Baroque Depression

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By a certain point in the early 1980s, the trend towards cool British sports cars had evaporated. Gone– like a Phillip Phillips song. Everybody has their own version of why the interest dried up and, because I belong to the royal collective of “everybody,” I’m going to tell you mine. In short, it was because the Axis lost the war. Now, I just want to be clear, I’m glad the Axis lost the war, but it did mean that former automotive superpowers such as Britain and America had to split their attention between military demands and more civilian technologies, like cars. Part of Germany and Japan’s war reparations, however, included a ban on rearmament. So, in the words of former Top Gear presenter James May, “what else could their brightest minds do but move on to developing cars?” In essence, America and Britain rested on their laurels while Germany and Japan got to work. And here’s one of the fruits of their labor. This is a 1985 Mazda RX-7. 

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The RX-7 was introduced in 1978 as a replacement for the a car called the RX-3. That car car was available as a coupe, a sedan or a wagon, but when the RX-7 came out, Mazda seriously limited your options. “Two doors or go find something else,” they said (they didn’t). The RX-7 was rear wheel drive, and available with either a four speed manual if you were cool, a five speed manual with overdrive if you were even cooler, or a three speed automatic if you were a goddamn square. Styling was said to be inspired by the four-passenger Lotus Elan, which, I mean, I guess? Sure, I’ll give it to them. Though Road & Track‘s Werner Buhrer, the magazine’s design expert, was a little less than thrilled when he saw the cutout for the RX-7’s rear license plate. “It is a double pity,” says Buhrer, “that the responsible stylists must have been absent when the tail was created. The baroque depression for the license plate does not match at all with the rest of the car, which is quite good looking!” Buhrer, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, was a hoot at parties.

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The RX-7’s real party piece was its engine. To understand it, we have to travel back in time to 1924. A German engineer by the brilliant name of Felix Wankel had just set up his own private laboratory. The goal? To build his dream engine- something that would change the burgeoning world of internal combustion and leave the more traditional piston engines for dead. Unfortunately, Wankel also wanted to leave quite a few other things for dead, as he was a Nazi so radical he was kicked out of the party twice. The first time was because he thought the Nazis weren’t behaving violently enough, and the second time no one knows, but I can imagine it wasn’t because he was stealing office supplies. The guy was seriously nuts. Wankel ended up patenting his engine design in 1929, but it didn’t see any action until 1951. That was when Wankel set up a partnership with a West German car company called NSU. They were the ones who, unbeknownst to Wankel, built the first working prototype of the engine, a move that caused the aging engineer to say, “you have turned my race horse into a plow mare.” You can’t please everyone, indeed.

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Wankel’s engine was unique in a whole slew of different ways. It burned fuel just like any other car, but instead of cylindrical pistons moving up and down, this engine featured triangular pistons that rotated. It is for this reason that people now call the engine the “Wankel Rotary.” It’s actually quite hypnotic to watch. The first car to actually feature a rotary setup was the 1964 NSU Spider, which had its engine in the rear. A couple of years later, Mazda and Citroën teamed up with NSU to produce Wankel rotaries, but there was a problem. Under Wankel’s design, the engine’s rotor tip seals (or apex seals) wore out far too quickly to be practical- a flaw that rendered some cars undrivable after only 30,000 miles or so. Mazda came to the rescue, however, and perfected the design, bringing to the Wankel rotary the one thing Wankel himself never could: reliability. And to their credit, Mazda stuck to the design for a long time. They even had plans to have a whole lineup of cars powered by rotary engines, though that never totally happened. The rotary in the RX-7 is a twin-rotor, displacing 1.2 liters and developing 105 horsepower. There was also a slightly more powerful 1.3 available which made about 135 horsepower. Either way, Mazda mounted the RX-7’s engine in the front of the car, but behind the front axle, which gave the car 50/50 weight distribution. That, combined with the rev-happy nature of all Wankel rotary engines, as well as their inherently smooth power delivery, made the RX-7 an absolute joy to drive.

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The RX-7 went through two more generations before being replaced by the RX-8 in 2003. That car died in 2012, and with it, so did the Wankel rotary engine. Mazda’s reasoning was sound. Rotary engines are lightweight and compact, and can produce more horsepower using less displacement than piston engines, but they also guzzle fuel like little, Nazi-designed drunkards. Wankel engines also have a tendency to pollute more, and with EPA and CAFE regulations on that sort of thing tightening by the day, Mazda’s only real choice was to phase it out. And that’s a shame. I’m all for automotive progress, and the Wankel rotary was something that could’ve been a much bigger phenomenon than it was. I’m sure there are some alternative history fan-fictions out there detailing exactly what the world would be like if the Wankel had ended up replacing the piston engine. At least I think there are. Hold that thought, I’ll be right back.

Additional Thoughts:

  • In Japan, both the RX-7 and the RX-3 (if you got one with the Wankel) were sold under the name Savanna.
  • The RX-7 was right on the cusp of the popularity of bright colors in cars. I mean, look at this color palate. Why don’t we have stuff like this anymore?
  • In some markets Mazda offered the RX-7 with what they called “occasional” rear seats. I don’t have any information on if they only intended the back seats to be used on occasion or if it needed to be an occasion to use them, but it did mean that for a time in North America seats were a dealer installed option for the RX-7.
  • The first RX-7s came with only one rearview mirror, on the drivers side.
  • Allegedly, Felix Wankel had at least a rough idea for the rotary engine when he was only 17.
  • Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz actually use tiny Wankel rotaries in some of their seat belt tensioners.
  • Wankel engines are pretty popular in snowmobiles because of their tendency to break down gradually, instead of all at once in a puff of smoke. That’s good when you’re on your broken down snowmobile in the middle of nowhere freezing your Wankels off.
  • Mazda has confirmed that the rotary has a future, which could appear in a future RX-7 or even RX-9.
  • Wankel rotary cuff links. In case any of you are interested in buying me a birthday present.
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