Tuesday, November 7, 2023

My Old Car

This post celebrates my weird old car's 30thbirthday. It is a Mazda RX-7 dated November 1993, carrying the California license RX7 DSHR. I bought it new and in the almost 30 years since have driven it for nearly 140K miles. Unusually for an RX-7 this old, it is almost completely stock and has never been on a track.

Below the fold, I recount an RX-7 saga spanning thirty-eight years and well over a quarter-million miles.

I moved to California to work at Sun Microsystems in September 1985, so I needed a car. For the first few weeks, Andy Bechtolsheim lent me his Porsche 944, which was really fun to drive, but too expensive. On an earlier visit to California a friend had driven me on part of Highway One in her first-generation (FB) RX-7. I'd been impressed by the handling and the smooth power delivery of the rotary engine, so I test drove a second-generation (FC) RX-7. It was immediately apparent that this was, in effect, a Porsche 944 at half the price, so I bought one in white with the "Sport" package (rear spoiler, stiffer suspension).

The car had more performance than I really needed and excellent handling although the stiff suspension meant you really felt the "imperfections" in the road surface. Driving to and from Lake Tahoe in ski season with chains on was a bit of a trial. The FC served me well as my daily driver for nearly a decade and around 125,000 miles. These included several long road trips up the West Coast. The longest was from the Bay Area to Port Angeles, WA to collect my mother off the ferry from Victoria, BC and drive her back along the coast.

Eventually the FC got expensive to maintain and I needed a new car. By then Mazda had introduced the third-generation (FD) RX-7. I test-drove one and it was immediately apparent that it was a huge step up from the FC; it was a Porsche 911 for half the price. Of course, half the price of a 911 was still a lot more than half the price of a 944, so I used a broker to find a base model in white. It was hard to find; I subsequently discovered from Shawn Fanning that it was one of only 13 1994 base models imported. The FD was my daily driver until grandkids arrived; you can't put a child seat in it and even now the eldest is nearly my size their parents aren't OK with them riding in it.

Old school
Some of the things that make the FD a wonderful driving experience are:
  • The rotary engine, which is turbine-smooth as it races up to the 8,000 RPM red-line.
  • The light weight and stiff chassis.
  • The handling, thanks to its 49/51 weight distribution, wide track, short wheelbase, firm suspension, low polar moment of inertia, and positioning of the center of rotation right where the driver sits.
  • The gear-change which, while not quite as good as that on the MX-5, is crisp, short and in the right place.
  • The driver-focused interior with seats that really hug you, a simple set of classic analog dials, and no distractions — not even cup-holders!
These days I fairly often get appreciative waves and comments from other drivers. But my favorite was when, driving home from Mendocino, Vicky & I stopped for a short hike at Hendy Woods State Park. A 7-year old boy and his 5-year old brother watched us park, and the elder excitedly announced "that's a really cool car!". I said "I agree, but how did you know?" He replied "its in my video game." My guess is that it was Gran Turismo, but it could have been any of 27 games.

You can get an impression of the FD from the many reviews on YouTube, for example:
The three things every RX-7 review agrees on are that they are unreliable, that you have to watch out for the huge surge of power when the second turbo kicks in, and that the FD is among the best-handling sports cars ever.

The late, great Colin Chapman CBE famously advised designers to "simplify, then add lightness". Some things about the RX-7 are far from simple, such as the dual sequential turbochargers, but Mazda definitely added lightness. My RX-7 weighs 2789lb (GVWR 3210lb); it was around 1000lb lighter than the competition at the time, such as the Toyota Supra. For comparison, the recent lightened, super-sporty Porsche Carrera T weighs 3254lb, 17% more. Of course, the Porsche has a 3.0 liter twin-turbo flat-6 giving it 357HP for 220HP/ton whereas three decades earlier the RX-7 only had a 1.3 liter twin-turbo dual-rotor giving 255HP for 183HP/ton.

3lb jack
The Mazda RX-7: Mazda's Legendary Sports Car, Jack Yamaguchi and John Dinkel's incredibly detailed book, recounts how far they went. For example, this table compares some components of the FC (not a heavy car) with the FD:
Examples of Weight Reduction (lbs)
Oil Cooler6.43.33.1
Ignition Coil7.33.34.0
Exhaust System106.789.117.6
My favorite weight-saving example is that the jack is made out of aluminum! It weighs only 3lb. As Jason Cammisa explains, an obession with light weight was key to the design of the MX-5 Miata, by far the most successful sports car in history. In three and a half decades the MX-5 has gained only about 100lbs.

As regards unreliability, well yes, depending on how you treat an RX-7. All that weight-saving and power increase doesn't come for free, and things under the hood get really hot. The real reason the RX-7 is still on the road after nearly 140K miles and running well is the wonderful Ivan Koinok, who has taken care of it almost the whole time. The major items he has replaced include:
  • Factory re-manufactured engine (water seals failed at 110K miles)
  • OEM stock turbo (oil leak)
  • OEM stock flywheel and clutch (I cooked it)
  • Competition radiator
  • OEM front struts
  • secondary air injection pump
  • central processing unit
Except in stop-and-go traffic, driving the FD is a joy. Fortunately, California is well-equipped with RX-7-friendly roads, including CA1 South from Carmel through Big Sur, and North from Mill Valley to Fort Bragg, CA20 from Fort Bragg to Willits, and CA128 from Cloverdale to the coast.

Expansion of the universe
PS: Our other car is parent-approved for grandkid transportation. It is a base model 2012 BMW 128i coupe (E82) in white with no options. It was also a really difficult car to find; it took the dealership many weeks to find one on a ship heading for Eureka via Long Beach.

It is also a very enjoyable car to drive, being the last year the 128i coupe had the 3.0 liter naturally aspirated straight six. This generation of the 1-series was the basis for the legendary skunk-works project that developed the 1 series M coupe (Chris Harris loves his). Our old 128i is the way non-M BMWs used to be before they got fat and soft and turned into SUVs — a relatively (but compare with the 1970 BMW 2002) small 2-door with a big straight six, rear-wheel drive, good handling, and none of the modern driver distraction technology.


Fazal Majid said...

Congratulations on your excellent taste in motors. A cousin of my mother had one, and I'd considered getting a Wankel RX-8 but it was discontinued before I got to make the purchase.

Mazda's been announcing off and on it's considering making a fixed Wankel range extender for EVs, and then there is the LiquidPiston engine for military applications:


David. said...

A huge shout-out to Sid's Custom Upholstery of Mountain View, who did an outstanding job replacing a panel of the leather driver's seat. I made a rip in it by dropping a SparcStation 10 on it in the early days of Nvidia, and it has bothered me ever since. Fixing it was my 30th birthday present for the car.

David. said...

Dan Neil gets where I'm coming from in The Sex Appeal of Previously Owned. The sub-head is:

"Why are so many Americans forgoing new vehicles? Used cars are not just a better bargain, they retain designs and features more coveted than their high-tech replacements."

Neil writes:

"In fact, new-car deniers form a broad coalition of the unpersuaded. Some fear that new, digitally connected vehicles could expose their personal information to the Chinese -- or worse, to their insurance agencies. Other modern marvels people seem eager to avoid include stop/start cycling systems, which shut off engines to save fuel when vehicles are stationary, now all but mandatory in new vehicles; continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), commonly found in compact vehicles with small-displacement engines; and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), a post-combustion exhaust treatment that modern turbo diesel engines can't live without.

Others are just trying to hang on to the good things they've got, like three-pedal stick-shifted manual transmissions, virtually extinct in new cars. Or built-in CD players. What unites them is the conviction that older cars are not just cheaper, but better -- and that touch screens suck. We'll circle back to that.

I cast a wide net on social media last month, posing this question: Name a new car/truck/SUV that is not as desirable as the design it replaces? I got back a long and distinguished list, a roll call of the compromised: Toyota Land Cruiser; Mini Cooper; Ford Mustang; Toyota Crown (nee Avalon); Ford F-150; just about every model of BMW you can think of."