Curbside Classic: Mazda RX-7 FC3S – Middle Child Syndrome

(originally posted on 2/28/12)    There was a time, in the halcyon days of the American auto industry – and, indeed, of America itself – when there were “Chevy families,” “Ford families,” and the like. I was born well after that era, but after the second fuel crisis in 1979, my father traded in his Ford Torino for what he called “the cheapest new car available,” a 1979 Mazda GLC. For the next 25 years, we were oddballs everywhere we went. We were a Mazda family.

My parents owned a succession of piston-powered Mazdas, but never any of the Wankel-powered cars. It’s not that they didn’t want to, but the time when Mazda planned to power all their cars with the rotary engine was long past, and a two-seat RX-7 wasn’t in the cards with a young me hanging around. However, my father had a great admiration for the engineering simplicity of the Wankel, and explained its operation to me as a young child.

As it does for many boys as they grow into young men, my interests turned from Legos and model trains, to sports cars and women. For some, the interest in the former was a means to an end to acquire the latter. I, however, had – and still have – a passion for both. I wanted nothing more than an RX-7. Of course, being 16 and broke, the closest I was going to get was to buy my parents’ 1988 Mazda B2200 pickup truck. This wasn’t as poor a substitute as one would imagine – it shared its manual transmission with RX-7s, after all! It also handled pretty well, especially after I added some American Racing Outlaw II 16” wheels and fat Falken tires, and lowered it 2”.

However, when I was in college, one of my father’s coworkers was selling his 1988 Mazda RX-7 GTU, as he had purchased a 1994 RX-7, and no longer had the space for the older car. It was a bit rough around the edges, but it only cost $1,700. It was a revelation. The first time my father drove the car, within 30 seconds, he said “ok, now I understand what the fuss was all about.”

The second-generation RX-7 sometimes gets a bad rap. In most people’s minds, it is overshadowed by the simplicity and purity of the original RX-7, and the brilliant handling and rocketship thrust of the third-generation. Some people call it the 280ZX of RX-7s – others think its styling was a blatant copy of the Porsche 944.

Having had some experience with all three generations of RX-7s, however, I would argue that the second-generation car deserves better. The first generation may have been the original, but it was really a parts-bin sports car. The chassis was based on that of the RX-3 and GLC. It had a live rear axle and recirculating ball steering. I currently own a 1981 RX-7, and aside from the rotary engine’s smoothness and prowess at highway speeds, it feels a bit agricultural, more MGB than modern sports car.

On the other hand, the second-generation car was a true clean-sheet design. It included rack-and-pinion steering, an independent rear suspension, and a completely unique chassis. It also resisted rust far better than the first generation cars. The only major carryover was the engine and transmission, which were an improvement over the 13B and M-type transmission from the first generation GSL-SE. The second-generation car was really Mazda’s first modern sports car.

It is true that the second-generation car is the softest of the three, but the softest RX-7 is a far harder-edged machine than any Z car short of the original 240Z. At 2700 lbs in non-turbo form, it is some 500 lbs heavier than the very first RX-7s, but only about 200 lbs heavier than the GSL-SE, and about the same weight as the third-generation car. The Turbo II is about 100 lbs heavier still – not only does it have the weight of the turbo, intercooler, and associated plumbing, but it uses a different R-type transmission, and heavier-duty driveshaft, differential, and axles.

A word about the second-generation trim levels – without delving into too much detail, they really matter on this car, and confusingly, were swapped around from year to year. A general rule of thumb is that most years there was a base model with 4-lug wheels and smaller brakes, a GXL with power windows, locks, 5-lug wheels, larger brakes, and an adjustable suspension, a Turbo II which had the turbocharged engine and all the power equipment

However, in 1988 there was a GTU model, commemorating Mazda’s dominance of the IMSA GTU class with the RX-7. This model had the upgraded brakes, suspension, and Recaro seats from the Turbo II, the 15” wheels from the GXL, and an available sunroof and air conditioning, but no power windows or locks. Road and Track preferred this model to the turbocharged 10th Anniversary Edition. However, starting in 1989, the GTU was the base model, and Mazda introduced a GTUs, which was similar to the 1988 GTU, but with additional suspension tweaks, an aluminum hood, and a steeper 4.30:1 rear differential. In my opinion, the ones to own are the Turbo II, the 1988 GTU, and the 1989-90 GTUs.

While the car does share styling similarities with the Porsche 944 – and the 944 was Mazda’s target for this RX-7 – there is an original basis for much of the styling. Mazda had wanted the one-piece backlight for the original RX-7, but had nixed it for cost reasons. (Indeed, the second-generation RX-7’s backlight was the largest glass installed in a Japanese car up until that time, and required the supplier to purchase new equipment to make it.) The flared fenders had first been seen on RX-7s on the early IMSA cars, which had widebody fenders to fit much wider rubber.

This styling cue can be seen on several other Mazdas of the 1980s, including the first-generation MX-6 coupe, the first-generation MPV, and the Ford Festiva. Yes, the Festiva is a Mazda design – the 121 – which was subsequently sold to Kia, which, at the time, was a Ford and Mazda affiliate. Kia built the Festiva for Ford. Regardless of how much of the styling came from Porsche, and how much from Mazda’s IMSA racing efforts, I regard the RX-7’s styling to be cleaner and more cohesive than the 944, which was evolved from a 1970s design.

Two-seaters are considered somewhat antisocial in Japan, and so every RX-7 has been designed as a 2+2. However, the second-generation cars were the only ones available in the US with the rear seats installed. First-generation cars required the removal of a collision brace to install the rear seats, and third-generation cars are very small inside and were always marketed in the US as extremely focused sports cars. Still, RX-7 2+2s are rare in the US. Most cars had the storage lockers instead.

not a GTU

The interior is obviously out of the 1980s, but avoids some of the worst excesses of cars like the Subaru XT. The interior was designed around a two-person bathtub, as the Japanese consider this a comfortable and personal space. Instead of the usual steering column stalks, there are paddles behind the steering wheel. One operates the turn signals, and the other is the cruise control, if equipped. The switches for the wipers and headlights are to either side of the instrument panel, along with buttons for the hazard lights and to raise the popup lights without turning them on.

This is a useful function if the car is parked outside in winter weather. Unlike most pop-up lights, these used a trapezoidal linkage that kept the bulbs facing forward no matter whether the lights were raised or lowered. This allowed them to shine through small plastic windows in the front fascia to allow a flash-to-pass function. This mechanism is unusually robust – unlike many other cars with popup lights, you will rarely see them fail on a second-generation RX-7. However, it is still best to leave the lights popped up if snow or ice is expected overnight. The center stack is largely conventional, aside from the Logicon HVAC system, which was fully electronic – there were no mechanical connections from the buttons or sliders to the actual HVAC system. This is normal today but not as common in the 1980s. These could become troublesome, as we will see.

not the author’s engine

The naturally aspirated variants of the second-generation car are among the most mechanically robust Wankels Mazda has built. The engines are easily good for over 150,000 between rebuilds. I personally had one go to 182,000 miles before compression became marginal.

If the second-generation cars were relatively rust-resistant and mechanically robust, why are they a rare sight on the roads today? The cars’ Achilles Heel is its electrical system. There are several different circuit boards in the car – the ECU, the body computer, the instrument panel, the warning light cluster, the aforementioned Logicon, and speed-sensitive power steering controller. Each was constructed using a cold-soldering process, and over time, these solder joints would fail due to vibration and temperature fluctuations. The prices for new units – when you could find them – are eye-watering.

I kept my car on the road by removing each unit, and resoldering every single joint on the boards. It is not particularly difficult, but it IS mind-numbingly tedious. However, it solved every drivability problem the car had. However, most folks didn’t know this was possible or couldn’t be bothered, and it led to a lot of cars being parked or junked when they wouldn’t run right, or couldn’t pass emissions. There used to be a business that would rebuild these items at reasonable prices, but I can’t recall the name, and doubt they still exist.

The turbocharged cars have some additional issues – Mazda included an boost limiter that, incredibly, would keep the turbo from producing more boost than specified by cutting the fuel supply. As anyone who has worked on turbocharged cars knows, this is a Very Bad Thing. Since the factory exhaust backpressure regulated turbo boost, owners who were used to other turbocharged cars would swap a free-flowing exhaust onto the car, only to find boost spikes would lead to a fuel cut, which would lead to knock, which quickly destroyed the engine’s apex seals, which are analogous to the piston rings in a reciprocating engine. Rotary engines do not tolerate knock at all.

Additionally, many of these cars were destroyed by the Fast-and-the-Furious crowd in the early 2000s. I am responsible for the destruction of one – in my case, though, it was a wet road and an unmarked hairpin turn. I replaced it with an identical Sunrise Red 1988 RX-7 GTU. Unfortunately, in 2005, I had a cooling system failure, coupled with an unresponsive coolant temperature gauge. The needle spiked from normal to full high in about 5 seconds, and at that point the car immediately boiled over. This was an unfortunate combination of issues, as it provided me no warning of a pending overheat condition, which promptly destroyed the engine.

Both cars rest on my parents’ property. I bought the wreck back from the insurance company to use as a parts car, and for various reasons over the years I have not gotten around to rebuilding the engine in the second car. Money isn’t the issue – I travel weekly for my job and just do not have time for such projects. I could pay to have it done, but the chassis has 185,000 miles, and I question whether I should restore such a high mileage chassis with some rust, or whether I should hold out and buy a nice, low-mileage example. Unfortunately, I am very picky, as I specifically want another 1988 GTU in Sunrise Red. I have been looking for one for years, and the only one I’ve seen for sale had over 150,000 miles on it. I have since owned a 2004 Mazda RX-8, and a 1981 Mazda RX-7. The RX-8 actually felt similar to the second-generation car, but I am a child of the 1980s, and modern cars simply sit higher, even sporty ones.

Ultimately, I think the best possible second-generation RX-7 would be a GTU or GTUs with the 13B-MSP from the RX-8 installed. It’s an easy 240 hp in a reliable, streetable, emissions-friendly package. Furthermore, parts availability for the older rotaries is starting to become a problem – RX-8 engine parts are also the cheapest option.

First-generation RX-7s are becoming collector items – several nice examples have sold recently on eBay for $10,000 or more – and third-generation RX-7s will always be legendary and have largely hit the bottom of their depreciation curve. However, the second-generation car is, to me, the perfect intersection of modernity and simplicity. Mother nature seems to agree with me, as she placed a wildflower on the grave of a great car.