The cars we loved.
While I was in middle school, my father became the proud owner of a 1978 Mazda GLC. It was the kind of car that had multiple jobs as everything from a delivery van to daily commuter car. When he was done with it, he gave it to my older brother in the eighties. By then its odometer had flipped over and was passed the 100,000 mile mark. My brother drove it until the engine blew sometime around the 230,000 mile mark. My dad had been so impressed with the GLC’s reliability, that he got a new 1980 Mazda B2000 pickup. Once again it gave dependable service. The Mazda’s left me with the impression that Japanese cars were indestructible (compared the troublesome Skyhawk and Monza my brother would later own). That is an impression that many of my generation grew up with, but the road to Mazda’s small car reputation was not always paved with bullet proof reliability.
Today Mazda is known for its stylish, sporty and sometimes efficient cars. In the 70’s Mazda struggled to carve a niche for itself in the US and Europe. In America, its relatively small model line consisted of mostly technically distinctive sub-compacts and the occasional larger GT car like the Cosmo coupe. Mazda had been selling cars in America since 1970 and had a reputation for innovation, thanks to its rotary engines. Mazda’s rotary engine history was punctuated with the occasional lapses in reliability. Later the rotary engines image as a gas guzzler would further hurt the company’s image and bottom line. Just as Mazda was trying to address the above issues, the fuel crisis forced it to rethink its small car engine strategy in the shadow of bankruptcy.
Mazda would forgo the rotary engine and develop its new small car line called Familia. Developed with worldwide export in mind, it would use conventional piston engines. America’s version of the 3rd generation Familia based car would be called the GLC (Great Little Car).
The GLC line in America came first as an unassuming two door hatchback in 1977. A 5 door hatch and wagon came a year later. The wagon outlasted the coupe by 5 years, overlapping into the new 4th generation 323/Familia after 1981. Aside from the configuration of doors, the GLC was available as a base model, deluxe (the most popular) and Sport. All models used the same engines, as Mazda made no pretensions towards being sporty except for the stripes and decals of the Sport models. Much of the competition on was readying some variation of what would later come to be known as the “Pocket Rocket”, but Mazda waited it out until the 4th generation for the Familia/323 line.
The rotary engine would continue in Mazda’s sporty cars, as for subcompacts like the GLC, Mazda would sell the virtues of its efficient 1.3 and later 1.4 liter carburetted four-cylinder engines. With 70 hp, Mazda’s little 1.4 could get up to 43 mpg on the highway with the optional 5 speed manual (a 4 speed manual was standard). The GLC was a basic car by 70’s standards with roll up windows and thin door panels. Print and TV advertising would tout it as a value by equating it with the popular RX-7 sports car, good company indeed.
The notoriety of the RX-7 association may have raised expectations for the GLC, after all it was a rear wheel drive car also in a time when that configuration was still primarily the domain of performance cars. By 1977 nearly all of the Big Three’s economy cars had jumped ship to front wheel drive or were going to do so soon. The Chevrolet Chevette was a notable exception. It may have been the GLC’s closest true competitor as it had a similar mechanical setup. Mazda did not have a front wheel drive subcompact until 1980 with the 323.
GLC advertising never really promoted the fact that the GLC was motivated from the rear, even in the GLC Sport. Instead they focused on the fact that the GLC undercut the Civic and Rabbit substantially in price and had more standard features. An interesting list of features considered rare on a low-end car at the time like rear washer/wiper and electronic rear hatch release made the GLC a standout value. Great mileage was perhaps the GLC’s best attribute.
Stylistically rounded about the edges, it appeared almost bland and homely compared to the angular Rabbit and semi squared Chevettes of the day. The inside was even more nondescript, with a straight to basics dash with plenty of black plastic and simple essential displays for a 80 mph speedometer and fuel/oil gauges. The Sport model added a tach, but otherwise the seats were usually grey, tan or black cloth. Once again the Sport and some Deluxe models added a very mod plaid pattern that was usually color coded with the exterior. Very few exterior changes would occur. Most notably, the round headlights became squared in 1980 in a small concession to modernism.
Although the engine was small and relatively low powered, the GLC without the burden of air bags weighed in at only 1880 lbs. The light weight aided fuel economy, but not necessarily straight line performance. The 1981 standard models of a GLC would trail a 81’ Rabbit to 60 mph (13.8 vs.12.5) but firmly plant the 81’ Civic 1300 (15.0) in its rear view mirror. The GLC never really capitalized on the performance potential of its rear wheel drive set up. Surprisingly as the Chevette became a sort of underground hillbilly chariot as it found a following with motorheads. Reports of V6 and 8s being dropped into its engine bay were not uncommon. The GLC was pretty much ignored by the tuner crowd even though it had a much potential as the Chevette as down low a pocket rocket.
Today the GLC’s lasting legacy is that it was the last subcompact rear wheel drive Mazda. In truth it saved Mazda from bankruptcy making the continued development of the RX-7 feasible and paving the way for other small car that would go beyond economy. Just like the tag lines would say: “The More You Look, the More You Like”. The GLC was in many ways truly a great little car for Mazda.