New car smell should be the very last thing I notice. I mean, thanks to my work I’m hopping in and out of new cars all the time. It should have the same effect on me as iocane powder on Westley — inconceivable. So why is it right now smacking me right in the face? This is what happens when you’re in a pristine Mazda RX-7.
I’m actually sitting in a car that’s 33 years old, a car that was built when I was nine. And it smells, looks, feels, and pretty much drives, like a brand spanking, shiny new car. It’s not only a perfect example of the first RX-7, it’s also has nearly the lowest mileage of any car I’ve ever driven.
This particular example of the now-40-year-old RX-7 actually belongs to Mazda’s UK importer, and its tale is an interesting one. Technically, it’s a barn-find, but not the kind that comes with rust, dust, and spiders.
Actually, it was originally dealer stock for a Mazda outlet in Scotland. The story goes that this particular dealer didn’t renew his franchise, but loved this blue-grey RX-7 so much that he couldn’t bear to be parted from it. So he rolled it into a garage next to his house, and spent the next 30-odd years driving it up and down a little just to keep everything functioning.
So when Mazda came looking for an addition to its historic fleet, there was simply no other first-generation RX-7 with that level of originality, nor low mileage. Just 80km showed on the odometer when the car was bought back by Mazda, apparently for a chunky five-figure price tag, plus some other RX parts that the former owner wanted for another restoration project, but which would be all but impossible to otherwise come by. And by the time I’m sitting in it, barely 322km are showing.
Just for context — press cars are normally never given out with mileage that low. There is almost always at least 1,500 to 2,000 “running in” miles on the clock, carefully put there by company employees just to make sure that ham-fisted and lead-footed journalists such as myself aren’t allowed to drive something that’s not been thoroughly debugged.
Yet here is a pristine, all-but-undriven RX-7, with hardly more than delivery mileage, and I’ve just been thrown the keys.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a child of the 1980s, but I think the first-gen RX-7 looks amazing. None of the chubby bulk of the second-generation car, nor the Fast & Furious aggression of the third-gen. That low, sleek silhouette, the all-glass tailgate, the Porsche 924-aping styling. And those pop-up headlights. I know why we don’t have them anymore — aerodynamics, pedestrians’ knees, the world hates fun — but I still wish we could have them.
I’m big and bulky, so I lower my frame very gently down into what looks and feels like a delicate, slim-fit cabin but once inside, it’s very comfy (the seats are still springy and supportive) and the interior full of light, thanks to delicate windscreen pillars that most definitely won’t hold the roof up if I manage to turn this car over.
The dash is almost a plain plank of plastic with a blue-grey hue matching that of the exterior, so it’s not what you’d call stylish, but the main dials are big, clear, and rather lovely (far nicer than the fussier designs you see too much of now) and the smallness of the surroundings means everything’s nearby when I need it.
The three-spoke wheel feels lovely, even if the plastic’s a bit cheap, and the door pockets are strictly for maps and maybe a credit card — nothing thicker is going to fit.
The 1146cc, 108 brake horsepower twin-rotor engine fires smoothly (it’s been constantly fettled by experts from the Jota racing team, which looks after Mazda UK’s historic fleet) and the five-speed manual transmission shifts with a light sweetness.
Suddenly, we’re off and I’m chasing one of the Mazda guys, who’s leading our small convoy of classics in a new diesel CX-5. And, erm, he’s really pressing on a bit. I mean, the small roads and lanes of Sussex are quite wet from heavy rain the day before, and I’m having to press the RX-7 harder than I’d like to keep up with the fleeting CX.
Thankfully, this new-old car has the guts to do it. The rotary (god, I love rotaries — ever since an early encounter with an NSU Ro80) sings and spins with delight, and aiming between the extended pop-ups (it’s daytime so I don’t need them but I just can’t resist) the RX-7 and I fly between the hedgerows, and the only heart-in-mouth moments coming when I have to brake sharply a couple of times, and remember just how much better braking systems have become in three decades.
Steering systems, though? Boy, have we stepped back. Now, the RX-7 was not especially noted for its steering back in the day, not in the same way that, say, a Lotus Excel or Eclat was, but by modern standards the unassisted steering feels astonishing.
Moving from a new electrically-boosted rack to this feels as if the steering arms have been surgically attached to my wrists. Once the weight that you feel at parking speed is gone, the RX-7’s wheel just feels… lovely. I can’t think of another word for it. It telegraphs all you need to know of the nuances under the front tires, yet without any unwanted kickback or nervousness.
It’s proportional to the movements you make, and feels utterly confidence-inspiring. It may be only a cheap bit of three-spoke 1980s Japanese plastic that I’m holding, but trounces the feel of anything more recent. Well, anything that is comparable in price or spec to the RX-7. It’s not quite as deft nor as full of feedback as the first-generation Miata, which came along just four years after this car was built, but you can sense the beginnings of Jinba Ittai here.
That’s helpful, because now the CX-5 is much further up the road ahead than I was counting on and without someone else in the car with me to read a map, I’m going to get lost and miss my flight home if I don’t keep up. The rotary engine needs revs (all spinny-spinny engines do as there’s hardly any torque) and you genuinely have to be careful not to bump into the buzzer that sounds as you approach the rev-limit, so smoothly do the twin triangles whizz around in their oblong cylinder, but given that the RX-7 weighs just 1,139kg, about the weight of a new Ford Fiesta, then by working the five-speed gearbox with a touch of vim, I found I was able to haul in the disappearing modern diesel. Who needs torque when you have revs, right?
Do you feel a little vulnerable in it? Of course you do — you do driving any classic car in modern conditions. Those doors, with their slim bins, won’t hold up to much of a side impact, and there are none of the ABS-ABD-ESP-TCS electronic nannies to pull your arse out of any problem that occurs. That does fade away, a touch, though thanks to the fact that the RX-7 feels so honest, so faithful, so biddable.
Just as with the pop-ups, we all know why Mazda doesn’t have a rotary model on sale anymore. Emissions, consumption, endless reliability worries. All of which fades far, far away on a damp drive across the southern corner of England, in a gorgeous car with three-figure mileage, and with the whiff of new car smell still in the air.
Neil Briscoe is an Irish-based motoring writer who loves rotaries, old Land Rovers (the older, the better) and who once managed to win an autocross in a Mini even though he managed to get a cone wedged under the car.