COAL: 1985 Mazda RX-7 — Cheap Japanese 2-Seater For The Win

A worthy (and typical) representative of the first generation RX-7.

I had settled into my new job, my own place, and had gotten engaged. Time to settle down and get ready to do the family thing. But I still had the race car itch, and a suitable tow vehicle as a daily driver. Let’s go racing again! The RX-7 had been approved for SCCA “I.T.” Racing, and I found that the RX-3s would need serious tear downs, re-engineering, and rebuilds in order to be competitive. They didn’t handle, the brakes were too small for club racing duty, and the tall, narrow cars were known to sometimes finish the race day on the roof. Time for me to upgrade to the RX-7 (as most rotary performance fans were doing in the 1980s, when nice used examples became available at relatively cheap prices).

Could one model of car make a good race car and also a nice daily driver for a young couple? Not the same car, but two examples for two purposes? (I had gotten over trying to daily drive a race car). You betcha!

The 1980s were a golden age, of sorts, for cheap, well engineered, sporty Japanese two-seaters. Until the Miata came along for model year 1989 and began to clear the field (“Whatever the question is, the answer is always ‘Miata’”), the first two generations of the Honda CRX (model years 1984 through 1991), the first generation Toyota MR-2 (model years 1984 through 1989), and the first generation Mazda RX-7 (model years 1979 through 1985) all filled the “capable, sporty commuter vehicle” niche very well. There were successors of each, and other Japanese two-seaters at the time, but the triumvirate of the Mazda, the Honda, and the Toyota ruled the roost. Pick your flavor. Traditional live axle rear-wheel drive (but with rotary power), transverse front engine with front-wheel drive, or transverse mid-mounted engine with rear-wheel drive. The Japanese manufacturers had it covered. Hundreds of thousands of each were sold, which had to be measured as sales successes, given only two seats and a crowded field to choose from. It also suggests that the late Baby Boomer generation (raises hand) had a hankering for small two-seat runabouts. The time was right. Early Baby Boomers had Mustangs and other four-seat sporty cars to hold the family, but late Boomers tended to start families at a later age, so there was a lot of room to sell two-seaters to younger singles and couples.

The Honda CRX was another worthy Japanese two-seater.

The mid-engine Toyota MR2, with a bit of Lotus DNA here and there. It’s red car day.

While I would have been thrilled to have any of the three grace my parking spot, my familiarity and loyalty to the Mazda sealed the deal for me. Vicki liked RX-7s as well, so an RX for my sweetie was on the menu. A rather trashed ‘79 was sourced for the race car, and an ‘82 GSL was purchased secondhand for the daily driver. We bought the DD from a couple with a new baby, so I could see the writing on the wall, longer run.

The prep of the race car was actually very straightforward. A roll cage kit, a suspension kit (sway bars, springs, and shocks), wheels and tires (in this case, salvaged from the RX-3s), and the seat belt set, filled out the list. The engine was brought over from one of the RX-3s as well, so it was “put it all together like a jigsaw puzzle”, and away I went. The handling and braking abilities of the car were first class, and a huge jump forward from what I was used to. But (and there is always a “but”), the SCCA liked to guarantee a place to race, but in no way guaranteed competitiveness, particularly in a “limited modification” car-prep environment. My fun little RX was matched up against Datsun Z-cars with 30 to 40% more horsepower. In a race track situation, there is no substitute for horsepower, which I would quickly find out. The ‘80s cars were so much more well-balanced and capable, right “out of the box”. But, though the ‘70s Z-car owners had to comprehensively work their cars over to make them function well at the race track, they would simply drive away from the rotaries, on race day. On days when the Z-cars did not materialize, I did fine on the track. The rest of the time, I was second-tier. A hard lesson in reading rule books and sorting through choices. There was no way that the few extra horsepower yielded by careful carburetor jetting, dyno testing, or distributor timing and advance curve work would do any good.

My first RX-7 race car, 1987. Basic white, spray-painted shelf paper numbers, and a minimalist vibe.

Despite the non-competitiveness of the car, it was a joy to drive, and not just because of the engine (the engine, as sweet as it ran, was the actual problem and the limiting factor in the equation). The handling and braking, and the overall tossability of the car, as compared to its peer group, was quite amazing for its time. Low, light, and wide, with a 50/50 weight distribution, the car would run most other cars down under braking and in the turns. And it would do so in a lively and spirited fashion that is difficult to put into words. Suffice to say, the lively and fun road manners of the thing were amped up to eleven on the race track. It was only on open straightaways that the let-down would take place. If only…

Meanwhile, the street car served the two of us well. When our first little one came along in 1991, we kept the RX and used the truck (with the bench seat that accommodated the child’s seat as well as the two adults) as the vehicle for when we were all going someplace together.

Come 1989, a variant of the RX-7 was added to the SCCA racing class. The “GSL-SE” version of the RX-7 had a 135 horsepower, fuel injected, larger (“13-B”) engine. The rest of the car was mostly the same, except for even bigger brakes, and 14 inch wheels and tires in place of the 13-inchers. I immediately went shopping for a cosmetically blemished, yet mechanically sound example. Nirvana. The car, with more torque, could now be throttle steered in the corners on top of everything else, and it would run with the Datsuns on the straights. Die by the rule book, and thrive by the rule book. The nature of SCCA club racing.

My second RX-7 race car, 1989. A bit fancier in the visual presentation. The 14-inch wheels and tires meant that the car could not be lowered, to maintain suspension travel and fender clearance. But it could outrun the Datsuns.

The old way of things was flipped on its head. Now the Datsuns had to keep up with me. Drivers in similar “GSL-SE” Mazdas were my real competition now, and some good racing for the front was had. For a couple of years, the club racing world was my oyster, and I had my first real consistent run of success, after about ten years of trying. It was as if all the hard work, but for naught at the time, was in preparation for everything coming together later on. Which it did, for a while.

The rule book will help you, but it will also crush you. Two years after my car was added to the SCCA class, they added the second generation 1986 RX-7, the one that vaguely looked like a Porsche 944. It had a worked-over engine, from the factory, that was a whole lot more powerful than what I had. One ride in a street car example of it told me so, by the seat of my pants. No stopwatches necessary. The critical 40-ish mph to 80 mph acceleration was no contest. On top of that, the newer version of the RX-7 was a much more complex and finicky race car, that needed a lot of work to get it “right” for the race track. But people were making the effort, and the writing was on the wall. I sold my second RX-7 race car (for not much) while the getting was good.

My speed shop owner, Dave, who had kept me in race car parts for years, was also a former first-gen RX-7 owner. In 1992, we were bench racing and chit-chatting about race cars. We agreed that race cars didn’t need to be exceptionally noisy and to pollute, in order to go racing. What was wrong with using environmentally sensitive race cars? We set to work on the problem, and looked at coming up with a race car that would address the environmental noise and emission issues.

We decided on a “spec” car, so that the car would not need to compete against cars with fewer performance constraints. Also, a “spec” car could be street licensed (as it would be pollution legal), and it could potentially be very cheap to build and race (“cheap”, in racing, is a relative term…).

We actually considered the CRX and the MR2, as well as the RX-7. We chose the RX-7, in part, because of our familiarity with them. Also, the oldest CRXs and MR2s were only a few years old, and would be more expensive. Additionally, the CRX had a variety of factory engines and levels of performance. The MR2 and RX-7 were each essentially like the next. So we went with the RX-7. It turned out that one could get a “state of the art” spec RX-7 put together for about $5k, including the donor vehicle, good examples of which, with solid engines, could be picked up for $1,500 to $2,500. Cheap racing.

Voila! A build-it-yourself “spec” race car. Basically a stock RX-7 with a suspension and safety kit, and a fancy paint job. These cheap race cars could look like a million bucks.

The SCCA “Spec RX-7” class actually started “inside” the “I.T.A.” Class as a sort of subset to it. In that way, we could shepherd the spec class along, without getting specific SCCA approval. Being largely a volunteer organization, everyone in the SCCA has some power and jurisdiction, but no one is really in charge. I say that non-critically, as it has advantages as well as disadvantages. In this case, everyone would have a different opinion of our little project, but no one would be able to clearly say “yea” or “nay” to it. So we built the thing out as a sort of piggy-back to the SCCA system, doing our own promotions, tech inspections, scorekeeping, and celebrations of “wins”, alongside and within the existing SCCA structure.

Somehow, the virtues of clean and quiet running got lost in the whole project, but it showed great success in performance parity between competitors, cheapness to build and run, and the cars turned out to be very reliable. Everything was “bolt on”, and one didn’t need to be an engineer to figure out how to do things. Quite a few weekend racing hobbyists got to race competitively, relatively cheaply, and not need to spend all race weekend, or significant amounts of time between race weekends, working on their cars. The SCCA racing fields were full of Spec RX-7s, and we were awarded our own regional class, in many SCCA regions around the country. We proved our worth by actually bringing a bunch of new racers to the club.

The Spec RX-7 was a big success, and the racing grids were large, with close racing in equal cars.

As the class “matured” in the mid-90s, the races would get very close, as the cars were equal in capability and almost nothing could be altered or adjusted. Dave and I, recognized as the “inventors” of the thing, did quite a few sports car and race car magazine interviews. This was just before the Internet blew up, so there were dozens of small-time, medium-time, and bigger-time enthusiast magazines and publications in print, and we did interviews with many of them. In the summer of 1996, an editor of the SCCA magazine “Sports Car”, which is distributed to the membership, interviewed me, and asked a new and interesting question, which was “Where does the Spec RX-7 class go from here”? I told him that we were just about done clearing all the old RX-7s from the scene, and the better way to go would be with the Miata. He published the interview, and within weeks of publication, the Spec Miata was being developed and put in place—by other people. After the interview and before publication, I asked Dave if he had any interest in doing a Miata spec class. His answer was “no”, as was mine. We both had worked hard on the RX-7 project, and we were each ready to move on to other things.

One thing leads to another. Spec Miatas took over club racing.

I eventually sold my third racing RX-7 in the late ‘90s. We kept the street car, which functioned properly and without drama, until 1993. Time, then, to move on to a real family car. Thus ended my SCCA career and my involvement with rotaries—almost. The red car at the top of the page, and below, showed up a few years ago, clean, low mileage, and cheap, with a blown engine. I took it on as a side project, but could not get anything reliable and properly functional out of old complex carburetors and pollution control systems. So I have it stashed, for now, as a potential conversion to an EV, or to something other than a rotary. Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.

A future project? Perhaps. Most likely, if it sees the light of day, it will be with other than rotary propulsion.

The rotary has come and gone, and people, worldwide, revere the last generation RX-7. I argue that the first generation of the RX-7 was the highest, best application of the rotary engine. A simple, relatively low powered and understressed engine, in a light, simple, and nimble car that was fun to drive and appropriate for the engine. Each was made for the other. Prior rotaries were underdeveloped, and subsequent cars were complex and upmarket. The first generation RX-7 hit it out of the park, in its own peculiar way.

But the engines are full of unobtainable and out of production complex wear parts, and without replacements, the life of each engine is finite. The cars were everywhere for a while, and then they were all gone. Unlike Mustangs, Miatas, or MGs, which manage to keep turning up as Curbside Classics on the road somewhere, the older Mazda rotaries are gone, and done.