By Stuart Grant with archive race images from www.motoprint.co.za
Thelate 1970s saw the demise of the small, cheap and cheerful British sportscars that had been a hit for so many years. The Austin-Healey Sprite had long since disappeared and the enthusiasm for the likes of the Triumph Spitfire and MGB was fading rapidly. Triumph kept its foot in the door with the dubiously stylish wedged TR7, but for the most part fans looking for small-capacity sporting fixes had to look to Europe at either the Fiat X19, Lancia Monte Carlo, Porsche 924 or Porsche 914 to enter the market. But wait…wealmost forgot Japan. Yes, the land of the rising sun had some entry-level athletic solutions too. Datsun waded in with the heavyweight 6-pot 280Z, but in true giant-killing style, Mazda launched its 1146cc RX-7 in 1978.
Like the TR7, Mazda went against the Europeans’ thought process and steered away from a mid-engined layout, rather opting for a classic long bonnet aesthetic to house a front-engine layout. Of course drive went to the black stuff through the rear wheels. But Mazda took the small capacity aspect to the limit with its tiny mill, punching hard when toe-to-toe against competition weighing in up to 2.5 litres. This was a marketer’s dream, with the fact that the engine was a rotary and not traditional piston type ignored somewhat – the fact that the swept volume in a combustion cycle of a 1146cc 2-rotor 12A motor was equivalent a 2.3-litre 4-cylinder was conveniently left out of the sales material. The low torque figures below 3000rpm were also often omitted, but for once Newtons weren’t a factor for the performance-hungry as the high-revving lump could rocket the RX-7 from zero to 100km/h in around ten seconds, and the diminutive proportions of the engine meant less weight hanging over the front end, which resulted in more than adequate handling in the twisty bits.
Ignore the propaganda and the RX-7 was a godsend for Mazda, who were hell-bent on breaking into the American market and elevating the brand from maker of cheap boxes to quality, affordable sports machines. From the outset the media praised its looks and performance and it scooped numerous awards.
The Mazda RX-7 (also known as the Savanna and Efini RX-7 in some markets) was launched internationally midway through 1978 as a replacement for the more sedan-like Capella/Luce Rotary models.
While it too made use of the 12A Wankel-licensed rotary, the RX-7 took a step towards the future with a body and interior design that, like flop socks and permed hair, remained fashionable well into the 1980s. South Africans got a hint of things to come in September 1980 when Toyo Kogyo’s (manufacturer of Mazdas) Export Manager, Ryoji Yunoki, was interviewed by <<<Car>>> magazine about plans for the brand in Africa, and he mentioned that a shipment of RX-7s would be sent to the tip of Africa later that year. They arrived and went on sale through select Sigma dealerships (who also provided full spares backing and services) in early 1981 for R24 950.
Lead designer Matasaburo Maeda (whose son Ikuo later penned the Mazda2 and Mazda RX-8) put down graceful lines that echoed traditional long-bonnet/short-rear sportscar theory but modernised it with pop-up headlights, faired-in bumpers and glass-house rear windscreen. Not only was this all the rage at the time but also kept the drag coefficient down to 0.34. This in turn helped the top speed and fuel consumption, and despite weighing in at just over a ton (well heavier than the Capella), the RX-7 delivered the best Mazda rotary figures to date in these departments. A combined consumption figure of 12.5 litres per 100km was the norm, while top speed was just under 200km/h.
Although we had to wait a bit longer than the other global markets to get the Mazda, this had the benefit that we received the slightly revised version of the RX (the Series 2), which featured plastic-covered bumpers, wide black rubber body side mouldings, wraparound taillights, 5-speed gearbox, disc brakes on all corners and an updated 12A engine – the engine control components were fettled, better lubrication delivered and new tip seals fitted –the latter done with a new process in which electron beam was employed to crystalise cast iron, resulting in a more durable yet low-friction surface. It is worth noting that the vehicle was still fed fuel by a 4-barrel Nikki Stromberg carburettor and not fuel-injected.
Locally-sold cars were also all Special Edition specification, meaning that they featured a whack of luxury items like integrated air-conditioning/heating/demisting, remote releases for the rear hatch and fuel filler, electric windows and side mirrors. The rest of the specification was impressive too with one-piece moulded roof-lining, quartz-halogen headlights, rear windscreen window wiper, folding rear-seat backrests and a fully-loaded centre console and entertainment system.
Seating moved away from the low-backed vinyl offerings of the 1970s to some head-rested, bucket-style units that not only offered good side support but also scored in the fashion department, with a healthy dose of brown cloth livened up with splashes of racy red stripping.
Slide down into the seats and turn the ignition on. In a slightly sci-fi fashion, a warning chimes out the dash to let you know the door is still open. Crank it and it quickly fires up into a busy-sounding idle. The lack of engine vibration is noticeable and a blip of the loud pedal has the tachometer climbing quickly – Mazda did advise that although the car wants to rev it is best not to keep it over 6500rpm for extended periods and thoughtfully fitted an audible reminder that sounds when this mark is reached. With the door shut and the car rolling the cabin space is surprisingly quiet.
Maximum power was quoted at 86kW at 6000rpm and the torque figure at 153Nm at 4000rpm, which makes the way it accelerates impressive – there’s not much below 3000rpm, but once you push past that mark it pulls strongly, wheel spinning off the line and on to 60km/h in 4.5 seconds, 80 in 6.7 and 100 in 10.1.
Steering is another feather in the cap, with a well-tuned variable ratio making it easy to operate in the parking lot while at the same time not twitchy at speed. Handling, controlled by MacPherson struts up front and a live-axle with Watt’s linkage at the back, and aided by a 50:50 weight distribution thanks to the engine being behind the front axles, is out the top drawer. There’s very little body roll (but the ride’s not harsh or jittery) with the result that most people tend to drive somewhat more enthusiastically than they should. Thankfully the brakes, which are controlled by a sensitive pedal action, are well up to scratch. With all these traits, it is no wonder the RX-7 went racing.
A trial run of the new 13B-engined RX-7 entered Le Mans in 1979 and failed to qualify, but by reverting back to the 12A a year later, an RX-7 ran in 21st overall. A pair of 13B derivatives returned to the famous endurance in 1982, with one finishing up in 14th. Following this, Mazda’s Le Mans focus went the way of the prototype class, which resulted in the 4-rotor 787B becoming the first Japanese manufacturer and rotary user to win the event in 1991.
The RX-7 also triumphed the 1981 Spa 24 Hours with a trio of Tom Walkinshaw-entered cars battling the likes of the BMW 530i and Ford Capri. When the flag fell it was the RX-7 driven by Pierre Dieudonné and Tom Walkinshaw that took the win. Walkinshaw also prepared the RX-7 that Win Percy drove to the British Touring Car Championship in 1980 and 1981.
Stateside the RX-7 enjoyed IMSA GTU success, with the highlight being finishing 1 and 2 in the 1979 24 Hours of Daytona and securing the series championship. After that it dominated the class, winning the GTU championship seven years in a row and the GTO championship ten years in a row from 1982.
Allan Moffat took the Mazda RX-7 to victory in the 1983 Australian Touring Car Championship and bagged a trio of Bathurst 1000 podiums, and Peter McLeod drove his RX-7 to win the 1983 Australian Endurance Championship. For good measure, Moffat won the endurance title in 1982 and 1984.
While we are talking RX-7 racing success, we must mention the South African scene. Names that appeared behind the wheel of the screaming rotaries in period included Willie Hepburn (WesBank Modified Champion 1984), Paddy Driver, Dave Le Roux, Ivor Raash and our own ‘Mr Rotary’, Ben Morgenrood, who took it to the likes of the BMW 535i and 745i, Alfa GTVs and Ford Cortina XR6s in both the Group N and WesBank Modified title chases. Morgenrood lost the Group 1 championship lead midway through 1983 when Alfa swapped out its 2.5-litre GTV6 for the 3-litre version but made good for Mazda in Modifieds, nabbing the 1985 honours. Even with the RX-7 becoming long in the tooth Morgenrood stuck to his rotary guns, moving on to a 2-rotor-powered 323 Modified and subsequently slotted one of only a few 4-rotor engines in the world into a Mazda MX6.
Sadly, though, all good things come to an end and a rule change saw all WesBank Modified cars (and Ben) moving to V8 piston engines. The next series of RX-7 wasn’t officially imported to SA either, and those of us wanting a rotary fix had to wait until the release of the RX-8 in 2002 to get our kicks. This too came to a sad end on Friday 22 June 2012, when the last RX-8 rolled off the production line at Mazda’s Hiroshima factory – for the most part because of fuel consumption issues. Despite the relatively small capacity, a rotary just doesn’t deliver the same power, torque and economy ratings as modern piston engines.
Whether or not rotary power will come full circle and one day re-emerge no one knows, but what is known is that a Series 2 Mazda RX-7 is a viable classic to find and own in South Africa. The performance ability of these cars saw to it that most of them were properly belted, so a good original is extremely rare. If you have one – or find one – keep it.