First-generation Mazda RX-7 | Buyers Guide

Robert
By Robert Bowen
Jun 8, 2022 | Mazda, rx-7, fb | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Oct. 2009 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Mazda may have the most popular brand in sports car competition these days, but 30 years ago things were quite different. No one had yet envisioned the Miata, and the company’s rotary engine needed some serious PR help. After all, it had already earned a reputation for being a somewhat unreliable gas-guzzler. 

The new-for-1979 Mazda RX-7 reversed the company’s fortunes. The simple, lightweight sports car proved to the world that the rotary engine was a viable and elegant piece of machinery. Even today, more than 30 years after its introduction, the first-generation RX-7 remains a high-water mark.

Born Again

While the RX-7 was a great success for the brand, its release was quite a gamble: The masses were skeptical of the Wankel rotary engine, and Mazda’s stubborn dedication to the odd contraption was seen as a liability.

American consumers had all but given up on the rotary after the 1970s gas crisis highlighted its poor fuel economy—less than 20 mpg in the RX-7’s sedan predecessors. Fuel economy was an important feature, and the rotary powerplant hadn’t measured up.

And then there were reliability concerns. The rotary doesn’t tolerate any overheating, and the early ones required more frequent maintenance than traditional piston engines. 

Despite the risks, Mazda stuck to their guns; they believed in their underdog engine. Instead of giving up on the American market, the company regrouped and delivered something different.

 A rotary engine has surprisingly few components—the little triangles in the middle simply spin in their housings and do the work. Photography Credit: Courtesy Mazda

They took the smaller engine in their arsenal—the twin-rotor, hundred-horsepower, 1146cc 12A model—and squeezed it under the hood of a cute, angular little coupe. While enthusiasts might have opted for the larger, more powerful 1308cc 13B engine, the 12A was chosen for economic reasons. 

The rest of the drivetrain was also straight out of Mazda’s parts bin. The solid-axle rear suspension—albeit located by a rather sophisticated linkage—plus a MacPherson strut front suspension and four-speed manual transmission were all standard sedan parts. The same went for the rather slow recirculating-ball steering box. One could accurately argue that the RX-7 wasn’t anything special under the skin.

But oh, what a skin: Clean, creased lines and pop-up headlights made for a distinctively sharp profile. It was a fast, trendy hatchback sporting pencil-thin bumpers and wheels that were flush with the fenders. The car stood out in a sea of mediocre competitors, never mind the unconventional engine found under the hood.

The engine was set well back in the chassis, with the front cover lining up with the center of the front wheels. This positioning, combined with the compact Wankel engine, gave the RX-7 almost perfect 50-50 weight distribution along with quick, tossable handling. 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

While it was not fast by any means—it featured zero-to-60 times of around 9 seconds—the engine featured a wide, usable power range. And compared to the fat, flabby Datsun 280ZX and slow Porsche 924, the RX-7 was a clear winner in the late-’70s sports car competition.

At less than $7000 when it was introduced, the little sports car was quite a bargain, too. Adding every option in the book pushed the price toward $8000, a number that was still appealing. 

More than 70,000 buyers agreed during the 1979 debut model year, snapping up the car as quickly as it hit dealer showrooms. Just eight months into production, Mazda introduced a special run of 3000 Limited Edition models to satisfy buyers looking for perks like unique wheels and a five-speed transmission.

Rotary Power Compels You

Content to leave a successful formula alone, the RX-7 returned for 1980 as much the same car. However, this version started the inevitable process of feature creep; buyers could now choose to add leather upholstery and gold-painted wheels.

The car received a slight facelift for 1981, with shorter bumpers and full-width taillights being the most noticeable cues. Even more luxury features were added, and the four-speed manual transmission was replaced with a five-speed. The base price had crept up to $8595, although it stayed at this level for the remainder of production.

The most significant changes came for 1984. While the outside looked much like it did before, the interior was revamped. Buyers also got a second engine choice, as the well-equipped GSL-SE model finally added the 13B rotary engine to the RX-7’s spec sheet. 

Improved and strengthened, the new fuel-injected engine cranked out 135 horsepower and gave the RX-7 an entirely different, snappier feel. Zero-to-60 times dropped below 8 seconds for the first time, and the larger brakes, anti-roll bars and limited-slip differential added up to a much sportier car. 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The original RX-7 lasted through the end of 1985, when Mazda replaced it with a more grown-up vehicle: The second-generation RX-7 was larger and heavier, yet faster and more comfortable. Evolution had finally caught up with the RX-7. 

Sure, the original isn’t the fastest car out there, and its handling limits are laughably low compared to modern machinery, but the first-generation RX-7 is a fun, inexpensive little driver’s car. In fact, the Mazda Miata probably owes more of its DNA to the original RX-7 than to any other Mazda product. 

However, the RX-7 has something no factory Miata does: the character of that smooth-running rotary engine coupled with the versatility of a hatchback body. The early RX-7 has always been attractive, fun and easy to modify. Throw in today’s low prices plus the car’s milestone status, and it could be difficult to pass one up.

Things to Know

The first-generation Mazda RX-7 is quickly approaching vintage status, with the earliest cars celebrating their 30th anniversary. This means you’re not likely to find many factory stock examples, as by now most have been updated and rebuilt. However, these are tough little cars and there are still thousands on the road. 

Each grouping of model years seems to have its own pluses and minuses. The 1979 and ’80 cars are most likely to become collectors’ items, yet the later ones sport better brakes, transmissions and interiors. The more powerful GSL-SE is hard to ignore. 

Photography Credit: Anthony Neste

Drivetrain

The RX-7 transmission and rear axle are tough and simple—downright agricultural by today’s standards. Check for the usual noises and grinding from worn synchros.

Engine

Rotary engines can be intimidating at first, but the early, naturally aspirated examples are strong, long-lasting powerplants, more so than the twin-turbo monster found under the hood of the third-generation models. 

When shopping for an early RX-7, always look for leaks and signs of overheating, since those issues can quickly kill a rotary engine. Check the coolant for evidence of oil leaking past warped rotor housings. If everything checks out okay under the hood, execute a cold start and observe the results.

The engine should not smoke after running for a few seconds. A healthy rotary will start right up and pull smoothly through the rev range. Flat spots and sputtering are likely due to the complicated, and by now possibly worn-out, factory carburetors. Fuel injected engines commonly exhibit a rough idle or surging at low speeds, but these symptoms should not be deal-breakers unless they’re severe. 

The complicated rat’s nest of vacuum hoses under the hood of an early RX-7 is another source of drivability problems. Check all of the hoses for cracks and leaks.

Oil leaks from the engine are fairly common and easy to fix as long as they’re occurring in the usual places—like the oil cooler fittings and oil filter mounting boss. If oil is leaking from the rotor housings or if coolant is leaking from anywhere, consider yourself warned. 

Enthusiasts have been extracting power from the rotary engine for decades. There are plenty of 150-horsepower, normally aspirated engines running around, but most people opt for a milder state of tune that nets a more reliable 120-ish horsepower. First to go should be the stock carb and restrictive exhaust manifold; aftermarket exhaust headers will help that engine breathe.

Engine swaps are also extremely popular. The 13B will fit the 12A-equipped cars, although some of the GSL-SE parts are required. For a truly fast car, consider the turbo 13B from the second-generation car or a V8 swap. Granny’s Speed Shop offers V6 and V8 installation kits.

Body and Interior

By now the original paint is probably pretty tired, so resprayed cars are more common than original-paint examples. A new paint job is not necessarily a sign of rust or crash damage, but get a good look under the car just in case.

RX-7s are not known to rust any more than contemporary cars, but check around the taillights, hatch and rocker panels for evidence of a problem. The most common area for rust is in the wheel well behind the storage bins. Prospective buyers should remove the carpeting (1979 and 1980 models) or storage bins (1981-1985 models) and look for rust on the wheel wells. Most cars have some.

As you inspect the inside of the car, keep in mind that trim pieces are getting harder and harder to find. An early car with a nice interior is a rarity.

Chassis

Don’t be alarmed by slightly vague steering: Mazda’s recirculating-ball steering box was not known for direct feel, even when new. Do be concerned about excessive play; the box can be adjusted, but the range is limited. The manual-steering cars are generally regarded as better drivers, although the steering is painfully slow. 

Listen for unusual suspension noises, and be prepared to shell out for new bushings if any creaking or groaning is heard.

Brakes and suspensions on earlier cars can be upgraded to GSL-SE specs, but this requires swapping the entire rear axle, front struts and lots of smaller parts. In addition to better handling, the swap also yields the more common 4x114.3mm bolt pattern for wheels. (The earlier RX-7pattern is 4x110mm.)

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Comments
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dannyp84
dannyp84 Reader
4/14/22 12:01 p.m.

I've had mine 16 years now, still having fun..

AAZCD-Jon (Forum Supporter)
AAZCD-Jon (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
4/14/22 1:26 p.m.

I love watching and hearing the sound of these guys at Rallycross. I have no idea how their times are, but they always look like they are having an awesome day. Makes me want a first gen RX-7

infernosg
infernosg Reader
4/14/22 1:38 p.m.

44 years young this past March

RX Reven'
RX Reven' GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
4/14/22 4:23 p.m.

I have an '83 GSL that I bought 3.5 years ago at 43K and it now has 49K.

Bone stock, original engine, everything works fine except that the retractable antenna just started to go, zero rust California car, always garaged, original paint that looks great, and all it has needed is a new alternator and battery.

The only down side is that it's an automatic but it satisfies my rotary lust (I put 287K on a FC 5-speed and 244K on a FE 6-speed).  Basically, my job is to enjoy it (if a rotary goes brap-brap but nobody appreciates it, did it really make a sound)...protect it (537K miles of rotary experience so I'm starting to get the hang of it), and only hand ownership over to someone that's capable and committed to caring for it.  

It's hard to estimate its current value as about 85% of BaT sales, etc. are manuals but I got it at a decent price and they've been steadily going up in value so it's all good.

I really want an '84 or '85 GSL-SE 5-speed that hasn't been modified or used up.

The easy button would be to do a car + cash trade with someone that needs to get out of a manual (hip replacement, new squeeze that doesn't want to learn stick, etc.)

The trouble for me is that my engine is in absolutely fantastic shape so the deal really is car + cash + near 100% chance that I'm getting a worse engine.

j_tso
j_tso GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
4/14/22 4:50 p.m.

In reply to dannyp84 :

I've had mine for about as long. I don't find it as fun to drive now, but that's because traffic is worse.

Like most old cars, its unsophistication makes it a breeze to work on.

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/14/22 5:58 p.m.

Have had at least one in my life since 1998.  Currently have two, one as stock as could reasonably be found in 2016 (has a header and coils, but it still has a Nikki fed stock port 12A. And air conditioning) and the other one braps, is fed by Megasquirt, has an FC front suspension and a Ford 9" attached with a tri-link.

 

The nearly stock one is much more fun to drive in a "not dreading it" sense.  The far from stock one is very fun when on a rallycross course... and I am about 12 years older than when I first did the major conversion, which is why I got the other one to enjoy on the street.

dean1484
dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/14/22 6:06 p.m.
Pete. (l33t FS) said:

and the other one braps.

I use to cut the mufflers off (that usually were rusted out) and I would put duel Anza Exhaust tips on them. It sounded like a British sports car from the 50s/60's when you were just putting it around.  Then after about 3K it went into car alarm setting off eardrum melting mode.  They were tons of fun.  An underground parking garage was the best.  :-)

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/14/22 6:08 p.m.
dean1484 said:
Pete. (l33t FS) said:

and the other one braps.

I use to cut the mufflers off (that usually were rusted out) and I would put duel Anza Exhaust tips on them. It sounded like a British sports car from the 50s/60's when you were just putting it around.  Then after about 3K it went into car alarm setting off eardrum melting mode.  They were tons of fun.  An underground parking garage was the best.  :-)

But that won't make it brap smiley  Brap is the staccato 6 hit / 6 miss palm muted powerchord beat of an idle that heavily ported rotaries get.

 

Greg Voth
Greg Voth Dork
4/14/22 11:04 p.m.

Hey I recognize that car.   I should really get it back on the road.

sevenracer
sevenracer Reader
4/15/22 12:47 p.m.

Well, I got my 82 rx7 in ahem ...1988. Served me well in high school and through college. It did a brief stint as a track day car in 2004 or so. Got shelved for a good long while, and is now starting its next chapter with a T2 swap.

From way back when with snazzy 80's striping...

Current State...

jgrewe
jgrewe HalfDork
4/15/22 4:36 p.m.

In reply to j_tso :

I used to have  a Rex with that exact color and rims.  Just curious if yours has carbon fiber door panels and speaker mounts in the rear?  The only thing I can see that is different is that I had shaved the side marker lights off mine. Any history of your car being in Florida?

j_tso
j_tso GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
4/16/22 12:17 p.m.

In reply to jgrewe :

that's a different car. The blue got sprayed on mine in 2015, it used to be dark grey.

jerel77494
jerel77494 New Reader
6/8/22 12:45 p.m.

I owned a 1980 model with the 12a. I really enjoyed the car. Had a few quirks.  The steering had a dead spot in the center from slack.  The adjustment I found didn't work,  It only adjusted the preload on the steering arm. The brakes were weak. I couldn't lock the brakes at anything over 45 mph on the factory tires.  I know locking the brakes increases braking distance but it also means you're able to use all the available grip. Weak brakes were a common problem on early Mazda's; The RX-3's that ran in the IMSA Radial Sedan series lobbied for bigger brakes.  They had problems with brake fade. And that motor hated alcohol blended fuels.  There was a noticeable decrease in low end power.  Last but not least, the rear suspension would bind at the limit, resulting in snap oversteer.  I heard the cure was to lower the pickup points on the lower control arms where they attached to the chassis by 1/2".  When the car first came out, Mazda had a TV ad of the car driving down a winding mountain road with some real pace. They crashed 3 of them trying to film the ad before they hired Rod Millen to drive for them.

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/8/22 12:54 p.m.

In reply to jerel77494 :

Lowering the suspension mounting points (like the '84-85 had) makes the snap understeer worse, not better.  Mazda did that to induce some roll understeer (axle steers against the turn when it articulates with lean) to make the handling less nervous, with the side effect that it made the binding worse. 

The binding is because the 4 link and the Watts link describe different roll center heights.  The Watts roll center is 40mm above axle centerline, the 4 link's inherent roll center is somewhere around the roof.  When the suspension articulates to a certain point, the bushings cannot squish anymore to accommodate this discrepancy, and the axle just sort of stops moving. Snap oversteer because the effective wheel rate goes sky high.

Really the best fix for the snap oversteer is to use the 18mm rear sway bar from a '79-80 to keep the suspension out of that articulation range, and stiffer front springs to balance the handling.

Between the smaller 15mm rear bar and the lower rear link mounts, this is why '84-85 are the most prone to ripping the upper mounts off of the chassis.  They have the highest amount of discrepancy so the highest stress on the tub.

Winfield Schmitt
Winfield Schmitt New Reader
6/8/22 9:41 p.m.

My’79 I autox’d in New England and then in FL until about 1994. Stock 12A with a header and a pair of side draft Mikuni carbs.

my '79 I autocrossed until '94 in New England and FL region SCCA. I used the early big rear sway bar with the biggest aftermarket front bar I could get. Won me many trophies.

dean1484
dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/9/22 7:25 a.m.
sevenracer said:

Well, I got my 82 rx7 in ahem ...1988. Served me well in high school and through college. It did a brief stint as a track day car in 2004 or so. Got shelved for a good long while, and is now starting its next chapter with a T2 swap.

From way back when with snazzy 80's striping...

Current State...

That is a great color!!!!

Loved my time with all mine, but crazy market sent it to a new owner. 

Mazdax605
Mazdax605 PowerDork
6/9/22 11:19 a.m.

44 years old as of last month. 

 

jerel77494
jerel77494 New Reader
6/28/22 9:23 a.m.

In reply to Pete. (l33t FS) :

Thanks for the info!  I was rereading the article and it said $7000 when they first came out?  That may have been the msrp, but I remember dealers demanding, and getting, north of $11k. And there was a waiting list at that price.

If you want to really hear some rotary noise, there's a YouTube clip of their Group C car on the dyno.  It sounds like the engine isn't going to stop revving!

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