BBC Autos

Joyride

Driving the GLC, the little Mazda that did

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The RX-7s are all broken. The heritage Miatas have all been drained of fuel for an upcoming engagement. The championship-winning racing cars, even if they were street-legal, lie in pieces, having been disassembled for servicing.

In a secret stable of laid-up automotive thoroughbreds, there is but a single thing to do: put the proverbial saddle on a donkey.

This homely machine is a 1978 Mazda GLC, carefully preserved with just 7,000 miles on the clock. It is the exact colour of lemon meringue pie filling, and pairs blocky styling with a cheerful, round-headlight gaze. The plaid interior would not be out of place in an episode of Charlie’s Angels.

There is a set of written instructions as to how to start it. They read:

  1. Put down iPhone.
  2. Pull choke out.
  3. Start car.
  4. After 10-15 seconds, push choke in.
  5. Wait ~1 minute before putting car in gear.
  6. Get off my lawn!

Step 3 proves a slight challenge as the car hasn't moved in months. The engine hesitates, coughs, splutters, stalls. Another turn of the key and it catches, hesitates again, splutters furiously and then bursts into noisy life, expelling a cloud of improperly combusted hydrocarbons. Exactly 15 seconds later, the choke is pushed back in. The car stalls.

Eventually, the reluctant GLC is coaxed from its nice warm stall, and it clatters up the ramp and out into the warm southern California sunshine. It bucks and grumbles through the parking lot and then heads out onto the open road. Here, it is a highly alarming car to drive.

It is slow, with just 59hp coming from a 1.3-litre carbureted four-cylinder engine. Some of those horses have escaped over the decades, and those that remain are being strangled by a three-speed automatic transmission.

The brakes are present, though that is the best that can be said of them. Any automotive critic complaining about on-centre numbness of modern electric power steering should be forced to drive this car, which has several degrees of slack in the wheel and yet requires extreme effort for slow-speed cornering.

There is a troubling vibration at 30mph, a horrible grinding shake that could be attributed to a wheel-bearing, transmission, engine mount, or simple harmonic resonance. One option would be to slow down, but this is still a Mazda. The accelerator is pressed more firmly, and the car pushes through.

This is not a good car. This is a great car. It may be somewhat homely and quite feeble, but had it not existed, neither would Mazda as we know it. The GLC was engineered and put into production in just 18 months – virtually overnight in automotive terms –  and it saved Mazda from being a historical footnote.

When the fuel crisis of the ‘70s hit, Mazda sold nothing but rotary-engined cars in North America. These were fast and competent on the racetrack, but they also had a reputation as gas guzzlers. Up against the Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Golf and Honda Civic, the fuel-sucking Mazdas simply weren't attractive purchase propositions.

The GLC changed all that. It was the cheapest import you could buy in North America, yet came with many features. This being the ‘70s, some of those features included hockey-stick vinyl decals and a dubious interior wood panelling, but it was inarguably well-equipped for its day. In just a few years, Mazda had more than quadrupled its sales volume.

Although lightweight and rear-wheel-drive, the GLC was never expected to bolster the brand’s performance credentials. Manual-transmission models were clocked from zero to 60mph in approximately 20 seconds. Models equipped with an automatic transmission would likely take the entire half-minute. Frankly, the spec should have simply read, “0-60mph: possibly.”

And yet, as this humble little car pushes past its wobble, something more emerges. It is, if such a thing is possible, happy. Happy to be out driving again, happy to be burbling along the open road, happy to be in the company of modern vehicles that outclass it in every conceivable way.

A driver simply cannot help but grin behind the wheel, and roll down the window. This is motoring bliss, of a sort – and then it stalls at a stop sign. But it starts up again.

Without this car, there would be no twin-turbo RX-7. There would be no historic rotary-powered win at Le Mans in 1992, no countless IMSA trophies. There would be no Miata.

The history of motoring would be worse if not for this lumpen, recalcitrant hatchback. It is slightly terrible, and undisputedly great.

That'll do, donkey.