Tuesday 22 October 2019

Iconic Mazda has RX-factor

Mazda's ground-breaking rotary sports car was one of the finest handling machines of the Seventies

RX-appeal: The third-generation RX-7 FD model
RX-appeal: The third-generation RX-7 FD model

Brian Twomey

In all honesty it was a daft idea. The Mazda RX-7 was ill-conceived from the start, poorly timed and based on an engineering concept that was fatally flawed. It was sold by a relative minnow in the global car industry and appealed to a niche audience that wanted a Porsche-like car but did not actually want a Porsche. Yet, despite all of this the RX-7 would survive as the only rotary-powered car on the market for many years, spawn a successful replacement, establish Mazda as the more daring of the domestic Japanese makers and gain an almost cult-like following amongst enthusiasts.

Launched 40 years ago, the original RX-7 was something of a gamble for a relatively small manufacturer already too invested in the appealing but flawed rotary engine concept to back out. Dr Felix Wankel's pistonless engine, which used spinning rotors to generate the power, was fine in principle but in practice it was a disaster.

Not only did rotary engines suffer massive wear, which Mazda struggled to engineer its way around, but the motors lacked torque and guzzled fuel. The latter point would prove contentious, as by the time of the RX-7's 1978 introduction the world had already endured two massive fuel crises.

Mazda was looking for a niche to expand into and to this end they invested in rotary engines and tucked them into the Cosmo sports-car and latterly the Grand-Familia, a sort of Japanese Hillman Hunter. The resulting RX-3 was an engine searching for a car; a dull car with a fascinating power unit.

So Mazda began development of the RX-7. The SA22B/FC was introduced as a front-engine rear-wheel-drive coupe with pop-up headlights, 2+2 accommodation and a vaguely usable boot. Mazda pitching their car against the Porsche 924 might have seemed like corporate suicide but the Mazda was attractive, cheaper and faster, with more standard equipment. Super-smooth engines combined with four-link suspension, light weight and 50/50 distribution created one of the finest handling cars of the Seventies from the unlikeliest of sources. Thirsty and rev-happy it might have been, but it made the BMW 6 Series look expensive and the Ford Capri look dated, even if it was just as fast and easier to own in V6 form.

Critics lavished praise on the RX-7, which offered Porsche-bashing performance and superb build quality for a fraction of the cost. The 1981 Series 2 saw numerous improvements including a five-speed manual gearbox as standard, rear disc brakes, bigger fuel tank, redesigned dash and a power hike from 100hp to 130hp. The RX-7 was a sales success because it was classed in its native Japan as a sub-1.5-litre car, which gave it tax breaks, while in the US it was competitively priced and fuel prices were sliding to pre-crisis levels. The Series 3 brought minor improvements, mainly to the interior, but also offered the first turbo RX-7, with 165hp.

In 1986 the second generation RX-7 FC appeared; the the new car was slightly larger and plusher. Prices rose too, but so did the specification and power. The fuel-injected 13B-VDEI engine put out 146bhp and the car had redesigned rear suspension. Rack and pinion steering combined with the relatively light weight meant the RX-7 retained its handling balance. The 1988 Turbo with a 200bhp 13B engine gave 140mph performance. This generation also spawned a convertible, which is rare and highly prized now. It was aimed squarely at the US market, where it did very well.

The third and last generation of the RX-7 was perhaps the most celebrated and was compared favourably to contemporary Porsches. Trading punches with Toyota's newly launched Supra, the RX-7 waded into battle with a 237bhp rotary power plant, giving 160mph performance while jaw-dropping looks justified the rising price and the fact that the RX-7 had ceased to be a practical mainstream coupe and morphed into an out-and-out performance machine.

A successful racer, the RX-7 was also showered with praise by the motoring press but tightening emissions laws, increased competition and a definite move into Porsche/BMW territory meant that despite the decade-long production run, the RX-7 FD only sold around 70,000 units whereas the original car had cleared 400,000. While the FD was never meant to be a pile-em-high car, Mazda would change tack and revert to the concept of performance and practicality with its successor, the 2003 RX-8 - which got a rotary engine, of course.

Sunday Independent

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