Behind the Wheel of Four Mazda Rotary Classics at the 2017 Japanese Nostalgic Car Touge California

A zero-piston tour of Southern California

First held in 2015, the Japanese Nostalgic Car Touge California is a scenic, non-competitive road rally that has grown into a hotly anticipated event that attracts participants from around the region. 2017 is Mazda’s second year as title sponsor, a deal that immediately makes perfect sense for the Japanese manufacturer most focused the idea that “Driving Matters.”

Mazda’s beloved rotary engine buzzes in its 50th anniversary this year and to celebrate, four mint-condition piston-less classics were dusted off for the Touge and carefully placed in our hands.

1978 Mazda REPU

The rally began on El Cajon Mountain, roughly an hour to the northeast of San Diego (and about 100-odd miles southeast of Mazda’s USA headquarters in Irvine). A swarm of low-displacement, high-revving classics from the Land of the Rising Sun staged at a municipal park, each eagerly awaiting the go-ahead from the rallymaster. To set a baseline, I grabbed the keys to the metallic green Mazda REPU, the oldest, and easily the most charming car of the bunch.

As far as compact trucks go, the Rotary Engine Pick Up (REPU) was a sports truck before sports trucks were really a thing. Sure, Dodge’s Custom Sport Special and, later, its Li’l Red Express, were the true predecessors to modern performance trucks, the little REPU was one of the first trucks to put a focus not just on straightline speed, but on sharper handling and steering as well.

Regardless of purpose, the 1.3-liter two-rotor lifted from the RX-4 punched way, way above its size. 110 hp was a moonshot away from its contemporaries, which relied on asthmatic four-cylinders often producing well under 100 hp to get the job done. This particular REPU was a bit of a mild hot rod thanks to a loud Racing Beat exhaust and five-speed gearbox from an early RX-7.

On the first leg of the rally, the REPU had no problem keeping up with other participants, but not without keeping my co-driver and me at the edge of our bench seat. Despite the raspy exhaust note and RX-7 gearbox, this was no Miata. Trucks have come a long, long way in the past 40 years, and the short stint in the REPU was enough to solidly drive that point home.

Body roll and vague steering aside, the REPU was easily the most charming of the rotary crew. The long-throw shifter, pencil-thin steering wheel, bench seat adds up to a delightful little package. Beyond the smiles, it also provided a much-needed dose of non-RX-7 rotary. I sometimes have difficulty mentally separating the rotor from the RX series, and the buzzy REPU was a great medium to experience the triangle in something other than a low-slung, two-seat sportster.

But speaking of the RX-7…

1988 Mazda RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Edition

For almost twenty years, a dirty black coupe sat in the alley driveway of one of my grandmother’s neighbors. At least two or three times a week, I would pass by that driveway and that coupe without investigation, taking note of its existence but not bothering to get any closer than the edge of the alleyway.

In high school, desperate for something cheap to wrench on, I developed a rather hazardous habit of poking around neighborhood alleys for undiscovered four-wheeled gold, and that driveway was one of my first stops. The mystery coupe turned out to be a Brilliant Black FC Mazda RX-7 Turbo II, sitting in what appeared to be bone-stock condition.

This was it—this was my project. I did my research, going so far as to find a full replacement engine from a local race shop. I cruised forums, aggregated prices, and learned what to look for. I returned to my grandmother’s house a few days later, only to discover a vacant driveway. After 15 years of sitting, the RX-7 was gone, never to be seen again.

Fast-forward eight years and I’m holding the keys to a mint-condition FC RX-7 Turbo II on the side of one of the best roads in the world. Life can be strange that way.

Mazda’s FC is a rare 10th Anniversary edition, indicated by the fabulous white-over-white exterior appearance. Like so many cars from the ‘80s, time has been kind to the FC. Its shape isn’t as striking as the later FD generation’s, but the clean, unadorned wedge is refreshingly simple when parked next to the newest Toyota Camry

Inside, the black interior is covered, from seat to pedals, in all manner of period-correct techno-clutter. The gauge cluster shouts out to the driver through orange accents, while the center console brims with buttons, knobs, and a supremely cool sound equalizer comprised of nine independent sliding switches.

Out in the canyons, my fears were confirmed—I really missed out all those years ago. The turbocharged 1.3-liter 13B offers up 182 hp, allowing the 2,800-pound coupe a 0-60 mph sprint in the mid six-second range, more than enough to get in trouble.

In motion, the Turbo II very much feels its age, but don’t mistake that for a bad thing. Sawing away at the embossed steering wheel returned a slight dead spot before engagement, a characteristic matched well with the slightly rubbery shifter and noticeable body roll. Buzzing through the cliffside roads, the FC was alive in the best way, dipping, diving and darting its way through corners.

Nostalgia aside, this was my favorite car of the day. It’s rooted firmly in the era which spawned it, and provided the perfect context for the indomitable FD RX-7 that came next.

1995 Mazda RX-7

In a world clogged with high-mileage, modified RX-7s with blown engines, Mazda’s white, 27,000-mile 1995 RX-7 was deliciously special. Coming out of the FC, it was clear just how much of a leap forward the FD was at the time. Sharp, angular lines turned into a soft, flowing design that remains one of the most cohesive and considered shapes ever to emerge from Japan. On the regular coupe, nothing appears tacked on. The headlights fold away, falling over a smooth front fascia broken up only by blended running lights and three intakes. Even the standard wheel design is “soft,” with rounded portions lifting out toward the edge of the rim.

Inside, it’s a nice, driver-focused cockpit, but not nearly as visually impressive as the exquisite exterior. Much like the contemporary Toyota Supra, Mitsubishi 3000GT, and Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo, the $33,000 ($55,000 in 2017 dollars) price tag when new meant that the FD was aimed at the same financial bracket that bought Corvettes. As such, it’s a luxurious, dark environment, with leather and soft touch plastics.

Contrary to all the earsplitting, backfiring RX-7s I’d seen online, the 13B in Mazda’s FD was as quiet as can be. Rotary rasp didn’t arrive until the 8,000 rpm redline. All FD RX-7s feature Japan’s first sequential twin-turbo system, pushing the little 1.3-liter two-rotor up to 252 hp and 217 lb-ft of torque, enough gumption to press the 2,700-pound coupe from 0-60 mph in a contemporarily blistering 5.0 seconds.

In places where the FC was thin and frail, the FD felt comprised primarily of granite and basalt. It’s not heavy, nor is it large, but out on tight backroads, the FD was substantial. It’s much faster than you would expect, quietly humming its way to modern sports car speeds without fuss. Everything was as dialed in as the legends claim, from the steering, brakes, and shifter.

It’s far too rare to meet a legend in this industry and walk away satisfied. Most older cars, despite hype, don’t live up to the stories, thanks to condition, performance, or setting. Mazda’s low mileage, mint-condition FD was perfect, and made the sweat, sunburn, and thirst from the SoCal sun worth it.

1993 Mazda Eunos Cosmo

Sitting amongst semi-angular Datsuns and Toyotas, the ruby-red Eunos Cosmo was wildly European. It’s so stylistic and sleek, it almost seems as though you’d run into an Alfa badge if you scratch away the paint. This was Mazda’s top-of-the-line grand-touring coupe for the Japanese market, offering the same cut of luxury and refinement found in the Toyota Soarer, known to us as the Lexus SC.

Power came from the mighty twin-turbocharged 20B-REW, the only three-rotor engine to make it to production. In keeping with the luxurious attitude, power is sent to the rear wheels exclusively through a four-speed automatic transmission. Adhering to the same power restrictions as other Japanese sports cars, power is capped at 276 hp, but it’s commonly belived the actual figure peaked somewhere just north of the 300 hp mark. Torque is a bit more than 280 lb-ft, more than enough to push the coupe its 111 mph top speed, limited by industry regulations of the time.

Where the FD RX-7 simply felt large, the Cosmo was one of the biggest cars on the entire tour. It’s long, lean, and incredibly handsome. Surprisingly, the Eunos was even quieter and fuss-free than the RXs, whoosh-ing its way to supra-legal speeds without effort.

Inside, it was a wonderland of leather, digital display readouts, and ice-cold air conditioning. Much like the Soarer, the Eunos was far from the most dynamic of the bunch, but served as a much needed aperitif for the sunny day.