Vintage Views: Mazda RX-3

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Some information may be different today.]

Looking for an old-school classic that has a fanatical following–plus a nice motorsports pedigree? Cast your eyes upon the Mazda RX-3, especially in boy-racer SP guise.

At its core, the RX-3 was a small family car offered stateside from 1972 through 1978. An optional sports package, simply known as the SP, was available for the final two years of production.

The RX-3 SP was the Japanese manufacturer’s first nudge toward offering a performance car to American buyers. While it wasn’t a true sports package, it certainly was marketed as one. You could find the RX-3 SPleaving fiery, sideways skid marks in many publications of the time.

Why do we say it wasn’t a true sports package? Well, the SP didn’t add much real performance to the bottom line–mainly just vinyl markings, rear window louvers, and a front spoiler lifted from a bulldozer.

Don’t think we’re calling it an underachiever, though. The RX-3 in any guise made a modest 95 horsepower through its stock rotary engine, but it also weighed about 2200 pounds, which made it serviceable as a performance car. The Porsche 924, introduced in the same year as the RX-3 SP, also made 95 horsepower, but it weighed about 400 pounds more.

The 12A engines found in the American RX-3s were also robust enough to get a 75,000-mile warranty and proved to be strong performers on the track–ogenerally once uncorked a bit. The RX-3 became a contender in the IMSA RS Championship, especially with rotary master Jim Downing behind the wheel. Racing Beat, another rotary tuner, turned the RX-3 into a drag race record holder.

For many years, the RX-3 was also a strong contender in SCCA GT2 and Improved Touring A competition. Tom Ellam continues to carry the torch, as his RX-3 trophied at the Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals last year.

Today, the RX-3 lives on as an icon, though examples are becoming slightly difficult to find. What was once a throwaway chassis has been called a future collectable–along with other early Japanese performance cars.

Shopping and Ownership

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For tips and advice on the Mazda RX-3, we picked the brain of Jay Morris. In addition to being the owner of Ground Control Suspension Systems, he’s also a longtime RX-3 owner.

These machines have become more of a collector’s item than your typical used car. As such, you can’t be too picky when it comes to condition: These cars are being bought to restore. Rust is normal, and panels can be replaced. The demand has reached the point where if you’re shopping for one of these and find one, you should jump on it.

When buying an RX-3 SP, one of the most important considerations is whether it’s a real SP, not just an RX-3 that someone outfitted with a sticker and a body kit. There are a few quick ways to spot the real deal. First, the SP’s rain gutters don’t go all the way to the bottom of the windshield–base RX-3 rain gutters do. Second, SPs only had the SP logo sticker on one side of the car. Third, SPs were fitted with larger radiators, and the cap should be on top–not on a neck to the side.

SP cars received their decals and bolt-on dressage either at the port where they entered the country or at the dealerships themselves. As a result, you may see a few base RX-3s dressed up as SPs.

Most owners are now keeping these cars stock. Looking to modify? The 13B engine is a common transplant, and with that larger engine usually comes a 9-inch rear end. The stock RX-3 engine is quite rugged, though.

The biggest problem for this car is rust. Like so many other older Japanese cars, the RX-3 can rust away if allowed.

As the RX-3 SP has become more of a collector car, it has seen a decline in track use–except at vintage racing events.

These cars still have a good online community, and that’s the best place to look for parts. The old-school section of the RX7Club.com forum is home to many owners of early rotary cars, and members offer original parts for sale from time to time.

A big problem with owning these cars today, despite their restricted factory setup, is passing emissions. In California, anything produced after 1976 has to meet the current emissions standards, which can make life difficult. In most other states, you can skip emissions tests by registering the car as a historic vehicle.

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Comments
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Mazdax605
Mazdax605 UberDork
1/18/18 1:59 p.m.

I really miss my 77 RX-3 SP:

 

Crashed RX-3 SP

Chris_V
Chris_V UberDork
1/18/18 2:40 p.m.

Hmm, makes me miss my '73 RX3 autocross car...

So fun, so loud.

Knurled.
Knurled. MegaDork
1/18/18 4:43 p.m.

I think the GRM staff are following me.

JtspellS
JtspellS SuperDork
1/18/18 5:10 p.m.

Need more Rotary's in my life.

te72
te72 New Reader
1/20/18 12:33 a.m.

Love rotaries. Can't bring myself to own one, knowing the things I would do to extract reliability and performance out of one. That said, while I appreciate the sound, it isn't until you start talking three and four rotor engines that I actually LIKE the sound.

 

Fun fact: First car I ever fell in love with the driving of was a 1988 Turbo 2 RX7. Would have been nice if I could have afforded to buy it off my friend when he was in a bind, but sadly I had just dumped most of my money into a Supra I had at the time. Story of my life...

rennkafer
rennkafer New Reader
1/25/18 7:33 p.m.

In reply to Chris_V :

Hey wait, that was my RX-3 AX car... laugh

TheRX7Project
TheRX7Project Reader
1/26/18 8:20 a.m.

Guy local to me runs a prepped RX3 in E-Prepared road racing but lately has been bringing it to autocrosses (because it's cheaper). I somehow always forget to snap a picture of it. Looks like an absolute blast to drive.

jstein77
jstein77 UltraDork
2/28/18 3:28 p.m.

That color of the car in that picture is pretty close to the '73 RX-3 wagon I had in college.

Chris_V
Chris_V UberDork
2/28/18 3:30 p.m.
rennkafer said:

In reply to Chris_V :

Hey wait, that was my RX-3 AX car... laugh

And mine and Chris Engle's. ;) I need a copy of the pic of the one with the black front end and cantilevered slicks...

aircooled
aircooled MegaDork
7/7/20 10:41 a.m.

Question:  One might say the FB RX7 is just a re-bodied RX3-4 (much like the Mustang is a re-bodied Falcon).  Is there any truth to that?

One thing I think I know is the rear suspensions are a bit different, right? 

(P.S. not saying I have heard this, but a thought experiment, and I am curious)

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
7/7/20 10:49 a.m.
aircooled said:

Question:  One might say the FB RX7 is just a re-bodied RX3-4 (much like the Mustang is a re-bodied Falcon).  Is there any truth to that?

One thing I think I know is the rear suspensions are a bit different, right? 

(P.S. not saying I have heard this, but a thought experiment, and I am curious)

Technically no.  Need to clarify the difference between an FB ('81-85) and SA ('79-80) RX-7 as well.  Mazda made huge, sweeping changes to components and structural design between SA and FB, and to a lesser extent between Series 2 ('81-83) and Series 3 ('84-85) cars.  (And because Mazda, some of the changes were not split per chassis series... early S2s had S1 steering gears, late S1s had S2 transmissions with an S1 style tailhousing, etc)

The RX-3 does share a lot of superficial items with the SA like steering gearbox design, and the brakes, and a lot of the emissions controls, but the RX-3 has a lot of design features closer to a Ford Escort like track width, wheelbase, front suspension that uses forged TCAs and a structural stabilizer bar, and a leaf sprung rear.  SA/FB have a front suspension more like a Ford Falcon (stamped arms, tension rod, separate stabilizer) than Ford Escort, and the rear suspension is a four link plus Watts, and the track width is 5" wider and the wheelbase is 5" longer.

lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter)
lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
7/7/20 2:19 p.m.

The RX-3 SP also had a different intake manifold than any other 12-A equipped model,  it had reversed runners. I have one of the manifolds around somewhere. I'll try to grab a picture. 
 

My father and I and my first race car. A 1973 RX-3 prepped for ITA. This picture is at the Duryea Hillclimb in the mid 80's. 
 

Mazdax605
Mazdax605 PowerDork
7/7/20 2:29 p.m.

Oh man talk about tearing open a 10 year old wound, seeing my thread on my totaled 77 SP. Six days owned, and ruined only the second time I drove it.

Feedyurhed
Feedyurhed UltraDork
7/7/20 3:06 p.m.

Love me some rotary. I still have my 86 RX7 GXL. Going to do a full resto on it as soon as I retire. Isn't that what we all say? I swear I am going to do it......I really am!

Feedyurhed
Feedyurhed UltraDork
7/7/20 3:14 p.m.
lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter) said:

The RX-3 SP also had a different intake manifold than any other 12-A equipped model,  it had reversed runners. I have one of the manifolds around somewhere. I'll try to grab a picture. 
 

My father and I and my first race car. A 1973 RX-3 prepped for ITA. This picture is at the Duryea Hillclimb in the mid 80's. 
 

 

Great pic. Looks like a X1/9, a GTi (possibly Saab?.....Nah) followed by a 911/912 down the line next to you. Not enough car pictured of the closest car....just the corner.I thought at first maybe an early Mustang, mostly from the striping. Anyway, cool times and cool cars. All classics now.

lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter)
lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
7/7/20 7:51 p.m.

Volvo in the lower right corner. X-1/9 and an Omni GLH Turbo. 

CyberEric
CyberEric Dork
7/7/20 8:01 p.m.

I wish smaller, lighter, RWD sport coupes/sedans were still made.

 

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
7/7/20 8:30 p.m.
CyberEric said:

I wish smaller, lighter, RWD sport coupes/sedans were still made.

 

RX-3s are a touch narrower and lighter than NA6s, and a little longer, mostly overhang.

 

And they seat five.  (Well, if you're all very, very comfortable with each other)

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