Mention the rotary engine, and you’re bound to get an entire peanut gallery promising apex seals going boom. Ryan Gilbert wasn’t scared away when his girlfriend’s family 1979 Mazda RX-7 was up for grabs. In fact, he’s well on his way to returning it to the drag nights and autocrosses it used to do.
The fun thing about this car is how each little problem that popped up became a chance to make the car a little better than it’d been stock. It’s a reminder of how a car’s issues are also opportunities, if you have the ability to look at them the right way.
Gilbert’s RX-7 started its life as a track car, going to autocrosses and spectator drags at Massachusetts’ Seekonk Speedway. In 1983, it was sold to the grandfather of Gilbert’s girlfriend, who bought the then-50,000-mile RX-7 as a graduation gift for his daughter. It was her daily driver until she got pregnant, at which point she couldn’t fit in the driver’s seat of the little sports car.
After having children—one of whom was Gilbert’s girlfriend—the car was mostly kept in the garage, only coming out for Sunday drives. It picked up all of 10,000 miles from 1996 until Gilbert got the car in spring 2017.
By the time Gilbert got the car, it had 80,000 miles all told and was nearly rust-free. The interior was in fine shape, and even had that great “old car” smell. The radio (complete with a tape player) even worked, as did one of the car’s speakers. It was the find of the century, with the added bonus of a family connection. Given how Gilbert speaks of the car, it sounds like the RX-7 made it into good hands.
“It’s an OG JDM classic that was a hit when it was introduced, then [RX-7s were] under-appreciated, [and] either rusted, raced or mechanically failed. The survivors always get a double-take now. It’s an underdog car,” Gilbert told Jalopnik via email.
The car never fails to bring people out of the woodwork who are surprised that first off, an RX-7 is still running and secondly, that some kind madman has is keeping it alive.
“I have people tell me about buddies who have had one back in high school and one’s they’ve owned personally until they rusted out. Or guys who did hill climbs in an RX-7,” Gilbert said. “It’s a familiar yet confusing car that typically steers conversation from ‘This is a sweet car. I remember [insert RX-7 story...]’ to ‘This has the Dorito spinning things in it right?’”
Despite the reaction, bringing the car back to life hasn’t been as hard as the reactions make it seem.
“The car is fun when it works but is nowhere near as bad as the stigma against rotary engines,” Gilbert said.
Whenever you get an old car that’s been mostly parked for a while, you’ve got to go through everything to replace rotting rubber, rusted metal and other worn items on the car, lest those items fail later when you don’t want them to. Ryan’s off to a good start.
Gilbert lucked out insofar as the body of his nearly 40-year-old car was in great shape. The main exception was the hood, which had multiple rust holes in it. A new hood was soon acquired that was painted and tinted to match the rest of the car.
Wash, wax and ample use of Mother’s Back to Black on the trim pieces were Gilbert’s primary tools for bringing the rest of the car back to like-new appearance.
The mechanical bits were in need of considerably more TLC, however. The rear brake cylinders were leaking brake fluid whenever he pressed the brake pedal and had seized. Brake fluid would pour all over the rear drums. Sometime in its 39-year life, the seals had gone bad, as they do. Thus, the seized drums got completely restored into working, non-leaking condition.
All of the other rubber bits were in likewise terrible shape. “The 10-year-old Cooper radials were one pothole away from a blowout,” Gilbert said. New tires were soon acquired along with polyurethane coolant hoses that replaced the dry-rotted ones that came with the car.
Gilbert tried to drive his new car on the road back in March, but it didn’t go as planned.
“In March, the first attempt to awake the RX-7 from it’s winter hibernation was a day-long event,” he told us. “Battery was dead, exhaust was backfiring, spark plugs were fouled. Threw a new battery in and it would crank, start and run only with the gas pedal pushed down then it would stall out. AAA time! Towed to the shop to get checked out and running.”
This is when the list of new items went on under the hood: spark plugs, air filter, battery, thermostat and choke sensor. Likewise, Gilbert used the open-hood-surgery time to install competition-grade engine and transmission mounts from Racing Beat that would be better suited to what he’d like to do with it.
A touchy aftermarket security system installed by the original owner also had to go. “Really was a PITA when I first got the car, bumped my knee under the steering column getting in [and] having the car scream at me and refuse to start, haha,” Gilbert said.
There was also a major exhaust leak that had to be fixed, so this was another opportunity to upgrade and get rid of a lot of the obsolete, horsepower-choking emissions equipment.
“We pulled the rusted out existing exhaust that was designed for the ‘83-’85 models along with the air splitters, thermal reactor and all the emissions junk,” Gilbert said.
A full Racing Beat exhaust went on in place of the leaky exhaust, but this created a new problem. The carburetor was now running too lean to work properly with the new setup, and would choke itself out. Gilbert cleaned the head of the carburetor, had a local mechanic fully clean and readjust the jets, as well as adjust the idler screw to get the engine brapping as it should again.
“It runs a bit rich now but adjusting the air fuel mixture screw has me idling at 900 RPM nice and smooth,” Gilbert said.
A Banzai Racing double pulley was also installed on the alternator to make the emissions delete work, as the belt typically also powers an emissions air pump which was no longer there. The new pulley was added to prevent belt squeal and slippage.
However, it all worked out in the end. The new tune and exhaust brought the car up to 115 horsepower, which is pretty decent for a lightweight vintage car that weighed only 2,337 lbs when new.
Ryan’s ultimate goal for the car is to get it track-worthy and truly enjoy the RX-7 as it was meant to be enjoyed. He’d love to take it to a spectator drag night and try autocrossing it later this year, and of course, get his girlfriend’s mom back behind the wheel of her old car.
Later, he’d like to update and stiffen the suspension using a kit made by Racing Beat, and address the points and condensors in the car as he knows those are decades-old wear items that need attention next.
In the meantime, the RX-7 has become his weekend car in the summer and he’s even been using it to get to work once a week. He says that his lightweight sports car even manages to get 20 mpg as he’s driven it around.
However, a new problem arose recently, just as we were talking about the car for this article: the transmission is stuck in neutral somehow.
“I think the forks in the transmission are jammed up so the car is stuck in neutral in all gears,” Gilbert told Jalopnik.
Gilbert lost his ability to shift into anything useful on the highway in late July, traveling at about 60 mph at 4,000 RPM. The smell of burnt transmission fluid filled the cabin, and he suddenly lost the ability to stick the car into a usable gear.
After he got towed home by AAA, he tried rowing through the car’s gears both with and without using the clutch, and noticed that the engine never stalled in the process. That’s how he figured out that it was likely stuck in neutral—any gear would have caused the engine to drop.
“Some of the forums mention forks getting stuck where the tranny thinks it’s in two gears at once and defaults into netural,” Gilbert explained, offering up a potential scenario.
If it’s done for good, he said that Miata internals can fit in the bell housing of an early RX-7. Alternately, he might upgrade to the SA 79-80 transmission that can fit under the car without having to hack up the transmission tunnel.
“Any advice from the best and brightest on this would be greatly appreciated,” he told me. He’s determined to fix it, because you’d have to be nuts to give up on a good car like this. But he’s also very, very stuck as to what it could be.
You can follow along with Ryan’s build on Instagram here, but in the meantime, please weigh in with some help for the guy. What do you think could be jamming up this RX-7's gearbox?
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week. What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.