The oil crisis of the early 1970s nearly put Mazda out of business. The Wankel rotary engine which had been such a success in the Cosmo may have been renowned for its smoothness but certainly wasn’t for its fuel economy.
Although theoretically the company was totally committed to the Wankel, in practice the only way it was going to sell cars during a fuel shortage was by producing conventional piston-engined ones. Plans for a rotary-engined sports car had to be shelved. But they were not entirely jettisoned; as soon as oil started to flow again, Mazda introduced the fabulous RX-7, a car that was so successful it went through three generations and eight series.
The RX-7 was designed to be an affordable sports car, which meant making do with second-best: drum brakes instead of discs; recirculating ball steering rather than the more expensive rack-and-pinion. But, despite this parsimony, the RX-7 became the best-selling rotary-engined car of all time (getting on for half a million of the first generation alone) and in later series the penny-pinching mechanics were rectified.
The FMR layout — a compact, lightweight twin-rotor Wankel front-mounted but set behind the front axle so that the car’s centre of mass was positioned for optimum stability and rear-wheel drive so that the load was balanced — made for exceptionally safe and easy handling. The smoothness of the rotary engine eliminated juddering giving such an effortless glide at high revs that a warning buzzer was fitted at the tachometer’s red line.
People loved the RX-7. Even though it might not have been the fastest sports coupe in the world, it was a really neat car with superb braking and acceleration — just the job for roller-coastering along mountain roads.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1978 (until 2002)
1,146 cc Rotary (Wankel 12A)
Top speed of 125 mph (201 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 9.2 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The RX-7 won a place in the ‘ten best’ list of Car and Driver magazine five times.