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In part 3 of Project Mazda 323 GTX, we look at the final painting, the suspension, engine and gearbox, fitting the interior trim and getting the car ready for registration.

The Final Painting

Having got the car back to our workshop again, we removed a few further bits of trim that needed to be taken off prior to painting and delivered the car back to TAFE for interior and exterior painting.

Having seen so many pure white rally cars, we decided to paint the car in dark blue and bright yellow - a colour scheme which we reckoned suited the size of the car and the shape. Co-driver Greg Day, a real dab hand with a drawing pen, designed the paint scheme, which was loosely based on the Michelin Pilot Escorts run in the British Rally Championship a few years back.

The interior and the roll cage were also painted, this time in bright yellow only, and the finished job looked superb.

Although expensive, doing a thorough job of the painting from the outset proved invaluable. Not only did it look good, but it also gave sponsors good exposure and photographed really well.

By now we were starting to get somewhere, even though our plan of attack had blown out by more than three months.

We learnt a valuable lesson here - if you set yourself a deadline in which to finish your car, always be prepared to be flexible. Nothing ever, ever, runs to time when you're dependent on other people.

Christmas came and went, the time of the year when the last thing you want to do is work on a rally car in a hot workshop (in Australia, at least), but despite this handicap there was still lots to do.

Suspension

With the car looking superb in its new paint scheme, it was wheeled back into the workshop and put up on stands for some suspension work. The old, lowered springs were removed, along with the aftermarket gas struts fitted in Japan.

Our choice of suspension was as wide as the choice of a builder of roll cages - there were plenty of possibilities. In the end we opted for some 50mm units made by Jamie Drummond of Drummond Motor Sport (DMS) in nearby Wodonga.

These units are specially manufactured by Drummond to his own design, which has proven to be successful and reliable on all sorts of cars throughout Australia and overseas. If it was good enough for the likes of Ed Ordynski, Simon Evans and Juha Kangas to use, it would certainly be good enough for us.

The struts featured 50mm shafts, variable rate springs and adjustable platforms, allowing us to adjust the ride height at any time. There were also other little niceties such as breather tubes which exited inside the engine bay and were connected to a small fuel filter to keep the dust out. A nice touch to some great suspension.

The units weren't cheap, but then nothing good ever is, but we were confident it would last. And, as we were to find out later on, the car rode and handled superbly.

The choice of suspension does, in most instances, depend on the budget you have to spend on the car. We choose the best and were thankful right from the outset. But costing around $4000 meant that the suspension wasn't in everyone's price range, and other cheaper, yet still suitable, units could quite easily have been fitted.

Over the time we competed in the car we never adjusted the suspension from the base settings given to us by DMS. We banked on their experience, not only with their own product, but also on their knowledge of the events, the terrain and the types of roads we would be competing on.

Engine & Gearbox

With the suspension all fitted, the next task was to refit the engine and gearbox back into the shell before connecting everything back up. While the bodywork was being done, we decided that the gearbox, the infamous weak link in the Mazda's armour, should be given some preventative maintenance.

The casing was turned out in a lathe so that a larger centre bearing could be fitted for the main shaft, as it is well known that this particular bearing often fails under extreme load.

A fresh set of bearings, seals and gaskets went in at the same time before the refurbished box was bolted back up to the motor. Hopefully we had fixed any potential gearbox faults before they arrived, but the proof would be in the driving!

There is only one way to get the complete motor and gearbox assembly back into the car enmasse, and that's from underneath, so the car was hoisted up with a sturdy block and tackle, just high enough to slide the complete unit underneath.

Driveshafts were reconnected, the exhaust bolted back on and the nightmarish task of finding what wires went where, commenced. Many frustrating hours were consumed tracing wires, particularly as there had been items - like the air conditioning and ABS brakes - removed earlier. This left us with lots of electrical fittings left over, but fortunately Mazda, in their wisdom, designed the car so that nothing could be connected back to the wrong plug.

While we were at the front of the car, the 32mm turbo restrictor was fitted. It was now time to fire it up, or so we thought!

Three nights were spent trying to find out why the engine wouldn't fire - everything was tried but none of our cures seemed to work. In the end the fault was traced to a faulty fuel pump (one of two fitted inside the tanks) - strangely it had been working when we bought the car, but stopped working after that!

It was a great relief when the car fired up for the first time and everything seemed to be running perfectly.

Interior Trim

At least now the car was running and could be moved around the workshop more easily so that the next phase of the project could begin - that of refitting the interior trim.

As you are may be aware, the Group N regulations in 1996 insisted that all interior trim remained, even down to carpets, hoodlining, door trims and rear seats. This was great in theory, but when you had a roll cage that fitted so well and so close to the interior shape of the body, it made it nigh on impossible to get the trim back in place.

Many hours were spent marking, cutting and re-fitting trim pieces, only to have to repeat the excercise all over again until the right fit was obtained. Much time was spent on the door trims trying to cut just enough out of the moulded door panels so that the side intrusion bars would fit, while at the same time ensuring that the trims themselves didn't fall to bits after all the strengthening ribs had been removed.

The rear quarter panel trims were also a challenge because of the rear hoop legs from the roll cage, the diagonal brace and the spot where the cage mounted on to the rear turrets. Then there was the little matter of the moulded roof lining, which finally went in in three sections after much juggling, cursing and swearing.

While the finished job looked good, there is no doubt that you would need to build at least two or three similar cars to ensure that you get things perfect. Unfortunately we didn't have that luxury.

We learnt another valuable lesson while fitting the trim back into the car, that of having a fool-proof labelling system for parts. It's too easy to simply unbolt fittings from a car and throw them in a plastic container marked "interior trim", only to find out much later (when your memory has gone into overload) that some screws, for instance, are longer than others for a particular reason. Or the clips to hold the boot lining in are different to those that hold the interior side panels.

Very careful marking of parts is essential - it saves you hours of aggro, keeps the skin on your knuckles longer and saves you continually wandering around the workshop looking for the right part. We'll remember that next time - perhaps!

Registration

The Mazda was now looking like a car, so it was time to check that everything worked - lights, brakes, clutch, power steering, and so on. Having done this, it was almost time to take the car to Melbourne to have it inspected by a qualified engineer prior to having it registered.

Because the 323 Familia is not sold in Australia, it does not comply with Australian design rules in a number of areas. These are specifically things such as the provision of door intrusion bars, convex glass in the door mirrors instead of flat glass, brake failure lights, smaller size fuel filler neck to accept unleaded fuel only, and so on. All relatively minor items, but important just the same.

We bolted on some roadworthy tyres and went to mount the spare wheel in the back. It wouldn't fit of course, because the Mazda comes fitted as standard with one of those funny little run-flat wheels, so we had to turn around and manufacture a spare wheel mount on the boot floor.

The standard seat belts were removed and a set of excellent Sabelt harnesses installed in their place, but the rally seats would have to wait until later as they still had not arrived.

With a 28 day registration permit obtained so the car could be driven, it was off on the long trip to Melbourne in a car that we had never driven for more than 30 kilometres before, hoping that everything that we had done was functioning properly.

Thanks to the efforts of our frustratingly-thorough head mechanic, the car performed brilliantly on its first major outing - the 250km trip to Melbourne and back.

Next Time

In Part 4 of our Mazda 323 GTX project, we complete the registration, tackle the finishing off tasks (like wiring in driving lights), put in the competition seats and organise the fitting of the underbody protection. Don't miss it.

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