By on February 16, 2010

Zing! That word encapsulates the RX-7. The only vocabulary the little coffee-can rotary had was zing! (snick) zing! (snick) and zing again! Sooner rather than later, it zinged you for a couple of Gs when its rotor seals gave up the zing! But that didn’t come as a surprise, and it never zinged you for anything else. That is, unless you got a little too frisky in certain corners, and the live rear axle might toss you a nasty little over-zing. As long as you could live on a torque-free diet, the RX-7 was one of the best friends an enthusiast driver could hope for in its day. And there are still loyal devotees of Zing-Buddhism today.

Cars like the gen1 RX-7 appear as magic. Who could imagine that a bunch of Mazda sedan parts artfully rearranged within the tenets of minimalism could have such a profound affect? Just when all hope for the rapidly bloating Datsun Z was gone, along comes the same formula, but even better. Well, different, anyway; and certainly more fun in the go-cartish way. The RX-7 and VW GTI were the two boons in an era where cheap thrills weren’t always.

The GTI was certainly the more practical of the two, and not just for the back seat. Its torquey long-stroke four was never caught flat-footed. The little Mazda rotary was always asleep below about 3500 rpm, and really only perked up for the last heady rush to 7,000 rpm. Not the thing for long commutes with the A/C on in LA’s rush hours. But a good friend did that for well over a decade with a white RX-7 like this one. Except for the inevitable rotor seal rebuild, it never gave him any real problems, and he had bought it used. This one still looks mighty solid too.

With all of 100 hp on tap if you kept it singing soprano, one’s downshifting algorithms had to be reprogrammed. The transition from a Detroit V8 was brutal, if not almost dangerous. Below the happy range, absolutely nothing happened. It would have worn on me for the long haul, but then I do savor a dollop of torque with my horse meat.

I’m not fully versed in the origins of the RX-7, but it’s pretty obvious that if Mazda’s rotary was going to keep zinging, it needed a new home. The line of rotary sedans and coupes had reached the end of the line, with the RX-4 being terminated in 1978. Efficiency had improved somewhat over the earlier RX-2 and RX-3, but just couldn’t be competitive with tightening CAFE and increasing gas prices. The new 1979 626 was strictly piston powered.

Guesswork tell me that the RX-7 shared some/most of the new 626 underpinnings, like the four-link rear axle, which gave the sedan and coupe the inevitable “poor man’s BMW” moniker. And given that the RX-7 didn’t even have rack and pinion steering, my guess about parts sharing is probably pretty safe. But the featherweight rotary tucked down low and back in the RX-7 compartment resulted in a perfect 50-50 weight distribution. And the overall weight of around 2400 lbs made all the more tossable. The Mazda parts department salad was tasty, and a hit. Almost a half-million came off the lines in Hiroshima; something its less delectable successor could only dream of.

Of course there was the GSL-SE, with the bigger fuel injected 13B engine that packed 135 horses. Never drove one, but everyone raved about what a difference it made, and how it finally made  the RX-7 truly whole. It came along late in the game, but that’s the one to look for. Unless you really love zinging.

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31 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1983 Mazda RX-7...”

  • avatar

    The first gen RX-7 had an innovative offset Watt’s linkage mounted ahead of the solid rear axle.

  • avatar

    Bought a black GSL in 1983 and misspent the next two years on the South Oregon coast doing my best (read: bad) impression of Rod Millen on the fire roads of Coos County and a large gravel area near the bay where I could get some air off the gentle dips. Not after I rigged a slight lift or even replaced the OEM tires with something better suited for off road driving. No, except for a set of Hella Z-beams this was bone stock – and the car never, ever broke.

    I remember that car the way I remember my favorite dog from childhood. Pure joy, free of cares, and with an innocence I don’t think I’ll ever have again.

  • avatar

    I had a buddy that owned one and seriously tested the RX7 limitations in a series of near-death driving experiences,some of which included me as an unwilling spectator/passenger.It was a great little car that probably saved my life because it compensated for my buddy’s driver limitations.But it sure loved oil.

  • avatar

    The “RX-7 GSL-SE” took vehicle naming to new alphanumeric lows (or highs, if that’s your sort of thing). Salesmen with a lisp struggled to push that product.

  • avatar

    As a young college student, I coveted the RX-7. I don’t recall how it happened, but I managed to sell my 1980 Toyota Tercel and purchase a lightly used ’84 GSL-SE. It was a fantastic, incredibly reliable car. I never had an engine problem and, unlike so many of my college friends, never hesitated to jump in and take a 10 hour road trip. I knew it would get me round trip. I quickly learned to let the engine warm up a bit before shutting it off when playing musical parking spaces in the campus parking lots, otherwise the next start was iffy. Pieces of the red interior faded unevenly, and the rear carpet disintegrated. But the rest of the car, the engine, the shift buzzer, the unique wheels, and all interior bits looked and performed great when I sold her at 135K miles. The replacement, a brand new 1991 RX-7 convertible, was a disappointing boulevard cruiser by comparison, and quickly led into a string of trades.

  • avatar

    Nice shots of a very clean FB. Looks very solid, and nice to see one of these great cars still being used. They really are a hoot to drive, and yes, the 13B does transform the car.

    One note, the model with the 13B was the GSL-SE, not GSL-E.

    I drag my FC race car around to some of the local car shows, and every time, I’ll have a half dozen people who either had, or had a friend with, a 1st Gen RX7 come up and talk to me about 1) How much they loved them and 2) How much abuse they heaped on the car.

    As for the seals, rebuilds are a little too common, yes, but they are fairly inexpensive (all things considered) and on the non-turbo cars like this, not all that common. 200,000-300,0000 without a rebuild is not uncommon in the non-turbo cars. It all just comes down to how you drive them. Believe it or not, the cars driven gently (i.e. one that was used to commute in stop and go) tend to have a lot more problems. They carbon up badly, which hurts the compression.
    A redline a day is important for all rotary cars.

    I would love to add a nice one like this to my collection.
    I’ve even got a clean set of brown seats from an 84 GSL sitting in my garage from an aborted project (the floorpan was rusted beyond the point of no return.)

  • avatar

    Cars in similar condition to the one posted, with a dead engine, are free here.

    I’m picking one up and dropping in a built 302 with a carb. Redneck rodeo. The 8.8 from the Mustang drops in as well once the factory diff gives up.

    See: the Ugly Duck Racing car.

  • avatar

    Back in high school my boss had one, I can’t remember the name (stinger?) but he bought the kit (stage I, II,etc.) that included a Holley carb and header and it really opened this car up. I think it had a rev limiter that kicked in at 118mph, but we would hit that frequently on Iowa two lane. Also put some P7’s on it!

  • avatar

    I married into one of these cars — my wife had an 85 GSL-something when we met. It was her daily driver and it was a blast to drive and very reliable, and practical — you could get a lot of cargo in that hatchback.

    But over time her job moved from close by to farther away and her commute changed from a 3 mile drive to a 15 mile freeway stop and roll, so she got another vehicle to be a more practical commuter and her RX-7 became a weekend/fun car. At that point it completely fell apart. These cars need to be driven regularly to last, else the apex seals dry out and/or other bad stuff happens to the rotary. In the last few years of her ownership, I calculated it needed expensive engine repairs every 750 miles, our Mazda mechanic told us, “it needs to be driven more.” We sold it with 75K on the clock and it was about 15 years old.

    The fact that you see so many of these out there with the rotary engines swapped out should tell you something about the long-term reliability of that mill. I remember Rx-7 newsgroups and such on the internet (yeah, it was some years ago) pretty much accepted that a new engine was a 100,000 mile maintanance item.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    I always thought Mazda should have turned this gorgeous set of sheet metal into a roadster….they did, eventually….the Miata…but this would have made one lovely 2-seater….wouldn’t surprise me if it was designed to be…the lines are so perfect.

    • 0 avatar

      Here in the Northern VA/DC area there is a convertible 1st Gen. RX-7, converted by some shop in Florida (I think) for Mazda back around 1984-5. Evidently, Mazda had it done to 2 1st Gen. coupes and took them around the country to Mazda dealers to gauge interest in a convertible version of the forthcoming 2nd Gen. car.

      It looks pretty good. I’ve seen it at a few Mazda Sportscar Club of Washington ( meetings.

  • avatar

    I’ve always thought the design of the first gen RX7 to be surprisingly timeless. It’s slightly generic, in the same sense that it is very Japanese. The Japanese cars of the 70’s was usually divided between American or Italian design influences, but this car really doesn’t look like anything else.

    It couldn’t have been French or Italian, but perhaps there’s a hint of German design traits. It’s different in the same way that the Porsche 914 was odd and different from its competitors, though the RX7 manages to look good in the process. Perhaps if NSU had been allowed to continue as a maker and made a sports car to compete with the Porsche 924, this is what it would look like.

    The RX7 is like the result of some madman Frankenstein genius, trying to create a whole out of different parts, and finally getting it exactly right this time around, and in a way that adds to make the result more than the sum of its parts. I think the design holds up better than its successors, in fact it looked contemporary up until the mid-90’s.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Nice job, Paul. I love zinging! Wood that the RX-8 was half as elegant and desirable as the first gen RX-7 was in its day.

  • avatar

    Fantastic cars! All they need is rack and pinion steering and maybe +20hp and they’d be perfect. I’ve always admired the styling. Timeless. Even the stock alloy wheels are very nice. These first generation cars actually have a reasonable amount of torque – its the later ones that get a bit peaky. They can be quite reliable – the 12A can go for 200-300k miles given its not over revved and the oil to topped up and changed. The later turbo cars are much less reliable. I’ve owned two myself

    1981 S – bone stock except for a set of Rikken mesh wheels. Lovely shade of grey. I was the second owner and the car for flawless for me. Even the wife liked. Probably tied with the Spitfire for my favorite car I’ve owned. A picture here:

    1985 GSL – with factory lsd, power windows, sunroof and that funky stereo joystick it was fancier than the base S I had before. This one was a bit modified and all the worse for it. The emissions “rats nest” was removed by the previous owner. Made hot starts a little tough. Had a Racebeat header, some sort of free exhaust and a mild street port. With the factory LSD it was great fun but I still liked the old 81 better by a large margin. Personal preference but I liked the more 70s style interior of the 81 better too. Photo:

  • avatar

    One of those cars that has timeless styling. A quick headlight/tailight update, and you could sell them today. Though back in the day, you didn’t want to be parked between a 280 and a 944…

    While I do agree on moral principles that a domestic V8 swap just ain’t right, they do work. And they keep people interested in the body style. That’s not all bad, is it?

    Drive a Gen I RX-7 or Miata with ~400 HP 302 shoved under the hood. It’s a hoot. Honest. And with the right suspension set-up, they actually handle well.

    It’s fun to drive like one of those damnable replicobras. ‘Cept you don’t have to see yourself every 5 minutes when your cruising around on a sunny weekend…

  • avatar

    My girlfriend bought one of these, against my advice because, well…it was cute. It was in pretty good shape but I knew she wasn’t the mechanical type. I told her to check the oil every week because they were burners and bad things happened if you let the oil get low. A month later she calls me while I’m at work. The car “just died” on her way to school. “It won’t even turn over.” I guide her through pulling the dip stick (which apparently she had never done before) and sure enough, it is bone dry. She seized the engine. $1200 dollars later she had a new/old junkyard motor in it but she lost all confidence in it and replaced it with something more practical (Toyota Corolla if I recall)…at least more practical for someone who doesn’t want to do more than add gas and do yearly oil changes.

  • avatar

    One cool thing about the rotary and the FB in particular is that it is quite amenable to hot-rodding. Several tweaked FB’s have shown up at our local auto-x and while they have not been terrifically fast, they have put on a great show. One guy had installed a Racing Beat intake topped with a twin-throat Weber and two chrome trumpets. He had the hood up in the paddock and fired it up and revved it to the buzzer just as I was walking by…I had my mind on my last crummy run and so was caught by surprise and damn near crapped my pants.

  • avatar

    You can gain a good percentage of horsepower just by uncorking the exhaust a bit on an early Rx-7.

  • avatar

    Mine was a 1984 GSL-SE which had the larger, fuel-injected, 13B engine with more power and torque. The 13B engine had a much flatter torque curve so that you didn’t have to wind it out to get reasonable acceleration.

    I bought the car used from a Chevy dealer when it was one year old with 12k miles. For the first 20 years, I kept it in the garage over winter so that it wouldn’t be eaten up by salt. After that, I lost interest in the car and used it as a winter commuter as long as the snow didn’t get too deep. It was looking pretty tired when I gave it away two years ago.

    The car was quite reliable and never stranded me. The only recurring problem was warped brake rotors. Carefully and evenly tightening the wheel nuts to the proper torque didn’t help. When I gave it away, at 190k miles, it was still running strong on the original engine seals. Oil consumption was no higher than when new and it still had the original clutch.

    The car was small enough that you wore it rather than sat in it. As long as you packed in small containers, like gym bags, there was a surprising amount of room beneath the rear hatch. More than once, my wife and I took it from the midwest to Florida and back on vacation. Its biggest fault was the high interior noise level once highway speed limits went back up. I used to wear ear plugs on long trips.

  • avatar

    Proof positive of the old adage: “The whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.”

    25 years later, it still takes my breath away.

  • avatar

    My very first new car was a 1980 RX-7S. The S was slightly decontented (4-speed, narrower steel wheels, no body molding). Mine was black which was a new color for that year. My only failure in 50K of ownership was a clutch that went out at 38K. This was a common failure. I loved that car. It was very much like my 1975 Yamaha RD-350, low-cost, decent handling, somewhat peaky in power deliver but one hell of a lot of fun in a very dark era. It was sold after I got married. I still miss it.

  • avatar

    I put a Ford V8 in one of these a long time ago, for a customer. Total weight increase was less than 50 lbs.

    The basic Wankel engine is light, but it needs a very heavy exhaust system, a gigantic starter, and a heavy battery. So the overall weight differnece isn’t much.

    The Ford V8 made it a much nicer car.


  • avatar

    For a while there, it seemed like every ten years or so, someone would come out with a really decent, affordable sports car that sold like hot cakes. It started with the 240Z, then there was the RX-7, followed by the Miata.

    I don’t know what happened around the millenium. The only ‘hit’ back then was the PT Cruiser (and that sure wasn’t a sports car).

    Is there another ‘gotta have it’ car just around the corner?

  • avatar

    Love these cars I’ve had every generation rx7, its the only japanese car I like. My first track car was a old spec 7 racer I bought for 500 dollars. I put in a newer turbo block with haltech efi and modified the wastegate runners on an hks manifold to fit the 1st gen body. With a switzer 61 mm turbo off a case tractor it made 0ver 300hp at 10psi. Even with the heavy turbo, manifold, wastegate and turob transmission it still corner weighted perfect and under 2200 lbs with me sitting in it. That car was a terror on drive events and even trapped 121 mph at the dragstrip. it had a 5 lug axle conversion with gsl brakes and even with all that power those modest brakes where still enough to slow that little car down for turn 2 at gateway.

  • avatar

    I have an 84 RX7 that looks like the twin to the one shown, except that it has the grey cloth interior, which is still holding up nicely at about 150,000 miles. I’m still enjoying it quite a bit.
    we bought it for our daughter in 1994 when she turned 16; due to insurance problems she ended up getting a Civic hatchback instead. Couldn’t decide what to do with the RX7…one day I drove it out to the coast, 80 miles or so, to visit a friend, and coming back down 101 on a rainy night the car sold itself to me all over again with its handling. I lost an engine due to a popped radiator hose and a mind accustomed to old Mopars that will still run fine with a gallon of water left in them. There’s a reason why these cars have a low-water beeper alarm. Other than that and a clutch, brakes, a clutch cylinder, a radiator, and stuff like that the car has worked fine for me, and it’s still great fun to drive.
    One thing about these cars is that there isn’t room in the wheel housing for wheels or tires much bigger than stock; I suspect that this and the face that the stock mags are good-looking accounts for the fact that such a high percentage of them are still running the original mags after all these years.

  • avatar

    Note to current Mazda designers: you don’t need no stinkin’ Pokemon grille to differentiate your car from the pack. Even 27 years later this RX-7 is easily recognized as a Mazda.

  • avatar


    I htink you see so many with the factory wheels because the cars with 4 lugs are an odd size and its hard to find wheels that fit. the gsle hubs and brakes opens up a lot more wheel options.

    found a pic of my old 81 rx7 turbo on espn’s bret kepner’s photo website.

  • avatar

    I had an 87 RX-7 for 6 joyous months before the engine seals blew. Not the most practical car or dependable (also had to replace the master cylinder), but it was certainly the funnest car I ever owned. I sure had fun pushing it to the limit, sliding through corners; but it was weird, I never felt out of control. Unlike the front wheel drive Mazda6 I now own, that RX-7 never felt twitchy and I still knew right where it was going even when the rear end broke free. If the roof of the Rx8 hadn’t been too low for my tall frame, I might be driving another rotary engine car with perfect weight distribution.

  • avatar

    Drove a RX-7 convertible with the 13B engine. Pretty potent really and a decent transmission. Fuel economy was really bad but it was quite impressive, I mean here is a 1300 cc engine, all of two rotors and nine moving parts, and it generated 130+ hp.

    I also drove a Mazda truck with a 90 hp rotary. A rotary in a truck was a bad idea. Suzuki sold a rotary engine bike, the RX-5. It had a single rotor. Jay Leno has one on his site with video.

  • avatar

    I’ve owned a total of six 1st-gen RX7s, all of which were the GSL package (power everything, cruise, 4-wheel discs, limited-slip diff, etc.). The engines were bullet-proof unless you couldn’t be bothered to check and change the oil regularly (rotaries are designed to lube the apex seals via a small amount of engine oil delivered to the seals via metering pump. This oil is not retrieved, and typical consumption was around a quart every 1000 to 1500 miles depending on driving habits). The other thing that would kill ’em is if the metering pump called it quits. Those usually lasted 200,000 to 300,000 kms, but, like timing belts in piston-poppers, should have been changed out every 100,000 kms just in case. Few owners did this though.

    What was least durable about these cars was the resistance to corrosion, which made the bodies almost as biodegradeable as those of GM carts of the same era.

    As for performance, for their era the measily 101 hp 12A rotary produced a zero-to-sixty mph time of around 9 seconds. This was comparable to that of the Nissan?Datsun 280ZX, about one second slower than the ’82 Corvette and almost three seconds faster than the ballsiest 4-spd manual Trans AM that Pontiac produced that same year. Handling was excellent (better than that of the Porsche 924 Turbo), but the recirculating-ball steering was crap. Mazda bean-counters wanting to keep the car’s price down were to blame for this faux pas. Damn them….

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