Curbside Classic: 1983 Mazda RX-7

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1983 mazda rx 7

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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2 of 31 comments
  • GS650G GS650G on Feb 18, 2010

    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.

  • Zeus01 Zeus01 on Feb 12, 2011

    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....