The Mazda RX-7 / RX-8 Story
(music) When you think of sporty
Mazdas, you inevitably think of the MX-5, their runaway hit open-top. But 11 years before the MX-5,
Mazdaintroduced their unique take on the classic 2-door sports car, the RX-7. It had a weird rotary engine that got terrible fuel economy, worse emissions and a reputation for poor reliability. So why did this “unreliable” car sell like hot cakes, and win just about every major endurance race out there, beating more expensive rivals in just about every respect? This is the
MazdaRX-7 and RX-8
Story. (music) The RX-7
storycan’t be told without talking about
Mazda’s long hi
storywith the Wankel rotary engine. Devised by Felix Wankel while he was still a teenager in 1919, it’s a much simpler design that standard internal combustion engines. One rotor revolves eccentrically around the driveshaft, performing the intake, compression, ignition and exhaust usually performed by a multitude of pistons in regular engines. With fewer parts the engine can be smaller and lighter. In the early 1960s rotary engines seemed to be next step in the evolution of the internal combustion engine, and many car companies poured resources into it. But it was only
Mazdathat stuck with it and perfected an engine that was practical. By 1967 they had their first production engine – the 982cc 10A that was installed in the 2-door coupé Cosmo. However, it was the 1971
MazdaRX-3 that was their first high selling rotary engine car. With the 2-door coupé version...
Mazdawas convinced that a purpose-built 2-seater rotary-engined sports car could sell well. The team producing the car had the Porsche and Datsun Z-cars firmly in their sights, and the car bore a similarity to the Porsche 924. But it was also inspired by the Lotus Elan. The slippery shape gave the car a drag coefficient of just 0.36 which was excellent for the time. The lightweight rotary engine with lots of power meant the car would have almost perfect 50/50 weight distribution, despite having the engine up front. Why use a big V8 when you can have a 1’ cube-shaped 1.1L rotary engine with the same power? The smaller engine also allowed the car to have a lower centre of gravity. With such a small engine,
Mazdawould cheekily advertise the car as “front mid-engine”! But that engine was thirsty. Rotary engines had sold well until the 1973 oil crisis killed the demand for an engine that got less than 15mpg, and it put
Mazdainto a deep financial crisis. But by the late 1970s
Mazdahad managed to improve fuel economy to around 20mpg. The car was primarily aimed at the Japanese car market, and they pinned their hope on two Japanese tax rules. The car fell into the smaller car tax bracket, and the 1.1L rotary engine fit comfortably in the 1.5L tax bracket yet would produce much more power than regular 1.1L engines. Due to the way rotary engines work, the car can produce roughly the same output level as a 4-piston engine twice its size. Due to the nature of the...
Mazdarecommended running the engine to high revs to help clear out deposits. It’s nice to have a car manufacturer recommend you thrash the engine! The car debuted in 1978 as the 100hp RWD
MazdaSavanna RX-7, both as a 2-seater and a 2+2, that is a 2-seater with 2 very cramped seats behind it. There was both 4 and 5-speed manuals, as well as a 3-speed automatic. Because it wasn’t so obvious that the car was redlining,
Mazdawould install a buzzer so you knew when you reached the rev limit. But customers found it annoying, so it was removed in 1980. It was an immediate hit in Japan and the company looked to export it to other countries. In 1979 it was introduced to Australia, and it hit North America in 1980 where sales were even bigger than in Japan. It compared favourably to the Datsun 280ZX and the Porsche 924. But with the car costing almost half the price of the Porsche, there was initially a long waiting list. Despite the car having a top speed of 124mph, newly introduced federal rules to discourage speeding mandated the speedometers of all new cars in the USA could only show a maximum speed of 85mph. After showing it had no effect whatsoever, the law was repealed in 1981 and RX-7’s reverted to a standard speedometer. The RX-7 helped pull
Mazdaout of its financial difficulties and served as something of a halo car for its family cars. To drum up sales and show off the RX-7’s speed,
Mazdaand Racing Beat took a specially modified car to the Bonneville...
salt flats in 1978 where the car recorded a class-record of 183mph. They returned in 1986, setting a new record of 238mph.
Mazdareleased the Series 2 RX-7 in 1981. Engine power was boosted slightly, the dashboard was redesigned, it was a little lighter and the outside lightly restyled which further reduced drag. All round disc brakes were offered as an option for the first time. Throughout the 60s and 70s the rotary engine had been seen as innovative, but unreliable.
Mazdaitself had many problems particularly with the rotary chamber seals. To prove the car’s reliability,
Mazdadecided to test the car in the gruelling Spa 24-hour race in 1981. What’s more, it won. Tom Walkinshaw Racing raced RX-7’s in the British Touring Championships, winning in 1980 and 1981. This car was both fast, and reliable! By now it had a 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds, but the turbocharged Porsche 924 was faster.
Mazdaadded their own turbo in 1983, boosting the car from 113hp to 163 and dropping the 0-60 time to a jaw-dropping 6.4s! By now it was, at least according to
Mazda’s advertising, the best-selling 2-seater sports car in the USA. The 1984 Series 3 RX-7 offered a larger bored out 1.3L engine, and the engines were tuned so that the RX-7 could now get up to 29mpg. The automatic now received 4 gears, suspension was stiffened, and the fascia updated. This closed out the first generation of RX-7, with 474,000 cars produced. Almost 80% of them went to the USA. The styling for the...
second-generation Series 4 RX-7 took its influence from the Porsche 944 as that car was popular in the USA and
Mazda’s designers knew it had to work well in its main export market. But Porsche and the Nissan 300ZX weren’t its only rivals. Toyota had released their Supra in 1978, a car that my teenage brain still remembers got to 60 in 6.5 seconds either with a manual or automatic as the 1988 turbo version. I spent a long time looking at the Toyota sports car brochure! Handling on the RX-7 was improved, with less oversteer, and the car got more precise rack and pinion steering. But the new RX-7 could now sprint to 60 in just 6.1 seconds and could get to 149mph with the new Turbo II model, using a two-chamber turbocharger that would help the car at both lower and higher revs. In 1988
Mazdareleased a special 10th anniversary commemorative model, and the same year launched a convertible with a power operated roof. Like so many sit-down video games of that period,
Mazdaoffered speakers built into the headrest, so you could rock out to the latest Def Leppard jams as you blasted down the road! However, the convertible would be phased out after just three years. In 1989
Mazdareleased the Series 5 with even more power. The 212hp engine now got the car to 60 in 5.6 seconds and it finally attained a 150mph top speed. And the competition kept coming, with the Nissan Skyline GT-R in 1989 and Honda’s amazing NSX the following year. This was an era of mad, exciting Japanese cars, a...
mantle that was passed to Subaru and Mitsubishi in the 1990s. 1989 would also be a landmark year for
Mazdawith the launch of its next sports car, the MX-5. This wasn’t the all-out Porsche killer, but a fun roadster in the vein of British cars like the Triumph Spitfire. The RX-7 established
Mazdaas a serious sports car company which helped when the MX-5 was introduced, but the MX-5 would go on to eclipse the RX-7 in terms of popularity. Although the MX-5 didn’t have a rotary engine,
Mazdahadn’t given up on the technology. It was the only company still believing in it, and it proved it could be an all-conquering reliable powerhouse when a 2.6L four chamber rotary powered car won the 1991 Le Mans 24 hours race, becoming the first Japanese car to win, as well as the only car to win without a piston in its engine. Were rotary engines really unreliable? The 1992 3rd generation Series 6 RX-7 was a lesson in curvaceous styling, reflecting the fashion of the time. And it’s the shape many people will be familiar with from its inclusion in countless console driving games. The larger size meant it no longer qualified for those Japanese tax breaks, but it hardly mattered with most cars being exported. Although the revs were now limited to a relatively pedestrian 8000rpm, the annoying buzzing rev limiter made a return! The twin turbocharger boosted power to unprecedented new levels, but it was complex and unreliable. Boost could come at unexpected times and it took a good driver...
to get the most out of it. But that power and a lighter car took the car to another level of performance, with 236hp and a 5 second 0-60 time. This was a time of a horsepower arms race between manufacturers which would culminate with an amazing 274hp version in 1995. In Australia a high-performance SP version was produced in limited numbers so it could go GT racing. It competed in the famous Bathurst 12-hour endurance race and dominated, winning for four straight years between 1992 and 1995, beating out Porsches, BMW M5’s and Honda’s NSX.
Mazdaproduced a commemorative “Bathurst” edition in Japan to celebrate. But a hammer blow hit the RX-7 in 1995 when it had to be withdrawn from the USA as it couldn’t comply with new emissions regulations. Despite
Mazdaimproving the engine over the years, the spectre of poor emissions had caught up with them. The updated Series 7 appeared in 1996, but with sales only in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, it was only sold as a RHD car. Like the original 1978 model, the 1998 Series 8 was a Japan-only exclusive, with
Mazdaretreating from all export markets due to low sales, however many RX-7’s were imported directly from Japan by enterprising British owners. The Series 8 had an innovative ABS system that braked differently on each wheel, allowing the car better turning during braking.
Mazdadecided to end with a bang with the 1999 Spirit R model that combined all
Mazdahad learnt over 20 years into a truly wonderful car....
Over its life,
Mazdasold 811,000 RX-7s. There had been a resurgence of interest in import tuning and performance cars in the late 1990s and the RX-7 was one of the cars featured in 2001s “The Fast and the Furious”. And
Mazdahadn’t given up on its rotary sports car. A small team worked on a replacement using an extended MX-5 chassis that was dubbed the “cockroach car”. The design caught management’s interest and it was agreed to put the car into production only if it could have 4 doors. Now they had to work out how they could get 4 doors on a car this small! Taking design cues from their earlier back-to-basics 1995 RX-01 concept, they worked on the engine to provide better emissions, and designed the 1999 RX-Evolv concept to show what this new car could look like. It was also designed as a replacement for the 2.0L rotary 2+2 Eunos Cosmo. It had a happy front grille that made it look like Lightning McQueen from the “Cars” movie. And it had its four doors, using an innovative split front and rear door design to allow easy rear access. It was designed as a proper four-seater, but like the Audi TT you still couldn’t call the rear seats comfortable. The car would be designed by Ikuo Maeda, and I’m sure I’ve pronounced his name wrong, son of the designer of the RX-7. The public reaction was good, and the car went into production as the RX-8 in 2003. It was cheaper, selling for £22,000 in the UK where the RX-7 had been £25,000. The exterior styling was...
mostly unchanged, but that smiling front grille was obscured by the licence plate. The interior was improved from the concept, and the rotary-shaped seat detail, door sill, and rear light were a nice touch. To give the car a 50:50 weight distribution weight was saved using aluminium and plastic, and the driveshaft was made from carbon fibre composite to reduce rotational mass. The car lost its turbos and had less power to reduce emissions and boost fuel economy, but the MX-5 had taught
Mazdathat you don’t need a lot of power to make a car fun to drive. The now 6-speed manual RX-8 had 247hp with a 5.9s 0-60 time and a top speed of nearly 160mph. Hydrogen powered cars were trending in Japan in the early 2000s, and
Mazdaaltered its rotary engine to work on both petrol and hydrogen with the 2004 concept that was put into production in 2006.
Mazdareleased a slew of special editions around 2006 to boost sales, and in 2007 produced a special version to mark the 40th anniversary of
Mazda’s rotary engine. 2008 brought a light style refresh with a stiffer body and improved rear suspension. But increasingly harsh emissions regulations hit the car again in 2010, this time in Europe. With the 2009 economic downturn, the car was on borrowed time and production ended in 2012 after producing 192,000 cars, but not before it went out with a bang with another limited edition “Spirit R” version. With the end of RX-8 production, the dream of the rotary engine died, although it...
continued in limited production for motorsports until 2017. At the time