A History of Vehicles – ’85 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE

On tonight’s episode of Tribulations and Trials of the Impulse Buyer

Flying alone underneath the tree canopy, I flick on the main beam. Though the lights are merely halogens, I marvel at how effective the H4s are in the night. The light seems to fill every nook in front of me, yet there’s a softness that preserves the colors. The darker green of the canopy, the lighter tones of lichen along the trunks, the mustard colored divider tightening up to the right…

With a slight feint, I huck the car in. The archaic rear stick-axle wants to slide, so I let it. The FB RX-7 does not want to be driven tidy, it wants to move. Happily, it seems faster this way. Switchback after switchback, come in with speed, flick the unassisted Nardi Classico, and delight in the tiny angles it clears the apex with.

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This bit of yaw becomes more addicting with each and every corner. A harder turn-in here, more enthusiastic throttle there, and it starts to feel like we’re really moving. Down to second gear, back on the throttle, ignore the tach needle. Wait for the RPM buzzer then grab third. The road narrows and the divider disappears behind me as I enter the fun section. Coming to a hairpin, the middle pedal talks to me, a deliberate throttle opening helps me down into second. As I crank in the wheel the power steering suddenly decides it’s alive again. The once heavy steering wheel spins in my hands as the nose over-tightens and reminds me what snap understeer feels like. What. The. Hell.

I un-wind the wheel, back the pace off, and try to come to terms with the now pinwheel light steering. Finally, I ask myself…

Why did I buy this thing?

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Until now all of my car purchases were at least half planned. Even my first bucket, the Volvo wagon, had been something I’d coveted before it was offered to me. Under the guise of being open minded I’ve flit from car to car never holding on to one for very long. But fourteen cars later, finding new experiences is becoming more difficult. To that point, I’ve “wasted” a couple years bouncing back and forth between E30s and Miatas, letting them go for the same reasons again and again.

After the discontented sale of my Honda S2000, I was at a loss for what to try next. For the couple years leading up to the Honda’s acquisition, I had pegged it as the be all end all, the perfect car for me. I hadn’t anticipated that all the stuff that made it great would also make it difficult to enjoy; but the challenge remained. How do you replace a car that, even still, was the best you ever owned?

I’ll tell you. Not like this.

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Patience is a virtue I am not intimately familiar with. The S2000 was barely out of sight when I took to Craigslist to find my next headache. It would seem though, with the summer driving season having ended, the only rides I would come across would be the refuse that didn’t sell during the its peak. Owners that wouldn’t smog their wares for the transfer, dudes who wanted to meet at midnight in a seedy part of town, and crusher-ready cars that [allegedly] only needed a $15 part to pass inspection littered the results.

I nearly broke my “No Engine Swaps” rule for a cool second. Though I like the idea of them, the notion of finding a sorted one for a few thousand dollars is a fool’s dream. That didn’t stop me from dragging a friend to the north bay to look over the 302 swapped Volvo sedan that I mentioned in an earlier post. Luckily, I put two whole seconds of thought toward my inability to diagnose the battery warning lights on the dash and rode home empty handed.

Perhaps unluckily, the same friend that drove me out to view the Volvo suggested I buy a mutual friend’s FB RX-7. Weary of my search, in dire need of a good drive, and freshly disappointed from another CL bust, I gave in to the idea almost immediately. As good as I am at talking friends out of purchases, I’m equally as skilled talking myself into them. To make matters worse I’d driven this particular RX-7 once before, retaining only positive memories of it. Its shape reminded me of a 240Z. The huckability -if you will- brought to mind the traits people use to describe AE86 Corollas. The engine reminded me of the FC RX-7s I’d lusted after in high school, and its shifter’s slick engagement reminded me of the S2000 I had just sold.

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An exchange of Facebook messages and a half-assed test drive later found me discovering that it was none of those cars. Like several projects before it, a good night’s drive would see me online, digitally building my ideal RX-7 one parts order at a time. Some coil-overs from Techno Toy Tuning, a set of the vintage BBS wheels that always seem to litter the local classifieds, and everything I could bolt on from Racing Beat’s catalogue. But after a bad night’s, or even a mediocre night’s drive I would slowly realize I didn’t want the car for what it was, but for what it had in common with cars it wasn’t.

Against the 240Z, it did not have as classic a visage, especially when compared to the earlier S1 RX-7s. Tossable as the car was, the steering’s dead-spot on center seemed at odds with the rest of the car, bringing to mind my old BMW E28 rather than the Tofu Delivery Vehicle I first compared it to. Against FC RX-7s, I’d realized I had really pined after the bridgeported nastiness allowed to rotaries not registered in California. A Dyson has more character than the motor CARB demands I maintain. For moments at a time, I understood why people put piston motors in these chassis. And while the shift lever slickness reminded me of the S2000, every single downshift was an exercise in frustration, as all twenty-six pounds of the GSL-SE’s stock flywheel dampened any zing the engine seemed otherwise capable of.

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In a way, the RX-7 GSL-SE is stuck between two eras, lacking the benefits of either. It has old-school charm, but isn’t quite so old to have all of the vintage styling or the carte blanche emissions allowances of cars a few years older. With fuel injection, it certainly has great drivability compared to the cars immediately before it, but [CARB legal] tuning options are limited. This also extends to the antiquated suspension and the difficulty in sourcing options that don’t require cutting, welding, or some expensive halfway solution that’s still compromised.

Add to all that the deferred maintenance and repairs not considered when I bought it. Intermittent power steering, a dead fuel gauge (in my only Rotary powered car…), and what I thought was a weak clutch master headed the “Needs Attention” list. None of this was insurmountable, but all of these challenges would have required money and effort that I wasn’t motivated to bestow on a car that didn’t have my heart in the first place. A car is only as good as you want it to be. And for you to want it to be great, you have to want the car itself. If you want a 240Z (like I still do) you should buy one. Or you should buy an AE86, or an FC3S. Whatever it is that you desire you should pursue it, or else be prepared for the disappointment when you find that your stopgap is just that, a temporary way to fill a need.

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