Reader Submissions: Driving Back To The Future, In A 1985 Mazda RX-7

Driving Back To The Future, In A 1985 Mazda RX-7

By Petrolicious Productions
May 13, 2016
11 comments

Story and photography by Andrew Maness

I recently traveled through space and time, in a 1985 Mazda RX­7 GSL-­SE. Didn’t need Sci-Fi tropes, either: there was no flux capacitor mounted in the trunk, no tear in the fabric of the universe that I drove into, and no distress call from Vulcan that I was answering. I simply got into the car, put it in gear, pulled out of a parking lot, and boom—traveled through time.

As you may have guessed, the direction of my travel was forward (you most likely would have heard about it already if I’d gone backwards, that kind of thing tends to make the evening news, or at least trend for 15 minutes on Twitter). Going into the future, however, isn’t a particularly big deal, we do it every second of every day, but it’s how we get there that makes the passage of time notable.

How we feel about our means of transportation is more often than not what shapes our memory of the experience. When air travel first reached the masses, every flight was something miraculous, just as riding in a car was front page news in the early 20th century, and taking a train was in the century prior to that. I’m sure the first person to successfully ride a horse didn’t shut up about it until the day they died, and even then, their relatives probably brought it up every chance they got.

The point is that it’s become rare for us to take a moment to appreciate how we’re moving through life because we take our modes of transportation for granted, especially the automobile. It’s not our fault, it’s simply a result of social conditioning, but it’s a rotten trait for humanity to possess, and we should do everything we can to combat it becoming more prevalent.

The best way to do this is to slip into the future…in a classic vehicle. It’s a wholly transformative experience, intimate in ways that driving a new car can’t be, not because of the difference in technology, but because of the baggage that comes with driving a classic. Doesn’t matter if it’s 30 or 80 years old, classic cars are more than a mode of transportation, they’re they’re a piece of history, and that history is in your hands.

When I was at the wheel of the aforementioned RX­7, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have been like to get into this car in 1985. The oxblood interior, the tall center stack housing a double-din audio system with full EQ adjustments, the soft orange glow of the gauge cluster and the smooth-as-silk rotary purring away underhood; it must have felt like the future had arrived in the form of an affordable two door sports car.

In the hours I spent driving this perfectly-preserved vehicle, I marveled at it’s simplicity, and was thoroughly impressed by how easily it accomplishes what so many modern cars fail to do: completely engage the driver.

Clearly, more attention is required when driving any vehicle with a manual transmission, but if you’ve been doing it for an extended period of time, it’s marginally different than driving an automatic. Had the RX­7 not been equipped with three pedals it would have undoubtedly been a little less fun to drive, but I honestly think it would have been just as engaging. The novelty of the pop-­up headlights and flow­through air vents are there regardless of what gear selector is between the seats. Automatic or manual, you’re still looking down the same long sloping hood, cranking open the same sunroof, gripping the same, thin, airbag-less tri-­spoke steering wheel. These are things that add up to an engaging drive, and you won’t find them in a new vehicle.

What the RX­7 GSL-­SE accomplishes with its 135­ horsepower rotary engine is nothing short of a miracle, and it’s worthy of every bit of praise. All it takes to understand the validity of that statement is an open mind, and some time spent with one of these Wankel powered coupés. While climbing a steep grade I never wanted for power, I had exactly as much as I needed to get the job done efficiently, and enjoy every minute of it. The descent was the same story as I only needed minimal use of the brakes and optimally ratioed gearbox to bleed away speed accumulated by its lithe chassis.

After a technical section of driving, I’m usually riding a high of adrenaline, and feeling rather aggressive, but not in the RX­7. Instead I found myself almost in a meditative state, I was calm, but hyper aware of everything happening around me. If you’ve driven a classic Japanese sports car, you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about, but there’s something special about the way Mazda does things, and far be it from me to pretend to know exactly what it is.

Get behind the wheel and you’ll feel time start to warp, though, that much I can be sure of. Ideally, you’ll have access to an open area, one devoid of indicators of our era—traffic, speed cameras, new buildings, that sort of thing. The fewer things around to tell your brain it’s 2016, the more you’ll feel the car take over and slowly wind back the clock to 1985. If I’d been better prepared for driving the RX­7, I would have brought my Moody Blues Greatest Hits cassette tape, but alas, I wasn’t that on point. Instead I spent the majority of my time searching for a radio signal that wasn’t mostly static; which, in hindsight, was rather appropriate.

As I got back to civilization, the system finally locked in on a classic rock station, and my last bit of time with this pristine machine was spent zipping along the Pacific Ocean with a period correct soundtrack from Van Halen, The Cars, Queen, and Pink Floyd, just to name a few. The sun had set, and the world may as well not have existed beyond the confines of the RX­7.

The future no doubt holds some fascinating advances in transportation, but I’m not convinced the same is true for driving, not how we enthusiasts view it, anyway. The more new cars try to emulate old ones, the more I ask myself, why not just opt for the original? Why not go back…to the future?

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Rockdad
Rockdad
4 years ago

I owned 4 examples of this first generation RX-7. The new vehicles were a bit pricey at the dealers but they sold so many of them that after a few years they were available used at huge discounts. Have a major engine repair situation? No problem, similar used RX-7s were available for around $1k. This car became the disposable sports car in socal.

Rockdad
Rockdad
4 years ago
Reply to  Rockdad

For years I had a 12A rotary engine sitting in my garage that I wanted to trick out but I never did and finally it went into the dumpster.

Rockdad
Rockdad
4 years ago
Reply to  Rockdad

Tricky ignition modules called igniters, leaky engine O rings at less than 100k miles, difficulty in passing CA smog tests and not-so-good fuel mileage were the downsides of owning one of these cars, but the smiles per mile was worth it. One of mine was t-boned by a pickup truck in the rain just off the Newport Freeway in OC and I walked away unscratched. When people saw the photo of the wrecked car they were sure the driver had been killed in it.

Simon Lockie
Simon Lockie
4 years ago

Back in the ’90s I had a RX7 Series 1 GT. It was a lot of fun. 12A with a factory LSD. Good times.

John W. Browning
John W. Browning
4 years ago

I bought a 1979 RX-7 and it is still my favorite car of all time. I sold it in 1986 to fund a new Yamaha FZ600 for AMA and WERA road racing. It was the only car that as much fun to drive as a motorcycle was to ride.
The stereo system went out and I didn’t even notice. I just drove the car. The rotary making it’s hummmmmm and the road becoming subservient to the input of my steering wheel. IMSA was in its big heyday in the 80s and I watched as Dave Kent and Jim Downing race teams tear the tracks up and lay waste to 911s as the little rotary engines just didn’t break. Ladden with weight penalties and constant debate over how to rate their displacement never slowed them down.
With just a modicum of intake and exhaust tuning, you could double the horsepower and have a giant killer. and for a very small amount of financial investment.
I would love another one. I would love to be 25 again too.

Brian Gross
Brian Gross
5 years ago

My first car in High school(1996) was a 1984 RX-7 GSL , AUTOMATIC and let me tell you, it was terrible. I knew the car was good, but the automatic transmission completely let it down. As my good fortune would have it, a PRISTINE 1985 GSL-SE basically fell into my lap for a couple hundred dollars more than I paid for the other one, so with help from my parents I bought that one and sold the other within 6 months of ownership.

The GSL-SE was so far and away a better car there is almost no comparison. At the time, a close friend had almost an identical 1985 GSL (manual) and the “SE” was smoother, faster, and just better to drive. Mind you, we are 16 years old and have no money to modify these cars, so we’re talking stock to stock. I loved winding out the motor just to hear the redline BEEEEEP and my love for this car was set in stone.

Mine was black but did have the same awesome 80s red leather interior as the car in the article. it had both tops( glass and hard), louvers, it was an immaculate example. I loved that car and eventually sold it to purchase another vehicle but of course hindsight being what it is, I would love to have known I should have kept it.

I’m glad to know that after all this time, though, that other enthusiasts appreciate these cars for the little hidden gems that they truly are.

Patrick Frawley
Patrick Frawley
5 years ago

By 1985 – the last year of the first generation – the RX-7 was less anyone’s idea of futuristic and much more an established part of the automotive here-and-now, both as a popular presence and a collection of technology that ranged from reasonably contemporary (fuel injection on the GSL-SE) to nearly outdated (live axle, recirculating-ball steering). There wasn’t much about it that was fantastically advanced or even all that different except for the Wankel engine, an idea which had been widely promoted, then gradually dismissed, for at least a decade prior.

That cockpit was no one’s idea of a sophisticated driver’s environment at the time. (And the current love of pop-up headlights just screams hipster affectation.)

Take the RX-7 for what it is: a well-designed and fun traditional sports car. It had nothing to say of the future, but it does have a timeless appeal.

Paul Ipolito
Paul Ipolito
6 years ago

Very nice article and a great car. In a related/unrelated note: I was driving my 1984 Corvette last night and I was thinking “I really like this car” I am comfortable with it and I readily forgive the car’a shortcomings. Sounds like a good marriage. The comments about the manual transmission in the Mazda are dead-on. My Corvette has the infamous Doug Nash 4+3 manual and I am still not sure what all the fuss was about the transmission. I also hear a lot of negatives regarding the Cross-Fire injection set-up. Mine starts everyday and runs fine. Am I driving tastefully? Probably not, but I am enjoying the hell out of my sub-$6000 purchase. The 1980’s cars may be the last chance at an affordable, fun car.

Ray Jay
Ray Jay
6 years ago

I had a new GS in 1985 and learned to drive along the east bay hills in Oakland. Skyline Blvd and Redwood Road was my personal racetrack with period-correct 80 music on the radio from Killing Joke, Yello, Sisters of Mercy. Not much has changed now, except I spend my weekends riding a Panigale just as hard along the Crest in SoCal.

Russ Vague
Russ Vague
6 years ago

Beautiful design.

HitTheApex
HitTheApex
6 years ago

The DeLorean is nice and all, but this RX-7 takes the cake. What a great Japanese nostalgic!

As far as Japanese sports cars and GTs of this era are concerned, a Toyota Soarer may have been the epitome of the ’80s tech obsession, with a digital dash and an early implementation of automatic climate control, and the Skyline DR30 may have been the epitome of ’80s styling, with its boxy lines and stripes on the seats, but the Savanna RX-7, along with cars such as the AW11 MR2, reflects a simpler side of the ’80s.