RX-7 Regularity Rally


Is a Mazda RX-7 really the best car for an event based on reliability?

Think rotary engine, and it is more than likely the Mazda name that first springs to mind. While several models in its history utilised such engines, it is the RX-7 that enjoys the most famous relationship.

The first-generation car made its debut in 1978 and is often referred to as many things, the FB or SA22C, which comes from the first alphanumerics of the VIN plates. Its compact design and low centre of gravity, thanks to the placement of the rotary engine behind the front axle, provide all the right ingredients for it to be a compelling sports car.

What better way to experience just how those early RX-7 perform than to take one on a fun but challenging regularity rally. To the uninitiated, of which I was also one, this is a form of rally whereby the aim is to complete the route in a specific time all of which is at or under the legal speed limit. It’s all very precise, but we are in Germany after all.

Thankfully we quickly realise that nobody is taking this event too seriously, and each stop along the way presents different and fun challenges. These range from guestimating the amount of money in a jar of coins to seeing who can most accurately drive one full rotation of the front wheel. The most fun challenge in the eyes of our organisers is the road book which is entirely in German.

As for the car, well, it’s not merely a run-of-the-mill RX-7. We’re driving what might be one of the finest and most original examples anywhere in the world. With little over 300 miles on the clock, it had spent most of its 33-year life in the ownership of a Mazda dealer in Scotland. Such was his love for the car that he could not bear the thought of selling it, so he kept it at home, periodically starting it up and driving it on the grounds of his house to keep all the oily bits ticking over.

The car had just 50 miles showing on the clock when it came into Mazda’s possession and is gradually seeing more use. You’re unlikely to find a more original RX-7 anywhere in the world. We almost felt guilty for driving it. Almost.

Sitting into the reasonably supportive cloth seat, what greets you is a simple, almost stark cockpit design. There’s a simplicity to it that you don’t see any more inside cars.

You could be in one of many similar-era Japanese cars, that is until you peer down that long bonnet. And yes, pop-up lights are still as cool as ever.

How easy we come to forget what it was like before the days of power assisted steering. Edging the RX-7 into position requires both hands to pull the wheel when the car is stationary. It’s also refreshing to grasp a perfectly circular three-spoke steering wheel where the only button is the horn – a far cry from the flat-bottomed, button-strewn wheels of today. The button count throughout the cabin is pleasingly low. This car is only about driving.

Even when idling the twin rotary engine is oh so smooth. You need to give it a few more revs than you think, but once moving you immediately get a sense for just how sweet that rotary engine is. That first moment you accelerate away the revs keep building as the Mazda surges forward. There isn’t any of that brashness you sometimes find with a large capacity motor either, it remains, in a way, delicate.

Through faster bends, you can turn the elegant steering wheel just by pinching the thin rim between your thumbs and index fingers. It’s natural to subconsciously feel like short-shifting up through the gears, partly to treat such an exquisite machine with the care and respect it deserves, yet the reality is that it is happiest when the engine is spinning faster. Rolling on the power, especially in the lower gears is addictive stuff. The sound of the engine is oh so unique, and it just seems to rev forever.

The manual gearbox has a fabulous slickness to each shift – possibly made even better by how few shifts this car has actually made in its lifetime. You do still work it a bit, especially with the rotary engine’s slight deficit of torque, which encourages you to downshift more often. Half the reason for doing so is also to listen to that engine at full chat.

We certainly missed out on the top rankings of the rally, but being firm believers of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ philosophy. By the end of a full day of driving we’ve added a significant percentage of the car’s overall mileage to the clock. Any semblance of guilt early on is long since evaporated. All I want to do is to keep driving this beautiful machine.

This particular car may be getting on in years, but it is only now starting to tell its real story.