Not only is this Renesis rotary-powered NA Mazda Miata the only one in the world, but was part of an actual legally binding contract and hurdle for C.J. Wilson to purchase another Mazda dealership. This is how it came to fruition.
This car’s transformation begins with C.J. Wilson, pro baseball pitcher and total car nut. The dude recently made the rounds for road tripping in his hyperblurple McLaren P1, he runs a Mazda Miata race team, and he has a host of Mazda dealerships to back up the whole operation. That’s where this all comes together.
Wilson wanted to buy a BMW Motorcycle dealership next door to one of his Mazda dealers in Chicagoland, CJ Wilson Mazda. The other dealer’s owner agreed to the sale, but on one condition:
CJ Wilson Mazda would have to finish building his rotary-powered Miata project.
The owner, Richard Fisher, actually had it written into the contract for the sale of his BMW Motorcycle dealership that he was guaranteed the build would be done.
I can’t get over how amazing that is.
Now, the thing about the guys who completed this project is that they are one of the top Mazda builders in the country, if not the world. These guys (then working for Fisher at Autobarn Mazda, which was sold to CJ Wilson before this Renesis Miata build began) built their own Mazdaspeed version of the Mazda2, they’ve built their own Mazdaspeed version of the Mazda5, they’ve had vehicles tour the country with Mazda, they’ve raced the One Lap of America, and they’ve built and run fully-prepped MX-5 cup race cars.
I spoke with CJ Wilson Mazda last week, and I asked them if the dealer who wanted the rotary Miata swap done was just a crazy car nut, or if he knew that CJ Wilson Mazda could get the job done and he just pounced at the opportunity.
“A little bit of both,” Dan Gleason, the man in charge of this build, told me.
The swap was also birthed of the fact that the guy who wanted the work done owned both a 2010 RX-8 drivetrain (he had pulled it to put an LS3 in the RX-8,) and a very clean 1990 Miata with a roll bar he used for local racing. It seemed simple, at first, to just move the motor from the RX-8 into the MX-5. This was not the case.
The more Dan told me about the build, the more impressed I became.
The biggest shock when seeing this car is how factory-fresh it looks. There’s nothing to notice on the outside, and you could trick someone into thinking this came straight from a Mazda dealership when you pop the hood. I suppose it did.
The hardest part, apparently, was just getting the engine to fit. Third-generation Miatas share the same platform as the RX-8, and the Renesis engine swaps easily between them. First gen Miatas also are often made with earlier Mazda rotary engines, but getting the Renesis to fit was nearly impossible. “This one almost killed me,” Gleason said.
Getting the RX-8’s brain in the Miata, along with its motor, the mounts, and the diff required a lot of custom fabrication. CJ Wilson Mazda is not a fab shop. They bought Dan a welder and a cutting tool and he had to learn from there. “They let me run wild back there,” he said. “and I appreciate it.”
Just as difficult as getting the drivetrain in was getting the car’s electronics to work. The RX-8 has nine different modules that need to talk to each other to work. Even though the RX-8 is five years old now, it’s still quite advanced. “A couple gigahertz away from being self-aware,” is how Dan describes it.
The electronics work ranged from the straightforward to the painfully surprising. Dan had to do everything from fit the RX-8’s instrument panel in the dashboard to install keyless entry. Some module needed to be installed for the system to read key codes it needed for the engine to turn on. This all required a lot of installation in not a lot of space.
The end result in absolutely amazing. The car only got minor performance modifications like an improved intake and exhaust, but it didn’t need much. We’re talking about moving a 250 horsepower engine from the 3,100-pound RX-8 into a 1,900-pound MX-5. “The car moves,” Dan said after a test drive, “plain and simple.”
Just listen to the thing wail up to redline. The car is amazingly smooth now.
Dan has worked on Mazdas for 19 years now. He’s a rotary engine devotee, with a rotary tattoo and a REPU in his driveway. Even with all of that, this build stumped him on many occasions. “A significant amount of time was spent staring at it and wondering what am I getting myself into,” Dan told me. And for someone with his level of experience, that was “kinda fun.”
Anybody can go and build a fast Miata. Anybody can cram a V8 up front and call it a day. But the owner of this Renesis-powered car gets to have something unlike anything else. Unbelievably smooth, unbelievably clean, and unbelievably accomplished. This car might have taken hundreds of man hours, but it produced a unicorn. I think it was worth it.
Special thanks to Richard Fisher, Autobarn Mazda, CJ Wilson Mazda, Declan Brennan, Eric Vates, and Dan Gleason for the information, interviews, photos, and video of this car. What an amazing machine.
This post has been revised to clarify the relationship between Autobarn Mazda, CJ Wilson Mazda, and these cars involved with the two.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.