The Rallying Rotary: Catching Up With The Second Coming Of The Group B Mazda RX-7
Photography by Will Broadhead
Historic motorsport events attract the crowd favorites —the 911s, the Minis, etc.—and while they might be the winners of the popularity contest, the greatest hits have a tendency to get a bit stale by the umpteenth go around.
When enthusiasts can afford to become amateur racing drivers, they often go with what they know, and so the popular cars get perpetually more so. But then there are the more unusual machines on the grid, the low-volume and otherwise short-lived competitors that didn’t quite achieve poster star status in period. These are a treat to come across in the pits, paddocks, and staging areas for a few reasons, but the main one is the simple fact that anything new (or at least anything that’s been mostly forgotten) from the motorsport of the past is intriguing; in other words, a chance to learn something new about something old.
I found a perfect example on the French island of Corsica a few months ago during the Tour de Corse Historique. The entry list had a few hundred cars and more than a few oddities, but one that caught my attention in particular was this first-generation Mazda RX-7. Mazda built nearly a million units of its rotary-powered coupe over the years, but this one is truly rare, seeing as it’s one of just five RX-7s built to compete in the World Rally Championship (WRC) during the infamous era of the Group B cars between 1982 and 1986.
Mazda isn’t the first marque to spring to mind when the subject matter is rallying. Ok, so if you know your onions then you’ll be able to reel off the results and recount the mild amount of success that the Japanese manufacturer had with the Mazda 323 that competed in Group A, but the brand’s impact on the sport pales in comparison with the likes of fellow JDMs Toyota, Subaru, and Mitsubishi, all of which have celebrated legacies in the WRC.
But Mazda Rally Team Europe was zealous enough to compete between 1985 and ’91, entering the fray during the sport’s wildest years with an RX-7 and no support nor interest from the factory. Just five copies of the car were built in period, but the rear-wheel drive Mazda coupe was only ever an adapted road car, and a far cry from the specially built supercars that other factories campaigned in the Group B category. And with the world championship rounds largely occurring on gravel rather than the tarmac that the RX-7 was better suited for, the Mazda never put up much of a fight against the dominant all-wheel drives from Lancia, Peugeot, and Audi.
But for some, the lure of something unusual is what counts most of all, and French racing driver Philippe Gache counts himself in that category. A regular entrant to the vintage version of the Tour de Corse, this year he entered with an RX-7 that was built to the same Group B spec as the Mazda Team Europe cars in 1985. An exacting clone, the car was built by Le Mans and Dakar-finisher Gache and his SMG team over a seven-year period beginning in 2012. It was a project that would present an awful lot of challenges, or at least more so than one might think given the originals were just modified road cars as well.
“We started with one of the original cars in fact,” says Gache, “but it was not in a very happy state, and in the end only the core structure could really be saved. It was so involved that eventually we built eight clones of the car, as to just do one or two would have been far too expensive with the amount of work required.” The car pictured here is the eighth of the series, and is customer owned, giving Gache some extra motivation to not slide it into a hedge, or more accurately on some of these Corsican roads, off a cliff. “Our aim will just be to finish and have fun,” he told me when I caught up with him and the car halfway through the week-long rally, “but the car is definitely competitive,” he added.
Competitive is not an adjective that anyone paying attention would have used to describe this car in period, but the historic classes that the RX-7 competes in now offer a more level playing field, and this Corsican rally is on tarmac, where these lightweight rear-wheel drives gain an edge. Even so, Gache was coy about his chances to finish in a good position, but wherever he and his co-driver (WRC co-driver Vincent Landais), are in the running order, they never pass by unnoticed notice, such is the cacophonous buzz created by the Wankel power plant.
This Mazda looks the business in the staging area, standing out against the droves of Porsches and Lancias, and, as I would find out, it looked even better being tossed around out on the stages, dropping its shoulder through the apex and lifting its snout on the way out under full power. It’s one of those cars that just looks like it’s having as much fun as the person driving.
But the ease with which the RX-7 chops up hairpins belies the difficult journey of building it. Gache described to me how he and his team had to recreate pretty much everything from the information they could get from the deteriorated original car they had bought, and of course, old photos. “I managed to find one mechanic who was still alive and answered the phone, but it seems that the others involved aren’t around anymore, and the information just isn’t available in that case. At the time they built enough spare parts for the five original cars, but these don’t exist anymore, meaning we had to build everything because there was nothing to be found.” The most problematic piece of the puzzle was the specially built five-speed gearbox; Gache tells me that none of the off the shelf parts were suitable, and at the time SMG’s workshop facilities weren’t set up to produce such a complex thing as a unique gearbox, but they got there in the end, and now Gache is rightly very proud; “It shifts beautifully, very fast, like a motorcycle.”
At the heart of it all is the 13B rotary, and the tiny but eager engine is one of Gache’s absolute favorite parts about the car. During our conversation he excitedly opened the bonnet to reveal the comically small heart of the car, saying, “It’s like nothing else.” Sure, heard it a million times before, but this actually is pretty unique even in the context of rotaries. Namely, this Mighty Mouse of a motor is making 300hp without any forced induction. And I’m also told that it will rev to 10,000rpm. Wankel must be spinning (very quickly and happily) in his grave. “It makes a very special noise,” Gache tells me, smiling in the way one does when downplaying the obvious.
The sound of this thing at idle is ridiculous enough, but the noise as it scrabbles for traction on the rally stages is nothing short of exotic, and not at in the usual sense of a many-cylindered Italian super car. The Mazda’s yawp is a bristling mix of a high-pitched scream and a power tool. One of those cars that you hear long before and after it blurs past you. It’s not just the sheer volume, there’s just something about the sound of a high-strung rotary that makes the hairs stand up on your arm a bit differently than they usually do, like listening to a flyby from a WW2 fighter.
For me the noise and its rarity are enough, some will argue that it isn’t original and thus not worth caring much about, but with only five period examples in the world, most of which are in private collections, it’s just about the only way you will see one of these forgotten machines. That’s obviously enough for Philippe Gache, but would he do it all again, knowing what he knows now? “I don’t think so,” he says with a wide grin before I’ve even finished the question. But now there is a new project in the works, a Group A Mazda 323 4WD—some people never learn…