What do you do when you find several examples of the same classic and they all have some sort of appeal? You just have to make a post that blends them all together. There are quite a few Mazda RX-7s still buzzing about, so here’s a nice trio of the JDM version. And not a single red one, either.
The second-generation RX-7 is easily the most popular old Mazda, in its home country. I found this white one a block or two from my flat. It had a number of aftermarket bits, as many of these cars tend to have, but overall, it looked pretty straight and well cared for.
Which is more than one could say about the black one. That one also has a few aftermarket bits, but fewer than the white car. The eye-catching detail is that GT-R badge on the wings – I’m not necessarily knowledgeable about these cars, but those three letters are always a sure sign of high performance. The white car looked souped up, but this black one actually was.
The third RX-7 is the only rotary-powered drop-top Mazda ever made. And apparently, the only other one is NSU’s rear-engined single-rotary Spider, made back in the ‘60s. So if you want wind in your hair along with that buzz in your ears, this Mazda is the car to have, as it’s likely much easier to get a hold of than the German one.
The Wankel engine was something of a curse for every car company that tried to tame it. NSU died from it, it was the straw that broke Citroën’s back, and all the rest – GM, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce and many others – only avoided disaster thanks to the aforementioned canaries in the coalmine, as well as the fact that rotary engines were quite thirsty, which did not square well with OPEC’s little pricing experiments after 1973. And then there was Mazda.
Mazda really went for the Wankel hook, line and sinker. By the early ‘70s, they had shoved that thing into literally their whole range of vehicles. A little overboard, you could say, especially since the fuel consumption side of things was never solved and that the many gremlins that plagued the engine took their toll on the company.
But Mazda made the Wankel work. They went damn near bankruptcy and had to cozy up to Ford to keep the wolf from the door, but in the end, they found solutions for most of the rotary’s reliability issues. The only remaining question was how to employ this avant-garde means of propulsion: clearly, putting rotaries into family runabouts and pickup trucks was not a sustainable notion.
The original use for the Wankel was in the Cosmo coupé, and so Mazda made a sportier reduced version of it, the RX-7, and launched that in 1978. Gradually, the rest of the range was “de-rotaricized,” though the big Luce saloons did keep the Wankel as an option throughout the ‘80s.
The first generation RX-7 (1978-85) was a rousing success, one that Mazda skillfully leveraged to their benefit for the second generation, which is what we’re looking at today.
First-gen cars are now rather uncommon in Tokyo traffic, but second and third generation RX-7s are still pretty plentiful. In fact, for a car of the ‘80s, the RX-7 FC is as common nowadays as its Skyline or Supra contemporaries. The fandom is strong with this one.
The RX-7 FC arrived in late 1985 with new everything – except the engines, which were very closely related to the late first-generation RX-7s. The new car kept RWD but ditched the dated live axle for a semi-trailing arm and multilink IRS, rack-and-pinion steering was fitted and the brakes were much improved.
Engine-wise, the Japanese market RX-7 FCs got a 1.3 litre turbocharged 13B twin-rotor by default – no other version was made available, unlike some other markets which got non-turbo cars. On the JDM, the RX-7 was sold as a strict sports car, so as to leave the GT / highway cruiser role to the Cosmo.
By the second series (i.e. all three of the featured cars) in 1989, the intercooled 13B Wankel provided 205hp. The convertible joined the range in 1987 and, in Japan as least, it’s a pretty rare sight.
Transmission options were either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed auto, though why anyone would pick the latter is puzzling. In Japan, most RX-7s were manuals. The interior is pretty snug; some JDM cars were fitted with a semblance of a rear seating area, though realistically, nobody over about 10 years of age ought ever to attempt sitting at the back of an RX-7.
Which all makes this sound quite like a Porsche, right? Hold on. Let’s not mix our Porsches. I sat at the back of a 911 once (a 1984 Turbo, quite a memorable ride!), so I know how painful some experiences can be. I can imagine the rear seat of the Mazda may well be quite similar to the 911, but when the RX-7 FC came out, most people compared it to the Porsche 924/944.
And sure, there is some of that, if you don’t look too closely. The nose, the bubble rear windscreen and… well, that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?
Full disclosure: I was never a fan of the Porsche 924/944. Not because of some snobbish Not-a-real-Porsche type of considerations, but just due to over-exposure. They were pretty common in Europe when I was growing up. And even then, I remember how little I cared for them.
I mean, the 924/944, bless it, looks like a kid’s idea of a sports car. Those kooky rear windows? Those front wheels pushed all the way to the radiator? Those clunky rear lights? It’s like Mazda saw the 924/944, said “Oh, I see what you tried to do there…” and redesigned the whole thing to look good. In addition, because they made these for 15 years, the roads were littered with them.
By contrast, RX-7s were relatively rare sightings (in Europe at least). I mean, they did manage to make over 270,000 between 1985 and 1991, which is actually not a million miles from the combined production totals of the 924 and the 944 (Porsche made 150,000 of the former and 163,000 of the latter from 1976 to 1991), but North America and Japan were the main markets by far. Europeans were twice shy about Wankels anyway, though Mazda’s famous Le Mans victory with one obviously must have changed a few opinions.
There was a law of diminishing returns with the RX-7 though. The first generation sold over 400,000 units; the second one managed a bit more than half that again and generation three, made from 1992 to 2003, only found 68,000 takers.
Being younger and pretty sporty, those third-gen RX-7s are still seen on Japanese roads and highly praised by a vocal fan-base, but the numbers do not lie. The Wankel was a great David and Goliath story, but ultimately, even Mazda had to give it up.
Everybody loves a good underdog story, and the RX-7 is a terrific distillation of Mazda’s Quixotic efforts in trying to convince the world that the rotary engine had a future under the hood of an automobile. And you have to admit, they got pretty damn close to making their point.
But they also paid for it dearly. If Mazda’s growth hadn’t been stunted by the Wankel, perhaps they would be as big as Nissan or Honda today. But if they hadn’t put that crazy engine (plus a turbo) in the RX-7 FC, would I still be encountering so many of these beautiful machines 30 years after they ceased production? Probably not. Swings and roundabouts. And a million times more interesting than a water-cooled Porsche.
Curbside Classic: Mazda RX-7 FC3S – Middle Child Syndrome, by Joe Latshaw