drove to the summit of Pikes Peak… and in the perfect car too, since the Pikes Peak Hillclimb was just what the GTX was built for.
Dad was very brave and let me (16 years old) drive up the famous Pikes Peak Highway, which back then was largely unpaved. And since our July trip occurred immediately after the annual Hillclimb, pennants still lined much the road from that year’s event.
Through the remainder of my teenage years and into my 20s, the GTX served well as mom’s car. Always a good driver, mom appreciated its quick handling, energetic performance, and of course excellent winter traction. When the GTX was new, we would occasionally see others roaming around, but over the years, the cars’ numbers noticeably declined. From what I understand, once GTXs hit the used car market, they tended to be scooped up by amateur racers – finding a good-condition used GTX quickly became rather challenging.
As for myself, in 1997, at age 24, I planned on moving to North Carolina and enrolling in full-time graduate school. Knowing that I’d be facing several years of minimal income, I needed a more affordable daily driver than my trouble-prone Saab 900. The Saab had to go… but what should I replace it with?
Fortunately for me, mom was getting a bit tired of the car that she’d driven for nearly nine years. Nothing was wrong with the GTX, but it was getting a bit rough around the edges, as cars nearly a decade old and with 70,000 miles tend to do. Mom figured it was time for a new car anyway, and my folks agreed to sell me the GTX for a reasonable $4,000.
I’ve made some good, and some poor car decisions in my 30 years of driving, but buying the GTX from my parents ranks as one of the best choices I’ve made. Through six years and about 60,000 miles, the car proved to be reliable, economical and fun. Repairs were relatively few, led by a new clutch at about 100,000 miles, and also radiator repair and brake work (which was expensive on these cars).
Since we’re unlikely to have another owner’s report here at CC on this car, I’ll provide by best recollections on what owning and driving a GTX was like.
Power came from a twin-cam, 16-valve 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that developed 132 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque, mated to a somewhat rubbery 5-speed manual transmission. While this represented exciting power for a 1980s subcompact, keep two things in mind: First, peak hp came at 6,000 rpm, so in low rpm ranges, the engine’s output resembled that of a normally-aspirated 1.6. Second, the GTX package added 500 lbs. to the 323’s curb weight, meaning that this wasn’t a lightweight car. Still, there was plenty of fun to be had… 60 mph came in about 8.5 seconds, which was good for the era.
While power was good, handling was outstanding, with MacPherson struts up front and Mazda’s Twin Trapezoidal Link suspension in the rear (similar to other 323s, though tweaked, and riding on 14” alloy wheels). Full-time 4wd eliminated the FWD 323’s understeer, and in my experience the car’s handling was completely neutral – this was particularly impressive when driving on difficult surfaces. This car’s handling was almost completely unflappable.
The GTX’s interior was a combination of standard 323 fare, plus a few unique GTX components… most noticeably, the seats – heavily-bolstered front seats upholstered in racy, but gray, fabric. Overall, this was a reasonably comfortable car for its day. Despite snug dimensions, the little hatchback could easily carry four adults… people back then were accustomed to squeezing into small cars, after all. Build quality was excellent.
Many GTXs, such as mine, were equipped with the optional digital instrument package, which, even for the digital-crazy 1980s, stood out in the crowd. The orange display (yes, orange), featured a round speedometer and tachometer, with the display consisting of tons of little digital bars that filled up the gauge to indicate the car’s speed. Peculiarly, the tachometer’s markings were not uniformly spaced. The above image from an idling GTX shows that the space between 2,000 and 3,000 rpm is much bigger than the space between 3,000 and 4,000. And the space between 6,000 and 7,000 redline is tiny… alarmingly so, since the redline lurks in there. I’ve never seen another tachometer calibrated like this, and it was one of my few complaints about the car. Actually, the entire instrument display was difficult to read – even in good conditions, let alone in bright sunlight when it became nearly impossible.
My favorite part of the GTX’s interior was this button that locked the center differential. Aside from the small “Full Time 4wd” sticker on the front fender, this was the only clue about the car’s drivetrain. I nicknamed this the Panic Button, and used it only rarely, such as driving in a blizzard, or after having gotten stuck in a snowbank… but it sure was fun to engage on an occasional basis!
None of my friends at the time was a car enthusiast, but many people who rode in the GTX loved it. Without knowing about its rarity or 4wd capabilities, folks could sense that it was something special, and with its small size, the gimmicky digital dash, and the small Momo steering wheel that I’d installed, passengers would often say something like “this seems like a video arcade car.”
During my ownership time, I only came across one other GTX – a black one that I’d seen around the Raleigh/Durham area a few times. One time in 2000, I was able to chat with its driver, a woman who had recently bought it from its original owner. She knew about the car’s rarity, and was surprised to see another one. We joked that we probably had the only two unraced GTXs left –probably not much of an exaggeration. That was over 20 years ago, and I haven’t seen another one since.
The GTX served me very well while I was in Graduate School and in the years afterwards, but it gradually developed inevitable age-related annoyances. Nothing serious… paint faded, the alloy wheels needed to be stripped and refinished, the speakers buzzed, upholstery frayed, the tape player worked only sporadically, the windshield seal leaked, as did the driver door, and so on. Typical 12-year-old car problems, but fixing these and other issues would take both time and money.
Part of me wanted a new car, but part of me wanted to keep the GTX forever. Well… why not both? In what seemed like an ideal compromise, I purchased a newer car (a two-year-old Ford Contour SVT), and kept the 130,000-mi. GTX as a periodic driver, with the intention of getting these nagging issues fixed. Someday.
Someday never came. Shortly after buying the Contour, I took a new job in Maryland, and the increased cost of living there meant that my car-repair wishlist would have to wait. Additionally, since my new apartment had only one reserved parking space, I stored the Mazda at my parents’ house 150 miles away. That, of course, meant that I didn’t exactly see the Mazda frequently, which in turn reduced the likelihood that I’d ever fix it up.
Finally in 2003, I realized that I ought to sell the Mazda. By then, I drove it only rarely, and the cost of owning a second car wasn’t yielding much in terms of satisfaction. Plus, I could use some extra cash, notably to buy an engagement ring for my soon-to-be-wife. So, I pinched myself to set my priorities straight, and advertised the GTX on a Mazda-specific website for about $3,200. Within a few days, a man in New York offered to buy it sight-unseen, and for the asking price. The following week, I drove my GTX – one final time – up to its new home. I missed it immediately, as I still do, but I knew I’d never get around to either fixing it up, or using it as a daily driver again. It was clearly the right time to sell, and move on.
The GTX had been a part of my life from age 15 to 30 – it was a memorable, rare, reliable, fun, affordable and exciting car. Not many people are able to say that their favorite car was a hand-me-down from mom, but for me, that’s certainly the case.
Thanks mom… for breaking the mold and buying a fun rally car!