Mazda RX-7 SA22 1980

I don’t think there needs to be a long introduction here: today we have the Mazda RX-7 – and that says it all. But when you think about this car, surely the third generation, or at least the second generation, comes to mind, which we remember from computer games or which we may have seen on the roads at some point. But no, we will show you a more exotic beast – the SA22 or the sports car from your neighbor’s hatchback.

In one of our previous articles, we told you that the RX-7 is far from being Mazda’s first car with a rotary engine. Since the late 1950s, engineers have been experimenting with the Wankel engine, trying to make it suitable for urban use and the mass market. The 1960s and 1970s marked the golden era of the rotary engine and it was even installed in small pickup trucks, many of which were actively exported to the United States. But in 1973, the fuel crisis hit. “This is where Mazda truly rose to the occasion,” you might think, but it was quite the opposite. The fuel crisis sharply reduced the sales of rotary cars, which, unlike small Toyotas and Hondas, could consume gasoline in buckets. Of course, a carbureted rotary engine consumed less fuel than a V8, but it still lost to its inline small-displacement competitors. The management at Mazda immediately began to change course, deciding to produce more traditional inline engines. However, no one hurried to abandon the rotary engine, but it was only to be kept in a few models that did not hint to buyers about fuel efficiency or excessive longevity.

Introduced in 1978, the RX-7 in the FB body style (or SA according to the first letters of the VIN number) became the third model with a rotary engine in Mazda’s lineup, alongside the Cosmo and Luce. The Cosmo, also known as the RX-5 in some markets, gained fame as a luxury coupe, a precursor to Mazda’s Gran Tourismo, and was not a direct competitor to the new car. The Luce, on the other hand, was a practically flagship sedan, also known as the 929 and could already be equipped with a conventional inline engine.
Interestingly, the RX-7 immediately acquired an unofficial status as a sports car. The first version of the car was introduced with a 12A engine, which delivered 105 horsepower and had a carbureted fuel system. By the first facelift in 1981, the power output was increased to 115 horsepower, and in 1983, a full-fledged turbocharger was added, resulting in an output of 165 horsepower. In 1984, the car began to be equipped with the more advanced 13B-RESI (Rotary Engine Super Injection) – a two-rotor rotary engine with a fuel injector system. It developed 135 horsepower with a displacement of 1.3 liters.

Even in those years, calling a car with 165 horsepower a sports car was somewhat audacious, but the Japanese knew the rule well: if a car is light, it doesn’t need a lot of power. Depending on the trim level, the RX-7 weighed between 942 and 1043 kg. Thanks to the compact size of the engine, it was able to be placed quite low, which had a positive effect on the center of gravity and within the wheelbase of the car, allowing it to be referred to as a mid-engine with front engine placement. All of this undoubtedly made the car maneuverable, but the nature of the rotary engine with its smooth torque curve made the car more composed and predictable than expected from a sports car in the 80s.

For Japanese buyers, one of the main advantages of a small engine displacement was the transportation tax. The tax was calculated based on engine size and there was a favorable tax rate for engines up to 1.5 liters. Additionally, the dimensions of the body allowed owners to avoid the tax for owning a large vehicle. All of this was achieved while maintaining a relatively good specific power output. Many components of the car were borrowed from the Mazda 323-familia, which were readily available and inexpensive, further reducing maintenance costs. Where else could you get so much from a sports car with minimal investment?

The chief designer of the project was Matasaburo Maeda. Later, his son would continue the rotary engine legacy of Mazda, creating the final rotary-powered coupe, the RX-8. During the development of the RX-7, Maeda drew inspiration from the tastes of Americans, as this market was considered the most promising. And he was right: out of the 474,000 cars produced, 377,000 were sold in North America. The body lines of the RX-7 resembled other coupes of that era – sleek and sharp. The front end of the car was slightly elongated, more than necessary (remember, the engine is located at the base), but it added to the overall harmony. In the subsequent years, this harmony allowed for the installation of conventional inline engines in the RX-7’s engine compartment to achieve greater power and, let’s not hide the truth, reliability. The intricately shaped rear window became one of the model’s signature design elements. When seen from the side, it visually reduced the size of the car’s rear end. The rear of the car may not look as impressive before the facelift, but remember, this was a project from the mid-70s!

Indeed, one aspect that fell short for its time was the interior of the RX-7. This particular car is a European version, hence the brown seat upholstery. The dashboard, however, seems to clash with the color scheme, but many car manufacturers were guilty (and still are) of such inconsistencies. However, were the control elements, steering wheel and interior trims representative of the 70s? It seems to me that Toyota arrived at a similar design only in the late 1980s! Yes, Mazda had a somewhat futuristic look in those years, but it must have had some advantages to compete in the market of affordable sports coupes. Initially, the cars were sold as two-seaters, and only at an additional cost could you purchase the rear seats using the 2+2 formula. In terms of passenger comfort, there was nothing groundbreaking here – having rear passengers in sports cars has always been a compromise. But for the American market, such an option had to be available.

One could argue or agree with various analysts and automotive experts of the time, but the RX-7 gave birth to one of the most unique families of sports coupes in the world. Undoubtedly, the rotary engine played a significant role, but let’s not forget the efforts of the exterior and interior designers, as well as the fact that it was a sports car built on the foundation of its predecessor, the modern Mazda 3. Could anyone else have come up with something similar besides the Japanese? Certainly! We could see something similar among British “garage builders,” but Mazda’s production capabilities made the product reliable and marketable – sales statistics never lie.

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