COAL: 1972 Mazda RX-2 — Paleolithic Zoom-Zoom

Little Japanese generic coupe, with a surprise in the engine bay.

A friend had waxed all of us at the midnight back country grudge races with his sister’s borrowed RX-2. In our little automotive world of highly abused four-cylinder engines working their little hearts out, to satisfy our need for acceleration and general zooming around at full-throttle, the Mazda was a revelation. The engine actually increased power as the rpm’s rose, which engines were supposed to do, but none of ours ever did so. There was a sort of turbine sound and feel to the thing. The car launched especially well, burning lots of rubber from the skinny right rear tire. Most importantly, the “feel” of the thing was that it simply scooted along.

It was roughly the equal of the V-6 Capri in 0-60 acceleration on paper, but it felt twice as quick as the European Ford in actually doing so. People tend to recall the early RX’s being extraordinarily fast cars. They weren’t, but they felt like it, so the rosy memories of the engine’s capabilities have grown with age.

This was the answer to my dreams, as I had found that great looking cars are just fine, and the controls and specs don’t really need to work “well”, as long as they work “nicely”, but engine power and “feel” are categories all their own, and a car that has them will make the rest of it less consequential, making adequate more than acceptable. I wanted more power. The other draws to this car were that it shared the typical small Japanese car tendency towards nimble handling and communicative controls, if not high handling and braking capabilities. It was also truly a “sleeper”, and you could be left alone driving around, rather than being challenged at stoplights and in parking lots by other young guys who were all fired up.

Not bad looking, but the Italians have nothing to worry about.

The car itself was a bit odd looking, as if it had been out in the rain and sun, and all the curves and edges had melted a bit, like a bar of soap in the wet, leaving one with something a bit misshapen and slightly “off”. The RX-2 also shared the typical Japanese fragile and plasticky interior materials, thin sheet metal, and propensity to rust.

I found my car, a 40k mile example which was owned by a growing young family, who needed something bigger (how long do these rotary engines last, anyway?). $1,200 to buy, $1,700 to sell the Celica, and I came out ahead on the swap. As an odd by-product of the purchase, the midnight grudge matches quickly dried up, as who wanted to go out and get his clock cleaned, every time? The end of it was likely all for the best, in the long run, in any case.

This was a nice and comfortable car for long drives, and it got 20 mpg on the freeway, which was not bad at all. As I was getting ready for college, the extra interior and trunk space would come in handy. In the meantime, I could gun it on freeway entrances and at right-turns-on-red-after-stopping, the two somewhat acceptable situations in which one could wind out the engine. I was going to school, working, hanging out with friends, and had no time or inclination to do anything with the car, other than to drive it. It was perfect for the task, and blended into anonymity at college up in the L.A. area, which would prove to be an important feature later on, in hindsight.

The rotary engine is in there, under all that stuff. The thing worked remarkably well and consistently, given the new technology and the complexity of all the appendages.

I was one of those people who knew little about the rotary, other than how it worked and how to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. I had no issues with the car, or later rotaries (there are more…), simply by following the basic rules. Don’t rev it over 7k, don’t rev it cold (let temps stabilize first), let it idle a bit before shutting down (let temps stabilize first), don’t overheat it, change the oil every 3k miles, add a quart of oil every 1k mikes, never let the oil get low. That’s it, then drive the heck out of it.

The car had full instrumentation and a busy dashboard, in the Japanese black-plastic style. The front seat bottoms were high off the floor, the seat backs were fully sprung, and there was quite a bit of leg room and head room. This was the first and only Japanese car, for a long time, in which I did not adjust the driver’s seat fully rearward, given my long legs.

Complete but generic and plasticky dashboard, lots of leg room and head room, comfy full seats and an upright seating position. 90% all good.

The car had a big back seat, with leg and foot room, and a large trunk, that was unfortunately partly taken up by the spare tire that had no good place in which to be stowed. The live rear axle was sprung with coils, not leaves, so the ride was very nice on long trips.

Lots of leg room, knee room, and head room in the back seat. Very un-Japanese for the day. The little white vinyl loops are for holding the front seat belt latches when they are not being used.

Big trunk, utilitarian by today’s standards, with a spare tire in the way. Take a chance, go without the spare, and the trunk is gigantic. Do you feel lucky?

All in all, the car was about 90% of what one would want. The thin sheet metal and fragile interior, over time, are difficult to work around. The styling is “meh”. But the rest of it is quite nice, and a great engine makes up for a multitude of smaller sins. These RX-2s became very hard to find used, in decent condition, because people loved them until the point at which the engine started giving trouble, which would always happen, sooner or later. Many major engine parts were wear parts, by design, so the thing would wear out and go to pot over time, even if there were no unexpected, catastrophic issues.

I ended up selling this car, at 65k miles, to my sister, in a three-way family car trade. She got the RX-2, which lasted for another 20k miles and a few years, until the engine wore out and gave it up at 85k miles. The car was scrapped, as that is what you did with them when the engine went down. That is why you never see one parked at the curb today.

My part of the three-way trade was the longed-for family Mustang Fastback. Time for me to DD the thing, and find out all the goods and bads of actually owning and driving a bright red Mustang.