The RX-7’s Rotary Buzz Still Echoes
The recipe for a good sports car is no secret, it doesn’t involve black magic or any weird rituals; it’s actually quite easy—make it small, keep it light, send drive to the rear wheels, and the rest should follow. Like Mr. Chapman famously said, “Add lightness, then simplify”. While the first generation Mazda RX-7 was only moderately lightweight for its size, it was definitely bone-simple.
Even by the lazy standards of the late seventies, the little Savanna was outdated and old-fashioned upon its 1978 domestic release. Recirculating ball steering, carbureted motors, and a solid rear axle with drum brakes was the kind of ancient technology rapidly disappearing from inexpensive family cars, let alone brand-new sports cars. Yet despite its antiquated underpinnings, the RX-7 easily went on to become one of the world’s all-time favorite fun machines.
What made the little ¾-scale Corvette so much more than the sum of its rather agricultural parts is slightly less straight-forward, less quantifiable than its adherence to that classic Chapman recipe for driving purity. If 50% of the Seven’s charms were down to plain brilliant handling development and chassis tuning, the other half was definitely owed to its little pony-keg sized, turbine-smooth rotary heart.
With a barrel-of-angry-bees exhaust note, the 1.1 liter, twin-rotor 12A Wankel had an appetite for revs and an otherworldly smoothness that easily made up for its modest 103 HP output. With only three major internal parts and a non-reciprocating movement, the tachometer had to be fitted with a warning buzzer so willing was the engine to spin beyond its 7,000 RPM rev limit—you knew you were having fun when every gear was interrupted by a chime that sounded like a mostly-broken alarm clock from somewhere deep within the chintzy, plastic dash. Rotaries literally thrive with abuse, with many premature failures caused by a lack of frequent redlining—it’s the one type of car you don’t want to buy from a little old lady. If you’ve never driven one, you owe yourself the experience at least once before we’re all forced into hermetically-sealed, self-piloting electric pods.
The Seven proved hugely popular in club-level racing, with many enthusiasts racing them in local timed and track events right from the beginning. Mazda themselves heavily campaigned the car, most notably at Le Mans beginning in 1979, when they failed to qualify by less than a second. The following year a factory-backed RX-7 finished 21st overall, a seriously impressive finish for a car up against competitors with engines several hundred percent larger than its own.
Mazda continued to field Sevens at Le Sarthe with varying degrees of success, the knowledge which they gained in doing so leading directly to the awe-inspiring 787B, with which the Hiroshima firm became the first, and so far only, Japanese manufacturer to ever win the world’s oldest and most prestigious endurance race in 1991. Today it’s remembered as one of the prettiest of all modern prototype racers, its distinct, wailing engine note one of motorsports’ all-time great sounds.
Back on the street, they drive with incredible balance from a front-mid-engined design with near-perfect weight distribution. Turn in is quick, steering decently feelsome, and the rear is an active and willing partner in driving festivities, especially on LSD-fitted cars. Agility is the first word that comes to mind when remembering how my rusty old ’83 drove—it changed direction with the enthusiasm of a puppy on Pixy Stix, right up until the moment it changed direction a bit too much and I wrapped it around a light post. That is, right after it hopped a curb sideways and ripped the rear axle out from underneath the be-slatted hatch. Don’t let me discourage you, I was young, hamfisted, and Gran Turismo had just dropped for the PS1.
A used RX-7 is an odd duck, with the usual virtues of classic Japanese cars turned upside-down. Those looking for affordable fun forgive their slightly less-soulful demeanors for an ability to deliver reliable thrills on the cheap, but a Seven is much more like an older European car—quirky, full of personality and brilliant to drive… when they’re actually running. You can easily pick up a very clean first-gen car for under $5,000, for which you get piles and piles of character and charm, a great driving experience, and of course, pop-up headlights, which to an eighties kid like myself is worth the price of entry alone—just be prepared to spend a lot of time draining flooded motors, replacing plugs, and changing oil. I promise it’s worth it.