Lean and Clean: 1979 Mazda RX-7

Scotty GilbertsonBy Scotty Gilbertson

Most people know that Mazda didn’t invent the rotary engine, and most people know that they weren’t the first company to put them in a production vehicle. But, most of us automatically connect those two dots whenever anyone says RX-7. This superb 1979 Mazda RX-7 is a one-owner car and, condition-wise, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer one. This gem is a California car with zero rust and “zero driving dings”. It has just one ding from a tree branch falling on the “cowling“. It’s located in Philo, California and is listed on eBay with a buy-it-now price of $3,490, or you can make an offer – a heck of a deal.. as they don’t say in California. I keep getting Fargo and California mixed up..

I have a friend who has a mint first-generation RX-7 that is so clean that you could eat off of that sweet, high-revving rotary engine. Remember when these wedge-shaped cars with pop-up headlights were all the rage? A short time after olive-green cars were all the rage? Which wasn’t that long after brown cars were all the rage? Coming off of the 1950s with the crazy bright colors? Which, was a few short decades after getting any color that you want as long as it’s black? Wait, I lost my train of thought there..  I guess I was thinking that I haven’t seen this light yellow color on an RX-7 before, and I like it, a lot. This car has 9,252 miles on a rebuilt engine and 112,028 miles are on the car. It’s been “covered in garage storage past 20 years due to personal illness.”

Annnnnnnnd.. screech..  There it is, the 800-pound gorilla in the room: this car has an automatic! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S GOOD AND HOLY! Well, it isn’t that bad, but the standard 4-speed manual or, better yet, the optional 5-speed manual would be so great in this car. Why does this car have an automatic? Well, remember that one-owner part? The owner is a 70-year old woman who bought this car new. Yeah, but she was only 32 then back in 1979? And, that’s not to automatically say that women automatically (no pun intended) get automatic transmissions… In any case, the seller calls it a “rare automatic”, and it’s in “perfect condition”. I don’t know if I’ve seen an automatic in a first-generation RX-7, or really any RX-7. Have any of you? They say about the interior: the “seats and carpeting like new (except as shown)”.

Clean, clean, clean! As a first-generation Series 1 car, this 1979 RX-7 has Mazda’s 1,146 CC, 12A rotary with around 100 hp. There’s a bit of confusion or contradiction as to the condition of the engine, as the seller says that this car has been “started and warmed-up annually past 17 years.” But, then they say that it “almost starts, but doesn’t due to sitting dormant past 3 years.” Annually, in my world, means every year, not every three years, but who knows. “All other mechanical systems in proper operating condition.” Do you think you could troubleshoot the starting issue with this somewhat freshly-rebuilt rotary engine? The automatic transmission may not be the scariest part of this car after all. Is this one worth a gamble? It sure looks great other than that missing third pedal and the engine starting issue.

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Comments

  1. Dolphin Dolphin Staff

    Have driven only one of these too, a brand new one at a Mazda dealer.

    It reminded me of a rotary powered 240Z: cheap to buy, and nice execution for such an affordable car. But not quite as desirable as a Z car.

    You had the feeling the engine would rev forever, and I liked the sound, but not a lot of torque unless you were in the upper rev ranges. And Wankels had a reputation for using a lot of fuel, especially when running in the upper rev ranges.

    Another limitation was the rear suspension, which IIRC was a solid axle. It
    felt like it had a lot of rubber in the rear suspension and bounced over minor bumps in the road instead of handling them like a good IRS would.

    Very affordable for what you got, but offered only in a coupe, and not nearly as good looking as a 240Z. I kept the 240Z instead of going with an RX7.

    Other than the auto trans, this unrusty CA car looks like a great buy at the asking.

    2+
  2. Vin in NJ

    Love the pop up headlights…a friend had an RX7 that he re-wired, so he could pop up the headlights independently. So as he drove down the street and saw a girl, he would pop up one light to “wink” at her

    6+
  3. John D.

    As I recall, Mazda Dealers took it on the chin while Mazda figured out making the rotary engine enjoy 100,000 miles of longevity. Many dealers did not keep the franchise in the late 1960s and into the 70s because they were spending too much to keep customers happy. This is probably why the engine was rebuilt. The seals on the roter would give out causing it to burn oil. My opinion has always been the best early Wankel engine to enjoy is an O.P. (other people’s) type.

    I guess if Adobe abandoned Flash (it is strong on this page), I would follow suit.

    1+
  4. healeydays

    In the fall of 1978 I bought the 3rd Rx7 sold in Massachusetts and it also was a banana yellow 4 speed. That started my love affair with the Rx7 and I owned 7 over the years with it ending with me wearing out a pair Rx7 ragtops. I loved that engine in the little rocket of a car.

    In the beginning me and 2 other friends who bought them use to go to hillclimbs and autocross events and clean up. They couldn’t figure out what class to put us in as if they put us in with the little cc cars we would run all over them, and if they put us in a class with big V8s we’d embarrass them.

    3+
  5. ccrvtt

    I had a ’79 for about 6 years. It got a little tired at the end but it’s definitely a car I’d want to have again. Sometimes called a “poor man’s Porsche” I thought of it as a smart man’s Porsche – all the fun and half the price. The engine was rev happy and the power (what there was) felt linear. The gearbox was almost as good as my MGB’s and had one more gear.

    I’d have to agree that the 240Z is probably a better car but the Rx7 ranks as one of the most fun-to-drive.

    Great find, great price, but…

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  6. Robbie R.

    I pre-ordered one of these when they were announced in 1978. Took delivery in March ’79. There weren’t many options at all, but I went with the top of the line GS with alum wheels and 5-spd manual, about $9,000 worth. As advertised, it was very peppy. I got it up to 105mph on interstate until I ran out of nerve. Unfortunately, a series of problems with the A/C compressor hoses blowing out (twice) and headlights that wouldn’t pop up correctly quickly soured me on the car after only 3 months. Since the car was so new, my dealership had no clue how to fix either problem. It stayed in their service dept for several weeks while they waited on parts from Japan. I ended up selling it at a huge loss. Lesson learned!

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  7. Fred W.

    Had two used ones, a an orange ’79 and a black ’80. Loved them both, a lot of fun to drive. I knew the longevity issue at the time and only kept them a couple of years to avoid a rebuild. Not sure who would want one of these with A/T.

    1+
  8. JimmyJ

    Throw in a 5 speed great deal!

    2+
  9. Dave

    Naw, no power-sapping slushbox for me.

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  10. Tom Hall

    Can still see the pile of rotors on the floor in the Watkins Glen garage – like it was yesterday………..

    1+
  11. Jim Z Member

    I had an ’89 RX-7 convertible with automatic. Remains one of my most memorable ‘fun’ cars of my life. Thanks for the memories!

    1+
    • Jim Z Member

      Here’s a pic of that ’89

      4+
  12. PAPERBKWRITER

    BIL had one back in the day. He had a terrible time with it, couldn’t get it started. When he finally did he drove it straight to a dealer and traded it in and left it running.

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  13. Pete

    I bought a 79 used from a Captain while I was in Germany. That car was a blast to drive. It could do high speed turns like it was on rails. It handled much better than the 280Z i had years before. I was lucky it also had recarro seats when I got it. Wish I still had them seats. Usually the only reason they won’t start is because the fuel filter is gummed up or the ignighters are bad. Don’t make the mistake I did though and put synthetic oil in it after it has run on petroleum oil for a long time. You will blow the seals quickly and then it will cost big bucks to fix. This is only the 3rd automatic I have ever seen in an RX7. That makes me not want to buy it. Only cause it’s a pain to convert it to 5 spd.

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  14. Rolf Poncho 455

    Jim Z I have the same problem I had a 81 RX7 13B turbo series 4
    motor like your model sadly I sold it to pay the tax man. I will never
    forget that car fastest car I owned so far it was a POCKET ROCKET

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  15. Mike

    My stepmom has a 79 with auto trans she bought new. Rarely drove it and never in rain. Haven’t seen the car in years but guessing it has less than 15k on it.

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  16. Mike

    I had two…a 79 and an 81. They were fun to drive. The little 13 inch tires were a pain to find, at least ones that would do some left lane traveling. At 140mph, they were really making the revolutions…Both cars were so rusty, they both got scrapped…they were fun to drive

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  17. Rex Rice

    I bought a used ’85 GLS-SE, top of the line. I drove it 190,000 miles, replacing only tires & shocks. When I asked the Mazda mechanics how long will this engine last, they replied: “indefinitely, as long as no oil or coolant is lost.” I checked the levels every day. When I sold it, it drove like the day I bought it. Except for the poor fuel economy, a great car.

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  18. bog

    Bought one new in ’83. GS model, Aztec Gold metallic, NO AIR ! Exact same color interior as the one offered. Would NEVER buy this, nor any other sports car with an auto. Had some tuning work done to engine in the early nineties & at the same time had light-weight flywheel & clutch assy put in along with a racing trans. “Kiku” scooted. Most fun was driving around neighborhood with big black Great Dane riding “shotgun” with sunroof off so he could stick his head out. Pity the driver behind me that got too close, as he was a slobber machine par-excellance ! Let go of “Kiku” in ’99 for a BMW, only real issue was 2 starters, both of which I installed in my driveway.

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  19. KLH

    I had a 85′ GSL-SE, nice car, but the oil cooler always leaked. I never found the car to be terribly fast. It was fun to drive.

    0
    • bog

      KLH – did you buy it new or used ? My recollection was that model was also generally “loaded” with stuff my ’83 wasn’t. Mine was stripped down as a GS could be. No power anything. It certainly did “suck gas” through that 4bbl when driven fast, how fast I won’t say. But, I often drove to the races @ Road America from the northside of Chicago quite “spritely”. Only road construction in Milwaukee hindered my pace…

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