The opportunity to dig deep into motoring history and to experience it first hand can be as frightening as it’s possibly enlightening.
In the case of Mazda Australia’s recent 40th Anniversary of the company’s small car shindig, it was both. And thanks to an unforeseen personal twist, for me at least, it was memorable in more ways than I’d anticipated.
Simple format: seven touchstone models tracking the Japanese marque’s small car evolution from 1977 to today, driven back to back around Queensland’s handy Mount Cotton driver training facility.
In quick succession, I could compare the current flagship 2017 Mazda 3 SP25 Astina to a 12-year-old first-gen Mazda 3, then onwards and backwards to 2001 323 Astina SP20, versions of the 323 Astina SP in 1996 and 1991 vintage, then back further to the boxy 1984 323 and curvaceous originator, the first-generation 323, albeit a 1980 rather than a ‘first year’ 1977 example.
Yes, trainspotters, I know I know… but there happened to be no pre-1977 Familia/Grand Familia examples as portals back to the ’60s, but this was Mazda Australia’s retro party and I just showed up to sample the punch.
And I’m happy to report the bleedingly obvious – in the past four decades, in any critical measure you like, Mazda’s small cars have evolved leaps and bounds.
What made it even more memorable for yours truly was that once stood in front of the eldest of the test fleet – a pumpkin orange, minty fresh and lovingly maintained five-door manual De-Luxe to be exact – I actually remember this was the second car I had ever owned.
Well, not exactly this car: mine was not-quite-white, an automatic, festooned with a decade’s worth of musty smells and encroaching red rot, a car I learnt to left-foot brake in because of its wont to stall at an idling stop. It was 10 years old when Mum handed it down to her penny-pinching teenaged son back around 1990. Thanks Mum!
Old Pumpkin, as I’d nickname it, is in much fitter nick than Mum’s gift horse ever was. This example is owned by Mazda Australia, part of its heritage collection – so presumably it’s the best one the marque itself could find in recent times. And judging by the paintwork and shutlines, Old Pumpkin is possibly in superior condition than when it left the factory in the late ’70s.
So, of course, if I was ever to get sucked back to my three-decade-old youth via motoring sights, touches and smells, this is as fit a time machine as I’ll likely ever find.
A big trip down Memory Lane, if for few short laps made even more memorable given the kind of rainfall of the likes that’d prompt Noah to man The Ark. Monsoonal as best, biblical at worst then. The kind of rain that would catch out another bloke from another media outlet who almost binned the nicest 323 around by applying 2017 late-braking techniques to circa 1977 non-ABS disc/drum technology, nearly turning Old Pumpkin properly pear-shaped.
I’d driven to the test track in Mazda’s small-car latest and greatest, the fully loaded current-day SP25 Astina ($35,490 plus on-roads), complete with fully stocked active safety armoury. So my initial impressions of its 1980 forebear as I climb in is of how flimsy the doors feel and how the cabin looks to have been styled by Caramello Koala.
After the leather-dipped, infotainment explosion that is today’s Mazda hatchback, the old car feels like I’ve climbed into an old tin shed. That’s despite the fact the vinyl, rubber, plastics, fake woodgrain and good old painted metal surfaces are all very nearly concours condition.
The cabin’s sheer nothingness is both confronting and perversely appealing. The tiny instrumentation, fan and heater controls and radio display are all nearly illegible, but the sense of spaciousness and airiness is profound.
It couldn’t be further from the wraparound, thick-bolstered, chunky, cocooning designs typified by today’s Mazda 3. Have a decent sized misadventure in an old 323 and you’d likely bounce around the cabin like a human pinball, possibly hitting every surface as least once.
I wonder how Mum and I ever survived to see the 1990s…
In stark contrast to the leather-dipped, climate-controlled cosiness of the SP25 Astina, the 323 feels more adventurous and patently more rustic. Old Pumpkin’s tiny wipers thrash away to no great effect against Mother Nature’s bucketing against an increasingly fogged-up windshield.
There’s a growing damp patch on my left leg from a leak at the A-pillar, and the glimmer of faint instrument light seems to be lit by an old hermit’s lantern. Noisy fans blast the cabin with uncomfortably hot and humid air, though it seems to clear outward vision ever so slightly.
And we’re off… I think.
At least, that is, the scenery beyond the huge windows and windshield seems to be moving in the desired direction.
I still marvel in delight in old cars, with so much glass, so much visibility – weather permitting – and pencil thin roof pillar that pedestrians and other motorists cannot hide behind. So much of the sense of motion come from the driver’s eyesight, because the little 1.4-litre four’s gentle shove seems indifferent to how much rpm it musters up or how viciously the driver’s right foot attacks the accelerator pedal.
Even in literature of the day Mazda was a little vague about the subject of outputs from the 1980-spec two-barrel-carburetored 1.4L and the 1.3L engine of the late ’70s. A cursory Google search puts it around 48kW and 45kW respectively.
Whatever the case, you had a choice of four-speed-manual or three-speed automatic transmissions, neither offering an overdrive ratio, but both sending torque to the rear wheels.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: front-engined, rear-driven, and in a device weighing around a scant 850 kilograms, it’s inherently a proper driver’s machine! And that’s exactly what my rose-tinged and increasingly foggy memories have been convincing the contemporary me for a very long time.
Hindsight, though, is cold and hard (and, today, terribly wet).
The throttle is light and flimsy, the clutch pedal inert, the brake pedal empty and then suddenly abrupt in take up. The feel of the gearbox is akin to stirring a wooden spoon through minestrone. Is it in first or third gear? Or second or fourth? Whatever the case, there seems no positive or negative impact on velocity. So much user input, so little change in forward progress. Even when, predictably, the brakes lock up.
And yet a Cheshire Cat grin plasters across my face as I thrash away at Old Pumpkin’s archaic ‘recirculating ball’-type steering, wrestling to maintain course, wondering if those skinny 155mm tyres might be better served slicing up Domino’s super supreme than they at keeping car and driver on the greasy, rain-soaked black stuff.
A flashback hits me – flannelette shirt, Van Halen blasting through tinny door speakers, and a much younger me managing to spear a crappy white 323 through an intersection one dark, wet night long ago. Backwards.
Cars don’t crash themselves. Drivers crash cars. Though sometimes a vehicle comes along that really makes you question such simple logic. Again, I wonder how Mum and I ever survived…
Of course, for its time, the original 323 generation wasn’t merely what we knew and were accustomed to. “Functional wagon space with sedan luxury,” as the literature spruiked at the time, was novel and new.
And at its late-’70s era, from the crumple zone front-end body structure to the split-fold rear seats, the little Japanese hatchback was a clever, forward-thinking device setting the mould for small cars way in the future.
After ample acclimatisation with the old, the jump forward from the humid blast furnace of the 323 to the relative five-star accommodation of the 2017 SP25 Astina is nigh on shocking.
What would have we had made of today’s Mazda had it lobbed onto a showroom floor in 1980? Pure science fiction, I imagine. And not merely because of access to today’s infotainment delights at a touch of a screen or having ’80s V8 Commodore-like horsepower underfoot.
Peeling out on the damp Mount Cotton test track in the SP25 Astina, it’s obvious how much quicker the current hatchback could be. But instead of opening up the 2.5-litre taps and digging into the thick end of a not-terribly-heady 138kW, I decide to punt around at a pace where Old Pumpkin started to get all white knuckled and red misted. In this car, though, such road speed is a leisurely cruise.
Forget the comparatively otherworldly tech and the poke. Forget the heated leather trim and 231-watt, nine-speaker soundtrack. What I find most startling about 37 years of progress is the advance in safety. The improvement is so utterly conspicuous, and without the need to impact the body structure, deploy an airbag, trigger the active lane-keeping smarts or even set the traction control in-dash light flickering.
No, today’s Astina – or any Mazda3 variant for that matter – is immeasurably better at the very fundamentals of safety so often overlooked in marketing and advertising and, thus, so easily forgotten about: the degree of control the driver has over the proceedings.
From the accuracy of the steering with which to place the car on the road to amount of power available to get you and your loved ones out of trouble – exiting a side street, say – through outright road holding and stopping distances, the new car’s abilities to avoid an accident well before any ‘smart’ safety tech even comes into play seems immeasurably higher.
No offence, Mum, but I wouldn’t be caught dead putting your grandkids into the car your handed down to me all those years ago, when I was at an age where my eldest daughter is fast approaching. Would I put my daughter into even the base Neo 2.0L, sans the full suite of active safety gear, as her first car? You bet.
I enjoyed my fleeting driving Old Pumpkin, as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. And for what it illustrates.
Having experienced the relentless progress of Mazda small cars over 40 years, I can’t quite fathom the level of small-car competency my own grandchildren might be driving in years and decades to come. Or whether they’ll consider today’s hatchbacks to be absolute death traps in the wisdom of their own (future) hindsight.