In a temporary fit of practicality, I’d sold my Triumph Spitfire and found myself regretting the decision almost immediately. I was a car guy without an interesting car and as usual, my budget was limited, but the answer to my prayer came in a slightly unusual form. The company I was working for had a couple thousand employees and ran its own For Sale newsgroup. Prices tended to be better than your average paper-based classifieds and I figured folks would be more cautious about dumping a lemon on a fellow employee versus a random stranger. Every morning, I’d check my Netscape newsreader hoping to find the perfect candidate and eventually, this Rx-7–one of my all time favorite cars–popped up. I’d argue it was almost perfect; perhaps just fifty horsepower and a rack-and-pinion steering conversion away from automotive nirvana.
I’d always admired the first generation Rx-7. To my eyes, it was better looking than almost anything else from that era as well as leaps and bounds nicer to look at than its second generation successor. My view is probably tainted by the lovely smoke grey model I used to pass in the teacher’s parking lot everyday on the way into elementary school. It was a lightly used car at the time, driven by an attractive teacher. Her name escapes me, as do the finer details of her appearance, but I can very easily picture that RX-7 right down to the place it was always parked. So perhaps it isn’t strange that I’d came to own a nearly identical example many years later.
When I contacted the owner of the RX-7, he mentioned that he had several buyers lined up to take a look at it. I managed to get myself first on the list for a test drive. It was a base S model with the rarely seen steel rims. Cosmetically, the car was in fantastic shape. Only a seam tear in driver’s seat marred the otherwise mint condition interior, and it ran and drove perfectly. Perhaps this wasn’t too much of a surprise, given it was a true one-owner car complete with every bill and receipt since new. The seller even had a fuel log book in which he recorded the date, mileage and quantity of fuel added, dating all the way back to the very first fill-up. This was the sort of guy you always hope to buy from. The price was very reasonable and when I said I’d take the car, he seemed reluctant as he’d promised a couple other folks they could view it that evening. Some shameless begging and an extra two hundred dollars sealed the deal.
One of the very first things I’d did was replace the plain steel rims. While rarely specified on the Rx-7, they weren’t exactly attractive. The non-GSL-SE Mazda RX-7 has a rather unusual bolt pattern of 4x110mm which is only used by some very early Toyotas, some ATVs and rear drive Mazdas from the 1970s and early 1980s, so wheels were a little harder to source than normal. That teacher’s car had been equipped with the factory Mazda alloy wheel and I would have been happy with a set but at the time, none happened to be sale locally. Luckily, I managed to score a set of Riken mesh style alloy rims from local RX-7 race car driver and they complemented the grey paintwork beautifully.
What makes the RX-7 most special is, of course, the rotary engine. My car was fitted with the 1,146cc 12A motor developing 101hp @ 6000 rpm. Surprisingly, torque was slightly higher with 107 lb-ft available at 4000 rpm. While low end torque is not exactly abundant, internet forum members that have never driven an early RX-7 generally overstate the peakiness of the engine’s power delivery. My 1981 model was the first year to ditch the thermal reactor for a catalytic convertor which allowed for a leaner mixture and improved fuel economy. The old four-speed manual gearbox was also discontinued for 1981, so my car was also fitted with the newly-standard five-speed.
The car briefly overlapped with my Neon ownership, but I was so smitten with the RX-7 that it became my daily driver. Even my wife, who is definitely not a car person, kept finding excuses to drive it. Despite the rotary engine’s mixed reputation, my car had almost flawless reliability during its stay. The one and only thing that broke was the analog clock. It started buzzing and draining the battery, so it had obviously developed a short. Pulling its fuse was the quick fix.
The interior very much had a seventies vibe to it which was perfectly fine with me. I prefer the look of the earlier interior with its center-mounted tachometer but most folks like the more refined look of the updated 1984-1985 dashboard.
The rear hatch makes the car more practical than one would expect. I hauled a step ladder in mine a couple of times. Strictly a two seater as sold in North America, there were generously sized storage bins behind the seats. In other markets, a small rear seat was fitted instead.
While the rotary engine was the car’s technical showpiece, the rest of the design was hardly cutting edge. At the front, the Rx-7 had MacPherson struts with disc brakes, pretty much carried over from the earlier RX-3/808/Savana. The rear had a live rear axle suspended by a four-link system with Watt’s linkage; very similar to the rear-drive 323 and 626. While a bit primitive on paper, it was exceptionally well located and worked very well in practice. Weight was kept low, at least on the early cars like mine, at under 2500lbs and because of the compact rotary engine, it was well balanced, with 50/50 weight distribution.
Steering was handled via a recirculating ball set up raided from the corporate parts bin. It lacked the feel of a rack-and-pinion system, suffered from vagueness if well-worn and was a bit on the slow side for a sports car (the later and heavier GSL-SE had power steering fitted in attempt to remedy this), necessitating a larger steering wheel. The low mileage steering box in my car was still nice and tight, thus working more precisely than internet lore would lead you to believe. Sure, a rack-and-pinion conversion would have inched the car towards near perfection, but the recirculating ball was almost as good.
I can’t recall my exact reasoning for the selling this car. It might have been out of a desire to save it from the winter elements, or maybe I just wanted a droptop again, or perhaps we simply needed the cash at the time. Whatever the reason, my past self is a moron for having let it go. While it was in near-mint condition, I didn’t get much more money out of it beyond the meager amount I had invested into its wheels. I later bought another first generation Rx-7, but it proved disappointing in comparison. That, as always, is a story for another day.
If only we could have held on to all the vehicle gems from our past. I think all of us have very similar stories that we could tell about long gone wheels.
Hindsight is always 20/20 as they say.
Thanks for sharing this story. I never owned a fun car. But the RX 7 has a prominent spot on my fun car list. They are getting rare.
The only association with Mazda during the eighties in this household was with the 626 2 litre diesel sedan.. it had an unusual allegedly swiss-made blower unit attached to it and huffing around 11psi from memory through a fairly large intercooler to give performance similar to a Toyota 2CT, however the Mazda’s piston rings weren’t up to the job after about 80kms’ of use and these engines were destined early in their lives to become boat moorings accordingly. In the end importers and dealers shunned these like the black plague as 100% of them sooner rather than later gave very serious engine trouble, namely an annoyingly insufficient residual compression to start and run when cold. However these Mazdas looked pleasant and were well constructed and rode nicely (when the engine was still running).
Love these cars, that engine is SO smooth, like a turbine. And sounds great as well. The first generation is very nice, and once they changed the rear, that tinted light bar became one of the best features. These were quite popular growing up in LA and several friends had them. That color is great as well, really fits the car. It was very rare to see the steel wheels, usually the early cars came with the Cromodora-look-alike wheels and the later ones the 4-spoke black and silver ones with the GSL-SE getting larger flush-faced multispokes, all except the latter shared with the 626, the coupe version of which I was driving at the time. Thanks for another great trip down memory lane, Dave!
“I’d argue it was almost perfect; perhaps just fifty horsepower and a rack-and-pinion steering conversion away from automotive nirvana.”
I used to have an ’86 RX-7. It had (almost) fifty extra horsepower and rack-and-pinion steering; if it had the light weight and compact dimensions of the original it might have been automotive nirvana – perhaps the GSL-SE is the one to have…
“Only a seam tear in driver’s seat marred the otherwise mint condition interior…”
I bought my ’86 in 1989 with about 50,000 km on it; the only mark in the interior was a seam tear on the outside edge of the base of the driver’s seat cushion – I think Mazda used some cheap material here. I took the seat apart and took the seat base to an upholstery shop for repair, they used higher grade material and it still looked good when I sold the car almost 8 years later.
“…the rest of the design was hardly cutting edge.”
These early RX-7s almost seem like a bridge between older, more primitive cars like your Triumph and my MG and the much more modern sports cars that appeared a bit later.
Nice write up – thanks for the Memories!
I think you are bang on – they were a sort of transition car between the older European (mostly British) traditional sports car and the up coming sporty Japanese cars of the 1980s and early 1990s.
I enjoyed reading this, Dave. Seriously, though, WHY would you have ever gotten rid of this rare spec car in good condition? I hope it’s been well-kept by the subsequent owner(s). I know that each time I see a gen1 Miata, I’m on the lookout for a rare steel wheeled car with manual steering… and I never find any.
Also, why’s everyone so down on the gen2? So it looked kinda dull, doesn’t anyone find that somewhat appealing?
Perry – Many of the first gen Miatas may have manual steering but been upgraded to the alloys (which were lighter than the steelies). I now I did with mine. So maybe there are more manual steering ones out there than you think…
I think Dave and I share the trait of not holding on to cars that are A) interesting and B) without significant issues!
I knew I’d regret selling it especially for the low price I was able to get for it but I do love owning a wide variety of vehicles. Only so much garage space (and spousal understanding!)
About 5 years ago, a co-worker had a turd brown ’83 RX-7 as his daily driver. He was a young guy, and eventually had to sell the car because he could no longer afford the insurance on it.
A while back when I was a scrap dealer I picked one of these up from a public housing development. The owner had had it since new and had driven it into the ground (the salty climate here didn’t help). He had every intention of resurrecting the car to as new, and bought a ton of nos parts including those rikken meshies. Unfortunately a workplace accident left him with limited use of his left arm and shoulder. He tried for a few years to sell the car with no luck. When he phoned me he wanted to have it out of his driveway and only wanted a few hundred dollars for everything. I gave him what I had in my pocket ($900) and scooped up the car.
I looked over the car and decided I could not with good conscience sell it even as a project. I sold the mesh rikkens and most of the nos trim to a fellow with one identical to this one and split the profit with the guy I got it from.
Some cars seem to be worth more dead than alive. Shame as it leads to a low survival rate.
I loved my ’79 RX-7. It was extremely reliable, and took me on a number of great vacation trips- most notably a tour of Montana and Wyoming, and Copper Harbor, Michigan. With lots of prior experience with rotaries (including rebuilds and racing Showroom Stock RX-2s) the ’79 engine was bulletproof.
I traded it at 130,000 miles, still running great, on a 2-year-old ’85 Jetta. I would like another one, but nice ones are pretty hard to find- especially in Wisconsin.
Yep Mazda wheels do have an odd bolt pattern I now realise what the wheels I got from the tip shop in Margate were off $4 each I didnt enquire at the time and thought they were off a 626, but they were a perfect match for the steelies in your photo I was only after the lugged rally tyres to fit to my 323 van but the rims bolted on fine, the joys of living for free in a bush shack was the 1km of mud to negotiate in and out without 4wd
Some of the really early small Toyotas (60s and very early 70s) did too. Oh and some ATVs oddly enough but pretty much nothing else.
I love those RX-7s.
The sound is unmistakable.
These have some similarities to the 924, side profile and front, at least in the early ones.
I got one of those blue filter housings in pristine shape from a pick a part. Love the way it says Mazda Rotary Engine.
Hope to own one some day.
Didn’t this generation have a turbo model for a bit? If so, then that might be the one to have in terms of power.
The Japanese market had an optional model with a turbo. But it was rare even there. None here however. They are relatively easy to boost the horsepower rating with porting.
There was a turbo 12A in the Japanese market (that’s why the second generation was called the Turbo II) but not in the US. We got a fuel injected 13B in the US instead.
I had a low mileage example of one of these for a while, but I sold it and my turbocharged Miata before I moved to California. The RX-7 had reasonably fresh catalytic converters but I didn’t want to risk spending $1500 shipping it and then trying to recoup it in a sale out here, since I didn’t know if I’d have a second parking space. It turns out that I would so part of me regrets selling it.
On the other hand, I really preferred the second gen RX-7s that I’d owned in my 20s. I preferred the way they drove and I like the looks of night the first and second gens equally.
I’d like to find either a Turbo II or a third gen, but right now I only have two parking spots, one for my Challenger and one for my B2600i.
I’m not big on Japanese cars, but there are few that I do like, the 1st generation RX-7 is one of them I’ve always had a thing for them, I think it was engrained into my mind after my grandparents brought a bright green 1st gen Rx-7 scale model back from a trip to Japan in 1979-1980 or so, I still have that little green RX-7 on a bookshelf behind me right now.
Similar to this one, but not exact.
I find the first and third generation RX7s most attractive with the second gen third. Almost 20 years ago my daughter bought a 1987 RX7 from my sister in law. My sister in law had bought it brand new but now with a newborn baby she needed a mommy mobile and the RX7 had to go. I can’t remember how long after my daughter bought the RX7 that it developed a coolant leak. I located the leak and fixed it. A few days later my daughter drove the car to work only to have one of her coworkers yelling at her that her car was on fire. The fire department put out the fire and we had the hauled to our house. The fire had destroyed the engine harness and anything that wan’t metal on the engine top. I was undecided as what to do so I called a friend who was a professional mechanic for his opinion. He suggested buying a donor car and he would do the labor. A few weeks later I located a donor(s). The seller had two RX7s in his backyard and he wanted $300 for the pair and he would not split them up I had to take the pair. It took 2 or 3 weekends before we finished replacing all the burnt parts and the car was running again. However it wasn’t right there was a lot of smoke power was down. The verdict the seals were bad. It was a sad situation my daughter had put down her hard earned money and the car didn’t last a year. I managed to sell her RX7 for a fraction of what she had paid. The second car I sold to some one who wanted it to build a Locost. The third car I stripped and had the hulk hauled away. BTW one of those donor RX7s had the 2+2 option. I still have the engine, tansmission, and all the parts I removed from that last car. Maybe some day another RX7 will come along.
Nice write-up David. Girlfriend’s brother had one of these under a tarp in his parents’ backyard forever. Kept promising himself he’d get to it but ultimately sold it for peanuts. For a long while these were cheap as, more recently they seem to occupy that cult space previously held by the Z. I think the only way is up on these.
I’m thinking of selling my 1984 white one. It just isn’t getting driven enough – I didn’t put any gas in it last year. It needs tires (not because they’re bald, but because of their age), and a tuneup.
That is so coincidental, I had a teacher in elementary school who had a smoke grey RX-7 which looked the exact same, and had the wheels of the car in the second picture. It was always parked in the same spot. This is in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ever wierd! Even as a child, I always admired this car. I was in elementary from ’95 and on, and I remember being about 6 or 7 admiring this car. I’d sneak in the parking lot and gaze at the simple, yet functional and elegant dashboard. My dad was driving a late 70’s Dodge Diplomat with the 318. Always had trouble in rainy weather, but that’s another story. Compared to the Diplomat which was our family vehicle, this car was like a spaceship, inside and out. As a kid, I thought the car had to be new, and this was in the mid-90’s! Mazda really hit the mark with this car, its proportions are beautiful to my eyes.
Such a pretty car… I saw a convertible conversion in the early 1980s, and wondered why Mazda had never made a factory version. Fast forward five years and out came the MX5.
The convertible was a very nice looking car. An aftermarket company even managed to use the 626 trunk lid in the conversion.
I very much liked the looks of the first gen RX-7. And, I had a poster of one on my wall for a couple of years. Probably still have it somewhere. Would have loved to have bought one new. Also liked the original Mazda GLC of about this time period.
In 1978-79, my college dorm RA had a nearly new one of these, a copper colored one. In my mind, he was living the perfect life with that car. I love the looks of these but was never willing to undergo the learning curve with the rotary engines. Fortunately, I get to live vicariously through guys like you!
Looks just like the one this guy at Home Depot owned when I worked there a few years ago