By on August 16, 2012

Back when I reviewed the final Mazda RX-8, I ranted on at some length about my envy of my RX-7-driving college classmates who were the rich sons of high-ranking South Vietnamese military officers and government officials. Still, except when I was shopping for a Mazda rear end for my 20R Sprite Hell Project, I haven’t paid much attention to the many RX-7s I’ve seen in wrecking yards over the years. First-gen examples aren’t uncommon even today; here’s an ’85 I found in a Denver yard last week.
It didn’t quite manage to get to 150,000 miles. That speedometer looks more 2000s than 1980s; Mazda wasn’t as much into Mars Base-style instruments as the other Japanese manufacturers of the era.
The interior is worn, but not nearly as beat as most mid-80s cars I see around here.
The good old Mazda 12A Wankel engine.
You’ll find one in every car, kid. You’ll see.

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38 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1985 Mazda RX-7...”


  • avatar
    Feds

    Right in the feels… I sold mine in the spring.

    Not fully stock. Electric fan in the engine bay, with the switch for it removed (must have been too nice to scrap).

    Also: Disk rear end should mean limited slip.

    Damn, now I’m going car shopping again.

  • avatar
    JCraig

    This is a shame. I’d love this generation of RX-7 just to keep in the garage and flog once in a while.

    This has to be one of the best aging interiors from the era. Not just the gauges but the dash too. I always hear how easy these engines are to rebuild, it suprises me this would be junked.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      I’ve always heard that rotaries are virtually impossible to properly rebuild without special tools and knowlege. They tend to have a 150k expiration date, so this one was right on schedule. Given the ratty condition of the rest of the car it’s not surprising that it wasn’t repaired.

      • 0 avatar
        FrankTheCat

        Not true. I’ve been involved in rebuilding a Mazda 13B first hand, and it was no more difficult than rebuilding a piston-based engine (I actually found it easier; the thing was extremely light.) Most cases of Mazda rotaries detonating so soon are from poor maintenance. There’s no reason why they can’t last as long as any other type of engine. Here’s a video by Aaron Cake on rebuilding Mazda rotaries:
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijJeUk_GqiI

        Cheers

      • 0 avatar
        nikita

        In the 1970′s, Mazda donated several engines to our college and I found them much simpler to rebuild than a piston engine. The key word is knowledge. Wankel’s never “caught on” so the rarity of them means a rarity of folks who work on them.

  • avatar
    DownEaster

    These are still a nice looking car. Clean lines and a classic wedge shape. Still looks contemporary. Styling wasn’t over done and didn’t have tacky hood scoops or ground effects. Reminds me a lot in philosophy of design as the early Datsun Z-cars. Remember the other competitors of the era that were two seaters like the Fiero or the Fiat X/19. RX-7s were nice to drive and look at. Also practical with the hatchback. Would make a nice classic.

  • avatar
    Morea

    So RX-7 cognoscenti, what is the most reliable, least troublesome RX-7 to own?

    • 0 avatar
      Feds

      This one, or the GSL-SE (fuel injected version of this one). If Rotary Engines are Superman, turbochargers are Kryptonite.

      • 0 avatar
        Kaosaur

        Definitely the 85 GSL-SE or an 89-91 NA 2nd generation (S5) (though then you have to deal with the failed OMPs and looking silly at the pump putting premix in your gas tank)

        Turbo FC owner here.

        The first gens are nice but maintaining a 12A these days isn’t as easy as a 13B.

      • 0 avatar
        Morea

        From Wikipedia it looks as if the GSL-SE was only sold in 1984 and 1985. Is that right?

        I’d like to own a rotary-engined car (a least for awhile) and I’m looking for the least headache-inducing model RX-7.

      • 0 avatar
        Kaosaur

        Morea: Yep!

        I don’t really know if there’s any such thing as a no-headache, twenty-plus year old car though…

        Maybe just get yourself an RX-7 for LeMons. You’ll get pretty much the full ownership cycle of an RX-7 in one day! :)

      • 0 avatar
        Feds

        Probably the LEAST headache inducing way to own a rotary car is to buy the best RX-8 you can afford. The newest non-turbo RX-7 is currently 21 years old (there was no 1992 RX-7).

      • 0 avatar
        Morea

        “I don’t really know if there’s any such thing as a no-headache, twenty-plus year old car though”

        I didn’t say NO headaches, I said LEAST headache-inducing.

        My daily driver is an ’84 Italian car: I fear nothing headache-wise!

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    it would be nice if someone poured some love and a bucket of money at it

    LS1 conversion would suit, strip interior, race shells

    i would imagine the minor stuff like door rubbers and minor trim would kill you

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    It makes me sad that the AE86 has a drift tax where a dead example sells for $3-4000. Yet, you can’t [i]give[/i] these away. One of many cars I would like to do an engine swap to and enjoy. No time!

    This one looks like an enthusiast gave it some love. Muffler, Taurus fan(?), GSL-SE axle but no 13B (unless you are wrong on the engine). Whoever he was, he probably doesn’t know it’s here.

    • 0 avatar
      Feds

      You’d have to be dedicated as hell to stealth to swap a 13B in and keep all the vacuum/carby junk in place like that. i.e. custom cast mainifold dedicated. This is definitely a 12a.

      Depending on the option level, you could get disk brakes on a 12a car. In Canada that meant leather as well, but option packages are generally different on either side of the border.

      just swapping a gsl-se axle into a 12a car is not straightforward, as you end up with different wheel bolt patterns front and rear.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Momma

      For a moment I thought this was formerly mine, but alas mine had a burgundy interior.
      I had an ’84 Scirocco S and my step brother an ’80 RX7 when we were just out of high school in the late 80′s. His car would run rings around my VW, it was shameful. Remembering that experience I bought an ’84 RX7 GSL in the late 90′s and then found a GSL-SE for sale locally with a blown engine and a lot of Racing Beat goodies. I swapped the rear to get the limited slip and bigger 14″ wheels with the more common bolt spacing, same for the front except I think that included a brake upgrade from solid to ventilated rotors? Ordered a 12a header and used the RB exhaust from the other car. Had a friend who races rotaries rebuild and rejet the carb and remove that Medusa’s snake nest of emissions tubes and wires so that it looked pretty and uncluttered. Also replaced the smog pump with a block off plate. After these minor-ish mods to the engine it would keep up with any 13b and get better mpg to boot. I didn’t know where to stop so I had another very talented friend massage the dings out of it and spray BMW “Kosmo Schwarz” metallic black over its dull black factory finish, and a local shop reupholstered the seats.
      In all my cars only my 240z was more fun but the vague recirculating steering was its Achilles heel. Mazda really cheaped out on not utilizing rack and pinion, and no amount of adjustment would cure the vague on-center dead zone. I did later see that an after market vendor was selling a rack & pinion kit for the RX7 but by then I’d sold it to fund my year in Japan. When I got back from my year away I bought a Prelude Si with all-wheel-steering and I now what it means for a car to truly handle. Everything about the RX7 was fantastic but the awful steering was a major fly in the ointment.

  • avatar
    Speed Spaniel

    Is that a choke button, like my Cub Cadet has? In a car from 1985?

    • 0 avatar
      JCraig

      This was the last year of this generation RX-7, which came out in the late 70′s. Maybe it was a carryover.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      Yup. It was a semi-automatic choke in that the driver pulled it out to start the car and once warm, it would retract by itself.

      I loved my 1980 RX-7, my first new car. I still have a soft spot for them. While an LS swap sounds great, the 12A is a very light engine and the swap would ruin the light, flickable nature of the car. Besides, the turbine-like quality of the Rotary is, in itself, a wonderful thing. It is what it is, a marvelous collection of cheap parts that work surprisingly well together.

      • 0 avatar
        Feds

        WHAT!?! You chose an RX-7 NEW!?! Don’t you know that the 280ZX is faster around the track, and better on the road. And don’t even get me started about the ’80 MGB. It’s the purest sports car in production today!

        Besides, why would you have bought either of those when you could have had a 2-year-old V6 Capri that would have ripped the throats out of all three cars!!!

        The more things change, I suppose.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        Old GF had an RX-7. Her and the car were more fun than a barrel of monkeys. MGB? Buy a Miata and your night terrors will end.

      • 0 avatar
        bunkie

        I went to the dealership to drive a ’78 280Z they had. I also looked at the new 280ZX but compared to the 280Z, it was obviously inferior as well as being much more expensive. I also considered a turbo Capri for about 5 seconds. In the end, in that last of the malaise years, the RX-7 was the single best enthusiast car that wasn’t ridiculously expensive. It was the right car a the time and I has a blast with it.

  • avatar
    Dyl911

    I had an ’84 with a 12A back in the early 90′s. I always loved the look of the car, inside and out. Amazing steering. I HATED having no torque and getting barely 20mpg. I was also unprepared for the tail-happy nature of that car. I’ll admit I wasn’t a great driver back then, but boy, that car had some serious snap oversteer! Oh, and yes, it had a manual choke.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Wasn’t there a pretty common conversion to the (fairly stout) Buick 231 V-6 for this? Bet that would be pleasing to drive….

    (Or, am I confusing with the Triumph TR7?)

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    I still lust for an N/A FC. The FB always seemed a bit “wedgy,” the FD is nigh-on unattainable now, and the the FC always just seemed “right.” Nightmares of apex seals and pre-mixed fuel dance in my head though.

    But the dream goes on. A red S5. Sigh…

  • avatar
    JMII

    Neighbor’s kid has one, in yellow, full aero kit, with more turbo boost then the space shuttle. I think they might drag race it because the father has fully enclosed triple axle trailer. My wife hates it because just starting the thing shakes the windows. Classic wedge shaped hatchback, similar to the Z’s… love that look.

  • avatar
    GoesLikeStink

    Any more recent progress on the Sprite? The last post on the link has it sitting in Sac waiting for a rear end. Is it still there or did it make the trip to Colorado?

  • avatar
    LTDScott

    If you ever find one of these in the junkyard with a factory glass sunroof (raises/lowers with a crank knob attached to the roof), snag it. It’s worth some decent money.

    • 0 avatar
      Kaosaur

      Very much this. My FC has the similarly-rare dealer-installed glass from Pacific Glass and they go for $500+.

      If you can even find one. I was lucky that mine came with it, but it sort of breaks the 10AE look.

  • avatar
    chas404

    My dad had one of the first ones off the boat. bright yellow and nasty automatic. gorgeous car. not so fun being tall kid and riding in that hatch.

    later on a friend had a beater one that he had done SOMETHING to the motor (not a turbo). that car was FAST and handled like crazy.

    good looking little cars.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    My uncle had an RX-7 , a few years older than this one that he traded a TR7 for . He had always owned British sports cars prior to that and perhaps because of that he was quite impressed with the RX-7 . He became ill and didn’t put many miles on it . After he died I was interested in buying it but his son kept it . Shortly after that I don’t recall what went wrong but it caught on fire and burned up .

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Yes, that is a manual choke. You pulled it out and once the car was running for a minute or two it automatically kicked down and pushed in. My sisters base 77 Corolla 1200 had one and it was quite reliable.

    I once saw a nicely done 1st gen RX-7 convertible conversion. It even had a real trunk.

  • avatar
    Sylvilagus Aquaticus

    Mark MacInnis, the Buick V6 conversion was popular for the TR7. John’s Cars here in Dallas still does a kit, although they’re best known for their Chevy to Jaguar work. http://www.johnscars.com/

    Man, this makes me pine for my ’79 RX-7 GS. Not the fastest, but you could make them take a corner like a road grader with some work.

  • avatar
    zeus01

    I’ve owned six of these 1st gens. (an 81, two 82s, an 84 and two 85s), all with the 12A and all with the GSL (known as the Gx in Canada prior to 84)option package. The car’s biggest isuue wasn’t the engine (which was quite bullet-proof with regular oil changes. RUST was this car’s Achilles heel. In fact, between the six cars I only owned five engines.

    I have however torn down several 12As purchased from junk yards and irresponsible former owners. Some I re-built (an easy task if you know how, and most mechanics don’t), others were beyond economic repair– the cost of replacement housings was astronomical, so if they were toast the rebuild cost spiked. Some things I learned:

    1. The average accumulated mileage on these engines (including all of those whose owners never bothered to even check the oil let alone change it) was pretty close to the 150,000 mile figure or thereabouts indicated in the above story. But the average mileage for those owners who had regular oil changes and top-ups (the 12A uses about 1/2 quart of its oil supply every 1000 miles or so to lube the apex seals) and who had the foresight to replace the oil metering pump every 100,000 miles was upwards of 200,000 miles. This durability was as good as that of anything else being built back then, and even as good as that of many cars being built today.

    2. Not all rebuilds are created equal. Pulled a rotary apart and only replaced the seals, ignoring the wear on the irons and flaking edges on the chromed rotor housing running surfaces? Expect no more than another 40,000 miles before the next teardown. Engines re-built with re-surfaced and nitrided irons, decent (non-flaking) rotor housings and new thrust bearings/spacers will last much longer, but for a true “zero-timed” rebuild you’ll need new irons as well. Mazda nitrided these in such a manner that the running surfaces for the oil seals on the sides of the rotors could “break in” properly. This involved less hardening in these areas and more hardining farther out from the centers. Look at a new iron from Mazda and you’ll see what I mean- there’s a visible ring in the mirror-smooth surface of the iron. Of course, this rebuild will cost you, and there’s no guarantee that a re-built purchased even from a Mazda dealership (they farm out their rebuilds to others)will have all new irons and housings. But if ya want something done right, ya gotta DIY…

    3. These cars seriously needed some type of warning light to indicate if the oil metering pump (OMP) was on the fritz. Like timing belts on piston engines, there is no way to tell how much life they have left in them before they pack it in without taking them out and disassembling them for inspection. Best to just replace them at 100,000 miles to be on the safe side, because once the OMP quits pumping the apex seals no longer receive lube and then get unceremoniously ejected via the exhaust ports, taking several hundred (or thousand) bucks worth of rotors, housings and irons with them.

    4. Speaking of exhaust, if you live in a province or state that requires annual emission testing a new catalytic converter or three will cost you thousands. There are a few aftermarket ones that will withstand the rotary’s heat and pressure long enough to get through the test station, but they’re often loud enough to get you a ticket and/or will only last a few months before melting. You’ve been warned.

    5. The good news is that these 1st-gen Rx7s were as reliable and durable as any 1985 Corolla or Civic. the bad news is that these 1st-gen Rx7s are as reliable and durable as any 1985 Corolla or Civic. These cars are OLD. Anything under the hood made from rubber or plastic is cracked, brittle and leaking like a sieve. Exhaust leaks are the bane of these engines, causing them to idle like a bag of sh!t and resulting in hotter running temps.

    6. Busted a rad or heater hose en route? Stop immediately, shut down and call a tow truck. Don’t you DARE try to make it to that next service station five minutes away. If you do, the engine will quickly overheat. It won’t quit on you, but you’ll have warped the housings, causing the coolant seals to spring leaks and requiring a complete engine teardown. If you’re lucky you’ll get a few more months out of the engine before the leaking starts and kills it. If you’re unlucky that service station you drove to will be that engine’s last port of call before teardown. And warped housings cannot be reused.

    7. If your 1st gen is an ’83 through ’85 with the 12A it will have the “bee-hive” style oil cooler, an air-to-coolant-type unit mounted on the L/H side of the engine next to the firewall. Get rid of this piece of garbage and install a proper under-rad-mounted 79 through 82-type large rectangular oil cooler. Mazda switched to the beehive in a cost-saving wet dream gone bad, but changed back to the tried and true on the ’84 to 85 GSL-SE 13B engines and all subsequent rotaries after 1985.

    • 0 avatar
      Piston Slap Yo Momma

      That’s a great write-up Zeus01, really illuminating, I just love when commentary yields insights like yours. I neglected to add that my parts car also yielded a Racing Beat oil cooler, glass moon roof and Tokico springs + shocks. Sadly, after a year of the lovely buzz of the rev-limit warning buzzer my engine lost compression. The oil metering pump might’ve been the culprit but my suspicion is that my 100K+ mile car had very few oil changes under its prior owner, judging by the copious stripper club match packs and the condom wrapper + cigarette butts I removed upon purchase. Not a single receipt for any service. So I bought and installed a used, unknown miles and condition rotary engine from a local wrecking yard. Ran perfectly. Usually my toast lands on the jelly side, but not that time.

      • 0 avatar
        zeus01

        Only 100,000 miles on a first gen? And no service records? I smell an odometer that’s been spun. Most of these cars were daily drivers, especially in places that never receive snow. I’d certainly buy another one as a collector car, driving it only on sunny summer days. But it would have to be a mint ’84 or ’85 GSL-SE with all service records. I’ve only seen ads for a couple of worthy candidates in the last three years or so, and both were asking upwards of 8 grand. Considering that a mint 240Z can fetch over 15k that 8k might be money well spent in today’s dollars.


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