Crucial Cars: Mazda RX-7

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, Street Talk puts the spotlight on a sports car with a strong, well-deserved fan base – the Mazda RX-7

 

Back in the fall of 1978, Mazda put out a rather bold print ad in the car buff magazines. It pictured Mazda’s new, rotary-engined sports car, the 1979 RX-7 sitting proudly in front of sports car icons that had debuted before. The 1947 MG TC. The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. The 1970 Datsun 240-Z. “This year, it’s the Mazda RX-7.” A brash statement, certainly. And one that time would reveal to be more than justified.

1979 MazdaRX7 ad

Those car mags — Road and Track, Motor Trend and Car and Driver — had high hopes for the car. Expectations that were met, if not exceeded, once they laid their collective driving gloves on Mazda’s light, sleek and well-rounded sports car. Those basic tenets of light weight, a free-revving rotary engine and an athletic chassis carried the RX-7 through, essentially, four generations, as the last version was dubbed the RX-8. What has also carried on is the unabashed enthusiasm the RX-7s fans have for this very unique sports car.

 

Getting it right the first time
A sleek, pointy-nosed silhouette with flip-up headlights was what one first noticed upon seeing Mazda’s new 1979 sports car, dubbed RX-7. Yet under the handsome form was the big news. For there lay a powerplant and suspension that could put an ear-to-ear grin on the Grinch, were he a road test editor. And it started at under $6,500, though by the end of that first model year the still-crazy-bargain price had crept up to around $7,000.

It may have made just 100 horsepower, but the RX-7’s tiny 1.2-liter rotary engine, when looked upon as power per liter, was a monster. However, fuel mileage was also more like a larger engine, with 17 to 19 mpg being about average. More notably, it was a delight to drive, thanks to its ultra-smooth, eagerly revving nature that, coupled with the car’s light weight of just 2,400 pounds, provided sprightly for the day acceleration. Though 0-to-60 in about 9.3 seconds and a 17 second quarter mile time aren’t exactly scorching asphalt, consider that a 1979 Camaro Z28, with its 5.7-liter V8, took about 8 seconds and 16 seconds, respectively, for the same sprints.

But the RX-7 was designed more for unwinding curvy roads than juvenile stop light drags. Yes, it may have been somewhat unsophisticated with recirculating ball (rather than rack and pinion) steering and a solid rear axle (rather than independent suspension), but no matter. With its small, light engine set behind the front axle line, the RX-7 sported ideal 50:50 front to rear weigh balance, which, coupled with the car’s low center of gravity, relatively quick steering and firm suspension provided tons of fun on one’s favorite deserted stretch of twisting blacktop.

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1981 Mazda RX-7 S

Initially available in just base S (4-speed manual, steel wheels) and up-level GS (5-speed stick, fancier interior) trim levels, the first RX-7 lasted until 1985, by which time one could also choose plush GSL and top of the line GSL-SE versions. The latter in particular, available only in ’84 and ’85, is the one that first-gen RX-7 fans lust for, as it sports a larger (1.3-liters versus 1.2), more powerful, 135-horsepower engine, four-wheel disc brakes (versus front disc/rear drum) and larger (14-inch versus 13-inch) wheels along with all the luxury features of the GSL. A GSL-SE could dash to 60 mph in just about 8 seconds and fly through the quarter mile in around 16 flat.

1984 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE

1984 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE

Growing upmarket
For 1986, Mazda brought out the second-generation RX-7. A ground-up redesign seemingly inspired by the Porsche 944, the new RX-7’s styling featured flared out fenders that closely resembled those of the German sports car. The rear, wrap-around glass hatch was now one piece, rather than three as before, lending a cleaner look, as did the smoothly integrated bumpers. Inside, the design and materials were both improved, with thicker, well-shaped seats and large instruments and controls all within a wrap-around cockpit theme.

Under the sleek hood of all RX-7s, be they the base model or fancy GXL, was a 1.3-liter rotary with 146 horsepower, a sizeable boost over the previous base engine and still more than the previous, alphabet-soup RX-7 GSL-SE. The steering was now rack and pinion, all models had four-wheel disc brakes as well as a five-speed stick standard (automatic still optional) and the suspension was more refined, being all independent.

Yet despite the more generous features list and the more sophisticated underpinnings, the new RX-7’s curb weight only increased by about 150-200 pounds (depending on trim level). As such, the new RX-7’s performance was spirited, with the old 0-to-60 and quarter mile contests being done in around 8.5- and 16.5-seconds, respectively. As before, though, this car’s real appeal lay in the way in could confidently dispatch a series of S curves and switchbacks. Drivers in the know kept the rotary humming above 5,000 as they got their kicks slicing through and powering out of the turns.

More power is always good, so for 1987, the RX-7 Turbo debuted. Force-feeding the 1.3-liter rotary pumped output up to 182 horses, good enough for 6.5-second 0-to-60 and 15.0-second quarter-mile times, very impressive for the era. The Turbo also featured larger (16-inch) wheels and tires, firmer suspension tuning and plenty of luxury features including full power accessories, a sunroof and an upgraded audio system complete with cassette deck and graphic equalizer. It was the ‘80s, after all.

1988 Mazda RX-7 Convertible (with Turbo hood)

1988 Mazda RX-7 Convertible (with Turbo hood)

For 1988, a convertible joined the lineup. Sadly, the Turbo was not offered in drop-top form but could be had in a special 10th anniversary RX-7, the latter celebrating 10 years of RX-7 production via unique color scheme with white paint, white wheels and white bodyside moldings.

A mild, mid-cycle update for 1989 brought more power for the non-turbo RX-7s, now up to 160 hp, as well as more thrust for the Turbo, now rated at a full 200 hp. The increased muscle shaved a few tenths off the acceleration times, while color-keyed bodyside moldings and new wheels dressed things up a bit. That year also saw the GTU version debut, essentially a base model with some performance enhancements such as firmer suspension and larger, alloy wheels fitted with performance tires.

1990 Mazda RX-7 (with Turbo hood and custom wheels)

1990 Mazda RX-7 (with Turbo hood and custom wheels)

The next three years, 1990 through 1992, saw little change for Mazda’s exciting two-seater, apart from the GTUs version debuting. Essentially a Turbo model minus the turbo engine, it benefitted from the top dog RX-7’s top shelf underpinnings, such as the upgraded brakes and suspension components.

After seven model years, the second generation RX-7 had run its course. Those wondering how it could be topped would be stunned with what followed for 1993.

Look for Part Two in this series coming soon.

Comments

  1. I remember when that rotary engine came out when I was about 12 yrs. old and it was a certain curiosity for a motocross racing youngster with a well rounded knowledge of internal combustion….but no pistons? research time! no internet. I found a book in the Texarkana TX library which told me how it worked and I wished I was 2 yrs older and could possess this “new tech” as I saw a better way to do many thing mechanical. (I am now 50 yrs. old and recently got one with a 1,5 litre with two Holly 450 cfms and they sol;d it cheap as it was locked up… they reckoned it needed new pistons. I kept my mouth shut and wrote the check for 250.00 usd and took it home on a trailer. ( I knew it wasn’t locked up. it needed a slight jerk and it was running again with great revenge and greed for the road as only 187 k on the odometer meant hardly used) After locating all the drug paraphernalia and crack rock from the carpet(DEA auction) I had a like new RX-7 that automatically kicked in the 4 barrels at 3500 rpms and felt some good g-force. This wasn’t an ordinary RX-7. ) 0 to 60 was a fast – less that 5 seconds we figured,and as fast as one could shift a truly smooth tranny. Yeah this sound s a bit fantastic and I still got the fantasy stored and still needing a bit of body work on the left front fender and a paint job….that champagne gold sucks IMO. I would be more likely to sell my wife of 32 yrs. than the car but since both are loved no sale on either. it was not turbo or supercharged but felt well over 225 HP and topped 145 easily tho a bit scared to push my luck on non racing tires and handle like a true sports car from Europe. The driver and recipient on his 16th b-day will be my neighbors son who has help me for many yrs in my “World’s Poorest Philanthopist” project( on google under that search.) He asked me if he could help me out and maybe get a car out of the deal. I sad yes and told him it woul;d be a great surprise if he worked hard at a not for profit charity growing organic food for hungry and homeless people. he’s15 now and a loyal friend and good worker and clever young man and we spoke of my war stories 3 hrs last night til 230 am.I was a sniper in the drug wars cant say more that that ya know. In 10 month hes in for a classic treat considering he’s been paid 5 to 10 bucks/hr depeding on the level of difficulty and responsibility of the work. In addition I designed a modern stereo that bump loud as hell to put in when he gets it. do you think he is lucky or did he earn this little “perk”? he has helped feed tens of thousands of poor hungry folks for over 4 yrs. and tho I am not a big time car collector or rich or anything important but instead a follower of the path to spiritual enlightenment thru J.C. as life is just a short test in comparison with eternity and it is my job to find joy thru bringing it to others. I hope he experiences joy in that cool car. no joke . 250.00 and it ran like a howling mean dog wanting to rip the road apart the result of some one smoking crack and driving I assume by the crap I found.

    • Thanks for the story Harold. Sounds like there’s a movie in there somewhere!

    • Ken Sparks says:

      Harold – what a story and what a guy you must be at this point in your life. To buy the RX7 at such a bargain, then to pay that favor forward by passing it on to a kid about to turn 16…after he earns it. Even though it would be an amazing gift to anyone, especially for their first car, I’m probably one of the few who feels he probably earned it by growing food to help feed hungry over the last 4 years. Lots of lessons there. You gave the guy incentive, hope, and are teaching him about how effort equals reward. He will never forget this experience with you and will probably someday do something similar for someone in the future.
      May God bless you.

    • Christopher O'D. says:

      I’m jealous of your young friend in that I was a huge fan of the RX series, but ended up with 3 Triumph TR-6 cars instead.
      It sounds DS as if you’ve been an admirable mentor to this young man and hopefully he and yourself remain close associates.
      I hope,with all of today’s fancy,overrated & overpriced choices in the auto world,he’ll realize what a unique gem,as well as piece of car enthusiast history being bestowed upon him!
      What’ll be the next one for you? I know once it’s in the blood, it’s there for good! At only 50, there’s still many more years to enjoy the automotive hobby.

      Enjoyed reading! Chris

    • I enjoy Harold’s story as much as the blog post! Ha!

  2. I too admired these cars as a young man. When I worked at a local service centre that had a reputation for tuning cars and getting the most out of them, we worked on a first generation RX7. I got to test drive it after the work was completed. I recall the trill of watching the tachometer go past 5000 rpm and the engine power kept increasing right along with the engine speed.
    I purchased a 1985 version ( last production year if the 1st gen) and relived my younger days with the rotary. It now houses a 600 horsepower Chevy engine and runs 125 mph in slightly over 10 seconds at the nearby drag strip. My son and I take it out occasionally throughout the summer months. We have a great time together as we spend beautiful afternoons at the track.
    I am not a young man anymore and offer it up for sale to others to have a chance at owning such an iconic 2 seater sports car and build memories of their own with it.

  3. SuperDave says:

    Though the RX-7 was sportier from the factory, I wish it’s predecessors, the RX-2,3&4 would have been mentioned.
    I bought an RX-2 when i was 17 from a guy who had raced it. I can’t tell you how much fun that car was. As stated in the article it didn’t have great “off the line” power, but many a camaro got eaten alive on a winding country road.
    I would love to find an old RX-3 to tinker with…..Thanks for the memories

  4. My first car was a brand-new ’83 RX-7 Limited Edition. It was so much fun to drive anywhere, but especially through the hillsides!

    I drove it for 12 years, finally giving it up when son #2 came along (for one infant I strapped the car seat in the back with the tie-down – please don’t judge me, times were different…). Of course now my three grown sons chide me for ever parting with it!

    With election season upon us I’m reminded that I’d put a bumper sticker on the air-flap that would pop up when the sunroof was off. It wasn’t visible when the roof was back on; that way I didn’t have to fear for my car’s well-being while parked on the street, and I thought it was a really cool way to display the sticker.

    I also remember calling the salesman out to the car when I picked up the car – because the high beams didn’t work. The car wasn’t started, and I was pushing the floor button for the wiper-washer (located where the high beam switch was on every other car I’d ever driven). (Sort of like thinking that you’re setting the parking brake on an Opel GT). I fooled many a date with that foot pedal – convincing them that the car could sense rain and would activate without switches.

    Anyway – it is still my favorite car, if only a memory (well, lots of memories). Maybe someday I’ll again be fortunate enough to own something as wonderful.

  5. I had a 1981 gold rx-7 with air dam,louvers.sunroof,am/fm cassette and foglights
    that was the car at he time.that was in 1983..
    miss my sports car

  6. I have such fond memories of our family’s Rx2. If I’m not mistaken, it was a ’74 or so. We used to have a great time with it off the line starting around 8.5k rpm and dumping the clutch! The off-the-line acceleration was so impressive and scared off many of the muscle cars in the 70s / early 80s. For some reason, we had to swap the engine…she started to leak too much oil / the rotor seals failed. The good news was that the factory governor (set at 112 mph) was not included with the swap. Down hills with the wind to our back, we could reach 140+ mph. I can’t specifically remember the wheel size, but I think they were 12″ and they sure took a beating. The Rx2 was so much fun snow racing in upcoming neighborhoods with the hand brake assisting in the corners. What a great car with great memories.

  7. Al Dutcher says:

    In 85, my 78 dodge colt was at th end of life.
    I had a little more money to throw around.
    I contemplated the bottom line vet, but then
    saw the 85 rx7 for 14k$.
    I went for the rx.
    What a lovely little machine,
    willingness to rev and glassy smooth,
    not to mention the cornering ability.
    Gas mileage in the low 20s, trade offs.
    I had 10 wonderful years with it til it got stolen, way bummer.
    My next car is the 95 civic ex coupe,
    a close relative in terms of power to weight and low CG.
    If mazda was still making the rx,
    I d get another one.

  8. I had several RX2’s, RX3 was my favorite until my wife got it totaled by a drunk hitting her, dang it, and an RX4 station wagon. Love the rotary, they are talking about a new one coming out supposedly. Always wanted an RX7…RX8’s were gorgeous, too.

  9. Love the article. I have 84 GLSE with 28000 miles. purchased Brand new!

  10. I’m a young person so I guess I just can see this gorgeous car on this blog, or in those photos on the internet. But I really love it, especially the 1979 Madza RX7. It looks unique and fabulous. Thanks for your sharing with very nice photos!

  11. These car is really awesome. But I think I’ll never have a chance to drive them. It seems that all I can do with them is just looking at their photos. This post is really interesting. Thank you.

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