Junkyard Find: 1985 Mazda RX-7

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
junkyard find 1985 mazda rx 7

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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4 of 38 comments
  • Sylvilagus Aquaticus Sylvilagus Aquaticus on Aug 17, 2012

    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.

  • Zeus01 Zeus01 on Aug 18, 2012

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • Zeus01 Zeus01 on Aug 19, 2012

      @David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn 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.

  • Fred Remember when radios were an option? Do you know you can use your phone to listen to any radio station in the world? This is just a whole waste of time.
  • Pig_Iron ASTC 3.0 AM radio was successfully demonstrated at CES. It is a common standard shared with terrestrial television, so the audio equipment is commonized for broadcasters. And no royalty fees to pay, unlike HDRadio which has been a less than stellar success. 📻
  • Art Vandelay Crimes that are punished with fines encourage abuse by those enforcing them. If it is truly dangerous to the public, maybe jail or give the offenders community service. People’s time tends to be very valuable to them and a weeks lost work would certainly make a high earner think twice. If it isn’t a big danger why are police enforcing it (outside of raising money of course). Combine it with a points system. When your points are gone you do a week imitating Cool Hand Luke.
  • Cha65697928 High earners should pay less for tickets because they provide the tax revenue that funds the police. 2-3 free speeding tix per year should be fair.
  • Art Vandelay So the likely way to determine one’s income would be via the tax return. You guys are going to be real disappointed when some of the richest folks pay no speeding fine the same way they minimize their taxes