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.
It was my good fortune to enjoy an abundance of first-generation RX-7 experiences. I attended the car’s launch in Japan, drove a Racing Beat-prepped car across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 184 mph, and was part of a four-car team at the 1979 24 Hours of Daytona. But what convinced me that I had to own one was participating in a six-car comparison test in which Mazda’s first attempt at selling a sports car in America finished a close second to a Porsche 924. The $6715 difference in as-tested prices is what tipped my affections toward the RX-7.
Although the RX-7 had an endearing engine, a pleasant ride, and acceptable accommodations, it had some warts. In track tests, it was loose at the limit. Other foibles were fragile transmission synchros, fade-prone brakes, and slightly vague on-center steering.
Back then, I was a firm believer in the project car gambit’s ability to rectify any sin that left the factory. After a few months of driving my ’79 RX-7-with the over-rev alarm beeping before most upshifts, the thirteen-inch radials clawing for traction, and a spongy brake pedal underfoot-I cracked open my toolbox to transform the base-trim car into the chariot of my dreams.
When the dust settled, the RX-7 had roughly 40 percent more power, significantly better handling, improved braking, a more attractive exterior, and an interior that looked and felt richer than that of the spurned Porsche 924. By religiously avoiding any weight addition, I was able to significantly improve the RX-7’s quantitative performance so that it could top a stock 924 and even run wheel-to-wheel with a colleague’s ’74 Porsche 911.
The menu of modifications was comprehensive. Mazda’s more powerful 1.3-liter 13B rotary from the earlier RX-4 and Cosmo is dimensionally identical to my RX-7’s stock 1.1-liter 12A engine, except for a 0.79-inch difference in length, so it was an easy bolt-in. The engine was dressed with new intake, exhaust, and ignition systems selected from the Racing Beat catalog. An aluminum flywheel added snap to the tach needle’s swing.
With more power on tap, I didn’t hesitate to replace practically every part of the stock braking system. The new gear included larger AP Racing rotors, rear discs and calipers from a Cosmo, dual master cylinders operated by an adjustable balance bar, a much heftier brake pedal, and braided stainless-steel hydraulic lines.
The goal for the chassis was to preserve the RX-7’s congenial ride while upping its agility. Clipping half a coil from each spring lowered the body and increased the suspension’s stiffness a smidgen. I also raised the tops of the strut towers to drop the nose another inch and installed a tight limited-slip differential. Those changes, in combination with fifteen-inch Hayashi Racing center-lock wheels and staggered-size BFGoodrich Comp T/A radials, produced near-neutral handling without the need for a rear antiroll bar.
There was one cherished instance when the RX-7 was a touch too neutral. An unwise indulgence of the throttle on wet pavement in an Ann Arbor intersection triggered a 360-degree spin. This occurred on my first date with Cheryl, who later became my wife. She thought the maneuver was intentional; years passed before I confessed that it wasn’t.
Recaro USA provided a set of bucket seats trimmed in velour and leather. A local stereo shop reconstructed the center dash and console to accommodate an Alpine sound system and a small security-system keyboard. A Nardi steering wheel and two additional VDO gauges completed the interior makeover.
While these alterations sound extensive, I was careful to preserve the RX-7’s original lovable character. Before the second-generation design arrived in 1986, Mazda had installed its own engine, chassis, and interior upgrades to make the RX-7 a worthy opponent to Porsche’s acclaimed 944. So I like to think of my red rotary racer as an early advocate of better things to come.
Engine: 1.1-1.3L 2-rotor Wankel, 100-135 hp, 105-133 lb-ft
Trandmissions: 4- or 5-speed manual ; 3- or 4-speed automatic
Suspension, Front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Live axle, coil springs
Brakes F/R: Discs/drums or discs/discs
Weight: 2400 lb
Years Produced: 1979-1985
Number Produced: 474,565, of which 377,878 were sold in the United States
Original Price: $7195 (early 1980 models)
Value Today: $2000-$7000
The rotary engine is on its deathbed due to its inherently poor thermal efficiency and the fact that for decades only one carmaker has pursued development of this alternative to pistons. Those interested in experiencing the smooth-running, rev-happy rotary still have plenty to choose from, though. Rust-free first-generation RX-7s are readily available in California and other southern states for a pittance. There’s an abundance of engine and chassis tuner parts and expertise. For those with road-racing aspirations, the Sports Car Club of America offers affordable entry-level classes called Pro-7, IT7, and Spec 7 for lightly modified first-gen RX-7s. The SCCA’s Improved Touring class for stock-looking cars on street tires is another option.