Tuesday May 29, 2018
Such is the association between the Mazda brand and rotary engines that it is sometimes easy to overlook that for many British drivers their first experience of the brand was not in a RX7 but a slightly more mundane form of transport. The FA4-series 323 of 1977 – 1980 was an ultra-conventional RWD lightweight family saloon that appealed to the motorist who wanted a straightforward car that was as dependable as a refrigerator.
The FA4 is still fondly recalled by many US enthusiasts - where it was known as the GLC or “Great Little Car” – as for the time it was the cheapest imported car available in the States. Mazda first started exporting to Europe in 1967 and by 1972 the company sold a little over 3, 000 vehicles in the UK. In terms of appearance, the “Mazda Hatchback”, as it was commonly known, was not dissimilar to the Chevette. It competed in much the same markets as the Vauxhall and 41 years ago you might have also considered buying a 323 instead of a Chrysler Sunbeam. When Car tested the 323 in June 1977 they compared it with two FWD rivals; the Renault 14 and the VW Golf. Somewhat inevitably their favourite was the diamond-badged car but they did give it a somewhat back-handed compliment – ‘As a Chevette/Escort/all-the-other-Japanese-junk competitor, the Mazda does very well’.
By 1979 there came a Mazda that impressed my younger self, although this statement should be qualified by the fact that in my Hampshire village colour television was regarded as a dangerously radical innovation. The 1.4SP was the “sporting” version, as demonstrated by its black or metallic silver coachwork, five-speed transmission, a plethora of gauges and – one of my favourite details – a wire-spoked steering wheel. It also offered excellent value for money, the asking price of £3,299 being around £300 less than the price of a Ford Fiesta Ghia and only £46 more than a Chevette L. However, despite the 1.4 SP’s appearance the owner would not gain much in the way of performance as the top speed was a faintly depressing 86 mph and nor was it overly refined; What Car rudely referred to it as ‘the noisy Mazda’.
Autocar was even less complimentary – ‘it doesn’t perform well enough to justify the sporting looks, near enough the same goes for the handling, and the ride does not commend it above any of the rest’. Yet, 1.4 SP was a car with inherent showroom appeal, with its electric boot release and seat trim in subtle tartan cloth, and one that captured the spirt of fashionable life at the end of the 1970s. The person who placed an order for the flagship 323 was clearly the sort of up-to-the-minute individual who wore a bomber jacket, actually thought that Pot Noodles were edible and whose kitchen featured a microwave oven that was about the size of a small bungalow. Perhaps the 323 Estate car made rather more sense as it had no pretensions to performance whatsoever and indeed when the L4 hatchbacks were superseded by the front-wheel-drive BD it remained in prodiucuton for a further six years.
Today, the FA4 generally falls into the category of ‘when did you last see one of those’ but its significance to Mazda’s history cannot be overstated. Put simply, its commercial success provided the funds for a generation of sports models. The 323 may not quite have the accelerative prowess of a RX7 (even in 1,4SP guise) but it is an equally important car in the company’s history.