Cars Of A Lifetime: 1985 Mazda Rx-7 GSL – Trying, and Failing, To Relive The Past

1985 Mazda Rx7 GSL

After giving up (probably too soon) on my commuter Ford Escort, I was on the hunt for a reasonable and reliable commuter car to get me back and forth from work every day. I am not the most practical person in an automotive sense and as proof I replaced the Escort with another first generation Mazda Rx-7. I think it was an attempt to recapture the magic of my beloved 1981 example, but needless to say it did not end well. Predictably, it was not a great commuter car and I came to the conclusion that sometimes it’s best to leave good memories in the past rather than attempt to recreate them.

My 1981 base model S had been one of most enjoyable cars I’d ever owned. While it wasn’t overly fast in a straight line it was great fun to toss around in the corners, the engine loved to rev, and it proved to be totally reliable and trouble free. So why the heck had I sold it? So rather than looking for a strictly utilitarian replacement for the Escort, I felt I could correct the wrong of selling the Rx-7 and have a fun commuter car at the same time.  If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s ferreting out cars that I wish to buy. It didn’t take long before I found a few possible candidates.


The first car I test drove was a first generation Toyota MR2. This wasn’t any ordinary MR2, but one that had a Japanese domestic market twenty-valve 4AGE engine swapped in place of the sixteen-valve North American specification engine. The four independent throttle bodies gave it a fantastic sound and, along with the extra valves, gave a useful boost in power. The stock MR2 engine put a respectable 112hp but the twenty-valve “silver top” engine raised the output to a stout 160hp. The MR2 was white, which I didn’t care for, and had a small of amount rust on the rear fenders so I talked myself out of buying it. Looking back, I should have bought it but since I couldn’t get the Rx-7 bug out of my system, I jumped at the opportunity to look at the 1985 example which showed up in the local classifieds.

1987 TVR 390SE

The owner was an interesting fellow who had sold his house and moved to a trailer park in order to import his dream car which turned out to be a mid-Eighties TVR 390SE wedge. This probably won’t surprise anyone but, yes, he was single. The Rx-7 was being sold to make space for the incoming TVR. I saw his car (above), but not him, at a car show a few years later. The Rx-7 was a 1985 GSL model which meant it still had the smaller, carburetor fed 12A engine but, unlike my previous Rx-7, also a limited slip differential. Various luxuries were included in the GSL package like power windows and upgraded audio. The car was also equipped with a sunroof which I quite fancied even through it robbed a significant amount of headroom.

1985 Mazda Rx-7 GSL 007 m

The car had started its life equipped with an automatic transmission but had been converted to a five speed manual gearbox by the former owner. In theory, this should have meant less wear on the engine as the automatic transmission doesn’t allow the driver to over-rev the engine. A lightened flywheel had been added when the car had been converted which made it a little tougher to take off in first gear and the car also had an aftermarket header and exhaust which made it feel a bit swifter than my old car. The “rats nest” of emissions controls had been removed–a fairly common modification in the Rx-7 community–and the car seemed to run and drive well. It came with a decent set of rubber on it which buoyed the optimism already inspired by my previous Rx-7 experience, so a deal was struck and I agreed to collect it the next day.

1985 Mazda RX-7

Picking up the car went smoothly. Or so I thought. After I filled up the gas tank, I noticed the car was very hard to start when the engine was fully warmed up. I put this down to the emissions equipment being jettisoned and proceeded on my way. For the next few days I enjoyed driving my Rx-7, even in commuting car duty. If one didn’t have to restart a warm engine it ran and drove beautifully… that is, until it snowed. I was driving down the highway during a light spring snow when all of a sudden, the back end swung out and the car did a 180. I found myself doing 100km/h backwards and heading across three lanes before landing in a ditch. Luckily I’d left early enough in the morning that traffic had been light and somehow I had managed not to hit anyone else. The ditch was filled with snow from the previous weeks which cushioned the car from damage, but it was well and truly stuck. I’d been driving in much worse winter conditions for years and even had previous experience in a very similar car so I was rather mystified as to why I had so dramatically lost control. While waiting for a tow truck, I had plenty time for an inspection which revealed nearly bald tires. While I hadn’t taken photos of the tires on the car when I bought it, I am convinced these were not the same ones. I strongly suspect they were swapped out after purchasing but before I picked the car up. Since then, I’ve never left a car after buying it. It’s been strictly cash-and-go from then on.


I had deliberately left some cash in the budget for repairs and upgrades, so I dug into that and purchased some decent rubber. I had previously ordered a set of brand new Minilite style rims to fit on the car but while they fit the car itself, the stock Rx-7 lug bolts didn’t work with the rims. I had to source some new rubber to be swapped over onto the 13″ stock alloy wheels.

1985 Mazda Rx-7 GSL 009 m

The Rx-7’s limitation as a commuter vehicle was starting to become very evident with the lightened flywheel and hot start issue. It was a major pain in the heavy, slow-moving bumper to bumper traffic of my evening commute. A lot of tricky first gear stop-and-starts led to the occasional stall. When this happened, the restart procedure was as follows: Put the throttle pedal flat to the floor, crank the engine over for about thirty seconds at which time it would finally catch, and watch while fellow commuters would visibly startle at the sight of the small fireball bursting from the exhaust. So while, on the other hand, the sunroof was rather nice on warm summer days, it was quite obvious I’d bought the wrong car for the job.

1985 Mazda Rx-7 GSL 005 m

The hot start issue eventually became a cold start issue as well; not a desired characteristic for one’s only means of transport! After perusing the Rx-7 online forums, I learned this was likely a symptom of low compression and given my car’s low mileage, it likely resulted from a previous owner consistently over revving it. Rotaries can be quite reliable if you change the oil regularly and respect the red line. Ignore these rules at your peril, however. Of course, by this point I began remembering the seller bragging about how well it revved. In my excitement to recapture the magic from my first Rx-7, I had overlooked all the warning signs telling me to run away from this particular example. With a heavy heart, I sold the car at a loss to a rotary enthusiast who planned to rebuild the motor. For my penance, I spent the next couple months on the very slow and very expensive commuter bus.