Some used cars are valuable because they offer high performance, or carry a worthy badge. Maybe they’re a rare and desirable example that has shot up in price merely because of short supply. But what if something is at once, common, humble, and yet a total one-of-one with a compelling story behind it? This car might be one of those.
The vehicle up for sale is a 1982 Mazda 626, a humble yet elegant family sedan. It wears a gorgeous coat of Terra Brown Metallic paint and a rather excellent set of wheels. Oh, and it’s stickered all over to announce its participation in the 1982 Peking to Paris Motoring Challenge! Or, actually, those are painted on! Which goes some way to explaining why the car reportedly only has 234 miles on the clock, given that event never went ahead. It’s some kind of gorgeous time capsule, it’s manual, it’s rear wheel drive, and it’s up for sale for $9,500. If I was anywhere near Ohio, I don’t think I could resist.
This car intrigued me from the drop, and I had to learn more. I had a lead on the seller, and in the meantime, several other clues helped me dig into the backstory of this long-lost Mazda that never got to live out its true destiny.
You need to hunt far and wide across the Internet to piece together the story of the 1982 Peking to Paris Motoring Challenge. Thankfully, a trickle of old sources that have been scanned and archived online give us hints as to what went on. It was to be a long-distance trial from Peking (now Beijing) to Paris, inspired by the original 1907 running of the event. However, unlike the original race, which had virtually no rules, this one was to take place on a fixed route due to political considerations of the time.
Indeed, politics would play a big role in the 1982 event, too. In November 1981, MotorSport reported that the event had been delayed from its initial intended start in June 1982, citing that the Soviet Union was not onboard with allowing competitors to pass through. The February 1982 issue then tried to dispel rumors that the race had been canceled, with one Gerry Phillips insisting it would go ahead as planned. The redesigned route was planned to go west from Peking, through Pakistan, with a yet-to-be decided route through either the Middle East or India and on to Paris.
And yet, despite Phillips’ resolve, the race didn’t go ahead, leaving competitors and their sponsors in the lurch. It’s a shame, too, because there were some guys who intended to race the last ever Checker cab while running the taxi meter the whole way. Whoever guessed the fare at the end would win a prize. But the Checker wouldn’t see action.
Indeed, neither would the Mazda 626, resplendent in brown and wearing a cheery roof basket for its big journey. To find out where it came from, we only need look at the stickers on the body. It’s wearing a big logo for the Van Ness Mazda dealership in San Francisco, USA. It’s also got the names of three drivers painted on the side—Michel Caboor, Bogdan Klopocki, and Martin Swig.
If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because Swig made quite a name for himself in the automotive world. After his passing in 2012 at age 78, a number of outlets, including Autoweek, carried an obituary for him. He started out in business selling Alfa Romeos and Fiats at a dealership in San Francisco. When he set out on his own, he built a sprawling dealership business that covered a whole 22 different brands. Yes, Swig had invented the concept of the auto mall as we know it today.
Swig also had a penchant for long-distance rallies. He would go on to found the California Mille Miglia in 1991, a few years after entering the Italian Mille Miglia revival. He would go on to take part in and support all kinds of similar events over the years. But it was around a decade before that when his dealership had prepared a humble brown Mazda 626 for the ill-fated Peking to Paris event.
Swig’s plan was chronicled in the San Francisco Examiner on August 19, 1981. He told the paper of his previous exploits in Alfa Romeos, and his excitement and trepidation about tackling the challenging Peking to Paris route. “I think the real question is, ‘How would I feel if I didn’t try?” said Swig. At the time, he explained he would probably drive “some fairly unsophisticated Japanese car,” such as a Toyota Datsun, or Mazda from one of his dealerships. A later piece published in 1984 lamented that his Mazda sat “collecting dust” in his new Autocenter dealership. “Every once in a while I look at it, and think, ‘boy that race would have been …'” he lamented.
Fast forward to today, and the car is for sale on Facebook Marketplace. Right away, it’s clear this thing didn’t tour halfway across the world in 1982, because the original paint is in great condition. The seller reports just 234 miles on the clock. It’s by no means in perfect condition—there are a few dings here and there, and a cable dangling in the interior footwell. Ultimately, though, it looks remarkably well preserved.
I dialed up the owner for a chat, and to learn more about this gorgeous survivor. It turns out they’d known Martin Swig personally, but that wasn’t how they found the car. It came to its current owner after it showed up on eBay around 15 years ago. “It didn’t meet the reserve, somehow I got in touch with the guy who was selling it, and I ended up buying it,” said the owner. “It was a Mazda enthusiast who had it.”
Where had it been in the interim, then? “When the event was canceled, Martin pushed it back into his dealership,” explained the owner. “It just kind of sat there for a while, then the dealership changed hands in the mid- to late-80s… I think that’s when it finally left the dealership.” So, there’s some missing time there where its whereabouts are unknown. Based on the car’s current state, it looks to have been looked after well enough. Indeed, much of the damage is consistent with a car that’s been left in storage for an extended period of time. It’s easy to imagine it picking up a few dents and bumps from living in a busy dealership garage. “In some of the photos, the car’s kinda dusty, [but] in person, it’s not that bad,” says the owner. “The scratches and dings and things like that are just from people leaning stuff against it, sitting stuff on it, things like that.”
Mods to the car are minor, with an eye to long-distance driving. “The trunk is full of a giant, kinda homemade gas tank, which is kinda neat,” says the owner. “It’s a little crude, but it serves a purpose.” There’s also the giant basket on the roof, intended for hauling additional cargo and spares on its intended journey. “The basket on top is welded to the roll cage through four posts that go through the roof.” That might sound ideal for using the car for track duties, but it’s not really a race-spec installation. “It’s got a roll cage with no side guard … they were just worried about rollover and crashing into stuff. They weren’t worried about anyone running into them.” The rear seat was also removed, with a single bucket seat in its place—which makes sense given the car’s intended crew of three. The rest of the space was likely intended to be used to help carry more spares.
The car has served the owner well, in a fairly limited capacity given it only has 234 miles on the odometer. When it came to them, it had “probably 50 or 60 miles fewer than it has now.” Some of that was down to the owner using the Mazda to teach his daughter how to drive a stick shift. “I bought it just because it was a cool story, it belonged to a friend, it had nostalgia value” the owner explains. The mileage has stayed low, in part because the owner has a lot of other cars which they drive more often.
Impressively, the car still runs and drives with no problems at all, and starts right up at the turn of a key. “It’s a super easy car to drive,” says the owner. “Mechanically, it’s basically a stock unit…. the engine is supposedly a JDM unit which gives a little more power.” It may not have been a high-performance engine, but the Peking to Paris event wasn’t really about speed, anyway. “For an event like that, you don’t need a lot of power. You need reliability and simplicity.”
We’re also told the car is rust-free, and that the engine runs “as new” and that the transmission shifts “perfectly.” It’s easy enough to believe given the condition of the car. And kind of wild, because there wouldn’t be too many other 1982 Mazdas in such great shape today.
Now, $9,500 isn’t nothing. If you know where to look, that money can take you a long way. Just a little more could net you a clean vintage Prelude or a V10 TDI VW Touareg. Both are perfect enthusiast cars with their own charms. The 626 might be wearing a fairly high price for what it is, but seldom few of these cars exist anymore. Even less with such a story behind them. Oh, and the wheels! Don’t forget those gorgeous wheels. That’s gotta be, what, $1000 or $2000 right there anyway.
I’m honestly kind of devastated that I’m not in a position to snag this car, because it just sounds like such a great enthusiast ride. It’s manual, rear-wheel-drive, it’s got a sick set of wheels, and it’s just begging to rack up some miles and have its day in the sun. To say nothing of its amazing story! It’s easy to see why the current owner found it appealing. Here’s hoping this one goes to a good home, since it can’t come to mine.
Image credits: Facebook Marketplace