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40 Years of the Mazda RX-7

Many of you will have already heard the news that Mazda plans a return to rotary power next year. According to an interview with AutoRai.NL, Martijn ten Brink, the Vice President of Sales and Customer Service for the company's European division, the idea is to offer the company’s forthcoming electric car with a ‘range extender in the form of a Wankel engine’. And such an announcement is especially timely as 1978 marks the 40th birthday of the RX-7.

The first rotary powered Mazda was the Cosmo, which made its debut at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show, but it was the RX-7 that was to make such an impression on British motorists. Firstly, it looked moderately stunning, and the coachwork was created without any constraints to resemble an existing model or indeed the outgoing RX-3 Savanna. The contrast between the svelte new model and its ultra-1970s predecessor was akin to the gulf between the music of Kraftwerk and Alvin Stardust.

Secondly, the compact power plant was located behind the front axle – Mazda referred to the layout as ‘front mid-engine’ - which meant for well-balanced weight distribution. The use of twin rotors also meant that the RX-7 occupied a comparatively low tax bracket in its homeland as the engine capacity was technically just 1,146cc. British imports began in 1979 and Motor brilliantly summarised the appeal of the new Mazda - ‘the smoothness of a V8, the power of a “six” and the low weight of a conventional “four”.

An RX-7 originally cost £8,549 in the UK, which meant that it cost £2,000 more than a Ford Capri 3.0 Ghia Mk. III as well as being £3,000 more expensive than the Triumph TR7. If you were considering a rotary-powered Mazda, your alternatives would be the Porsche 924, possibly the TVR Taimar and almost certainly the Datsun 280ZX. By the late 1970s the last-named had somewhat altered its image since the 240Z of 1969 and compared with the RX-7 it was more of a grand tourer. What the Mazda offered an affluent - and adventurous – sports car enthusiast was a combination of handling, style, and a top speed of around 120 mph (assisted by with a drag co-efficient of just 0.36) plus an engine of quite remarkable smoothness. However, the chaps of Autocar complained that ‘one wishes that its mechanical refinement was matched by better sound reduction’.

One of RX-7’s vital overseas markets was the USA where it would have to convince Corvette and Firebird owners, plus anyone considering an exotic “import”, that rotary power was as dependable as a conventional unit. In the early 1970s, the vast majority of Mazdas sold in the USA had Wankel engines, but the impact of the 1973 Fuel Crisis and a poor reputation for reliability had damaged the marque’s image. Fortunately, Car & Driver thought the RX-7 was ‘unquestionably this year's sports car coup. It sneaks into the fray with an unsophisticated chassis layout, a tiny beer keg of a motor and blows off well-seasoned leaders - Datsun's 280-Z and Porsche's 924 in particular’. Meanwhile, Road & Track referred to the RX-7 as being ‘far and away the best in its class’.

The first generation RX-7 was succeeded by the FC series in 1985 after introducing a new generation of drivers to a new world of rotary power. And as for its abiding appeal, this TV commercial may give an impression of sheer charisma.

 

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