There are three significant things about the original, 1984-1985 Mazda RX-7. First, to the delight of enthusiasts everywhere, it revived the affordable sports car after the bloating of Datsun’s 240Z. Second, it kept the rotary engine alive. Last and definitely not least, it was flat terrific.
Having made the rotary reliable -- something Dr. Felix Wankel and his cohorts at NSU couldn’t do -- Mazda nearly went under during the first gas crisis by selling it in ordinary economy sedans. The rotary was more powerful than piston engines of similar displacement, but wasn’t as fuel-efficient. Then Kenichi Yamamoto, the rotary’s patron saint at Mazda, championed the rev-happy hummer as perfect for a reasonably priced sports car. Project X605 began in 1974, was completed by late ’76, and went on sale in 1978 as the RX-7.
This was a conventional but thoroughly modern unibody hatchback coupe, with coil suspension and a live-rear-axle, recirculating-ball steering, and front-disc/rear-drum brakes. Styling mixed elements of several contemporary cars without looking like any one of them. The engine, of course, was what really made it special.
Breathing through a single four-barrel carb, Mazda’s twin-rotor 12A Wankel spun 100 hp from just 1.1 liters. It was small enough to fit behind the front-wheel centerline and made for a finely balanced "front/mid-engine" design. Zero-60 mph came in 9.7 seconds, and top speed was 118. Zesty, nimble, and solidly built, the Mazda RX-7 was a sensational value at just $6995. It was a racer to be reckoned with, as well, dominating its IMSA classes and even challenging Corvettes and Porsches in theirs. Road & Track rightly declared it "an enthusiast’s dream come true."
It wasn’t perfect, certainly. The ride was a bit stiff, the cabin cramped for larger folks, and cornering got tail-happy on bumpy or wet surfaces. But the RX-7 was a hot seller from day one.
In 1981, the S and GS models were joined by the GSL; it had rear discs, a limited-slip diff, alloys, and power windows. Capping generation one was the GSL-SE, which bowed for 1984 and reeled 135 hp from its larger, fuel-injected 13B rotary while adding Pirelli P6s, larger brakes, and upgraded suspension.
Unfortunately, currency fluctuations had pushed Mazda RX-7 prices as high as $15,295 by then. The only consolation was that most rivals cost a lot more, and precious few could lay claim to being a minor classic.