Mazda's timing was perfect. In the late 1970s, British and Italian sports car makers were hanging by their fingernails, C3 Corvettes were aging ungracefully, Datsun's lovable Z-Car was evolving into the foppish 280ZX, and Porsche's 924 suffered from a hodgepodge of Volkswagen and Audi components. So the Mazda RX-7 that arrived in the spring of 1978 (as an early '79 model) was the answer to unspoken sports car dreams: it was attractive, fun to drive, and -- with a sticker as low as $6395 -- bargain priced. As a bonus, the RX-7 was powered by a rotary engine, which at the time was only one step down from a turbine as a source of wonder and amazement.
Actually, before the RX-7 arrived to save its bacon, the rotary was suffering. Beginning with the R100 in 1970 -- the year Mazda began importing cars to the United States -- the company used this engine to power a wide variety of coupes, sedans, wagons, and its compact pickup, but the 1973 energy crisis and widespread engine seal failures severely wounded the rotary's reputation. The more fuel-efficient and durable engine that arrived with the RX-7 essentially brought the rotary back from the dead.
The RX-7's real brilliance was its simplicity. The chassis used rudimentary components -- struts in front, a live axle in back, disc and drum brakes, recirculating-ball steering -- blended with shrewd engineering. The compact, two-rotor engine resided behind the front-wheel centerline to provide a near 50/50 weight distribution. A tidy 95.3-inch wheelbase supported enough interior space for two and a weekend's luggage. The RX-7 weighed less than 2400 pounds, so the 100-hp, 7000-rpm hummer under the hood was capable of hustling this svelte ride to 60 mph in just under nine seconds on the way to a 118-mph top speed.