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Vintage Views: Mazda 323 GTX

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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