COAL: 1977 Mazda RX-3SP — Mastering Mechanical Malpractice

A classic example of late ‘70s tape stripes, flares, and spoilers.

I felt the need to stash my cherished Mustang, and to find something cheap to drive to college and to leave in the harsh environment of the open parking lots. My Mazda RX-2 experience had been a very good one, with great reliability, and all the happy little frission generated by driving the rotary engine. However, by this time (1980), it was getting more difficult to find good low mileage examples of the rotary, as most of them had been sold in 1972 and 1973, and were getting up in years and miles. The newer ones were rare birds, and also generally more reliable, so people kept them or sold them at prices above my budget.

In the meantime, Mazda had introduced a rotary engine exchange program. You couldn’t actually buy an engine, but you could take your car in to the Mazda dealer and have the engine exchanged for an identical rebuilt one. This was because Curtiss-Wright owned the U.S. license for the rotary engine (it had some sort of international patent on it), and would not permit outright sales, but rather exchanges only. They got a small bounty on every new rotary engine vehicle sold in the U.S. The more I shopped and thought about it, the better it sounded to buy a cheap Mazda with a dead engine, and then go through the engine exchange program. This also solved the problem of sellers trying to pass off dead or dying cars as healthy. I could simply buy from a seller who had given up, and just wanted the car out of his driveway at some nominal price.

I shopped for another RX-2, but only came up with RX-3s. I finally bought a ‘73 coupe, and went through my trusty used car used Lincoln dealer, to get the engine exchange done wholesale, $700 instead of $1,100, and no sales tax (shhh). A complete car with an essentially brand new engine, for under $1,000. My kind of deal.

My “new” RX-3, with a new set of tires and freshly debadged. Too much jewelry on an already busy styling exercise. The slotted aluminum wheels came with the car, yay!

At this point, you might note that the CC title is for a ‘77, and the car is a ‘73. Like Fiats and Corvairs in the old days, if you were a tinkerer and had the space, people would start giving you cars or “finding” cheap cars for you. That was certainly my case, and I owned six various RX-3s in the space of a few years. However, I kept one of them, and let the rest go, and the one I kept is the subject of the title. I am pushing my RX-3 series of street cars into one COAL.

The RX-3 wasn’t as nice of a car as the RX-2, as it was more jouncy on its leaf sprung rear axle, and the styling was a much less efficient use of space, never mind that the RX-2 didn’t have all the rather dated early ‘70s “coke bottle” swoops and angles to it. But the RX-3 got me to school and back, and around town, mostly anonymously, and with little concern on my part about where I parked it or how it might be treated. I also got that nice rotary engine, the maintenance and care thereof, meshing nicely with my rather obsessive following of all of the maintenance schedules and rules of operation.

A word on the rotary engine. It is a marvelously engineered and manufactured device, but the entire engine is both a series of wear parts, and also of a construction that is particularly intolerant of neglectful maintenance practices or other forms of maltreatment. Regular maintenance is the responsibility of the owner, but something like a rock pinholing the radiator, causing overheating, is really Fate, and mostly out of the hands of the owner. Failure is failure on one of these engines. Fault can’t always be laid on the owner, but it usually can be.

Frequent topping up of the oil (it burns off oil, by design, as it runs) and oil changes are critical, as is never overrevving the engine (it will generally willingly do it, a few times, until lightning strikes), never overheating the engine, and warming up or cooling down the engine at idle before or after working it hard. Obey all the rules, and it will last for 80k miles or more, until all the wear parts (seals and housing surfaces) simply wear out. That is the life and times of the rotary. Incidentally, improvements in the engine have extended the maximum life of them. I have an original later RX-7 engine, at 140k miles, that is just now starting to lose compression and becoming a bit hard to start at times.

I mentioned in the last post that my next choice of cars, this one, was one that “made all the difference…in unexpected ways”. An old friend, and by then my sister’s boyfriend (later husband), introduced me to autocrossing. Heck, I used to race my Hot Wheels and model cars all the time, this was right up my alley. Not only that, but the RX-3 seemed to fit right in. It appeared to be a great choice for autocrossing, as RX-2s and RX-3s were out there going at it, along with a just-introduced RX-7 or two. Friend Rick had a Fiat X-1/9, but it turned out, against any reasonable assumptions, that my RX-3 was actually a better, faster choice than the Fiat. Rotaries appeared ideal for autocrossing.

Paint the centers of those slotted wheels black, and let’s go racing!

Well, I found my calling (not that I was any good at it, at least for a while). But the RX-3 actually rewarded overdriving a bit. It was simply a matter of keeping the revs up, and you could throttle steer the thing, if you threw the car headlong into the corners. Woo-hoo, lots of dramatic tire squealing and sliding around. After a while, I actually got rather good at it, and brought my times down into a competitive range. That meant it was time to clean up the car and paint it a racy red.

Race car red, with yet another slightly Mustangish look to it.

A year and a half of running every autocross event I could find in Southern California, and I was ready to take an SCCA driver’s school. This was in late 1981. I upgraded the RX-3 with suspension parts, safety equipment, and so on. I would drive the car to and from the SCCA events. This created its own dilemma. Running auto crosses with your daily driver is one thing. Graduating to real race tracks, against other cars, was something else entirely. The way to go about this would need to be thought through…which is another story for another day.

In the meantime, to carry forward the RX-3 street car story, I did drive my race cars on the street, and raced my daily drivers. I brought home a series of “found” and “given” cars for spare parts. Met the person who would later be my wife, and she needed a car. One of the derelict RX-3s was actually a nice ‘73 in perfect complete condition, minus a blown engine, so a spare engine from my stash completed the car, and it became her daily driver, and later, her father’s daily driver. It was cherry and perfect, in a sort of pumpkin orange color. I finally sold it in 1992, for $100. That’s what you did with the things, pre-internet. Nobody wanted them. As rare and valuable as these cars are now, it would probably be a $30k car today. Oh, well. Last I had heard at the time, the buyer wrecked it soon after buying it…

About the time I sold the orange RX-3, and I was truly out of the RX-3 business, I stumbled upon a ‘77 RX-3SP. Like a stray puppy, I needed to bring it home. It had been basically stripped out to a bare shell by the previous owner, to make an SCCA racer out of it, and the project was then abandoned. It was fate that this was to happen. For years, I had been shopping for a ‘77 as a side project. The ‘77s were the IMSA RS racers, Jim Downing and Roger Mandeville and all that (I had pit crewed for some of the racers competing against them in the West Coast IMSA races in the early ‘80s, so the RX-3SPs were dear to my heart). Even though they were mechanically almost identical to all the other RX-3s, they had a special racing cachet.

I had found two of them, side by side, in a local junkyard, and I had tried to buy one of them. You can’t do that in California, as the titles are cancelled when they go in the lot. So, I did the next best thing, as ticked off as I was about it. I stripped them both to the bone, for all their unique ‘77 parts, interior, trim, badges, taillight assemblies, wiring, manifolds, the fiberglass exterior add-ons, the window louvers, all of it. Filled boxes and boxes with parts. Spent quite a bit of money, as the lot itemized everything out and added it up, with a bit of a volume discount applied at the end—thanks guys. So, when I found the shell of the car, it was kismet. I had everything for it, plus one set of spares. (Daniel Stern would be proud). Those expensive boxes of weird parts came home to a car. All was right with the world.

These cars are weird, and I don’t really like how they look. But they are special. The quarter panel badge is wrong, it goes on the right side only, but no one knows that kind of stuff any more. The repro spoiler stripes are not quite right either…. This car sold for $55k Australian in 2020…they aren’t cheap throw-away cars any more, because they all got thrown away.

I threw in a ‘74 big port 13-B engine (rotary code-speak, bigger engine, max stock horsepower of all the ‘70s iterations of rotary), and the thing scooted. I drove it to work as a daily for a while in the mid ‘90s. I kept it Q-ship, without the add-on bells and whistles (though I have two sets of them, mind you). I just happen to know that it was the equal of a SHO Taurus from 20 to 80 or so. I don’t race on the street, no siree, but one has to get up to speed on those freeway entrances, right?

So the ‘77 is my COAL entry for the RX-3, my second big-time COAL after the Mustang. I still have the ‘77, too. It needs a lot of work. I will probably ultimately go for a half-and-half of the add-ons. The rear window louvers but not the sides. The fiberglass spoiler and air dam, but not the stripes (repro stripe kits are out there). Impulse Blue. Oh, and the kicker, these cars, and only these among the early RX’s, as far as I know, got plaid seat inserts. The late ‘70s plaid and houndstooth seat inserts are just about the coolest Malaise Era things going, in my mind. Can’t tell you why, but I just love them.

Needs lots of work, but it is all there, with tons of spares, which is the hardest part of dealing with these cars. Many ‘77-‘78 parts are unique to those two years.

About 3,000 of the ‘77 and ‘78 RX-3SPs were built. A bit over half of them, about 1,800, got the stripes and spoilers kit. The kits were fitted, after the cars were offloaded in Long Beach, at the local facilities of Chastain, the outfit that did most of the rear window louvers of the era. Out of about 250,000 RX3s worldwide, including four-door sedans and wagons, the SPs are quite unusual. But none of the RX-3s are seen much any more. There are, however, rabid RX-3 followings in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and in Puerto Rico, of all places.

Plaid seat inserts for the win! The shift knob is the wrong year on this one. No one knows what is right or wrong on these cars any more…

Next up are my early RX-3 SCCA experiences. Can you really regularly track race your daily driver and make it work? Well, uh, maybe, if you try hard enough…