A Wankel Reunion

My bond with one par­tic­u­lar exam­ple of Mazda’s best-sell­ing Wankel-pow­ered sports car began on the Mid­west­ern farm where I grew up. A 1980 mod­el LS-trimmed exam­ple, orig­i­nal­ly paint­ed in “Solar Gold” (one of only 500 made, it turns out). It had been sit­ting in a small shed, con­demned to rest only a few years after my birth from issues with its fuel deliv­ery sys­tem. The search for a mechan­ic will­ing and/or capa­ble of work­ing on the rotary engine with­out destroy­ing it was even­tu­al­ly giv­en up.

My father told me sto­ries of his flings with the car. He used to say the police would pull him over sim­ply because it “looked fast.” Nat­u­ral­ly — as a small boy — the sto­ries took ahold of my imag­i­na­tion. The RX-7 held a very spe­cial sort of allure. It’d quick­ly embody for me the race­car abstract. Its envi­ron­ment added to the intox­i­ca­tion — the lack of elec­tric pow­er to the car, its immo­bil­i­ty, and the sto­ries I was told com­bined to cre­ate the aura of a fad­ing, for­got­ten super­hero — tired and aban­doned, in need of noth­ing more than the help of a friend to bring it back to glo­ry.

It wasn’t very long after tod­dler­hood that I took to spend­ing a large por­tion of my free time in the RX-7 — row­ing through the gears, mak­ing engine nois­es with my mouth. I still remem­ber vivid­ly how delight­ful the expe­ri­ence of sim­ply exist­ing in that car was. The dash lay­out, the feel of the steer­ing wheel in my hands, and the smell of the inte­ri­or are all deeply etched into mem­o­ry. A young man’s mys­ti­cism formed a bond between souls.

Recent­ly, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet this hero, so to speak. I encoun­tered a par­tial­ly-restored 1983 Series 2 exam­ple, slight­ly dif­fer­ent than my RX-7. Dif­fer­ent enough to sub­due my wor­ries of adul­tery to the car I grew up with, but sim­i­lar enough to make the expe­ri­ence one of impor­tant dis­cov­ery.

I was treat­ed to the com­plete RX-7 own­er­ship expe­ri­ence — dead bat­tery, hard-chocked start and all. My host was kind enough to pay for the fuel for the dri­ve with mon­ey out of his own pock­et. After ensur­ing that we would not be walk­ing back, I point­ed that very long, very 80s nose toward some local back high­ways.

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I had nev­er dri­ven any­thing pow­ered by a Wankel, and the con­trast of the RX-7 com­pared to every­thing with wheels I had expe­ri­enced was stark, and notice­able imme­di­ate­ly. The feed­back nor­mal­ly received from a pis­ton engine is not felt, due to the fact that there is no more con­ver­sion from ver­ti­cal to rota­tion­al motion, a rotary engine (as implied by the name) involves no ver­ti­cal momen­tum. It’s not that the engine refus­es to com­mu­ni­cate with you, it’s just speak­ing an entire­ly dif­fer­ent lan­guage. The whiny exhaust note has an odd prop­er­ty to it that can be heard from no oth­er source. It con­jures up images of the mys­te­ri­ous, angry pair of tri­an­gles whirling about in their cage. Pure­ly imag­i­nary, of course.

Because the Wankel is so smooth, I found myself won­der­ing why I should shift up. A pis­ton engine makes you anx­ious when you push it close to the red­line. Most send the dri­ver a vari­ety of audi­to­ry and tac­tile mes­sages indi­cat­ing that they must either shift up, or face a molten tie rod to the head. The RX-7, how­ev­er, gives no such indi­ca­tion. When close to the red­line, one hears only an excit­ed whir. The result (for­give the upcom­ing Dis­ney anal­o­gy) is an almost mag­ic car­pet-like expe­ri­ence. It’s as though the pow­er sim­ply mate­ri­al­izes before you with no appar­ent source or sac­ri­fice.

For me, the tran­quil­i­ty of the engine elim­i­nat­ed the reser­va­tions I had for speed. It’s an incen­tive, in fact, to keep the nee­dle in the upper por­tion of the tachome­ter as much as pos­si­ble. The car had only 100 hp and 105 lb-ft. of torque in 1983, and has no doubt lost a few along its jour­ney. Frankly, I’m thank­ful it’s not more pow­er­ful. Oth­er­wise, there wouldn’t be room to ful­ly enjoy revving it to its lim­it.

Though I have decid­ed that a trans­mis­sion with mul­ti­ple ratios is unnec­es­sary when cou­pled to a Wankel, the 5-speed man­u­al in the RX-7 was quite a treat. It’s very notchy, with a mid-length throw. The well-spaced ratios paired with a very light, but engag­ing clutch made rev match­ing pleas­ant and nat­ur­al.

The dri­ving posi­tion is actu­al­ly more relaxed than it looks, and the inte­ri­or is a thor­ough­ly enjoy­able place to be in. This par­tic­u­lar car had a fac­to­ry-installed man­u­al­ly-adjustable equal­iz­er mount­ed beneath the stock head unit. A use­less, though inter­est­ing, nov­el­ty that quick­ly rids the occu­pants of any doubt as to when the car was built.

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The RX-7 is too often over­looked for what it is — a very spe­cial piece of auto­mo­tive his­to­ry. It’s an expe­ri­ence com­plete­ly unlike any pis­ton-pow­ered alter­na­tive and for myself, it’s much more than that. My RX-7 rep­re­sents most of a childhood’s dreams and a gen­e­sis to my rela­tion­ship with engi­neer­ing. My Wankel expe­ri­ence a very large influ­ence on my path in this career. No doubt, it changed my per­spec­tive, but not at all for the worse.