Window Shopper: Mazda RX-7

Go back to the tail end of the 1970s, and things weren’t looking so great for fans of the traditional sports car–plus we had to wear all that polyester. A savior was approaching, though, and it came from an unlikely source: Japan.

Datsun’s 240Z gave Americans a viable alternative to Europe’s best starting late in 1969, and the Mazda RX-7’s release for the 1979 model year continued that trend. The RX-7 had one more ace up its sleeve: smooth rotary power. The rotary promised strong horsepower numbers from only 1.2 liters of displacement. Fuel economy? Well, we won’t go there.

That first-generation RX-7 was a hit in showrooms, quickly introducing a new generation to the two-seat sports car. And this one didn’t leak in the rain or force its occupants to make compromises.

The Mazda married front struts with a live rear axle–par for the day. The 12A rotary engine could be backed with either a four- or five-speed manual transmission; some cars were sold with a three-speed automatic. Performance was more than adequate for the times, too. Buyers could add options like alloy wheels, a rear anti-roll bar and air conditioning.

The original RX-7 ran through the 1985 model year, and Mazda continuously made upgrades and changes. A refresh for 1981 replaced the two individual taillights with a full-width setup while better integrating the bumpers. That same year saw the replacement of the original thermal reactors with a traditional catalytic converter.

The optional GSL-SE package came in 1984, and it added the larger, more powerful 13B rotary engine: 135 horsepower versus the 101 found in the standard car. The GSL-SE also received fuel injection and came standard with the five-speed.

One more reason to love the original RX-7: It flat-out dominated IMSA GT competition from the late ’70s through 1987, two years after production ended.

Today Japanese classics are picking up fans, and prices are likewise increasing. Which iteration should you bank on? We’d put our money on a firstyear car or the hotter GSL-SE. And even if prices remain flat, you get to enjoy a fun-to-drive neoclassic that’s still supported by a rich aftermarket.

Shopping Advice

Dave Lemon has been working with Mazda RX-7s for more than 25 years. He owns and runs Mazdatrix, a highly regarded shop focusing on rotaries.

First of all, a car with disc brakes on all corners is desirable. The ’79 and ’80 cars all had drum brakes on the rear. They were not a great design and are hard to adjust. You can fairly easily swap in a disc brake kit, or you can just buy a car that comes with it. From ’81 on, all GSL cars had disc brakes on all corners and a limited-slip differential.

When you start the car, look for smoke out of the exhaust. Some blue smoke is all right if it goes away within a few seconds. Thick white smoke is an immediate red flag.

A relatively common oil leak can be found between the rotor housing and side housing. This leak will take an engine teardown to resolve. There is no other way to solve it.

Cooling is an important factor on these cars. Oil supplies 20 to 30 percent of the cooling in an RX-7. The 1979-’82 cars had a nice oil-to-air cooling system that worked well. In ’83 they switched to a “beehive” oilto- water cooling system, which was not nearly as effective.

Bottom line, when looking at any car with a rotary, you have to be able to run and drive the car. If you can’t, budget at least a couple thousand for an engine rebuild. Keep in mind there are also lots of bad engine rebuilds out there. You get what you pay for. We only use OEM parts to ensure correct fitment.

Mazda has discontinued all 12A rotor housings. That’s a problem because they are often worn and need to be replaced. It’s extremely rare to find a good rotor housing for sale.

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View comments on the CMS forums
secretariata HalfDork
6/4/15 9:46 p.m.

So which one of you didn't want to claim this piece? Or do you have a new intern that hasn't been introduced to the mob yet?

BillBall New Reader
6/5/15 6:09 a.m.

In reply to the staff of Motorsport Marketing:

So why would you buy one over a Porsche 944, given that the go for the same prices?

TR8owner HalfDork
6/6/15 10:28 p.m.

In reply to BillBall:

For the same price I'd agree that the 944 is a more desirable car than the RX7, but I'd suspect the Mazda is much easier and cheaper to maintain than the Porsche, and probably less finicky/more reliable also.

wspohn HalfDork
6/7/15 10:08 a.m.

The one for me would be the FD turbos!

Rupert Dork
6/8/15 9:29 a.m.

In reply to BillBall Japan's quality & reliability! :

BillBall New Reader
6/9/15 7:00 a.m.

I haven't owned both so I can't claim know the answer but I wonder if a 30 year old rotary RX-7 is any more reliable that a 30 year old Porsche 944, condition and maintenance being equal.

kanaric Dork
6/12/15 10:52 a.m.
BillBall wrote: In reply to the staff of Motorsport Marketing: So why would you buy one over a Porsche 944, given that the go for the same prices?

Rotary is easy to build and cheap to build. I don't think i've heard of anyone significantly doing any work to the non-turbo 944s. RX7 is more of a weird car and caters towards those people. Rotary engine is interesting to many people.

If I didn't want to do any power mods, why I think you would buy the RX7 if you were going from logical reasoning, I wouldn't get the 944 even. I would get a 924S.

Really why would you buy either car? There are "better" (opinion) cars at the same price. You can always come up with something else. Alfa GTV6, Skyline GTS-T, E30 BMW, S12 200SX, Mitsubishi Starion, etc. The fans of each could argue their point for all of those vs 944 or RX7. Like I would pick up a Starion WAY before I picked up a RX7 or 944. Not for any reason other than I like them.

racerdave600 SuperDork
6/12/15 11:42 a.m.

I have owned both RX7s and 944's, and to me the choice is easy; 944 hands down. Even with the maintenance tax, its far and away the better car. The only good point to the RX7 to me was the engine. The rotary was super sweet, but everything else was a let down. Mine was a '83 GSL and the steering was numb and lifeless. Power only OK, even in the '80's when I owned it.

I used to autocross a friend's later GTU model RX7, and I liked it less than my '83. You had to literally drag it around the course. It never worked very well and it had no "soul" to speak of. It was rather a bland car. Nice, but bland. Now, the ND he traded for, that was a different story. Fantastic car.

By comparison, the 944 was great to drive. The steering feel still ranks among the best ever, and the driving position is spot on. Of course it is more expensive and there are probably better, newer alternatives, but I still miss both my NA and Turbo 944's. I can't day that about other cars I've owned.

pjr300 New Reader
9/5/16 7:32 a.m.

In reply to racerdave600 : Dave, I'd agree with you... but your playing field wasn't level! The '83 with the 12A is a pretty basic car, and the 944 was probably double the cost when new.

Now, the '84-85 model with the 13B is a much more fair and interesting comparison with the 944. I have never enjoyed driving a 12A car, but the 13B models are a blast, especially with some better width and lower profile rubber to improve the handling.

The GTU was part of the FC series (2nd gens, 1986-91) which were generally dogs from many perspectives (style, quality, performance). Today they are good hosts for LS1 swaps, something I generally consider sacrilegious, but in this case, I'd make an exception.

Currently own a FD (which is a whole different kettle of fish)...

TR8owner HalfDork
9/5/16 1:55 p.m.

I'd much rather have my TR8 over a 944 or RX-7. Certainly a lot more performance potential from the V8 and more exclusive, although its probably more fair to compare the RX-7 with a TR7. But to get back to the OP, my brother had a very nice bright red RX-7 back in the day with the optional targa look top and front spoiler. He sold it to pick up a TR6 which he still owns today, but I still remember his RX-7 as a very nice car. At the same time my buddy owned a Porsche 924 and another had a TR7 but I'd consider the RX-7 the more preferable.

JoeTR6 HalfDork
9/5/16 7:52 p.m.

I've always liked RX-7s of any vintage. My Mom had a FC, and the one time she let me drive it solo left quite an impression (I was used to driving a '73 Beetle, so...). I was visiting her last week in Tennessee and saw what appeared to be a solid 1985 FB RX-7. Somehow, the temptation to stop and check it out closer was resisted. I'd love to have an FD, but too much money for a toy and I can't see daily driving one at this point. I like 944s, but I'd take a nice RX-7 any day.

gwarcuri1 New Reader
3/31/20 7:56 p.m.

I never saw a lime green RX-7 with gray painted side mirrors on the front fenders. Couldn't the CM staff have found a photo of a U.S.domestic RX-7 that would have brought back more memories for the majority of its readers?

I have driven mostly BMWs for the last thirty years, E-code chassis of all types, mostly M models. I briefly owned a Series 3 Mazda RX-7. Hands-down one of the nicest cars I have ever driven. Quick, quiet, and great handling car.  And mine was the top-of-the-line GSL-SE trim model. It had beautiful and tasteful interior appointments and a serious, sports car instrument panel and gauges. I would own it again in a heartbeat. I actually liked it better than the 1989 BMW E-30 325is I have now as my weekend fun car. 



mbrouill New Reader
4/2/20 10:43 a.m.

  I owned Rx7s buying my 1st one the Fall of 1978 and my last one being a 91 ragtop.  Over those years I had 6 different ones and still would own one if there was a decent engine rebuilder in New England.  In the early days, me and 2 other guys use to go to autocross and hillclimb events and clean up as no one could figure what class to put us in.  The engine was the size of something you'd find in a MG, but the the power couls let me run against Mustangs, Corvettes and yes TR8s of their day and we would always walk away being the best of the day.

  My last 2 were the convertible versions and even though they were heavier and never offering the turbo version in the States, were my favorites of the bunch. 


31rx7 New Reader
9/4/21 1:20 p.m.

944 vs. RX7 vs. others - who cares?  We all like what we like. 

This article misses the mark on a few items: 

  • Rust, and specifically rust where the rear control arms attach to the unibody.  There is a gap  between the mounts and body that collects dirt and moisture, rusting from the inside out.   Once you see it, it is often too late.  Pull the storage bins (on the cars that have them) out to inspect.  Fairly expensive to fix. 
  • Steering is recirculating ball, not rack and pinion.  They can have quite a bit of play in them.  Often this is due to other worn steering components, particularly the idler arm bushings. 
  • The power antennas generally don't work - as on most old cars! 

Other than that, the engine condition as noted.  These are really easy to live with if you start with one in good shape. 

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