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Our Classics: 1994 Mazda RX-7

by Antony Ingram
20 July 2021 6 min read
Our Classics: 1994 Mazda RX-7
1994 Mazda RX-7 Photos: Antony Ingram/HME Rotary

At the wheel: Antony Ingram
Owned since: November 2020
Current condition: Remarkably original
Hands-on or hands-off? Mostly off – rotaries are best left to the professionals

Antony Ingram is Assistant Editor at Hagerty. He was once given a Toyota Paseo for free, but soon came to appreciate that the best things in life aren’t free, and promptly bought the Mazda RX-7 you see here.

4 February, 2021: Joining the rotary club

What the classic car market giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other. Like most I’ve grown up surrounded by cars, waiting patiently for the moment a dream car from childhood would depreciate enough to perfectly intersect with my budget at a given stage in life.

It was tantalising watching the values fall, seeing Honda NSXs pop up for £15,000 and Renault Sport Clio V6s dip lower than you’d pay for a half-decent Clio Trophy these days. Then, they began climbing again, just as reality began to dawn: I wasn’t even close to having enough disposable income to buy one, let alone enough to then maintain the car after purchase. Values and budget never intersected; one curve merely followed the other; frustration grew.

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Soon there was just one car left: one last Japanese icon from the “bubble era” that seemed achievable, a car that could hold its own with NSXs and Nissan Skylines – the Mazda RX-7. But even that was rising in value, as enthusiasts clamoured for the remaining examples.

I’ve had a fondness for Mazdas since owning my first MX-5 back in 2009. That was a car I bought mostly because it was an inexpensive way into something rear-wheel drive and had double the power of the Fiesta it was replacing.

Its Mazda RX-7 big brother though had always been out of reach – a car that, in 2021 money, cost around £70,000 new, and was never something that could be run, like the MX-5, on a relative shoestring. Moreover, most examples that cropped up for sale were (usually tastelessly) modified. Given the “FD” RX-7’s needy reputation – it turns out sequentially-turbocharged rotary engines require plenty of maintenance, who knew? – taking on someone else’s project, however affordable, seemed wholly unwise.

I’d kept a beady eye on values then, assuming that like every other car on “the list” it would soon become unattainable. What I did not expect was a car to fall basically into my lap when I’d all but lost hope.

In one of the rare breaks between 2020 lockdowns I’d flown to Germany for a Mazda 100th anniversary event, at which several of the company’s past masters were available to drive. A red 1994 Mazda RX-7 was on the list, one of Mazda UK’s collection, though having driven it at a previous event I concentrated on other cars – a rare 929 coupe, a 10th Anniversary MX-5, a second-generation RX-7 convertible.

1994 Mazda RX-7

Then I caught wind of a rumour that one of the cars was for sale. My ears pricked up: Cars as original as those in manufacturer heritage fleets are rare on the open market, making them canny buys. I’d assumed that it would be one of the MX-5s (having sold my last one a few years ago, I was already itching for another), or perhaps the V6-engined MX-3 I’d actually tried to buy three or four years previous. A quick chat with the right person at Mazda revealed it was actually the red RX-7 – and the suggested price was one I genuinely couldn’t refuse. I offered to buy it on the spot.

I’ll admit to some nerves when finally arranging to pick the car up, last December. These cars do have a capital-R “Reputation”, and a preliminary test drive had revealed a few things that need attention – things, I’d add, that were reflected in the asking price. The car appears to be bypassing the second turbocharger, with little extra power apparent over 4500rpm, so that’s probably job number one. At least parts should be easy to come by.

But broadly, it drives as cleanly as its blissfully standard appearance would infer and, for the first time, my garage is occupied by a genuine dream car. Now I just need my budget to intersect with its thirst for fuel and oil. If you own an RX-7, or indeed any rotary, do share your experiences in the comments, below.

12 April, 2021: Charging around

1994 Mazda RX-7

I knew what I was getting into when I bought an RX-7, but when the clouds finally dispersed long enough for dry, salt-free roads late in February, it was nevertheless still disappointing to excitedly turn the key to the sound of… absolutely nothing at all. Nada. Not even the click of a starter solenoid drawing those final few electrons.

It was of course a flat battery. The last time I’d driven the car was on New Year’s Day, and in a fit of optimism I’d avoided disconnecting the battery assuming that, at some point over the course of early 2021, there’d be a clear, dry weekend on which to give the car a lockdown-friendly but vital fluid-circulating spin.

The Mazda had lulled me into a false sense of security though, because each time I’d popped into the garage – a spot of cleaning here, some idle staring at Hiroshima’s bubble-era beauty there – the immobiliser light had been glinting brightly from the interior, suggesting all was well.

This isn’t my first rodeo though and I’ve had a battery charger and conditioner lying around the garage for years, ready to dispense the elixir of carefully-managed electricity to large, useless lumps of lead-acid. It took a couple of days to bring it back from the brink and then I let it run a top-up programme until the following weekend. A blinking green light signalled success.

1994 Mazda RX-7

And wouldn’t you know it, the immobiliser deactivated, the car started up, and the only sign something was amiss was the string of zeroes on the trip computer. A celebratory but unspectacular drive followed just to check everything was A-okay, along with a distressingly expensive top-up of the 76-litre tank.

With the weather picking up I’ve been able to go for a few more drives since. It’ll take a trackday or a good drive on roads more spectacular than Northamptonshire can offer to really get under its skin, but I feel like I’m beginning to peel back the RX-7’s layers.

It’s capable in the corners for a start; tiny dimensions (it’s smaller in length, width and height than a 987 Porsche Cayman), modest weight (1310kg, says the brochure, so also lighter than a Cayman) and fairly meaty tyres (225 section on 16-inch wheels) seem to bond it to the road in a way I’ve not experienced in cars of a similar vintage.

The control weights are spot-on too and the smoothness of that engine – even though it needs some attention to deliver its full output (more on that at a later date) – give it a feeling of integrity that’s unexpected given the reputation of rotary cars for being a bit flaky. I’m often wary of driving hero cars, let alone owning them, but so far the RX-7 is more than living up to expectations. When the battery isn’t flat, anyway.

20 July, 2021: No, it didn’t blow up

1994 Mazda RX-7
There’s something missing here… Photo: HME Rotary

I now own two cars with which I feel the need to qualify their existence upon introduction. The first was my Toyota Paseo daily driver, perhaps the most unexceptional of the 1990s coupe offerings. Its unloved status, plus its slightly rough condition with peeling lacquer and a now quite rusty dent in one door, means I feel obliged to introduce its presence in my life with “I got it for free”.

The Mazda though needs its own qualifier as, for the past month, the car has undergone an engine rebuild. I knew it was coming, you probably knew it was coming, but it’s what you might call a preventative measure.

A compression test back in May suggested the infamous rotor tip seals weren’t long for this world. Since I’d budgeted for this kind of work when buying the car – despite my excitement, I did go into this purchase with eyes wide open – I figured there was no time like the present and booked the car in to HME Rotary in Coventry for the job that all rotary-engined cars will one day undergo.

It was a job even finding a specialist who’d work on an RX-7, with most concentrating on the more affordable and much more numerous RX-8, but HME stood out for its long experience with Wankel engines, stretching back to the 1970s. Given the company has tackled everything from the expected RX-7s to the vanishingly rare Citroën GS Bitrotor and Suzuki RE-5 motorcycle, Mick Hurley and his team seemed like a safe bet.

Along with the rebuild, it’d be a chance to investigate and perhaps solve some of the other issues I’d experienced in recent months, such as a lack of boost at high revs, some stuttering under load, and most recently, an increasingly recalcitrant starter motor.

With the engine out of the car and on the bench, Hurley quickly identified some of the issues. Thankfully, the turbos themselves appear to be fine – the car only ever smoked a little at idle, so I figured as much – and the boost issues seem instead to have been a result of numerous collapsed, split, crusty or melted pipes in the car’s underbonnet “rat’s nest”.

1994 Mazda RX-7
Several of the worn and broken components replaced as part of the rebuild. Photo: HME Rotary

The coil was effectively toasted too, and that’s been replaced, along with the spark plugs and HT leads. New-old stock starter motors are basically unavailable now – predictably, they’re not shared with any more humdrum Mazda – so a reconditioned one went in instead, while a bunch of other ancillaries and of course new fluids should keep the car operating as it should until the next service.

As I type, the car is currently within the first 500 miles of its running-in period before an oil change, and I’m limited to an excruciatingly low 4000rpm for a thousand miles after that. I’ll reserve judgement on the improvements until the next update then – provided I’ve covered enough miles – but in the meantime, I’ll just have to keep everyone informed that it didn’t actually blow up…

 

RX-7 fan? Bookmark this page as Antony will regularly report on his Mazda RX-7 FD.

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Comments

  • Tom Westmacott says:

    Thanks for sharing the full story of how you found your FD. I’m glad you got one last chance to get a dream car before they all appreciate out of reach!

    Getting both turbos working makes quite a difference; the second wind at 4500rpm makes it properly quick and exciting, while the hugely wide powerband makes nipping past dawdlers a doddle in third. I’ve been to Cadwell, Brands and Bedford in mine and really like the balance and how adjustable it is, so well worth a go once both turbos are working. Hitting the upchange buzzer on the way *down* the box is when you know you’ve got your heel and toe spot-on!

    I bought mine back in 2012, in those innocent days when it was just a temperamental old Japanese car. But I quickly decided this would be my personal pick from the golden era of Japanese performance, because it follows the classic FR recipe that invites the driver to play, but executes it starting from a clean sheet of paper and applying the soaring technical ambition that made the bubble-era cars so special. It’s the lightest and, to me, the best looking of the ‘276hp class’ cars, and co-stars in Initial D alongside the AE86 to boot.

  • Dr. Russell Paul Caterinicchio says:

    I own a 1993 JDM right-hand drive RX-7 now in near-new condition after two years of restoration and reliability modifications. All mechanical restoration work was done personally by Cameron Worth of Pettit Racing/Excellent Performance in West Palm Beach Florida. The interior is all stock and immaculate. New motor with currently just under 2000 miles, having carefully broken it in with no high rpm loads and two oil changes the first 700 miles. Cameron Worth recommends Shell Rotella 15W40 because of its high-zinc anti-shearing and high-heat tolerance properties. I also use premix called ProTek for this new motor. This is my one-day a week weekend drive. I love it.

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Thanks for commenting! Great to hear you’ve also got a great example. Mine’s actually having some big work done at the moment which you’ll be able to read about soon, but it’s good to hear about the running in procedure and your choice of oil and premix – all very useful information. The beauty of starting with a fresh engine is knowing exactly how to treat it from the first mile…

  • Tom Chapman says:

    When I moved to Melbourne from California I was aware of the occasional sighting of what looked like a small Italian car. I had never seen one in San Diego but eventually I found out what they were and began my quest to own one. In 2003 I was offered a chance to buy a red FD just like the one in your article. The car is a 1998 and it came with only 80,000kms on the clock but the engine had been replaced by Mazda at 52,000kms for reasons not explained. I had been advised by my brother in England that these cars had prodigious performance and I was not disappointed. Everything in your articles is true. This car is one of the finest I have ever owned in terms of its overall feel and drive. The brakes and cornering make track use something that you can consider with no major changes. On the road it can propel you from many a dodgy spot with a level of nimbleness that Lotus owners experience. The engine did develop a very strange problem which required a major intervention. One of the oil sprays inside the rotor worked loose and “rattled” around the inside of the rotor. The noise was horrifying but in the end it was easily rectified by Rank Rotary in Melbourne who installed all new seals to the latest spec. Rank also made a new exhaust system that added about 40kw to its output and gave it a beautiful sound. Since then I have replaced the clutch and the air-con condenser. The car remains in daily use and still thrills me. It also has recently become an icon – I regularly get taps on the window and notes in my mail box from folks wanting to buy it. At 80 years old I have to face the fact the sale is on the horizon.

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Amazing story Tom, thanks for sharing. Great hearing about the love for these cars from all over the world.

      With mine still in its running-in period after the rebuild I’m not quite able to enjoy all the performance just yet, but very much looking forward to that day!

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