The truth about Rotaries

What are Wankels REALLY like to own?

3y ago
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First, some history about the Rotary.

Apart from the ancient, interesting, but very flawed NSU RO80's Mazda are the only manufacturer who persisted with trying to perfect the revolutionary Internal Combustion Engine design by Dr. Felix Wankel. Let's start with a bit of the history and evolution of the Mazda Rotary line, latterly identified by the RX model prefix.

The first model released to the unsuspecting public in 1965 was the Series 1 Cosmo. The Cosmo featured a two rotor design (designated the 10A) which displaced 982cc.

Mazda Cosmo Series 1 - 1965

Mazda Cosmo Series 1 - 1965

The early Cosmos suffered a number of flaws, including very high oil and fuel consumption, and were quite under-powered compared to their contempories. Nowadays considered quite collectible, the price for good examples has increased steadily.

The series 2 Cosmo was released in 1968, and was lighter with a lot of (not visible) improvements which added much needed reliability and performance.

1968 also saw the release of the (now much loved and desired) R100 model.

Mazda R100, with the 10A Rotary.

Mazda R100, with the 10A Rotary.

The R100 is often hot rodded with a late model 13B rotary and huge Turbo. They are light and agile, and many hit the drag strips.

R100 Drag Car

R100 Drag Car

1973 saw the Bertone styled Mazda 929 re-engined with a 13A Rotary, and called the Luce, or R130. The 13A boasted a 1300cc displacement producing 126hp. The Luce was FWD - the only Rotary to be made so. Luces are now rare and very collectible.

Mazda Luce with 13 Rotary.

Mazda Luce with 13 Rotary.

The next model to hit dealerships was the very slick looking RX-2, featuring a newer design engine, the 12A, with 130hp.

Mazda RX-2 with 12A Rotary

Mazda RX-2 with 12A Rotary

The 1974 RX-3 came next, and was only sold new in Japan (IIRC). Possibly the prettiest of the pre-RX-7 rotaries, the RX-3 is also loved by modders and famous as a burn-out machine (some say).

1974 Mazda RX-3 Coupe

1974 Mazda RX-3 Coupe

Having been on a roll so far, in 1975 Mazda released the ugly duckling of Rotaries - the Roadpacer! Based on an imported Holden Premier, the Roadpacer was laden down with accessories (including a fridge!) and performed like a wounded tortoise, even with the new and larger 13B Rotary . Not the brightest of ideas or best cars from Mazda. Fortunately quite rare, as they never sold well.

Next (1976) came the also ugly RX-4. The RX-4 also got the slightly bigger, and more torquey 13B engine which was used with minor tweaks for some years.

1976 Mazda RX-4

1976 Mazda RX-4

1981 brought the world a new generation of Cosmo. Again, these didn't sell particularly well, and were heavy. To get power to an acceptable level, they were later fitted with a 3-rotor engine designated the 20B.

Mazda Cosmo HB

Mazda Cosmo HB

In 1984 the Rotary finally received a body and chassis which did it justice, as the gorgeous RX-7 was shown to the world. An instant hit with people of all ages, it was looked on by many as an affordable E-type substitute, and sold like hotcakes. The Series 1 RX-7 (or Savanna in some markets) performed brilliantly, outperforming most V-8's of the day, and being raced so successfully that they were banned in most competition classes. By now, oil consumption (although slightly higher than piston engines) was not excessive, and motors were reliable, often going hundreds of thousands of miles before rebuilds were necessary. Fuel consumption was high for the 1300cc capacity, but this was never a fair comparison, as the Rotary is in reality a 2-stroke, hence a 2600cc with V-8 performance.

1st Generation Series 1 (or SA22C) Mazda RX-7

1st Generation Series 1 (or SA22C) Mazda RX-7

The Series 2 (or FB) RX-7 improved on the first generation cars in most areas. Better interiors, tweaks to the looks and trim, and more power kept the RX-7 selling well and building the legend.

1st Generation Series 2 Mazda RX-7

1st Generation Series 2 Mazda RX-7

The Series 3 RX-7 was the third and final iteration of the First Generation cars, and signalled the end of the design. Upgraded trim, more power, and a Turbo option made these very popular and still very desirable.

1st Generation Series 3 Mazda RX-7

1st Generation Series 3 Mazda RX-7

In 1985 Mazda gave us the Porsche 944 look-alike, the Second Generation Series 4 RX-7s. For the first time a convertible was available. The convertible was the first car to adopt a wind -breaker behind the front seats. The Convertible was also the heaviest RX-7 ever made, due to the extra chassis bracing required by removing the roof. Mazda did some strange things with marketing these cars, with Turbos (only) available in some countries, and Normally aspirated (only) available in others. Although greatly improving performance, the Turbo cars suffered early demise in many cases, due to both the excessive heat created by the Turbos, and the 13B not having been beefed up to cope with the extra stresses. Here beginneth the reputation for Rotaries that didn't last.

1988 Mazda RX-7 (FC) Convertible. This example (mine!) has had a Turbo transplant from the later Series 5, along with the hood scoop for the top-mounted intercooler.

1988 Mazda RX-7 (FC) Convertible. This example (mine!) has had a Turbo transplant from the later Series 5, along with the hood scoop for the top-mounted intercooler.

1989 brought us the slightly revised Series 5, which was the last of the Second generation cars.

1989 Series 5 RX-7

1989 Series 5 RX-7

And in 1992 we received the Third Generation (FD) Rotaries. The FD's were stunningly beautiful, and no effort was spared in making them the ultimate RX-7. They featured a sequential twin-turbo system which made them pull like a banshee all the way from idle to redline. Nobody could sit in an FD and believe they were powered by what was rated as a 1300cc motor. With possibly the finest chassis to ever come out of Japan, the FD was an instant success on the race track, famously winning the Australian James Hardie 12-hour Bathurst production race 3 times against ever stronger and cheating Porsches! (the cheating is a fact - they were caught!).

1992 Series 6 Third Generation Mazda RX-7 FD

1992 Series 6 Third Generation Mazda RX-7 FD

The Series 7 FD was released in 1996, and featured minor updates and slightly higher power. Most easily identifiable by the revised rear spoiler, here is a superb example (mine!) :)

1997 Series 7 Third Generation Mazda RX-7 FD

1997 Series 7 Third Generation Mazda RX-7 FD

The final RX-7 was the Series 8. Again featuring minor updates, Mazda went crazy on special editions - some say to empty the parts bins before the end of the model run. The cost of making RX-7's was steadily getting higher, and some components were either omitted completely or replaced with cheaper parts.

1997 Series 8 Third Generation Mazda RX-7 FD

1997 Series 8 Third Generation Mazda RX-7 FD

2002. The beginning of the end of the rotary. The RX-8 was released with a new variation of the 13B - the 13B Renesis. The RX-8 was never given a Turbo - probably in an attempt to claw back some costs - and was a disappointment after the now legendary late model RX-7's. In it's own right the RX-8 was a great handling and reasonably adequately performing sports car, but it never really got the love from the public that it deserved. Shortcuts in manufacturing to keep costs down and to meet ever-increasing emissions standards led to a number reliability issues that eventually brought about the demise of the Rotary for Mazda and the world. The last RX-8's rolled off the line in 2008. One interesting feature of the RX-8 was a back seat which was accessible via suicide rear doors! Very cool.

Mazda RX-8

Mazda RX-8

So - what is it like to own a Rotary?

The intention of this article was to relate my rotary-owning experiences, and I got a bit carried away with the history of it all. Please note that this history relates to cars as they were sold in Australia, and that models and years were different in some other countries.

My first Rotary was the original RX-7 Series 1 (or Savanna). The car was red, and I really bought it as a bit of a toy, and to save putting miles on my XJ-12. I quickly grew to love the amazing handling, and the responsive and willing little 12A Rotary, which just revved and revved! I did a lot of miles in that little car, and when I sold it (still running great!) it had over 200,000 miles on it - and had never been pulled apart or suffered any major breakages. And I beat on it - hard.

I replaced the Series 1 with a Series 2, which I kept completely stock looking. It proved to be a fantastic sleeper, and many a V8 went down to it in traffic-light "departures". Again I beat on it and beat on it. I did many long interstate trips, often sitting it on 100mph+ for hours at a time in temperatures of 40 degrees plus. It never let me down, it was quiet, comfortable and a fantastic daily driver. I did eventually manage to over-heat it (the radiator turned out to be blocked) and kill the main water seal. This was "professionally" fixed with radiator stop-leak, and I drove the car daily for another 2 years, just topping up the stop-leak once or twice a year. When I eventually went to trade in the car, a friend grabbed it, knowing of the problem and prepared to replace the engine. He also drove it for several years with stop-leak before putting it in a shed and forgetting it (last I heard).

Life sort of got in the way a bit from here, and I was driving larger cars for a few years for business reasons. I almost always had a first-gen RX-7 around as a weekend toy though, replacing them occasionally as another interesting one popped up. I had NO major parts fail on ANY of these cars, just tyres, batteries and other maintenance stuff. So where was all the unreliability? And trust me, I WASN'T going soft on these cars, I mostly drove them like I stole them. Maybe they prefer that? I don't know.

After driving an MX-5 for a couple of years (And loving it despite not being a Hair-dresser) I really missed not having a convertible in my life. When somebody made me an offer for my current toy RX-7 I went looking for a convertible FC. They weren't thick on the ground in those days. They had been priced at $77,000 in Australia, so not many were sold. And the Japanese imports were still a couple of years away. I eventually found a really clean car in a (shonky) dealers yard, drove it, loved it. But I couldn't make a deal that worked for me so I walked away. Several months later the car popped up in an advert, and it turned out that the car had been on consignment to the dealer. The owner was willing to sell at an acceptable price. So it became mine.

Some 20 ? years later I still own this car. It has been beat on like all my other rotors, and raced in a street class at our local raceway (Mallala). I've taken it down the drag strip (only one night - it was boring as hell!) where I embarrassed a bunch of local boy racers in their Holdens and Fords.

Again it has never failed me. I replaced a slipping and very worn clutch in it once, a radiator once. That's it. To be fair the motor does need a freshen up, but it's done a lot of miles now, with a decent amount of boost, and it has had a pretty hard life.

In 2000 I bought a very low mileage Series 7, which I promptly took out to the track where it surpassed all expectations. In the quest to go faster (and being of very limited driving talent myself) I made a lot of performance mods - which I sort of regret now, I wish I'd kept it stock, and will probably return it to that one day. In it's current form it is, however a beast that leaves me shaking every time I get to give it a decent run.

Problems? Two. I had an off-track excursion which damaged the dwell sensor and gave all the symptoms of a damaged rotor seal, so we pulled the motor down. Only to find that everything was perfect, and only then looking further and finding the real fault. The second was a slightly damaged secondary turbo when running ridiculous amounts of boost through the standard turbos. This suited me at the time, because it was an excuse to go single turbo.

My conclusion.

I've had nothing but great experiences with my rotaries. I've definitely had no more trouble than I would have had with high-performance piston motors, and in all likelihood a lot less.

I DO look after my cars though. I warm them up before I drive them hard, I run to redline often, but rarely over. And I change fluids often and watch temperatures and fluid levels like a hawk.

I believe that a huge part of the myth of unreliable rotaries is brought about with the import of high mileage FD's from Japan, where the dealers wind the clock back in order to maximise their profit and make the cars more appealing. There are numerous documented examples of dealers being prosecuted for this low act, especially in Sydney, Australia.

I have loved every minute I've spent in my RX-7's. People often stop to talk about them, or chat to you at the traffic lights and tell you how much they love your car, or that they had one once, etc.

I don't care about the myths. I haven't found them to be true, and I don't foresee NOT having a rotary in my garage. Ever.

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