As we gear up for the next annual Touge California in the hills of Southern California, we are reminded of the cars that came with us last year. We had a truly eclectic mix ranging from built track beasts to pristine grand tourers — and one yellow subcompact hatchback. The Mazda GLC, or Great Little Car, was perhaps the rally’s underdog, cheered upon by all and putting a smile on everyone’s face. Its cute mug, however, belies its importance to Mazda history.
GLC was the North American moniker for the third generation Mazda Familia. With eight generations spanning forty years, Familia was one of the earliest and longest-running models in Mazda history. It’s also one of the world’s more ubiquitous cars, with several generations having been sold in markets across the globe, sometimes as rebadged Fords. Across Asia and Oceania from the 1970s to 1990s, for instance, the Familia (mostly known as Ford Laser) was the go-to car for both families and businesses alike.
Lest you think the Familia purely utilitarian, though, it was also the first affordable rotary Mazda, introduced as the Familia Rotary Coupé in its second-generation in 1968 and soon joined by a sedan in Japan. In the US it was badged as the R100 and was the car with which Mazda established a North American presence.
It also has competition pedigree galore, following the Cosmo Sport’s endurance racing footsteps to Nürburgring and Spa-Francorchamps. It battled head-to-head in those events against the likes of Porsche 911, planting the seed for Mazda’s lust for endurance racing.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, it became Mazda’s contender in the World Rally Championship. The ensuing turbocharged four-wheel-drive models, the Familia/323 GT-X and the later GT-R homologation special, foreshadowed the likes of Subaru WRX. Spunky and spirited, the model was a proper Mazda through and through.
The GLC was a product born in the aftermaths of the 1973 oil crisis. Efficient, small, and cheerful was the antidote to eight-cylinder gas-guzzling land yachts. Air quality and pollution problems were also gaining serious recognition, and with the rotary engine powering much of its lineup around this time, Mazda was facing many technical and financial challenges. The rotary’s efficiency and cleanliness had to be improved, and the company needed sustainable sales volume.
Debuting in 1977, the third-generation Familia carried the letters AP, for Anti-Pollution. Riding on a rear-wheel-drive chassis with proven component design, it was a sensible and responsible means of transportation. In the US, the GLC was initially available only as a 2-door hatchback powered by a 52-horsepower 1.3-liter SOHC inline-4. The 5-door hatch appeared in ’78, followed by the wagon in ’79 along with a 65-horse 1.4.
Most importantly to the buying public, its price was right — three-quarters the MSRP of a VW Rabbit. It proved an even better value when the GLC’s content, usability, and efficiency were taken into consideration. It was an instant hit and carried the company through the post-oil crisis era. In fact, fans of RX-7 and Miata have the GLC to thank, for without it Mazda’s history may have turned out quite differently.
It wasn’t all business and no play for the GLC, either. After launching, Mazda took a pair of Familias/323s on a globe-trotting rally from Hiroshima to Frankfurt in 1977. Across the world in forty days, the cars were essentially stock save for a burly brush guard, a pair of giant driving lights, and knobby rally tires.
The journey was documented by four accompanying journalists from the German publication Auto Zeitung and traversed Southeast Asia, the Middle East, then up into Europe. Completing the epic trek on schedule on September 14th, the cars performed like clockwork, the only mishaps being a dent caused by a buffalo and one flat tire!
Thankfully, we did not encounter any charging buffalos on Touge California, and the GLC, which came from Mazda’s Heritage Collection, earned its “I Survived Touge California” decal none the worse for wear. So, what is it like to drive?
Rear-wheel-drive though it may be, the GLC is not quite a Miata or RX-3. The interior is spartan to say the least, and you can see how few discrete parts were injection molded to create the cabin. Climbing inside, we were greeted with a most glorious pair of plaid seats, in yellow to match the exterior. A strip of wood appliqué stretched across the dash, and a classic steering wheel with two spokes evoked a pair of wings.
The interior was airy and pleasant. Period safety standards and regulations meant that the doors and side panels did not protrude much into the passenger space and the pillars were thin with lots of glass in between. All this made for a spacious and surprisingly comfortable cabin, even in the back seat.
We pulled the choke, turned the key, and put the 3-speed automatic into drive. The steering wheel was big, the rim thin; its action, of course, was unassisted. The GLC may not be fast, but stepping on the gas summoned a smile-inducing buzz from the exhaust.
It’s very ‘70s, and very earnest. On a whim we turned on the radio and the sole speaker opening atop the pristine dashboard started playing Karma Chameleon, instantly transporting me to my childhood. The black vinyl, the dark wood appliqué, the mechanical whirr, the bright exterior color, and the sweat breaking from cranking down the windows. In that moment, cheerful was the one and only word in the air.
It is all too easy to characterize the GLC as a proverbial econobox. But consider its role in putting bread on Mazda’s table at a time, when the company was distilling rotary power into the first generation RX-7. And imagine sprinting across the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan at an average speed of 62 mph in the summer with nary a mechanical glitch. Or fantasize about one of the best sleeper formulas in a rotary-swapped GLC/323.
The GLC’s direct descendant today is the Mazda3. Curiously, Mazda undertook another Hiroshima-to-Frankfurt trek in August 2013, this time with the first third generation Mazda3s coming off the production line.
Crossing Russia, Belarus, Poland, then into Germany, the cars reached destination just in time for the Frankfurt International Motor Show. May cars like the GLC and Mazda3 continue to thrive and put bread on the table so that Mazda can make its dream and magic come to life.
Some photos courtesy of Mazda.