Vintage Views: Mazda 323 GTX


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In 1988, the Mazda 323 GTX burst onto America’s shores. It was a short-lived but epic hot hatch that felt at home on both dirt and tarmac. While it may not carry this reputation today, it was introduced as an aggressive, road-going rally car. It could easily claim to be the predecessor of today’s STI and Evo.

The 323 GTX was actually conceived for the sole purpose of competitive rallying. FIA rules stated that Mazda could only compete in Group A rally if the company produced at least 5000 copies of the street-legal homologation model.

To fulfill that mandate, Mazda proceeded to stuff their 323 economy car with all-wheel-drive, turbocharged goodness. The result was a quick, well-sorted sports hatch that appealed to a slightly younger crowd. The understated hatchback was not as flamboyant as today’s rally-bred monsters, but it packed enough punch to excite most anybody. It came with a turbocharged version of the bulletproof twin-cam 1.6 later found in Miatas, which produced 132 horsepower. That figure was satisfactory for a sports car of the day, but simple bolt-on modifications could bring it closer to 200.

The power wasn’t lacking, but it also wasn’t exactly the car’s calling card. It boasted a full-time four-wheel-drive system, which split power equally between the front and rear. This, along with a strengthened chassis, created a car that could handle exceptionally well–both on and off the pavement.

Unfortunately, the 323 GTX lasted just two years in the U.S due to low sales. Only 1243 cars found homes during the model’s brief stint in the States, mainly because of the hefty $12,749 price tag; sticker price for a Rabbit GTI of the day was $4000 less. This certainly didn’t help considering Mazda was aiming the car at a younger demographic.

Today, the 323 GTX is not extremely easy to come by, but it is affordable. Figure $6000 can buy you a nice one. Sure, the 323 GTX could have benefited from a better gearbox, a longer tenure in the U.S., and maybe a slightly lower price, but the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. This motorsports milestone was one of the era’s coolest cars and laid the groundwork for Japan’s rally-based production cars of today.

Shopping and Ownership

Mike Welch, owner of Road Race Engineering, became an expert on the Mazda 323 GTX while working for Rod Millen in 1990. At the time, Millen was campaigning the model in the SCCA ProRally series. The 323 GTX was a rally staple during the remainder of the decade, and many cars left Mike’s shop.

Only 1243 examples were sold over a two-year run in the United States, making It difficult to find one now–but not impossible. If you can locate a 323 GTX, its relative anonymity translates into a remarkably low resale value.

Transfer cases commonly wear out due to lack of maintenance. Since their oil supply is separate from the transmission, many owners forgot to check the fluid level or change the fluid. The rear output-shaft bearing is usually the first to go, so get under the car and try to move the very front of the driveshaft yoke up and down. If it’s loose, you’re going to have problems.

The mechanical advance weights in the distributor– yes, it has mechanical advance!–can get sticky or the springs can break. This can cause the ignition timing to become erratic or, in the worst case, allow the advance weights to hit the inside of the distributor housing and cut through it. If the housing is not damaged, the weights and springs are only $7.

If the car has warped rotors, don’t expect it to be an easy fix. The rotor is behind the hub, so repairs require full hub disassembly and probably a wheel bearing replacement. Believe it or not, a simple front brake job needs to be done by a Mazda specialist.

A rare assembly flaw–or a mistake during timing belt replacement–can cause the front of the crank to snap off. If it’s any consolation, most of the affected cars have already suffered the consequences. Plus, the crank is shared with the millions of Miatas out there, so replacement parts are easy to find. Still, if the front pulley wobbles at idle, walk away.

Unfortunately, parts are nonexistent and have been for several years. We sold the last HKS and GReddy exhaust in 2001 maybe. We get a parts request or email about the car about once a year. It was dead when we specialized in the car in the mid-to-late ’90s, but it was enough for one small shop to do some cool stuff with it.

While this extensive list of possible problems may seem daunting, most of them are rare, and those that aren’t–like the distributor–are easy to fix. If you want a totally invisible hotrod, you can’t do much better than a 323.

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Comments
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pinchvalve
pinchvalve MegaDork
2/28/18 8:47 a.m.

Also, if you bought one overseas all you got was a Protege.  Here in the US you got a 323GTX...way cooler! 

ddavidv
ddavidv PowerDork
2/28/18 8:59 a.m.

Suspension parts unobtainium last I heard. Too bad, they were really cool cars.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
2/28/18 10:30 a.m.

I came close to buying one of these when they were new.  The local Mazda dealer had two in stock and they were practically giving them away to get rid of them.  It had a then revolutionary (pun intended) digital tach and speedometer.  In the end I went another route and bought a Swift GTi and another Alfa GTV for the same price as the 323GTX would have cost.  But it was a cool car, if not very fast.

Danny Shields
Danny Shields Reader
2/28/18 11:56 a.m.

Let's not forget:  Lee Graser's ETR/SCCA 323 GTX was the overall winner of the Grassroots Motorsports $2003 Challenge autocross.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
2/28/18 12:10 p.m.
ddavidv said:

Suspension parts unobtainium last I heard. Too bad, they were really cool cars.

Depends on what you're willing to do. Mine sat on Bilsteins adapted from a Protege5. Not everyone is willing to weld on a shock body, though...

CyberEric
CyberEric Reader
2/28/18 4:48 p.m.

I've always wanted one of these so badly! Thanks for the rundown. 

kanaric
kanaric Dork
2/28/18 8:16 p.m.

Really at this point despite this being a cool car back in the day the problem is this was the basement piece that we were given as a hand me down from japan. The higher trim Japanese version of this car and the generation after this are just so much better and you can actually find them. 

te72
te72 New Reader
2/28/18 8:46 p.m.

Story time! A kid that came into my Blockbuster years ago (obviously, since we've mentioned a video store...), driving one of these. Something about it just seemed neat, so I started asking him what it was. Turned into a nice conversation, and I learned something new about Mazda that day.

 

Have yet to ever see another one, in person or for sale online.

 

Can't believe nobody else on here has asked yet, but I have to wonder how easily the AWD setup would adapt to a Miata's chassis... Keith? I'm guessing it can be done (given enough time, money, and fabrication, like most things), but really isn't worth the effort?

Jaynen
Jaynen UltraDork
2/28/18 8:58 p.m.

I heard the diffs on them were the thing that seemed to run out of being able to find some time ago

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/1/18 8:45 a.m.

Add me to the list of people who wanted one sooooo badly when they came out. Sadly, at the time, anything beyond Chuck Taylors was beyond my budget. 

RossD
RossD MegaDork
3/1/18 9:04 a.m.
te72 said:

Can't believe nobody else on here has asked yet, but I have to wonder how easily the AWD setup would adapt to a Miata's chassis... Keith? I'm guessing it can be done (given enough time, money, and fabrication, like most things), but really isn't worth the effort?

I wouldn't want an AWD Miata. It would ruin the rear-wheel-drive-y-ness of it! wink

There really isn't a lot of room in the miata to add stuff like a transfer case and front axle. And switching to a transverse engine/trans layout would seem to me as counter productive.

But if started a thread of your "AWD Miata build", I'd be the first to pull up a seat. That would be some serious fab and ingenuity work! devil

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
3/1/18 9:05 a.m.
te72 said:

Story time! A kid that came into my Blockbuster years ago (obviously, since we've mentioned a video store...), driving one of these. Something about it just seemed neat, so I started asking him what it was. Turned into a nice conversation, and I learned something new about Mazda that day.

 

Have yet to ever see another one, in person or for sale online.

 

Can't believe nobody else on here has asked yet, but I have to wonder how easily the AWD setup would adapt to a Miata's chassis... Keith? I'm guessing it can be done (given enough time, money, and fabrication, like most things), but really isn't worth the effort?

Strut suspension and a transverse engine. I'm not going to say it can't be done, but the fact that both of them say Mazda on the tin doesn't really give you a head start.

If you haven't seen one for sale online, you've haven't been looking. When I had mine - about 10 years ago - there were a surprising number of them for sale at any given time. They've dried up to some extent, but there's one on eBay right now. I've thought about hunting down my old one again.

te72
te72 New Reader
3/1/18 11:04 p.m.
RossD said:
te72 said:

Can't believe nobody else on here has asked yet, but I have to wonder how easily the AWD setup would adapt to a Miata's chassis... Keith? I'm guessing it can be done (given enough time, money, and fabrication, like most things), but really isn't worth the effort?

I wouldn't want an AWD Miata. It would ruin the rear-wheel-drive-y-ness of it! wink

There really isn't a lot of room in the miata to add stuff like a transfer case and front axle. And switching to a transverse engine/trans layout would seem to me as counter productive.

But if started a thread of your "AWD Miata build", I'd be the first to pull up a seat. That would be some serious fab and ingenuity work! devil

Good points. I recently discovered the grip levels afforded by studded snow tires, so I have a hard time understanding the "need" of awd here where I live, but I have always wanted to play with it. Just can't bring myself to do a Subaru / Evo.

 

This seems to be one of those better in my head ideas. wink

te72
te72 New Reader
3/1/18 11:07 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:

Strut suspension and a transverse engine. I'm not going to say it can't be done, but the fact that both of them say Mazda on the tin doesn't really give you a head start.

If you haven't seen one for sale online, you've haven't been looking. When I had mine - about 10 years ago - there were a surprising number of them for sale at any given time. They've dried up to some extent, but there's one on eBay right now. I've thought about hunting down my old one again.

Ahh, I hadn't even considered it being transverse. That's one of my main strikes against Mitsubishis of that variety. You're right about not looking though. I occasionally browse Craigslist, but I can't say I've ever seen one pop up on the Wyoming page. Cool stuff is occasionally on there, but you really have to go digging to find the good stuff... which occasionally leads to road trips and new acquisitions, probably best I focus on the fleet at hand haha.

Rufledt
Rufledt UberDork
3/1/18 11:16 p.m.

they pop up on for sale on a 323 gtx facebook group now and then.  I'm hanging onto mine forever, though.  Keep your mitts off wink

docwyte
docwyte SuperDork
3/2/18 12:09 a.m.

I've had two.  I shouldn't have sold my last one, it had some cool vintage mods done to it.

SVreX
SVreX MegaDork
3/2/18 9:13 a.m.

I'm about to sell mine...

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