The oil crisis of the 1970s frowned heavily on Mazda’s gas-guzzling rotary engines. Under constant development since licensure from NSU in 1961, the enormously expensive rotary-engine program had placed Mazda on the brink of financial ruin. The future looked bleak when Mazda’s largest creditor, Sumitomo Bank, inserted its own corporate leadership in 1977.

Then, a forceful directive came down from the new management team. To save the company, Mazda would abandon rotary power in favor of producing conventional piston-driven automobiles. Except, not quite. In a surprising move, management decided to place one last wager on rotary, offering this type of powerplant exclusively in an all-new sports car. In the end, Mazda’s desperation gamble paid off big-time. So much so that the first-generation RX-7 was the best-selling Japanese sports car of its day. More than 800,000 RX-7s across three generations filled garages worldwide between 1978 and 2002.

A rotary revolution

Introduced in Japan in March 1978 as a 2+2, Mazda’s hot new ride debuted as the Savanna RX-7. At its U.S. launch in the fall of ’78, it was strictly a 2-seater, and the car was known simply as RX-7. The first-gen offerings from 1978 to ’85 were the most commercially successful, with sales totaling just over 470,000 units across three iterations, accounting for nearly 60% of total RX-7 sales.

The silhouette of the RX-7 was unmistakably inspired by the Porsche 924, Mazda’s principal competitive target. Whereas Mazda’s legendary designer Matasaburo Maeda had final approval, some assert that Design Works of Southern California was responsible for the overall shape and styling. The compact nature of the rotary engine facilitated an aggressively sloping nose, while the airy greenhouse, flip-up headlights and robust B-pillar all contributed a unique appearance.

While the RX-7 was envisioned as an entirely new sports car, the reality of time and money dictated that an existing Mazda rotary engine be used. The 1,146-cc, twin-rotor 12A engine that had powered the company’s previous RX-2 and RX-3 coupes was selected, and Mazda challenged its engineers to reduce fuel consumption by one-third while increasing power. The effort yielded a very capable 100-hp engine fed through a single 4-barrel carburetor. A 4-speed manual transmission was standard, although a 5-speed manual and 3-speed automatic were also available.

Suspension was advanced for the time, with MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar up front. Four trailing links, a lateral Watts linkage and an available stabilizer bar located the rear axle. The pocket-sized 12A engine resulted in a low center of gravity and near-perfect distribution of the car’s 2,385 pounds. Stopping power was provided by front discs and rear drums.

The overall package was quick, light, and nimble, with the smooth-revving rotary happily spinning up to its 7,000-rpm redline. The driving position was excellent, and the interior was simple yet purposeful, with a large center-mounted tachometer. This was a sports car that made even an average driver feel confident behind the wheel, though advanced drivers could revel in the RX-7’s easily controllable oversteer. At around half the price of Porsche’s 924, the Series 1 RX-7 (factory designation SA22C) was an instant sensation, finding more than 200,000 enthusiastic customers.

Subtle refinement

The Series 2 RX-7 was released in 1981 and furthered the sporting nature of the original design. The 12A rotary engine was little changed but had 40 pounds less curb weight to propel. Aesthetic changes included wrap-around taillights, better-integrated body-colored impact bumpers and air dam, and a revised dashboard. In addition, a 5-speed manual transmission was now standard.

The all-new GSL model came equipped with previously unavailable amenities such as a sunroof, power windows, cruise control, a rear hatch wiper and washer, uprated seats and upholstery, a premium audio system, rear disc brakes, and a limited-slip differential. At the time the Series 2 RX-7 was introduced, North American regulations required a 17-digit VIN code. These regs resulted in a designation of FB for all Series 2 and 3 examples sold in North America while the rest of the world (except for the U.K., which duplicated North America’s coding) retained the SA22C designation.

13B for Series 3

The Series 3 RX-7 was available for the 1984 and 1985 model years. The new car included a slightly restyled nose and another dashboard redesign, but the big news was the all-new 13B engine. Progressively developed versions of this twin-rotor engine would ultimately power all second- and third-generation RX-7s worldwide, but for 1984 and 1985, it was only available as part of the top GSL-SE trim level.

The Series 3 13B engine displaced 1,308 cc, and equipped with six-port induction and fuel injection, developed 135 hp while delivering 29 mpg on the highway. The GSL-SE package included the aforementioned GSL luxuries, plus a bigger oil cooler, a larger-diameter flywheel and clutch, a 4.10 final-drive rear end, larger brake rotors and new alloy wheels with a revised bolt pattern. The 12A engine continued to power all other Series 3 models worldwide, including the Japanese-market turbocharged GTX.

Special care required

The 12A and 13B engines benefited from many years of development. When the Series 1 RX-7s hit showroom floors, the engines were quite good, with more robust rotor seals than earlier RX models. However, abused or simply worn-out engines require specialist rebuilds (no calling Mr. Goodwrench). Best to have one of these specialists inspect any potential purchase. Some essential parts, such as 12A rotors, are no longer available new, and serviceable used items are getting harder to find.

The JDM models, such as the Series 3 GTX, were exotic forbidden fruit in the U.S. when new. Potential buyers of Japanese-market cars should understand that many components were unique to these models, and sourcing parts will likely be an unfulfilling journey.

The all-steel body of the RX-7 was no better or worse than its competitors when it comes to corrosion. As the earliest cars are now more than 40 years old, careful rust inspection is recommended. Common areas of trouble include the rear hatch drains, wheelwells, lower taillights, and the lower screw holes of the Series 1 front grille. 

An immature market

The market is just beginning to treat the RX-7 as a collectible. Unlike well-established segments of the hobby, there is no accepted hierarchy for the first-generation cars. The Series 3 GSL-SE could be considered an obvious high point, but thus far the market has not entirely embraced this concept. Rather, first-generation RX-7s of all series sell more on condition, color and mileage than sub-model, package or powerplant.

Today, very good examples of first-generation RX-7s are fetching $15,000 to $35,000. Yes, a wide price range, and almost certainly the result of an immature market still trying to sort itself out.

If you’re an early-RX-7 fan, the time to start shopping is now. Yes, Mazda produced these machines in large quantities, but righteous examples are getting harder to find. Buy the best you can at the top of today’s market and never look back. If not now, when? ♦


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