Third Time Plucky

A rare Mazda RX-3 Coupé drive re­veals Mazda’s Seven­ties plans to bring ro­tary power to the masses. So what went wrong?

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words Joe breeze Pho­tog­ra­phy Mazda UK

The prom­i­nent grille sep­a­rat­ing a pair of twin head­lamps. The chrome fes­toon­ery. The body sides bil­low­ing out from an in­tro­vert wheel­base. From a dis­tance it could be mis­taken for a trun­cated Gran Torino, but this is Mazda’s mid-seven­ties at­tempt to bring ro­tary power to the global masses – the RX-3.

Stylis­ti­cally dis­tanc­ing it­self from the in­ter­ga­lac­tic Cosmo and Ital­ianate Luce, the RX-3 is tinged with de­sign Amer­i­cana; a year be­fore its re­lease, Mazda had for­mally es­tab­lished its Amer­i­can en­tity and in­tended to take on heavy, lazy V8s with com­pact, value-for-dis­place­ment Wankel en­gines. For­go­ing model-name logic, the RX-3 ul­ti­mately re­placed the for­get­table R100 and sat be­low the larger RX-2 in its ro­tary range. But Amer­ica wasn’t the only re­cip­i­ent of the new coupé/saloon/es­tate trio – as well as be­ing sold back home in Ja­pan as the Sa­vanna, the RX-3 was also pitched to Euro­peans as an op­po­nent for the Toy­ota Corolla and Dat­sun Sunny 120Y, and per­haps more am­bi­tiously, the Ford Es­cort and VW Golf.

The do­mes­tic un­fa­mil­iar­ity it has to­day sum­marises how well that went. De­spite 286,685 RX-3S of all flavours be­ing sold glob­ally, they re­mained the lefter-than-left-field choice in the UK. And that’s why this shim­mer­ing teal coupé is thought to be one of only five re­main­ing road­wor­thy ex­am­ples in the en­tire coun­try.

More in­ti­mate ex­am­i­na­tion re­veals hub-capped wheels, badges car­ry­ing Amer­i­can buzz­words like ‘Su­per Deluxe’, and even more chrome, ap­plied with abun­dance around the rear light clus­ters. Open the door – whose aper­ture is pil­lared, dis­ap­point­ingly – and drop down onto the spongy seat up­hol­stered in vinyl, Seven­ties Ja­pan’s go-to leather al­ter­na­tive. Di­rectly ahead are a 130mph speedo and a 8000rpm tacho set deep into their own bin­na­cles. Beyond the for­ward-lean­ing dash­board, mag­pie eyes find high­lights such as the spoked air vents, and the ‘Ro­tary Engine’ in­signia ac­com­pa­nied by rounded-tri­an­gle ro­tor logo ahead of the eight-ball gear­knob. It’s here that this car’s owner, Mazda UK’S her­itage depart­ment, re­veals some orig­i­nal­ity caveats. The shift-knob is non-orig­i­nal, but more im­por­tantly this ex­am­ple has been fit­ted with a 1146cc 12A Wankel in place of its orig­i­nal 982cc 10A unit. It also ex­hales through a straight-through ex­haust. So one of the ro­tary’s head­line fea­tures in pe­riod, its rel­a­tive quiet­ness, has made way for po­ten­tial tin­ni­tus.

This de­vi­a­tion from orig­i­nal­ity is eas­ily for­given. As the ‘Seven­ties Maz­das’ pack of Top Trumps strate­gi­cally placed in the arm­rest cubby re­veals, a 12A-tot­ing RX-3 was of­fered in most other mar­kets; it was the stan­dard op­tion in Ja­pan and the US. It was also the ba­sis for the nu­mer­ous RX-3S en­tered in var­i­ous cham­pi­onships in the USA (IMSA/SCCA), Ja­pan (JTCC) and Europe (ETCC, BSCC, Pro­duc­tion Sa­loons). To­day, the much-rarer 10A sur­vivors are in­vari­ably com­man­deered by Cosmo col­lec­tors to re­store their ro­tary rar­i­ties to orig­i­nal spec. The by-prod­uct is that to­day’s test car is less a model rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a Uk-spec RX-3, but more a taste of what one per­haps should have been. If the road-go­ing RX-3 was orig­i­nally of­fered on th­ese shores in 12A spec, more might have sold. And per­haps the rev­er­en­tial tones in which Golf Mkis and Es­corts are dis­cussed to­day might have extended to the Mazda?

Prime the jets, fire the engine and I’m met by a bari­tone thrum that set­tles into throbby bar­rage of bass, the kind ex­pe­ri­enced more pal­pa­bly through gut than eardrum. Lay on a few throt­tle blips and the ex­haust’s vo­cal up­surge is matched by the whine of the twin ro­tors and the nasal snarl of the sin­gle We­ber 48 IDA car­bu­ret­tor (the orig­i­nal 10A would have em­ployed a Stromberg four-choke). Ad­just­ing my rear-view mir­ror I clock the odd wisp of ex­haust smoke, a sta­ple of the ro­tary warm-up se­quence. Af­ter a few min­utes ap­pre­ci­at­ing the bass-mid-tre­ble reper­toire of this RX-3’S remixed theme song, the rec­tan­gu­lar sec­ondary in­stru­ments in the cen­tre of the dash tell me the flu­ids are warm and we’re ready to roll. Well, ro­tate, to be more ap­pro­pri­ate.

Plenty of revs are needed to pull away cleanly, an early in­di­ca­tion of the 12A’s di­etary re­quire­ments. Town driv­ing ex­plores the full reaches of the re­cir­cu­lat­ing-ball steer­ing, which is rel­a­tively quick for its age at 3.5 turns lock-to-lock – same as a BMW 2002 Turbo – but a rather wide win­dow of play at 12 o’clock is in­stantly no­tice­able. Dis­con­cert­ingly, that win­dow fails to close

‘Plenty of revs are needed to pull away cleanly, an early in­di­ca­tion of the RX-3’S di­etary re­quire­ments‘

with ei­ther ad­di­tional lock or speed as I leave town and the roads open out, but the mo­tor’s de­viant con­certo and in­her­ent will­ing­ness to rev urges me to push on nev­er­the­less.

With only three mov­ing parts and no wasted en­ergy driv­ing valveg­ear, the ro­tary’s free-spin­ning na­ture gives the im­pres­sion that the tacho nee­dle has a near-mag­netic at­tac­tion to the red­line rather than its rest notch. But the RX-3’S ea­ger­ness paints it into a cor­ner of its own mak­ing. Not only does wring­ing it out cause fuel econ­omy to drop fur­ther from an al­ready un­re­mark­able 20mpg, it also ac­cel­er­ates wear on the strained ro­tor seals – the eter­nal ro­tary Achilles heel.

The quirks of the RX-3’S DNA run beyond its un­con­ven­tional engine. The car’s over­all pro­por­tions are wide in com­pact-car terms, which aids sta­bil­ity. Yet the wheel­base is short, giv­ing it not only an oddly trun­cated ap­pear­ance but twitchy han­dling. The fast­back rear end is sus­pended by leaf springs – a cost-cutting relic jus­ti­fied by the model be­ing pre­dom­i­nantly pitched at the States – al­beit with a stag­gered damper ar­range­ment. Plac­ing one ahead of the live axle and one be­hind, this was an old pony-car trick to counter axle tramp and wheel hop, but the rudi­men­tary na­ture of this setup is soon ex­posed as soon as I start to push the RX-3’S lim­its. It’s a softly-sprung car with medi­ocre damp­ing, and a per­pet­ual re­luc­tance to find a cor­ner­ing at­ti­tude and set­tle into it.

Com­bined with the vague steer­ing and the engine’s in­her­ent re­spon­sive­ness to the mer­est throt­tle poke or lift, the Mazda never finds a state of equi­lib­rium through fast sweep­ers, de­mand­ing un­nerv­ingly large steer­ing cor­rec­tions to main­tain a con­stant ra­dius. It’s here that the RX-3 loses touch with Es­corts and Golfs; mur­murs of ob­jec­tion from the ro­tary faith­ful would eas­ily be si­lenced by fans of the Euro­pean al­ter­na­tives. My con­fi­dence in the Mazda is hardly restored by the fee­ble grip of the seats, nor the up­per mount of the seat­belt be­ing lo­cated so far up the A-pil­lar that the belt runs down be­hind my right ear and across my jugu­lar. But while the jour­ney to the limit isn’t a par­tic­u­larly re­as­sur­ing one, ven­tur­ing beyond it isn’t the cliff edge I’m ex­pect­ing. When the skinny tyres re­lin­quish grip, they hand me the ba­ton of bring­ing it back into line in an am­i­ca­ble man­ner, and their tall side­walls have enough flex for me to en­joy hold­ing the tail out be­fore col­lect­ing it back up again. De­spite the throt­tle’s re­spon­sive­ness, the lack of engine brak­ing means I’m never thrown into un­ex­pected lift-off over­steer ei­ther. The flip­side is more re­liance on phys­i­cal brak­ing to knock off speed, and the mid­dle pedal can feel some­what dead and lack­ing in pro­gres­sion. How­ever, the prox­im­ity to its footwell flat­mates is well-judged and com­bined with the floor-hinged ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal, heel-and-toe work is easy.

‘It’s not just enough to build a bet­ter engine,’ stated pe­riod Mazda mar­ket­ing lit­er­a­ture. ‘We had to sit down and build a bet­ter car around it.’

It seems there must have been some loose wiring be­tween the mar­ket­ing and en­gi­neer­ing de­part­ments. Not only was the RX-3 also sold in tra­di­tional pis­ton-pow­ered form as the Mazda 818; its ro­tary engine was in­stalled in a thor­oughly con­ven­tional chas­sis. This

‘The tacho nee­dle has a near-mag­netic at­tac­tion to the 8000rpm red­line’

wasn’t men­tioned in the vaguely hu­mor­ous RX-3 ad­ver­to­rial in the June 1974 is­sue of CAR mag­a­zine. It told the short sto­ries of six opin­ion­ated RX-3 stake­hold­ers, from Mazda dealer, ‘The only prob­lem is all th­ese or­di­nary mo­tors I have to take in part ex­change’ to garage ser­vice man­ager, ‘I’ll never get rich re­pair­ing Maz­das – 24-month engine guar­an­tee, 4000-mile ser­vice in­ter­vals...’ to ri­val sports car owner, ‘I’m sick of lit­tle Ja­pa­nese coupés beat­ing my brand-new MGB away from the lights. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could hear them com­ing...’

What the ad­ver­to­rial did men­tion, in its head­line in fact, was that the ro­tor car was very much ‘love it or hate it’. It seemed the lat­ter parish had more church­go­ers than the for­mer, in the UK at least, be­cause in 1975 the RX-3 was with­drawn early from sale on th­ese shores. In truth this prob­a­bly had more to do with an in­tol­er­ance for the ro­tary’s thirsty habits in the midst of a global oil cri­sis rather than ab­ject ha­tred, but the out­come was the same.

Now the Mazda has moved into rar­i­fied-clas­sic ter­ri­tory, its pe­riod short­com­ings are largely ir­rel­e­vant. Low an­nual mileages offset thirsti­ness, and ro­tary grem­lins are bet­ter un­der­stood by spe­cial­ists. The RX-3 might have been over-en­gined and un­der­de­vel­oped, but be­ing a jack of one trade and master of none is no bad thing to­day – clas­sics with a sin­gle char­ac­ter-defin­ing el­e­ment are prefer­able to all-round mun­dan­ity. Whether we’re as will­ing to for­give Amer­i­can-in­flu­enced chintz is an­other ques­tion.

Fast sweep­ers de­mand con­stant steer­ing cor­rec­tions

Orange hands rem­i­nis­cent of Seven­ties watches

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