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25 years later, Looking back at the 1st gen RX-7
|Submitted by SuperUser on Wednesday, February 5, 2003 - 8:22pm||
Twenty-five years ago, the first Rx-7 arrived
stateside. It was the first rotary sports car to be
released in the United States. Prior to that, Mazda
had supplied us with rotary powered coupes, sedans,
and wagons, but no sports cars. In 1978, no one
really knew how the US would receive the Rx-7. The
public's appetite for rotaries never appeared to
recover from the 1973 US oil crises.
A little background -
Four years before the original Rx-7 was introduced,
90% of the vehicles Mazda sold in the US were rotary
powered. That was understandable. The rotary powered
cars from Mazda performed better than most of what the
US manufacturers had to offer. Couple the performance
numbers with the fact that Mazdas were inexpensive,
and you can see why the public bought hoards of
Mazda started selling cars in the United States in
1970. That year Mazda sold about 2300 cars. In 1971,
Mazda sold about 19,000 US cars. That number almost
tripled to 57,800 units, in the 1972 calendar year.
The 1973 model year saw an improvement of over 100%
from 1972. Basically, Mazda went from 2300 cars in
1970 to over 119,000 cars in 1973. Mazdas with rotary
engines were a powerhouse on the sales floor.
Unfortunately, that was not to last.
1973 brought the first oil crises, and right about the
same time, rotary engines started developing a bad
reputation for reliability. Those two factors
resulted in US sales falling by nearly 50% to a little
over 61,000 units. The rotary was always a
"thirstier" engine than it's piston counterpart, but
was the reliability reputation warranted? It's tough
to tell. Mazda sold piston versions of rotary cars,
and the cars with piston engines used less gas and
lasted a bit longer. The cars I'm referring to are
the R100, which was sold at the same time as the 1200
coupe, and the Rx-2, which was sold along side the
616. Although the cars with piston engines lasted
longer, in all fairness, the rotaries were probably
driven a lot harder. Couple this with the fact that
rotaries were just plain underdeveloped in comparison
to piston engines, and maybe the public was right.
Not that the piston engine cars of that period were
all that great either. A lot of Vegas were sold
during that same time period. For those too young to
remember, the Vega was a car produced by Chevrolet.
It had an aluminum block and an iron head. When
running, this "import fighter" did 0-60 in 16.5
seconds. At best, a four-year-old Vega drank a quart
of oil every 500 miles, and smoked badly. At worst, a
four-year old Vega had been overheated once, which
resulted in it drinking a quart of oil every 300
miles, consuming a radiator full of coolant every
other day, blowing smoke like Trabant, and seizing
very shortly thereafter. It just wasn't the best of
times for most cars. So, is it fair to compare the
reliability of a car with a rotary engine that is
raced at every stoplight versus one that is used for a
normal commute? Like I said, it's tough to tell, but
next to the more economical Vega, the rotary was a
In the next few years, Mazda sales numbers were on a
roller coaster. Total Mazda sales rose from 61,000
units in 1974, to 68000 in 1975, only to have them
drop to 35,000 in 1976. Sales rose again to 50,000 in
1977. The next year the Rx-7 arrived, and the years
of Mazda moving only 35,000 cars were a thing of the
In the late spring of 1978, the first Rx-7's arrived.
They were a big hit. The cars were so popular in
southern California that dealers were running out of
stock. Dealers marked the prices up, and they still
sold out. I personally went to Pasadena Mazda to
check out the new Rx-7. I thought it could use a few
minor improvements, but I liked the overall package.
I went back again the next week, and Pasadena Mazda
was out of cars. Between late spring and the end of
the year, Mazda sold over 19,000 Rx-7's. Between the
GLC and the Rx-7, total Mazda sales rose to 75,000 in
1978 and jumped again to over 156,000 in 1979. Mazda
was back, and the rotary was a big part of the
revival. Mazda Rx-7 sales exceeded 50,000 units for
calendar year 1979.
When the Rx-7 made it's debut, the major competition
came from Datsun (now Nissan) and Porsche. The Rx-7
was a faster car than it's rivals in both the 0-60 and
quarter mile times. In a straight line, the cars
consistently ranked Rx-7, 280ZX, and 924. The Rx-7
and the 280 ZX were pretty close performance wise,
with the 924 lagging behind. Pricing was where the
Rx-7 stood out. It was the least expensive by a
landslide. In the summer of 1978, the base price for a
1979 Rx-7 was $6,400. There were $6,400 Rx-7 ads
everywhere. You couldn't find a car at that price,
but the ads were there. Even with the dealer markup,
the Rx-7 was priced much lower than either the 280ZX
or the 924.
In the 1978, Porsche 924's were known as prestigious
vehicles, and who can forget that the Datsun 280ZX was
"awesome"? Mazda countered with a low priced,
well-built, car that would blow the doors off either
one. By the standards of the day, the Rx-7 was
exotic. In 1978, those buyers with no rotary
experience were greeted by a mistake when they first
climbed into the car. Right in the middle of the gauge
cluster was an 8000-RPM tachometer, with a 7000-RPM
redline. Typically, tachometers with 7000-RPM
redlines were found in Ferraris and earlier Porsches.
The Fiat X1/9 was the only exception of that era that
I can remember. The X1/9 was an affordable sports car
that would redline at almost 7000-RPM, but they were
somewhat strange. They had the typical Fiat
reliability issues, and aside from no one knowing what
X1/9 stood for, those "sports cars" ran 20 second
quarter miles. The Rx-7's 8000-RPM tachometer was
only the first clue that this car may be a little
The Rx-7 was a completely different animal than
anything we were used to. One of the Mazda ads had
something I had never seen before. They claimed the
car had a "front mid-engine layout". I had no idea
what they were talking about. In every mid-engine car
I had ever seen, the engine was behind the driver.
Another trip to the dealer gave me the answer - the
engine was behind the front axle centerline. That's
how Mazda achieved the 50/50 weight distribution.
This resulted in me spending a fair amount of time
looking at engine placement with regard to axle
centerline after that. Another exotic thing was the
Rx-7 produced 100 HP from 1.2 liters. The 280ZX
produced 132 HP, but it took 2.8 liters to do so.
Muscle cars from the late 60's and early 70's made 1
HP per cubic inch, but the rotary made 1.3 horses per
cubic inch. If Chevrolet had been able to pull off
that same trick, they would have had 455 HP small
blocks. With the type of high horsepower numbers the
rotary produced, you would expect a peaky engine with
a lumpy idle. Rotaries were just the opposite. They
had flat torque curves and a smooth idle. You had to
look at the tachometer to determine if the engine was
running. This was unheard of for the time. In the
years following the oil crises, we had "lean burn"
V8's. That was seventies speak for an engine that
stuttered, knocked, stalled, and still only got 16
MPG. Smoothness was not common with stock cars. You
know those caps the manufacturers put over the fuel
injection adjustment screws? They are there because in
the 1970's, cars were "adjusted" until they ran right.
Rotaries didn't have to be adjusted; they hummed
right from the showroom floor.
So, how does a 100 HP rotary, outrun the 132 HP
280-ZX? The answer is simple - weight. Rx-7's
weighed less than any other US spec sports car in it's
class - with two exceptions being the Fiat X1/9 and
the Fiat 124. The Rx-7 weighed less because it was
well thought out long before the first models were
introduced. Unlike previous rotary powered Mazdas,
the Rx-7 was only designed for a rotary engine.
Rotary engines weigh less than their piston
counterparts, and take up less space. That being the
case, if the car is only designed for that engine,
then it can take advantage of the available packaging
With this being an Rx-7 article, written by an Rx-7
owner, some may feel this is all a bit slanted. Some
may even go so far as to assume that I am picking and
choosing the Rx-7's competition. That may seem so
because the 1979 Datsun 280ZX was not available when
the 1979 Rx-7 was introduced in mid-1978. The 1978
Datsun 280Z, which was a more powerful car than the
1979 280ZX, was technically the first Datsun to go
head-to-head with the Rx-7. The 1978 280Z had 170 HP,
versus the 132 HP 1979 280 ZX. Road and Track tested
both the Rx-7 and the 280Z in 1978 and here is their
quote regarding the two cars -
"Our test model RX-7, the GS version with 5-speed
gearbox and most of the luxury options including air
conditioning, turned in very impressive results in our
acceleration tests: 0-60 in 9.2 seconds and a
quarter-mile time of 17.0 seconds at 83.0 MPH. Trying
to find a comparably priced sports or GT car with
equal performance will be an exercise in frustration -
the Datsun 280Z accelerates from rest to 60 MPH in 9.4
seconds and turns the quarter mile in 17.3 seconds at
81 MPH; the Porsche 924 figures are 11.0 seconds to 60
MPH and 18.0 at 77.0 MPH for the quarter-mile test.
Other sports car alternatives such as the Triumph TR7,
Fiat 124 and X1/9 lag even further behind."
Here are more quotes from the automotive publications
of that era -
Road and Track magazine called the 1979 Rx7 "an
enthusiasts dream come true." In June of 1978, Road
and Track also wrote the Rx-7 was "far and away the
best in it's class".
Car and Driver wrote, "the RX-7 is 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"
Road Test magazine selected the Rx-7 as "Outstanding
Sports Car of 1979"
Sitting here 25 years later, it's easy to forget how
fantastic the original Rx-7 was. Back in 1978, the
Rx-7 was a real piece of automotive art that the
average consumer could afford. Mazda is hoping for
history to repeat itself. The Rx-8 will be here
shortly. Will Mazda be able to sell close to 20,000
Rx-8's in the US before January of 2004? Will total
sales triple in the next couple of years? More
importantly, will the next rotary sports car make
trying to find a comparably priced sports or GT car
with equal performance an exercise in frustration?
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