This year marks the 40th birthday of one of the greatest sports cars ever made: the wedge-shaped, rotary powered Mazda RX-7. So let’s celebrate a car that gave this world all the spinning triangle weirdness it deserved.
With all the dirt cheap $800 Craigslist Mazda RX-7s out there, it’s easy to forget just how influencial this car really was, especially for Mazda, which in the late 1970s was struggling thanks to high fuel prices. Around that time a lot of automakers including General Motors, Mercedes and Citroën were working on rotaries, but Mazda is the only one that ever really made it work at scale. (The NSU Ro80 is cool, but it didn’t have the staying power.)
“Mazda bet the farm on its rotary, whose easy power came with the price of a ravenous appetite for fuel,” Ben Hsu said in his book Classic Japanese Performance Cars. This put Mazda in a tough spot when fuel costs took off in the 1970s, with Hsu writing: “The company’s fortunes were wiped out and it was several billion yen in debt.”
But the result of these trying times was a beautiful thing, with Mazda engineers girding their loins to make the Wankel more efficient:
It was in this tumultuous environment that Mazda’s engineers hunkered down to reduce the rotary engine’s fuel consumption. They knew that the very future of the rotary—and the company itself—depended on it. So...they went to work on the Phoenix Project to reduce fuel consumption of the 12A by some 40 percent, making it a viable competitor to the piston again.
Mazda had the perfect car to go with this new engine: the Savanna RX-7, a front-mid, rear-drive, 2,215-pound (2,385 in the U.S.) sports car that—with the 100 horsepower 12A engine—had a nearly perfect 50-50 weight distribution.
With MacPherson struts up front, and a four-link live rear axle with a Watt’s Link out back, the RX-7 wasn’t sophisticated by modern standards, but in the late 1970s, it set the standard for driving joy per dollar.
That’s because Mazda’s little wedge was dirt cheap, costing only $6,395, or much cheaper than rivals like Datsun 280Z or the Porsche 924, despite—according to Hsu—”out-perform[ing] them time and time again in magazine road tests.”
Unsurprisingly, the RX-7 was a huge hit in the U.S., with Mazda exceeding its expected sales by a huge margin. The car also became a bit of a star on the racing circuit, doing well in the 24 Hours of Daytona, becoming “the most dominant car in IMSA history with 100 wins” by the end of the 1980s, and also winning the 24 Hours of Spa in 1981.
The first generation SA22C/FB RX-7 was an incredible machine that—according to Ben Hsu—“saved Mazda’s skin.” But 40 years later, it’s safe to say it also saved America’s skin—because an America without high-revving rotary engines singing on its highways isn’t an America at all.