Part 1: A quarrel amongst gentlemen
The early 90s were an awesome time to be a car guy. The power-heavy and safety-light 80s had ended and Japan was churning out more insane entry level sports cars than ever. The main rivalry, which should be abundantly clear to anyone over the age of 10, was between Mitsubishi, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda. There was an unwritten "gentleman's agreement" between manufacturers which dictated that the cars could make no more than 276 horsepower. Knowing now how the Japanese are with reported power figures, it's no surprise that most of the numbers were sandbagged at best and blatant lies at worst. Not only were these cars factory powerhouses, they were, in my not-at-all-humble opinion, some of the most timeless designs ever made.
duck, duck, duck, GOOSE!
The pick of the litter was the Mazda RX-7, and I'll tell you why, before you rip me a new one for not deferring to the obvious capabilities to the Toyota Supra's dominating 2JZ-GTE. Relax, I'll be doing one of those as well.
First, it was a true sequential twin turbo car, the only one available in any market to my knowledge. Yes, the Supra had a sequential system, but the turbos were the same size and it simply delayed the opening of the second turbo. I liked the fact that the RX-7 had a small turbo and a large turbo, like a compound diesel engine (sort-of). I liked the fact that its Wankel rotary engine had a handful of moving parts and it displaced less volume than a bottle of Diet Coke. I liked that you could rev it to the moon and you didn't have to worry about spinning a rod or popping a timing belt. I had to have one.
Part 2: The Find
It was a Wednesday (probably), and a friend sent me a link to an ebay auction. Apparently there was a rough '93 Mazda RX-7 that had a Buy-It-Now price of $5000 and was located around 20 minutes from me. I hadn't researched the market thoroughly, but at a cursory glance, I saw that bare shells were going for at LEAST $6k. The listing said that it was just dirty, and that it needed a tune up, and the pictures reflected it.
I put in a best offer of $4000, immediately rethought the decision and clicked Buy-It-Now because it was an awesome price, and even awesomer if I could get it running cheaply. I contacted the Buyer, and he regrettably told me that he had another offer for $6000 on the table, and that if I could match that, he'd give that to me.
I was a man in love, but I wasn't a stupid man, so as the old adage dictates: If you love her, let her go. If she comes back, do a burnout.
A week later, the seller gives me a call saying that the undermining Mr. Moneybags flaked on him, and he'd still entertain the offer I had intially presented. I rushed over there to check out the car, cash in hand. Here's what I found:
The car's interior had obvious mold from a leak in the weatherstripping, the seats looked like they had been lovingly cuddled by a porcupine, and there was hail damage on the hood, but nowhere else. The tires were inflated, but dug into the ground like anchors on a ship destined to be an artificial reef. The ground was trying to reclaim it slowly. Not if I had anything to do with it.
The owner told me the engine had been rebuilt before it sat for nearly 9 years, and that it "should" run, but he wasn't brave enough to try. It had also been repainted after a shunt with a parked car in '01. No problem. The car was mostly there, and as any salesperson knows, your money is made when you buy the car, not when you sell it. If I wasn't willing to take a risk to drive one of my childhood heros, what was the point of trying?
A short tow later, I was the proud owner of a 1993 Mazda RX-7 FD.
Part 3: Getting it started
This is the time where reality sets in. I have a 20 year old Mazda that hasn't run in nearly half that long, and I have no idea if the previous owner's claims are actually legit. I have only a rudimentary understanding of how rotary engines work, and I've never actually worked on one or troubleshot one in my life. I'm also down $5000 plus another $150 for the tow. Time to start fixing stuff.
When you have a project that needs attention all over, the first thing you need to do is make a list of everything you need to order and list them by importance and factor in delivery times or availibility of hard-to-find parts.
Before I tackled any cosmetic issues, I wanted to get the car started to make sure I wasn't spending money on a complete basketcase. Before doing anything, I did my research. NoPistons.com, RotaryCarClub.com, RX7Forums.com, and RX7club.com were indispensable resources and I found a few guides on how to make sure I wasn't doing any damage by starting an engine that had been sitting.
The most common issue with rotary engines in this condition is that the seals tend to dry out when left to sit for extended periods of time. It's very important to lube the combustion chamber walls with marvel mystery oil and let it soak for approximately 24 hours before attempting to start. Here's the in-depth tutorial.
Other than that, the procedure for starting a rotary engine is exactly that of a piston engine: Change out all fluids, change spark plugs, change air and fuel filter, sand/replace the grounds, put in a fresh battery, and hope the thing doesn't blow up in your face.
I put the key in, heard the click of relays, heard the whirr of the starter, but no vroom. After trying a few more times, I didn't want to rotate the engine any more in case there was indeed a bigger problem. The first thing I checked was the engine bay for any loose or broken connections. I did find that the TPS (throttle position sensor) was disconnected and the vacuum hose for the MAP (manifold absolute pressure) sensor was off. I corrected both of those things, but still no fire. It was time to check the fuel supply.
Although I did change out the rotting fuel filter and drain out all the varnished gas, it's possible that there could have been a clog in the pump somewhere from the accumulated crud that settled at the bottom of the car's little tank. I took out the pump and had a "There's your problem!" moment.
The fuel pump looked as if it had been submerged in a lake for 35 years then blasted with salt for another 5. It was obviously seized and needed replacing, but I noticed something about it: It wasn't stock. It was an upgraded Denso pump found in the Toyota Supra TT. It was still trash, but at least I had an idea that the car had been somewhat looked after and modified tastefully in the past.
I got a spare Walbro 255LPH pump I was saving for another project, wired it up, cleaned up the fuel pump bracket, sucked out the remaining fuel and cleaned the contents of the bottom of the tank, connected everything and turned the key.
It ran. It was a complete smoke show for 5 minutes, but it ran. After having it warm up and burn all the varnish out of its lines, it produced not one puff of smoke and ran like the day it left the factory. I didn't want to push my luck too much, as the brakes needed an overhaul, but I got it into gear, both forwards and reverse and the clutch engaged nicely and the throttle response was very crisp. No check engine lights either, so that was a definite plus. I wouldn't have looked forward to diagnosing an OBD-I car.
I was ecstatic. This is why you take risks, kids. Sometimes they pay off and you get a really cool car for next to nothing.
Part 4: Gimme a brake (lol)
A huge downside to any car that's been sitting outside is that the brakes on that car are probably trashed due to moisture. I was supremely lucky that the brake pads weren't seized to the rotor, but the whole system was far from good condition.
I got a set of cross-drilled and slotted rotors with ceramic pads for $160 shipped and spruced up the look of the calipers by cleaning them up with a wire brush, 90% isopropyl alcohol, then spraying them with 3 coats of silver caliper paint and 2 coats of high-temp clear.
I had a friend help me bleed the brakes on all four corners and managed to remove the black gunk that resided there before I bought it. The car's brakes were completed and I was one step closer to driving an RX-7.
Part 5: An Interior made of glass and duct tape
I'm not sure what quality control was like in the early '90s, but I do know that Mazda apparently couldn't afford any in their interior department, so their materials were paper-thin and wafer-brittle. The ABS plastic used on the trim fractures if you even think about touching it, so every single part I took off broke into at least 7 pieces. This is a common problem in old Mazdas, so instead of paying through the nose for another used set of interior trim which would've probably broken anyway, I went to home depot and bought ABS Cement to reinforce the broken pieces. You can find the entire repair tutorial here.
I sanded the trim and then finished with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to bring a glossy finish to the trim. This look isn't for everyone, but it made the car look, dare I say, luxurious in comparison to what it looked like before.
I eventually did have to replace the passenger's door trim, because the handle was missing. No amount of abs cement could have made it look whole again, so I swallowed my pride and found one for $50 on a local FD parts facebook group.
The solution was clear: retrofit Mazda RX-8 seats. The leather was much more supple, they had better bolsters, and they had a plastic rotor at the top of the seat, used for a pass-through for a harness. I found a set locally for $320 and picked them up immediately.
It's a common modification, but it's far from easy. I had to get a steel bar from my local hardware store, cut a bunch of tabs off using my angle grinder, measure the original mounting tabs to make corresponsing holes, and cut the interior trim plastic enough that the rails could go forward and back enough. This was a VERY time consuming process, and that didn't even include wiring up the seat for the driver's power function and swapping over the seat belt buckles.
Here are a few ways people have done their seat retrofits:
Right before the seats were installed, I made sure to give the moldy and foul smelling carpet a deep steam clean, using my Bissell Little Green Machine and RugDoctor Carpet Cleaner.
Part 6: Every Princess needs her crown
Now that the car could start, run, stop, and had a good looking interior, I had to give some attention to the exterior. There was good news and bad news. The car's paint had been refreshed at one point, but unfortunately it was done 10 years ago and at Maaco. Although not peeling, there were a few minor paint cracks. The most egregious issue was the hood, which had golf-ball sized dents all over it, looking as if it was hail damaged.
One of the things I love about getting new cars is immersing yourself into the community and meeting new people along the way. In my search for a new hood, I was referred to Ben, owner of BubbleTech.us If you're not familiar with his company, he makes one-off, aluminum and carbon fiber panels for the RX-7 and RX-8, all completely functional and inspired by the Japanese time attack cars. I stopped by his garage and found 4 FDs in various states of disassembly, along with heavy duty metal working tools, a lathe and countless rotary parts. We talked for 2 hours about cars and became fast friends - exactly the kind of interaction that you don't get when you buy a new car, and the reason I'd rather have something interesting than something new. He sold me a red hood in perfect condition for $150 and threw in a few other odds and ends I needed for free.
After getting home and installing the hood, it was time to give this dirty girl a bath. I know there are plent of tutorials on proper detailing techniques, but I'm a complete novice, so here's what I used:
- 2 buckets
- Dishwashing soap
- Meguiar's Gold Class Car Wash
- Meguiar's Clay Bar
- PC 7424XP w 6" backing plate
- 3 pads for agressive cut , medium cut and fine cut/polish.
- Collinite 845 wax
- Microfiber Towels
I also followed these tutorials, made by Larry Kosilla at AMMO NYC and /DRIVE:
- Audi R8 BLACKBIRD: Basic Car Wash Techniques -/DRIVE CLEAN
- Top Ten Detailing Mistakes -/DRIVE CLEAN
- Interior Detailing: Tools, Techniques, and Materials -/DRIVE CLEAN
- Polishers and Swirl Removal Tips -/DRIVE CLEAN
Part 7: That'll do, pig.
I took a car from the verge of sinking into the ground to running and driving as if it was taken care of since day one. After a fresh set of tires were installed, my impressions were such that I didn't want to sell this car. It was truly a childhood hero of mine. It wasn't simply the Fast and Furious hero car, it was reminiscent of a bygone era where manufacturers were pushing the engineering envelope and taking chances wherever and whenever they could. Sure, there were some issues with reliability down the line with a rotary engine with sequential turbochargers, but it was a technological masterpiece and unlike anything anyone had to date. It drove with supercar grip and sports car grunt. The second you hit the throttle, the engine surged to the 8000+ rpm rev limiter faster than any piston engine dared. There was a noticeable change when the second turbo came online, as if the car got a second wind or a mild nitrous boost. It was completely intoxicating and it should be the duty of every card carrying gearhead to take a ride in one, if only to appreciate the capabilities of 2 metal triangles spinning and making explosions inside an oddly designed oblong semicircle.
Part 8: Parting is such sweet sorrow
Although I could have kept it for my not-yet-existant collection, selling it would allow me to make some cash and go on to the next project relatively quickly. With all the examples on sale and studying the market for the car in my area, I put the car on ebay with a $11,500 Buy-It-Now, giving others the option to send reasonable offers. After a few deabeat bidders, including one coming from out of state, then saying the car was "too small", I sold the little Japanese rocket for $10,000 to a local enthusiast who couldn't wait to drive it. Here's the rundown of cost for this car:
|1993 Mazda RX7||-$5,000.00|
|Brake Rotors and Pads||-$160.00|
|Misc. Int. Parts||-$60.00|
|Welding for Seats||-$120.00|
I got paid nearly 4 grand to restore and drive a Mazda RX-7, one of the most interesting cars ever made. I'd call that a good day.
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