COAL: 1981 Mazda RX-7 S – Almost Perfect

1981 Mazda RX-7 S side

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.

Mazda Rx-7

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.

Ladder in a Rx-7

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.

rear Rx-7

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.