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The RallySport Magazine crew get their hands dirty as they build a Group N Mazda 323 GTX from the ground up.

Part 1 - Getting Started

If you're looking at making the step up from a two-wheel drive rally car to something that is four-wheel drive and turbocharged, there are now many options. Obviously if you want to immediately be competitive at the pointy end of the field you'll need an Impreza or a Lancer, but there are other options.

A few years back, the team from RallySport Magazine purchased a damaged 1992 Mazda 323 GTX and built it up into a competitive Group N rally car. Over the coming weeks, we'll tell you how we went about the build project, what pitfalls we encountered, and how the finished project ended up.

The Problem

Project Mazda came about after our 2-litre Ford Escort had seen a number of years service in a variety of rallies in both Victoria and New South Wales. Driven by editor Peter Whitten, it was as competitive as any 2 litre, rear wheel drive Escort was likely to be under the current regulations. It had taken out a number of good placings in its time, with the best result being an outright win in a round of the Victorian Rally Championship.

However, that win was a narrow one and it was soon realised that the latest 4WD turbo cars were going to easily outpace it. Technology had finally caught up with Ford's most popular rally car ever.

This presented a problem. On the one hand the Escort was as competitive as a club rally car was ever likely to get - it had all the right gear to make it go, stop and handle, but it needed to be driven at the absolute maximum and with total commitment to ensure it was up with the leaders. While it was relatively cheap to run, the realisation that trying to repeat a win in a state championship with a 20 year old motor car was a pretty tall order.

On the other hand most of the really competitive 4WD turbo cars were completely out of reach as far as price was concerned. With the possible exception of a Subaru RX Turbo, there wasn't much around that could deliver turbo four wheel drive performance for under $25,000 - and that's before the car was prepared for rallying. Lancer Evolutions, Toyota Celicas and Galant VR4s (the top 4WD cars at that time) were out of the question price-wise, so the field was limited quite considerably.

Close to our office in north east Victoria there's a local guy who makes regular trips to Japan to source out spare parts for Japanese cars and occasionally brings back some written off 4WD cars in the same container as the parts. The Japanese seem to work on the principle that if a car has damage that is anything greater than superficial, the car is written off, and this presents an attractive purchase option for people like our importer.

What To Buy?

So the Escort was put on the market and quickly sold. That meant we had to act fast if we wanted to get back into rallying without missing too many events. After a little negotiation, we purchased a 39,000 kilometre Mazda 323 GTX 4 wheel drive turbo for $8,000.

The car was purchased as a Japanese import in a damaged condition. Although the damage wasn't too severe, it required a new bonnet and right hand front mudguard, as well as a new inner chassis rail and radiator support. Oh, and the roof skin had to be replaced too as the one in the car had a gaping big hole where the sun roof had come out!

Parts for cars such as the Mazda 323 GTX (or BG8 as it is known in the parts books) are pretty easy to come by in Japan because of the age of the car. Our car had only done 39,000km when we got it - really just only run in - so it would be ideal to convert to a forest racer in Group N trim.

We choose to run in Group N initially because of the cost factor. After selling our ageing Ford Escort RS2000, we were able to purchase the Mazda with all the parts to fix it, and still have some change left over, so it was a cost effective exercise. After that, we'd have to foot the costs ourselves, so running the car in Group N would be the most cost effective way.

The idea was to run the car pretty well stock standard for a the first few events to see how competitive it was The Mazda only has a small turbo hole as it is, so fitting the 32mm Group N restrictor wasn't expected to cause too many problems. And as the cars are known for their nimbleness and superior handling, it would be a great package.

We estimated the repair bill on the car, from damaged condition to 'as new' and painted, would be around $3000 (1990's prices). A fair repair bill, but it would still make the car a really cheap road car at just over $10,000 - if only you could use it for that! As it was a Japanese import, the only registration allowed on the car was 'Rally Registration', meaning that rallies, testing, and promotional events were all it would be allowed to be used for on the road.

That wasn't a worry to us as that's all we intended to use it for. Nevertheless, a quick squirt in another standard 323 GTX showed that it would be a real rocket on the open road.

In standard trim the Mazda 323 GTX has all the luxury items you'd expect to find on other sports cars (for want of a better name). Power windows, sun roof, power steering, anti-lock brakes and the 1840cc twin overhead cam engine with intercooled turbo. Not a bad package - but more about the mechanicals later.

We approached the local College of TAFE (Technical and Further Education) to do the repairs on the car, and the staff and students jumped at the chance. They'd previously worked on a HQ Holden that competed at the Thunderdome at Calder Park, but since that project had ended, they were keen to get involved in something a little different.

While we had the car stripped and ready for repair not long after we'd purchased it, the fact that a certain block of students had been earmarked for the project meant that we had to wait about four weeks until the car went in to be fixed. With just one week blocks, the TAFE students would have a busy week.

The repair didn't take long though, helped no end by the skilled apprentices on hand and the workshop facilities at the TAFE College, which are second to none (in our area at least).

Once the damaged front guard was removed the car was put on the 'rack' and measured, showing that from the strut tops back, the car was perfectly square, something that would make the repair a lot easier and a lot quicker.

With the important measurements taken, the repair got underway with the inner chassis rail being removed and replaced with a brand new item that came with the car. With the radiator support panel welded in the Mazda started to look like a car again, and once the new guard and bonnet were bolted on, it almost looked like brand new.

The following week the spray painting apprentices took their turn on the car, sanding it back and preparing it for the final paint job. The car was black when we got it, but it certainly wouldn't stay that colour for long, so there was plenty of sanding back to be done.

From the TAFE College the car would go to have a full Group A chrome moly roll cage fitted, before returning for its final paint job.

In our next installment we'll look at the fitting of the roll cage, and the final paintwork.

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