Currently, nobody on the market sells cars that run with the magical triangles of a rotary engine—the kind of engine you’d find in a 1980 Mazda RX-7. Really nobody else besides Mazda was ever able to get it to work in a meaningful way. I totally get it, too; by design, rotaries get atrocious gas mileage and they’re much higher maintenance than the average driver is used to.
But that doesn’t make their unavailability any less of a shame. And when you go back and drive the original, the very first RX-7 today, you get a real sense of what we’re missing.
(Full Disclosure: We wanted to drive a 1980 SA22C Mazda RX-7 so badly that when one was offered to us by a reader, we said yes and then bought them lunch in exchange for their generosity.)
The RX-7 is nearly 40 years old. Forty years is a long way to come in terms of automotive advancement. Obviously, there are several aspects about it that are quite aged. But you know what’s ageless? Fun, true joy. And the car offers plenty of that.
This is the very first generation Mazda RX-7, internally named the SA22C. It was produced between 1978 and 1980 and positioned as an affordable, lightweight and fun sports car. In the years prior to this, Mazda put the rotary engine into numerous sedans, wagons and even pickup trucks, but we could argue it was the sports car that’s endured the most.
In its day, it competed against the Porsche 924, which was more expensive, and the Nissan/Datsun Zs of the time, which by then had become bigger, heavier, more luxurious and, yes, more expensive. It bridged the gap, so to speak, between the first Datsun 240Z and Mazda’s own Miata a few years later. If you needed a cheap Japanese sports car, this was a solid pick, and it had the sales to back that up.
The lightness is what made the SA RX-7 special. Weighing in at between 2,100 and 2,300 pounds, the 100 horsepower coaxed from the front-mid mounted 1146cc 12A rotary engine was more than enough to give it that much-desired, spirited feel.
Today’s car trims generally mean some differences in aesthetic details, but with the RX-7, different trims could also mean a different number of gears. You could either get a manual five-speed with the GS trim, a manual four-speed with the S trim or a three- or four-speed automatic. All rear-driven, of course.
It also has three tailpipes, which was strange. Apparently, according to the Haynes owner’s manual, “The larger of the two exhaust pipes carries the actual spent exhaust gases. The smaller pipe running alongside the main pipe vents the cooling air.”
In the back, this RX-7 wore a heckblende with its name painted across it in brushstroke font. It was a nice touch.
The RX-7 occupied a niche that we seldom see filled these days: Cheap fun. The rotary-powered wedge cost $6,395 in ’80s money, which is the fabulous price point of $20,714 today. As our own Raphael Orlove once wrote:
The combination of good speed, low cost, a reputation for reliability, and amazing styling made the RX-7 a hit. Mazda was actually about to go bankrupt (not the first time, not the last time) in 1978, but the RX-7 helped lead good export sales in the U.S. and keep the company afloat. Mazda sold 360,000 of these cars, a Miata before there was a Miata.
The introduction of the Miata helped offset later-gen RX-7s as they started going up in power and price. There was no sense in having two cars compete with each other. There still isn’t.
What immediately strikes you today is how tiny the RX-7 is. It’s proportioned like a normal coupe, but everything is just smaller and lower to the ground—almost like it shrank in the dryer.
Inside, the steering wheel is skinny and has a large-diameter. And located very close by is the tall gear shifter, which reduces the distance that your right hand has to travel between the wheel and shifting. The rest of the cabin is especially spacious because of the rear hatch: Essentially, it’s a piece of frameless “floating” glass with no real pillars, just held up by struts and hinges.
There is zero extraneous information in the gauge cluster. You get a clock (an actual ticking clock!), an oil temperature gauge, a tachometer and a speedometer that tops out at 85 mph, but also has 55 mph clearly marked, a reflection of the national maximum speed limit during the time.
The RX-7 was noisy, and I don’t mean in a loud way. There was a cacophony of noises, big and little, that surrounded me as I started up the car and began driving.
Growling at idle, the rev needle leapt about as if measuring the thrumming heartbeat of some live beast. We pointed this out to the owner, and he laughed, saying that it only did that when the air conditioning was running. I absolutely loved that he knew that about his car.
Thunk went the handbrake when you put it down. Clunk went the shifter into its housing. Ka-chunk went the turn signals when you flicked them. And when the engine reached past 6,000 rpm, it would start to make a whump-whump-whump-whump noise, shaking the whole car. Sometimes, inexplicably, when I let off the gas, a metallic clang! wound sound from the rear, right-hand side of the car. Scared the shit out of me the first time it happened. The owner knew about it. Has no idea what it is.
Other cars that I’ve driven are content cruising at 3,000 rpm or below. The RX-7 was most cheerful sitting between 4,000 and 5,000, its engine buzzing along happily at its preferred speed.
Dwarfed by the Honda Pilots, BMW X3s and Acura MDXs that we have been forced to accept as “normal-sized” cars, bombing around in a vintage and buzzy RX-7 was as good as it got. It was like rocking out to a concert in your own head.
From the stop lights in rural New Jersey, where the speed limit wasn’t more than 45 mph, you could floor the car from first, shift into second, floor it again, shift into third and floor it some more—and you wouldn’t even be close to overtaking the lazy crossover lumbering along in front of you. You can go all-freaking-out (because you need to, the car is far too slow otherwise), feel like an absolute superhero and break precisely zero laws. I don’t actually believe a first-gen Mazda RX-7 has ever been pulled over for going too fast before.
Following along behind normal traffic, we coasted on the smooth, rolling roads, the unassisted steering communicating clearly with the road. It wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be, probably because the engine is so light. The car delighted in flicking its nose into corners at the last minute, like a dog that had just picked up a new scent and was diving in to pursue it. Despite driving it for only a few hours, I could easily see how you’d never get bored behind that skinny wheel.
But it also made me sad. I’ve written and read enough posts about RX-7s on this website to know that a sad number of people simply dismiss it for being “unreliable.” And I don’t think that’s fair. I think anything can be reliable as long as you maintain it properly. This is also something we’ve argued on the site before. These engines are special, and they need some special attention—if you’re out to buy one, try to find one that’s received it.
I’m not exactly sure when or why this happened, but it seems like many automakers think driving has become a chore. I think that’s why they make their cars easier and easier to drive, with some kind of assistance hitched to everything so we can put in the least amount of effort to get where we need to go.
More distressingly, good and cheap fun is dwindling. Besides the Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 and the Mazda Miata/Fiat 124, we don’t really have much to choose from in terms of small, pure sports cars. Sure, we have tons of hot hatches and sedans, and the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger are better than ever, but tiny and light and tossable just isn’t in vogue anymore.
Perhaps it’s a little nostalgia getting into my eyes and messing up my vision, but I’m convinced that if something like this returned to the market, people would buy it. Maybe it wouldn’t sell as well as the SUVs and crossovers and pickups, but at least it would be there. It’d be an option. But, for now, I guess our best bet is scouring Bring A Trailer and Craigslist for that perfect RX-7.
If you haven’t yet, drive one. Give yourself a chance to fall in love with it, because you will.