Take a trip back to the later part of the 1970s, and you’ll find an American auto market in transition. The muscle car era was over and Detroit’s vehicles of the day were lackluster, at best. At the same time, Japanese automakers had already established a beachhead here with cars like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
Plus, vehicles such as the Datsun 240Z (which first came to the U.S. in 1970) proved there was a demand for lighter-weight sports cars that didn’t need an eight-cylinder engine. And while Mazda had already begun selling cars in the U.S. since 1970, its vehicles mainly were unremarkable. Yes, the R100 couple was the first rotary-powered car sold in America, but it wasn’t enough to attract much attention.
Seeking to stand out at home in Japan and the U.S., Mazda risked the company by creating the RX-7 coupe. At the heart of this innovative sports car was the controversial rotary engine conceived by German engineer Felix Wankel at the tender age of 17.
Born in 1902, Wankel reportedly envisioned a more compact internal combustion engine while still in school. But despite years of self-directed research, the first test unit wouldn’t see daylight until 1957, when Wankel was working for NSU, a German motorcycle company.
The Wankel rotary relies on an internal rotating design rather than using the reciprocating pistons of a conventional power plant. Compared to larger piston-driven engines, a rotary power plant uses less fuel, produces more relative torque and less vibration, and weighs less. These characteristics, plus its smaller size, seemingly made the rotary engine ideal for the smaller vehicles of Europe and Japan.
But embracing the rotary engine almost put two companies out of business. NSU’s efforts were disastrous, resulting in Volkswagen purchasing the company’s remnants in 1969 and later merging it with Auto Union to form Audi. French automaker Citroën also gave the Wankel a go with near-similar results.
Yet, Mazda was undeterred by the other companies’ failures and used a rotary engine in various cars from the 1970s, including its flagship Cosmo sedan and sporty RX-3 coupe. However, Mazda realized coupes and sedans, no matter how competent, would always leave the small company in the shadow of its larger Japanese competitors.
Sensing that Japan, the U.S., and other markets were ripe for an affordable sports car, Mazda went to work developing the RX-7. Using vehicles like the Lotus Elan and Jaguar XKE for inspiration, Mazda sought to replicate the successful formula of a robust engine in a small and sharply styled body. And despite the dubious reputation of Wankel rotary, Mazda was confident that the small but mighty engine was perfectly matched to its goals for the RX-7. By 1978, the modest automaker from Hiroshima was ready to unleash its masterpiece creation onto the automotive world.
The 1978 debut of the Mazda RX-7 shook up the marketplace for several reasons. A cutting-edge design broke the mold of Mazda’s mostly vanilla cars. The rakish front-end was possible thanks to the small profile of the rotary engine, and the pop-up headlights were an element usually associated with pricier vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvette. A $7,000 starting price put the RX-7 above Mustangs and Camaros of the day, but it was substantially less the Datsun 280Z.
Most importantly, the RX-7 offered spirited performance thanks to a perfect 50:50 weight distribution. The 100-horsepower rotary powerplant is weak by today’s standards, but the car’s notable sub-2,500-pound weight compensated for modest engine output. Keep in mind that the 1978 Mustang cranked out 134 horsepower via a 302 cubic-inch (5.0 liter) V-8 (a displacement four times larger than the RX-7’s 1.1-liter engine).
The first RX-7 could hit a 120 mph top-speed and reach 60 mph from a standstill in 9.2 seconds. In comparison, a V-8 equipped Mustang required more than 11 seconds to achieve the same feat and maxed out at a 110 mph top speed. RX-7 buyers could choose from either a four- or five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission.
Mazda refreshed the car in 1981 with re-styled bumpers and a new rear-end. 1984 saw a completely reworked interior and the introduction of a larger 1.3-liter rotary engine offering 135 horsepower.
To better compete with the Nissan 300ZX and Toyota Supra, Mazda introduced an all-new RX-7 for the 1986 model year. The car was larger and heavier than its predecessor, but this was offset by an improved rotary engine setup with the carryover 1.3-liter powerplant now producing 146 horsepower.
More advanced components like electric power steering and an available adaptive suspension brought new levels of sophistication to the RX-7. And Mazda was rewarded for its efforts with the 1986 model getting the nod from MotorTrend for import car of the year. Yet, as they say in the late-night infomercials, “But wait, there’s more.”
A turbocharged version was introduced in 1987 with 182 horsepower and the ability to reach 60 mph from a standstill in under seven seconds. A convertible RX-7 arrived in 1988 with upscale features like a power soft-top and heated rear glass. An innovative rigid panel was used behind the passengers to limit air disturbance in top-down mode, making the convertible cozy even during winter driving.
A 10th Anniversary Edition RX-7 was also introduced in 1998. Featuring the potent turbo engine, the car came exclusively in a Crystal White exterior with white alloy wheels. A contrasting black interior included an exclusive Momo steering wheel. A limited-run GTU variant was produced from 1989 to 1990, emphasizing performance over comfort. Weight-hogging items like power windows were removed while more sophisticated brakes and steering refined the car’s handling. The GTUs still used the naturally-aspirated 1.3-liter Wankel engine.
Mazda continued to face pressure from Nissan and Toyota, and added competition from the Mitsubishi 3000GT (and its corporate twin, the Dodge Stealth) didn’t help matters. As a result, the third-generation RX-7 was more about staying relevant against rivals than relying on its past. The last RX-7 was larger and more powerful than any production sports car produced by Mazda.
Only one powerplant was offered, the trusty 1.3-liter rotary engine but this time accompanied by a twin turbocharger. Depending on the year, output ranged from 252 to 276 horsepower. And while weight crept up to 2,800 pounds, the RX-7 could do 0-60 mph in under five seconds. The power was well-managed thanks to a sophisticated suspension and improved body strength. Once again, the RX-7 grabbed MotorTrend’s import car of the award for 1993.
The U.S. version of the final RX-7 came in three trims: a base model, an R variant that included upgraded aerodynamics, and the top-line Touring. Premium features like automatic transmission, a sunroof, a Bose sound system, and leather seating enabled the RX-7 Touring to stand toe-to-toe with its Japanese and German competition.
Japanese automakers have produced many memorable sports cars. Read these other interesting stories from our blog, including Nissan GT-R: A JDM Car In America and 10 JDM Things To Know About The Legendary Nissan Skyline and Skyline GT-R. What’s your dream car? Let us know, and maybe we’ll write a story about it.
Posted Saturday, February 12, 2022