With its extraordinary engine and svelte, modern looks, the first generation Mazda RX-7 was very much a vision of the future – but does it still stack up today? Nick Larkin finds out…
Mazda cleverly marketed its groundbreaking rotary-engined RX-7 as The Orient Express, but in many respects it was more like a Japanese bullet train. Nothing compares to this car in terms of driving and maintaining. But will any thoughts of RX-7 owners coming off the rails be banished when we put Mazda’s own stunning 1983 example to the test?
With one or two notable exceptions, styling was not always the best feature of many early 1980s Japanese cars, but today the neat-looking RX-7 looks very much like it has stood the test of time extremely well. There are elements of Lotus in its styling, together with bits of Porsche 924, Triumph TR7 and even Datsun 240Z thrown into the cocktail. Beguiling details abound, from the red strip running through the middle of the bumpers and side mouldings, to a rear window that looks like a jet fighter canopy, a rear spoiler that’s genuinely useful rather than just a styling touch – and, of course, those all-important and very 1980s pop-up headlamps.
To be honest though, the styling becomes about as relevant to the driver as the Hemyock milk train would be to a London commuter once you get it out on to the road. The main reason for this lurks beneath the bonnet – Mazda’s ground-breaking compact rotary engine. We spent half an hour just gawping at it, amazed that it comprises just three moving parts. But if it looks unusual, that’s nothing compared to the driving experience.
Before that though, a moment of nostalgia. Opening the driver’s door reveals a world of wild 1980s car cabin design. There appear to be varying autumnal shades of reddy brown everywhere, along with a mixture of boudoir and kitchen work surfaces, a glorious fusion of plastic and Draylon-style materials and carpet on the doors as well as the floor. We love it. The vast dashboard brings to mind a Vauxhall Cavalier MkI and the centre console seems to contain more electric window switches than there are actual windows.
Turn the key and the sound that results is like nothing else – a sort of subdued yowl overlaid with a throbbing bassline. You’ve barely enough time to register this before a seemingly endless array of warning lights flash on then off again, almost as if to say, ‘we’re here’. It’s reassuring, if a little bemusing.
Into first gear, and it’s as though the car is being pushed hard by some hidden force – everything seems so smooth and majestically unruffled. The driving position and all-round visibility are superb and the instruments are clearly visible. The most important of these is the rev counter – once it’s warmed up, this car doesn’t mind revving hard and pulls cleanly all the way to a dizzying 6800rpm. At this point a buzzer politely interjects to warn you to change up a gear, or else face the prospect of handing over the contents of your wallet to your nearest rotary engine specialist.
Into the surprisingly tall fifth gear and you’re almost wafting along, now. The engine sound at speed is subtly different – a mixture of howling Ferrari and rumbling Mopar V8.
The compact nature of the 1146cc carb-fed rotary engine allowed Mazda’s engineers to mount it further back towards the passenger compartment than they would have been able to in a normal car. The result is a near-perfect 51:49 weight distribution front to rear, which in turn leads to beautifully balanced handling – impressive, given that the suspension is a relatively traditional MacPherson strut/ live axle setup. It feels solid rather than inherently chuckable thanks to brakes that are good if not exactly world-changing, and recirculating ball steering that feels just a little notchy.
However, these foibles are not enough to detract in the slightest from what is a truly astonishing driving experience.
Pop-up headlights… with a twist – you can raise each one independently. But why would you? Nick awash in a sea of autumnal colours, probably with The Human League on the stereo. The driving position is excellent. FIVE CLASSIC TRIALS MAZDA RX-7