Curbside Classic: 1983 Mazda RX-7 – Zinger

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(first posted 4/21/2013)    Zing! That word encapsulates the RX-7. The only vocabulary the little coffee-can rotary had was zing! (snick) zing! (snick) and zing again! Sooner rather than later, it zinged you for a couple of Gs when its rotor seals gave up the zing! But that didn’t come as a surprise, and it never zinged you for anything else. That is, unless you got a little too frisky in certain corners, and the live rear axle might toss you a nasty little over-zing. As long as you could live on a torque-free diet, the RX-7 was one of the best friends an enthusiast driver could hope for in its day. And there are still loyal devotees of Zing-Buddhism today.

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Cars like the gen1 RX-7 appear as magic. Who could imagine that a bunch of Mazda sedan parts artfully rearranged within the tenets of minimalism could have such a profound affect? Just when all hope for the rapidly bloating Datsun Z was gone, along comes the same formula, but even better. Well, different, anyway; and certainly more fun in the go-cartish way. The RX-7 and VW GTI were the two boons in an era where cheap thrills weren’t always.

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The GTI was certainly the more practical of the two, and not just for the back seat. Its torquey long-stroke four was never caught flat-footed. The little Mazda rotary was always asleep below about 3500 rpm, and really only perked up for the last heady rush to 7,000 rpm. Not the thing for long commutes with the A/C on in LA’s rush hours. But a good friend did that for well over a decade with a white RX-7 like this one. Except for the inevitable rotor seal rebuild, it never gave him any real problems, and he had bought it used. This one still looks mighty solid too.

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With all of 100 hp on tap if you kept it singing soprano, one’s downshifting algorithms had to be reprogrammed. The transition from a Detroit V8 was brutal, if not almost dangerous. Below the happy range, absolutely nothing happened. It would have worn on me for the long haul, but then I do savor a dollop of torque with my horse meat.

I’m not fully versed in the origins of the RX-7, but it’s pretty obvious that if Mazda’s rotary was going to keep zinging, it needed a new home. The line of rotary sedans and coupes had reached the end of the line, with the RX-4 being terminated in 1978. Efficiency had improved somewhat over the earlier RX-2 and RX-3, but just couldn’t be competitive with tightening CAFE and increasing gas prices. The new 1979 626 was strictly piston powered.

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Guesswork tell me that the RX-7 shared some/most of the new 626 underpinnings, like the four-link rear axle, which gave the sedan and coupe the inevitable “poor man’s BMW” moniker. And given that the RX-7 didn’t even have rack and pinion steering, my guess about parts sharing is probably pretty safe. But the featherweight rotary tucked down low and back in the RX-7 compartment resulted in a perfect 50-50 weight distribution. And the overall weight of around 2400 lbs made all the more tossable. The Mazda parts department salad was tasty, and a hit. Almost a half-million came off the lines in Hiroshima; something its less delectable successor could only dream of.

Of course there was the GSL-SE, with the bigger fuel injected 13B engine that packed 135 horses. Never drove one, but everyone raved about what a difference it made, and how it finally made  the RX-7 truly whole. It came along late in the game, but that’s the one to look for. Unless you really love zinging.

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