by Iain Curry
LET me take you on a motoring journey across 40 years.
We begin at a time when vinyl interiors in various brown hues was de rigueur, your cigar lighter and ashtray were ideally placed for use during a speedy manual gear shift, cold starts were impossible without a manual choke and wood veneer surrounded your push-button AM radio. Safety wise, your crumple zone was otherwise known as your legs.
The year was 1977 and Mazda's 323 - predecessor of the current Mazda3 - first went on sale in Australia. And what a sales success story since.
In the 40 years we've had the model we've bought nearly 730,000 examples of the small passenger car and it currently reigns as the country's best-selling model for private buyers.
To celebrate, Mazda Australia dusted off six examples of the 323/ '3 from its Heritage Collection and asked a small group of journos to go and enjoy. Take it easy though. They're rare museum cars, restored and maintained at great expense, there are no driver aids on the old ones, etc.
Trust is a wonderful thing.
The talented chap at Mazda who cares for the collection looked a tad queasy as we each hopped in one of the generations offered.
Stationed at Brisbane's "slippery when wet" Mt Cotton Driver Training Centre during a severe rainstorm, these were the types of conditions ABS brakes, traction control and stability control were invented for.
1980 Mazda 323 Hatch
First up was the 1980 323 Hatch, lacking all of the above and sporting rear-wheel drive.
Beautiful in its boxiness with giant greenhouse windows, it donned perfectly period orange paint and lashings of chrome for the bumpers, window surrounds and door handles.
Open the lightweight door and 'hello brown!'.
I squeezed into the sink-in vinyl and velvety-cloth driver's seat, gripped the skinny two-spoke steering wheel, admired the chocolate box cabin colours and fired up the 48kW 1.4-litre.
A bit of rain leaking in through the top of the door, windows thoroughly misted up and that oily carpet smell of a car from this era. Ah, it takes you back.
On Mt Cotton's technical twists the little classic pleasantly surprised.
It may not be quick, the gear shift throw too lengthy and the steering on the woolly side, but it revved nicely and gripped surprisingly well on the sodden track.
With power (albeit not much of it) going through the rear wheels I was expecting oversteer moments, but the aging 323 remained composed and decent fun, with its pedals perfectly placed for heel-toe shenanigans.
1984 Mazda 323 Hatch
Next, the 1984 323 Hatch. By this year the chrome had gone but the boxiness and tiny steel wheels remained, as did the tidal wave of light brown in the cabin.
Seats and doors were even velvetier in their light tan loveliness, wood veneer had moved to the gear stick surround and we now had a rev counter (in luminous green) and a boxy cassette deck.
Now a front-wheel drive car, the 33-year-old understeered in the wet less than I'd expected (we have better tyres these days), displayed decent stability and was another revvy treat.
If anything, the gear shift throw was even longer and the steering less responsive than the older car, but maybe light and easy were the order of the day in '84.
1991 Mazda Astina SP
Next up, a little gem. The 1991 Astina SP Hatch with its fastback body styling and pop-up headlights: the sporty '90s had arrived.
On the track its steering was sharp and the 323's chassis a beautifully balanced thing, and it was blessed with a slick little five-speed manual gearbox.
Downsides? A terrible black and white carpety trim for the seats and doors, the blackest cabin man has yet created and an interior smell to remind of boozy taxi rides home in the 1990s.
1996 Astina V6/2001 Astina SP
A 1996 323 Astina with 104kW V6 was next, complete with four-speed auto gearbox and clunky CD player/cassette deck combo.
The sleek-styled 20-year-old with tiny headlights had the power to match the nicely sorted chassis, while the next-up look-at-me yellow 2001 Astina SP20 felt surprisingly modern and solid for a 16-year-old, albeit not with as much charm as those before it.
Finally, the Mazda3 of 2005. Still sharp of design and clean and simple of cabin, a dozen years on this model has aged nicely.
User-friendly in every facet and so assured despite the sodden on-track conditions, it was a fine blend of confidence, ample performance and driver involvement. Not as much fun as the early 323s, but far more solid feeling.
Drive a 2017 Mazda3 Astina with its sat nav screen, lane-keep assist, head-up display and leather finish and you can see how far things have come in four decades. Yet the DNA can be traced back to those first 323s.
Why do Australians love this model? Because the little Mazda does - and always has done - most things very well, be it handling, performance, design or practicality.
Mazda 323 shopping in 1977
SO what did your Mazda 323 offer back in 1977, the first year it became available in Australia?
The model that was to become a sales phenomenon was first brought here as a three-door or five-door hatchback. Its 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine sent a mere 45kW through the rear wheels, it used a four-speed manual gearbox, had a live rear axle, rolled on tiny 13-inch wheels using cross-ply tyres, and had a kerb weight of just 812kg.
The first cars featured classy round headlights before a facelift in 1979 brought less characterful rectangular units. A wagon body style was also introduced around this time to up the practicality.
Contemporary advertising lauded the 323's padded dashboard, air ventilation system (not air conditioning) as standard, front disc brakes, push-button radio and boasted that long-term durability had been thought of, with "most" body panels specially treated to help prevent rust.
And to be a popular car of the people, that formula is tough to beat.