Japanese marque Mazda is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and as a first in a new series, we'll be taking a closer look at the cars that defined it. First up, the iconic RX-7...
According to Mazda, the three elements that define its DNA are; the joy of driving, lightweight design... and the rotary engine. One car in its history has truly encapsulated all 3 of these elements - the RX-7.
First launched in 1978, the RX-7 was the Hiroshima-based marque's first mass-market sportscar and would go on to become the best-selling rotary-engined vehicle in history. It also achieved significant motorsport success.
The RX-7's twin-rotor powerplant won Mazda the British Saloon Car Championship in 1980 and 1981, and it also won the hearts of fans with its distinctive howl. It proved its reliability as well, winning the 1981 24-Hours of Spa (the first Japanese car to achieve this), and in the USA the RX-7 won more than 100 IMSA races, more than any other model of any brand.
The rotary engine was not always a given for the RX-7. Mazda had offered this type of engine in many of its models until the oil crisis of 1973/74, when these engines lost favour because of their relative thirst. Mazda was on the verge of abandoning rotary entirely, but head of R&D, Kenichi Yamamoto resisted, arguing that it is a key differentiator for the company. He won the argument.
Yamamoto knew the rotary engine well. He led the team of engineers that developed the first rotary engines in the '60s, and he set out to overhaul the existing 12A engine to improve its fuel economy. Among other things, his team added more durable apex seals – a problem spot – and improved lubrication.
They then helped design the ideal vehicle for it. Small and light yet smooth running, powerful and rev-happy, the rotary was perfect for a sports car. And the RX-7, a sleek, low-slung coupe with a wedge-shaped nose and wraparound window on the rear hatch, was built specifically for this engine.
The first-generation FB RX-7
The first RX-7 generation (“FB” platform), which went on sale in Japan in 1978 before arriving in Europe the following year, was an immediate sensation. Weighing in at just over 1 tonne, the 12A’s 74-99 kW provided more than sufficient performance. The front mid-engine layout – the compact engine sat behind the front axle – driving the rear wheels with near-perfect weight distribution also delivered thrilling handling. The 1 146 cm3 twin-rotor 12A was later joined by 118 kW turbocharged version for Japan, while North America got a slightly larger 13B powerplant with fuel injection.
Mazda is open and honest about the second-generation RX-7 (“FC”), introduced in 1985, being inspired by Porsche's 944. The new cars also featured Mazda’s DTSS (Dynamic Tracking Suspension System) and turbocharging. Forced induction, it turned out, was very well suited to rotary engines thanks to their exhaust flow characteristics, and quite effective for boosting mid-range torque.
The 1.3-litre 13B was standard for all markets now, and although the RX-7 would be offered in Europe initially with a naturally aspirated 110 kW engine, 132 kW and later 147 kW twin-scroll turbo versions would follow. The higher-powered model could sprint from rest to 100 km/h in 6 seconds time and had a top speed of 240 km/h.
The final chapter?
The third and final generation (“FD”) that arrived in 1992 was a genuine performance car. A new sequential twin turbocharger boosted output from the latest 13B engine to 176 kW on the European version. The FD punched above its weight, with a 0-100 km/h time of 5.3sec and a 250 km/h top speed (limited) – fitting for the brand that had just won at Le Mans (with rotary power).
Ultimately, however, emissions regulations led to the RX-7's demise in Europe by 1996, but production continued for some other markets. Some of the later Japan-only models boasted as much as 206 kW. And, of course, it became a favourite with tuners all over the world.
Production finally ended in 2002 with a total of 811 634 produced from 1978. The RX-7 spirit lived on, for a while, with the RX-8, which followed in 2003, and by laying the foundation for many engineering innovations to come. Among these were hydrogen-powered rotary Mazdas like the RX-8 Hydrogen RE, which ran on either H2 or petrol, and the Mazda Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid, an MPV featuring an electric drive motor and a dual-fuel rotary. Later, the company developed a prototype Mazda2 EV with a small single-rotor engine used as a range extender. A similar system could find its way into the production Mazda MX-30, a brand new battery electric crossover SUV arriving at on some markets later this year.
So, in many ways, the vehicle that perhaps best embodies Mazda’s dedication to the unconventional, the RX-7, continues to influence designers and engineers working on the Mazdas of tomorrow. Will there be another RX-7? We wouldn't bet against it...