Mazda turned 100 this year, and while this centenary gave us some very tempting Miata special editions, it also opened the floodgates to Mazda’s archives, starting with a deep dive into the history of the fantastic rotary-powered RX-7s. However, long before Mazda’s more humble hatchbacks went turbocharged and all-wheel-drive in 323 GTX form, blazing a trail for the Subaru STIs and Mitsubishi Evos of this world, the first 323 of 1977 was a rear-wheel-drive affair, as well as Mazda’s first modern compact family hatch. In America, the 323 was known as the GLC (as in Good Little Car), while Japanese customers knew it the third-generation Familia.
The EV-era may give us more and more rear-drive hatchbacks, but with the current Mazda 3 being the descendant of eight previous front-drive Mazda compacts, it’s hard to imagine that for the first 17 years of its life, this entry-class of Mazdas sent all its power to the rear axle.
Mazda chose the right moment to capitalize on the world’s sudden love for hatchbacks, and from 1977 offered its 323 with the three or five doors, followed by a wagon introduced for 1978. Being a global product, the 323 started out with three gasoline engines with a displacement of 985, 1272 and 1415 cc. After selling 890,000 units in just three years, Mazda followed the trend by replacing the round headlights with square units and added a new five-speed gearbox to the list of upgrades.
While the mid-range 1.3-liter engine produced 90 hp, some markets got the option of a three-speed automatic transmission as well. The four-speed stick remained standard. With manual brakes and steering of the recirculating ball type, 13-inch wheels, and drum brakes at the rear, these rear-drive 323s kept a healthy distance from the concept of hot hatches, pleasing customers with such features as split rear seats and an internal cabin release for the tailgate with the Deluxe trim. Mind you, one brave 323 drove from Hiroshima to Frankfurt in 1977, proving that a little can go a long way.
Those visiting a Mazda dealership in 1979 would find 616, 626, 818, and 929 sedans next to the small hatchbacks, as well as Mazda’s latest pride and joy, the rev-happy RX-7 coupé.
42 years into this game, the Mazda 3 remains one of the best-driving offers on the market, a car inviting customers not just with its handsome exterior but with its unique engine as well. However, those looking for a rear-wheel-drive Mazda still need to save up for an MX-5 Miata or keep waiting more for the bigger, six-cylinder Mazdas that are coming. In the meantime, an early 323 remains an ideal candidate for a creative restomod, or even some casual wrenching. If you manage to find one, that is.