Mazda may have the most popular brand in sports car competition these days, but 30 years ago things were quite different. No one had yet envisioned the Miata, and the company’s rotary engine needed some serious PR help. After all, it had already earned a reputation for being a somewhat unreliable gas-guzzler.
The new-for-1979 Mazda RX-7 reversed the company’s fortunes. The simple, lightweight sports car proved to the world that the rotary engine was a viable and elegant piece of machinery. Even today, more than 30 years after its introduction, the first-generation RX-7 remains a high-water mark.
While the RX-7 was a great success for the brand, its release was quite a gamble: The masses were skeptical of the Wankel rotary engine, and Mazda’s stubborn dedication to the odd contraption was seen as a liability.
American consumers had all but given up on the rotary after the 1970s gas crisis highlighted its poor fuel economy—less than 20 mpg in the RX-7’s sedan predecessors. Fuel economy was an important feature, and the rotary powerplant hadn’t measured up.
And then there were reliability concerns. The rotary doesn’t tolerate any overheating, and the early ones required more frequent maintenance than traditional piston engines.
Despite the risks, Mazda stuck to their guns; they believed in their underdog engine. Instead of giving up on the American market, the company regrouped and delivered something different.
A rotary engine has surprisingly few components—the little triangles in the middle simply spin in their housings and do the work. Photography Credit: Courtesy Mazda
They took the smaller engine in their arsenal—the twin-rotor, hundred-horsepower, 1146cc 12A model—and squeezed it under the hood of a cute, angular little coupe. While enthusiasts might have opted for the larger, more powerful 1308cc 13B engine, the 12A was chosen for economic reasons.
The rest of the drivetrain was also straight out of Mazda’s parts bin. The solid-axle rear suspension—albeit located by a rather sophisticated linkage—plus a MacPherson strut front suspension and four-speed manual transmission were all standard sedan parts. The same went for the rather slow recirculating-ball steering box. One could accurately argue that the RX-7 wasn’t anything special under the skin.
But oh, what a skin: Clean, creased lines and pop-up headlights made for a distinctively sharp profile. It was a fast, trendy hatchback sporting pencil-thin bumpers and wheels that were flush with the fenders. The car stood out in a sea of mediocre competitors, never mind the unconventional engine found under the hood.
The engine was set well back in the chassis, with the front cover lining up with the center of the front wheels. This positioning, combined with the compact Wankel engine, gave the RX-7 almost perfect 50-50 weight distribution along with quick, tossable handling.
Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak
While it was not fast by any means—it featured zero-to-60 times of around 9 seconds—the engine featured a wide, usable power range. And compared to the fat, flabby Datsun 280ZX and slow Porsche 924, the RX-7 was a clear winner in the late-’70s sports car competition.
At less than $7000 when it was introduced, the little sports car was quite a bargain, too. Adding every option in the book pushed the price toward $8000, a number that was still appealing.
More than 70,000 buyers agreed during the 1979 debut model year, snapping up the car as quickly as it hit dealer showrooms. Just eight months into production, Mazda introduced a special run of 3000 Limited Edition models to satisfy buyers looking for perks like unique wheels and a five-speed transmission.
Rotary Power Compels You
Content to leave a successful formula alone, the RX-7 returned for 1980 as much the same car. However, this version started the inevitable process of feature creep; buyers could now choose to add leather upholstery and gold-painted wheels.
The car received a slight facelift for 1981, with shorter bumpers and full-width taillights being the most noticeable cues. Even more luxury features were added, and the four-speed manual transmission was replaced with a five-speed. The base price had crept up to $8595, although it stayed at this level for the remainder of production.
The most significant changes came for 1984. While the outside looked much like it did before, the interior was revamped. Buyers also got a second engine choice, as the well-equipped GSL-SE model finally added the 13B rotary engine to the RX-7’s spec sheet.
Improved and strengthened, the new fuel-injected engine cranked out 135 horsepower and gave the RX-7 an entirely different, snappier feel. Zero-to-60 times dropped below 8 seconds for the first time, and the larger brakes, anti-roll bars and limited-slip differential added up to a much sportier car.
Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak
The original RX-7 lasted through the end of 1985, when Mazda replaced it with a more grown-up vehicle: The second-generation RX-7 was larger and heavier, yet faster and more comfortable. Evolution had finally caught up with the RX-7.
Sure, the original isn’t the fastest car out there, and its handling limits are laughably low compared to modern machinery, but the first-generation RX-7 is a fun, inexpensive little driver’s car. In fact, the Mazda Miata probably owes more of its DNA to the original RX-7 than to any other Mazda product.
However, the RX-7 has something no factory Miata does: the character of that smooth-running rotary engine coupled with the versatility of a hatchback body. The early RX-7 has always been attractive, fun and easy to modify. Throw in today’s low prices plus the car’s milestone status, and it could be difficult to pass one up.
Things to Know
The first-generation Mazda RX-7 is quickly approaching vintage status, with the earliest cars celebrating their 30th anniversary. This means you’re not likely to find many factory stock examples, as by now most have been updated and rebuilt. However, these are tough little cars and there are still thousands on the road.
Each grouping of model years seems to have its own pluses and minuses. The 1979 and ’80 cars are most likely to become collectors’ items, yet the later ones sport better brakes, transmissions and interiors. The more powerful GSL-SE is hard to ignore.
Photography Credit: Anthony Neste
The RX-7 transmission and rear axle are tough and simple—downright agricultural by today’s standards. Check for the usual noises and grinding from worn synchros.
Rotary engines can be intimidating at first, but the early, naturally aspirated examples are strong, long-lasting powerplants, more so than the twin-turbo monster found under the hood of the third-generation models.
When shopping for an early RX-7, always look for leaks and signs of overheating, since those issues can quickly kill a rotary engine. Check the coolant for evidence of oil leaking past warped rotor housings. If everything checks out okay under the hood, execute a cold start and observe the results.
The engine should not smoke after running for a few seconds. A healthy rotary will start right up and pull smoothly through the rev range. Flat spots and sputtering are likely due to the complicated, and by now possibly worn-out, factory carburetors. Fuel injected engines commonly exhibit a rough idle or surging at low speeds, but these symptoms should not be deal-breakers unless they’re severe.
The complicated rat’s nest of vacuum hoses under the hood of an early RX-7 is another source of drivability problems. Check all of the hoses for cracks and leaks.
Oil leaks from the engine are fairly common and easy to fix as long as they’re occurring in the usual places—like the oil cooler fittings and oil filter mounting boss. If oil is leaking from the rotor housings or if coolant is leaking from anywhere, consider yourself warned.
Enthusiasts have been extracting power from the rotary engine for decades. There are plenty of 150-horsepower, normally aspirated engines running around, but most people opt for a milder state of tune that nets a more reliable 120-ish horsepower. First to go should be the stock carb and restrictive exhaust manifold; aftermarket exhaust headers will help that engine breathe.
Engine swaps are also extremely popular. The 13B will fit the 12A-equipped cars, although some of the GSL-SE parts are required. For a truly fast car, consider the turbo 13B from the second-generation car or a V8 swap. Granny’s Speed Shop offers V6 and V8 installation kits.
Body and Interior
By now the original paint is probably pretty tired, so resprayed cars are more common than original-paint examples. A new paint job is not necessarily a sign of rust or crash damage, but get a good look under the car just in case.
RX-7s are not known to rust any more than contemporary cars, but check around the taillights, hatch and rocker panels for evidence of a problem. The most common area for rust is in the wheel well behind the storage bins. Prospective buyers should remove the carpeting (1979 and 1980 models) or storage bins (1981-1985 models) and look for rust on the wheel wells. Most cars have some.
As you inspect the inside of the car, keep in mind that trim pieces are getting harder and harder to find. An early car with a nice interior is a rarity.
Don’t be alarmed by slightly vague steering: Mazda’s recirculating-ball steering box was not known for direct feel, even when new. Do be concerned about excessive play; the box can be adjusted, but the range is limited. The manual-steering cars are generally regarded as better drivers, although the steering is painfully slow.
Listen for unusual suspension noises, and be prepared to shell out for new bushings if any creaking or groaning is heard.
Brakes and suspensions on earlier cars can be upgraded to GSL-SE specs, but this requires swapping the entire rear axle, front struts and lots of smaller parts. In addition to better handling, the swap also yields the more common 4×114.3mm bolt pattern for wheels. (The earlier RX-7pattern is 4x110mm.)