It’s no secret that the topic of Japanese cars splits opinion amongst the staff at ViaRETRO. Some of us find the infinite variety of models fascinating whilst others deride the supposed sausage machine, endlessly churning out bland consumer goods. In the spirit of trying to please all of the people all of the time, we present this week’s Prime Find. Behold the Mazda Familia BG Series; sometimes bland but widely variable and occasionally quite interesting.
The BG series was the sixth generation of the Mazda Familia, better known in western markets as the 323. Produced between 1989 and 1994 it must have been one of the most disconnected model families ever brought to market. The siblings were more like distant cousins and visually bore little relation to each other. Available as three-door hatchback, five-door fastback and four-door saloon variants, not a single body panel was shared. To confuse matters further, the previous BF model continued in estate form alongside the newer cars.
The BG was really a good example of platform sharing and development was shared with Ford, which at the time had a stake in Mazda. The resulting incarnations included the Ford Lazer Coupé and Sedan, the second generation North American Ford Escort and the related compact Mercury Tracer. The platform also underpinned the entirely forgettable Kia Mentor and Sephia. None of these cars were world beaters but they did good business nonetheless.
In Mazda guise, a wide range of mechanicals complemented the various body styles, with the most exciting being the 4wd Turbo GT-X, which was homologated into Group A for world rallying. It was an intermittently effective rally car and these days is regarded as a niche JDM hero.
However, most BG platform cars were front wheel drive and powered by a range of willing but reliable, normally-aspirated engines. Mazda’s core focus was on cars that were pleasant to drive and very well engineered, but nothing much beyond that. The brand was still a few years away from surprising everyone with the MX-5 and starting to reposition itself as something mildly aspirational. It was easy to overlook the standard 323 models and buyers outside of the pacific rim didn’t exactly mob the showrooms, but there was one notable exception to the white goods approach. Rather than create a five-door variant by adapting the four-door saloon like everyone else would have done, Mazda took a completely different approach and created the quite interesting 323F.
The new fastback was launched in 1989. Called the Familia Astina in Japan with a luxury version marketed as the Eunos 100, it was named 323F in Europe and launched as a 1.6 carburettor 16v in LX or GLX trim, or as a fuel injected 1.8-litre 16v GT. All models later gained fuel injection but there would be no turbo or four wheel drive variants. The 323F was all about the styling, and the body was radically different to other five door hatchbacks being shaped more like a sports coupé. Coming from a time before pedestrian safety regulations intervened, its most eye catching styling feature was the low front enabled by pop-up headlights. There’s something childishly joyful about a car with pop-ups and the motor industry is poorer without them. Not only do they look good but they are practical too; keeping the lights clean when not in use and acting as corner markers on command when parking in tight spaces. With the lights retracted the 323F had a pleasing rounded wedge shape, rising gently to a subtle boot spoiler above a full width rear reflector. It was the epitome of late ‘80s Japanese style.
I declare a nostalgic interest in this Prime Find as I spent a couple of years with a 323F. Sometime in 2002 I found myself between cars after forcefully introducing my blancmange of a Mk3 Golf to a line of stationary traffic. Whilst the insurers repaired the Golf, I came to the realisation that I’d wished it had been written off and it needed to go and blight someone else’s life. A contact made me aware of a Mazda 323F that had been parked up in a garden due to a starting problem and asked if I was interested. I said yes, a new ignition module was sourced and the car was mine for a few hundred quid. After the deeply disappointing Volkswagen, the older Mazda was a revelation.
Powered by a perky 89bhp 1.6-litre 16v engine, a version of which was later found in the MX-5, the 323F was everything the Golf wasn’t; agile, eager, well equipped and very comfortable. It was an archetypal Japanese car in many respects with light and precise controls, responsive handling and always being easy to drive. The front wheel drive chassis naturally tended towards understeer, but it remained compliant and encouraged confidence on swooping backroads. There was always the safety net of being able to unstick the tail if required, but rarely to the extent of getting wild. It was no hot hatch but was the sort of car that could be hustled much faster across country than the sum of its parts would suggest. Best of all however, it was modestly distinctive, especially in dark metallic grey with black steel wheels. The 323F withstood some considerable abuse in my ownership and wanted only for a new CV joint. This proved to be quite an expensive component (certainly as a proportion of the car’s value) as Mazdas were still relatively unusual and lacked much choice in aftermarket parts. A while later, when the CV on the other side started to fail I took the spectacularly poor decision to sell the car and replaced it with a Seat Toledo that had seen careless service with a soldier stationed in Belfast. I used to occasionally see the Mazda for a while afterwards but it eventually disappeared, presumably accompanied by a clicking noise and loss of drive. I should have kept that car…
Never common in the UK, the BG series 323F seems to be almost extinct now. There were a few sold in Ireland but right hand drive stocks are rare in this hemisphere. Short of hunting one down in Australia or New Zealand, any prospective buyer might have to settle for left hand drive and go looking in Europe. We could only find one for sale in the UK at the moment; a 1.8i Twin Cam GT in desirable bright red, but although it’s clearly well cared for the asking price is just shy of five figures. For a collector wanting a UK car it may be just what they want, but looking to maximise value I’ve found a healthy number still stalking the roads of mainland Europe. The Baltic states are a particular hotbed of 323F action but there’s a 1.8i Twin Cam in Holland that, inspections pending, seems to be a mega bargain in the spirit I recall from nearly 20 years ago. Here are a few pictures borrowed from the advert:
The sparse description extends to stating there are some “user marks” on the car, but it has a Dutch MOT until April 2020 and it seems to be unmolested and in one piece. The owner is only asking €850 so you’ll have to be quick and it may have gone already. If I was in Holland, I’d be right on it and straight down to the motor factors for a bottle of T-Cut to revive the faded paint. The 323F is a pleasure to drive, stylish and unusual. For a cheap retro youngtimer, you could do much worse.
Here’s the link to the full advert: 1990 Mazda 323f 1.8i GT
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org