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Scarce Metal

3 November 2021

Everyone knows a Mazda Familia was never blessed with strong drivetrain — and you think after owning 15 Tony would know better, but this time he threw caution to the wind and put 276kW into the rarest of them all — a GTAE

Words: Marcus Gibson Photos: Adam Croy

A true icon of New Zealand’s early 2000s performance scene here in New Zealand, the Mazda Familia ruled the streets thanks to its price tag, and the fact it is easily modified. Sightings of GTXs rocking 17-inch wheels and a Racepro BOV were common, and if you spotted a GTR distinguished by those big bumper-mounted fog lights it wasn’t to be messed with, unless you were packing some heat under your hood. It’s no wonder the DOHC turbo Mazdas were the dream car for many growing up, including one Tony Hill, who told us it was love at first sight. “As soon as I left school and started working I saved up some cash and purchased one, and haven’t been able to shake them since. I’ve owned 15 in various states over the years.” But as this was a model with more more power than most people have the driving ability to handle, and most ended up in the hands of rev-happy young hoons who often didn’t mesh with the glass-like gearboxes, they soon became a rather rare machine on the street — though thankfully some connoisseurs of the piston 323s are still out there preserving these icons.

It’s the older ’80s-generation BFMR 323s that have been Tony’s poison, and two reside in his shed as you read, but when a super-rare homologation-only 1992 GTAE popped up for sale, how could he say no. It’s labelled number seven of only 300 ever made, and it’s one of only two in the country that he knows of, so opportunities to purchase such rare machines don’t present themselves on a daily basis — but there was a catch, as Tony explained. “The owner before had replaced the front left chassis rail, and it seemed like no one wanted to touch it, I told him I’d take it if it was straight, so had it checked on a chassis machine in Hamilton, and it was perfect.” 

A deal was struck, and the GTAE was brought back to Auckland to join the other 323s in the shed. Those two are rather serious long-term projects, and the GTAE was never meant to be anything other than a runner — but a short while into his ownership, a little too much boost in the factory set-up spelled disaster for the 1800 DOHC turbo engine. This kick-started a five-year build project that culminated with his being awarded Best Mazda at the 2016 V 4&Rotary Nationals. All of which started with a turbo upgrade to a Garret GT30/40 and a visit to Quest Fabrication for a custom manifold to suit. “As soon as the car blew up I knew is was the perfect opportunity to upgrade the factory turbo, it was the first thing I purchased.” The fabrication job list soon stretched to include a custom intake plenum, radiator, catch cans and custom intake. At the time the goal was a very humble 180–200kW. Tony never dreamed the car would make the big numbers it now does …

He first bought a rebuilt block and dropped the car to Jtune, which wired in the EMS 8860 ECU in preparation for dynoing the car — but that supposedly freshly built engine was complete junk, and lasted all of a few minutes before grenading and spitting oil everywhere just before the 2015 Nationals. The car was rolled into the show halls that year, and the new plan to build a forged bottom end was put into play.

For Tony the worst thing about the situation, aside from the financials, was that he had to remove the engine again and risk scratching the perfect paintwork. Familia aficionados will note the colour is not the white or the black the GTAE was offered in — instead it’s a custom one-off gunmetal sprayed by GT Refinishers. The paint had been a major, as rust was found sitting under the factory white, so the whole car was taken back to bare metal.

There were no modifications to the exterior, it remains as the GTAE was intended, although the engine bay did receive plenty of smoothing to accentuate the beautifully presented 1800. The way Tony explained the removal of the engine was like open heart surgery — with eight mates all there to help, but no one wanting to touch anything just in case — HA HA. 

All that was salvageable from the old engine was the crank, with everything else ordered online. Thanks to the popularity of the MX-5 — or as they say in America, Miata — which shares the same engine, there was no shortage of off-the-shelf components to choose from. Hytech Engines was tasked with screwing together the new block using ACL forged pistons and Spoul rods, alongside the usual ACL and ARP products. The head itself, which is a GTR item, has been extensively pored and filed with 272 cams, then fitted with sodium-filled valves and KVS valve springs. Back on the dyno at Jtune the new set-up surprised even the tuner, Jacky, by making 273kW on only 18psi/1.24 bar. News soon reached Tony, who soon found thoughts of adding more boost and E85 were creeping in. However, the thought of that ‘glass’ gearbox the Familia is notorious for also forever played on his mind, and knowing he was already pushing his luck meant that idea was shelved — for the meantime, that is. 

To combat the weak driveline, the box was sent to a local guru who added a Radisich gearset and performed a centre bearing modification, which stops the bearings from walking. It’s not a bulletproof answer, but makes a big difference, and the only other options on the table would be a conversion to a Toyota or Evo gearbox, as carried out for the likes of JRCOZY. But the fact that the GTAE is such a rare model made Tony think twice about cross-breeding the parts.That Toyota gearbox mod will be used on Tony’s two other 323s, the ones in the shed, which is another story for a later date. But we are told they will likely end up in a similar build fashion to this one, only with more power.

It’s been a long road to get to the point where Tony can simply jump in turn the key and enjoy his super-rare Mazda, but nevertheless here it is in all its OCD glory, from the perfect paint to the subtle interior retrim and spotless engine bay.

Sunday drives with the family have never been sweeter, especially with the unmuffled soundtrack of the 272 cams thumping away under the bonnet. Oh, and now that this car is done he can get back to working on those projects which were pushed aside to complete it. So maybe by year’s end Tony will have choices for those Sunday drives — what a hard life it will be.