Less well-known than the Nissan GT-R Skyline but every bit as brilliant on road and track
By John Howell / Monday, 29 August 2022 / Loading comments
Think of a Japanese hero car. No doubt many minds will be gravitating immediately to the Nissan Skyline GT-R. And rightfully so. Going back to its original form, which was introduced in 1969, we’re talking about a high-revving, 2.0-litre, straight-six punching out 230hp at 8,400rpm, with butch looks and a mega racing pedigree. All the hallmarks of a hero car, then.
It was so successful in the Japanese racing scene between 1969 and 1972 that people began saying that ‘the Skyline’s only rival is the Skyline’. That was true. It won 50 races in that period; 49 of them on the trot. But the car that spoiled its chance to make that 50 wins in a row was the even higher-revving, rotary-engined Mazda RX-3. And while the RX-3 isn’t as obviously a hero in people’s minds, it’s definitely a car worth celebrating. So that’s what we’re going to do.
Mazda immediately went racing with the RX-3 after its launch in 1971. And by December that year it had chalked up its first home-market win – at the Fuji Tourist Trophy meeting. Less than six months after that, in May ’72, it romped home with a first, second and third at the Fuji Touring Car Grand Prix. Plus it reigned supreme in the Fuji Grand Champion Touring Car championship, taking class titles in ‘72, ‘73 and ‘75. Six seasons later, at the end of the 1976 JAF Touring Car Grand Prix, the little Mazda had chalked up its 100th win in Japan .
And it wasn’t only successful at home. In Australia’s gruelling Bathurst 1000 there was a second-in-class in ‘73 and, in ’75, one better: class victory and fifth overall. Only the thundering V8 Holdens were ahead at the end. In the US it also took the fight to Porsche and Ferrari at the Daytona 24 Hours. It didn’t beat them, true, but sealed a class third in ’75, while this side of the pond it battled away in the European Touring Car Championship, including the Spa 24 Hours. A privately entered RX-3 even raced at Le Mans.
Well, the old ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ thing paid off. Mazda’s profile exploded as a result of its competition successes, and the Wankel’s unreliability issues, which had sealed – excuse the unintentional pun – the NSU Ro80’s fate, were seen by the world not to be holding back the RX-3. Sales boomed. And you could buy a rotary-powered RX-3s in coupé, saloon and even estate guises. Confusingly, you could also buy a piston-engined RX-3. Even more confusingly, it was called the 808 in markets not covered by Peugeot, but in those where Peugeot was active it was the 818 – Peugeot’s claim to the number ‘0’ in the middle of three digits saw to that, just as it had the Porsche 901. Anyway, the point is that the Wankels were massively outselling the four-pots. Mazda sold 105,819 RX-3’s in 1973 alone, by which point the total number of rotary-engined cars delivered had reached 500,000.
Why? Well, it was all about power. The earliest RX-3’s had the 10A rotary motor. It had a tiny 982cc swept volume yet it produced around 110hp. The larger-capacity, piston-engined 818s were more economical, sure, averaging around 32mpg to the Wankel’s 25mpg, but this was just before the fuel crisis; who cared about the cost of fuel when the rotary models offered so much more speed. Put it this way: you could spend £1,298 on a 1,272cc Mazda 818 Coupé and it would hit 0-60mph in a humdrum 15 seconds; or spend another £335 on the RX-3 and chop that to around 10 seconds. Then Mazda launched the 12A in ’72, with capacity enlarged to 1,146cc. That said, it wasn’t a lot more powerful at first as a result of strangling emissions regulations.
Wankels, though, were a no brainer. Right up until the price of petrol rocketed and sales of the RX-3 plummeted. Mazda dropped it in 1976, leaving the four-cylinder 818s to soldier on for a few more years. The estate was dropped in ‘78 and, finally, the saloon and coupé went south a year later.
So the RX-3’s light had burned brightly but not for long. That’s perhaps why so few people remember it today. And all the more reason, we thought, to take up Mazda’s offer of popping down to Kent to have a spin in its heritage RX-3 Coupé. This car’s had an interesting life. It was bought from a private collector who’d done a full restoration himself. A slightly iffy one, it must be said, because the paint has a few bubbles appearing here and there but most of the bodywork and interior are thought to be original. It came with few mods, though.
Like a set of Ford wheels, which have now been changed for a period set with chrome hubcaps and wafer-thin, 155/80 13 Continentals. Also, the original 10A unit had been swapped for a later 12A motor and five-speed manual ‘box from an RX-7. That’s been left in situ, as has the uprated radiator, electric fan and beefier alternator that came with it. There’s more, too. It’s also sporting an improved high-voltage electrical system – twin MSD coils, no less – and a twin-barrel Weber carburettor topped with sponge filters. Oh yes, and a big bore exhaust that, I was told, is near enough a straight-through pipe.
Now, this worried me. Once, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, I was in the paddock stood next to an 80s RX-7. That had a race pipe and it sounded God awful: loud, but also screechy and unpleasant. I was concerned that the RX-3 was going to blow its hero status by sounding equally abrasive. So when it fired into life with this lovely, fruity little note I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised but a tad relieved.
As it sat outside warming up, I thought I’d have a peak under the bonnet. It’s an bizarre thing to see a rotary engine if you’re not used to one. For a start, it’s tiny and nothing like any engine you’ve ever seen. I was trying to think what it reminded me of. Then it popped into my head: have you’ve ever repaired a washing machine? It’s like looking at one with the top off and peaking down at the exterior of the drum. Just a little metal barrel, basically.
The RX-3 brings other things to mind, too. There are elements of muscle car about its exterior, especially in its flanks. The rear quarters have more than a little of the ’69 Dodge Charger’s coke bottle about them, only a fraction of the size. In fact, the RX-3 is just as tiny as its engine. There happened to be an early, chrome-bumpered Porsche 911S sitting under a cover next to it, and I was sure the RX-3 was no bigger. I was right, too, mostly. It’s 4,075mm long and 1,595mm wide, which makes it shorter and narrower than the 911. It’s a little taller, but by only 55mm, and the wheelbase is 42mm greater, too, stretching to a ‘mighty’ 2,310mm.
It’s also dripping with exquisite details. Take the old-style Mazda badges, which have the arms of the ‘M’ extended at either end. This is set in a Wankel-rotor-shaped triangle and the whole thing is 3D. Behind it there’s a black honeycomb grille, surrounded by twin headlights and a slim, chrome bumper below. At the back, the pair of three roundel taillights are another attempt at yank styling. But these look every bit the Japanese knock-off they are, surrounded by sprayed sliver surrounds. It still looks cool from the rear, mind, especially with the two-and-a-half-inch diameter, matt black exhaust pipe jutting out menacingly underneath. This was now filling the air with the sweetly pungent aromas of half-burnt hydrocarbons. Very old school. Very cool, too.
Right, when the engine was warm I hopped inside. I expected a struggle to fit but the little Mazda surprised me. It’s not exactly flush with space but comfortable enough and I could use all the controls. I found myself admiring even more delicious details inside as well. Yet more miniature muscle-car motifs, like the sloping glovebox and recessed dials – only here, the rev counter red-lines at very un-muscle-car-like 7,000rpm.
It’s well equipped, too. I mean that by ’70s standards, of course. This being the Super Delux model means such fantastic luxuries such as…a push-button radio, three extra dials and a clock at the top of the centre stack, a heated rear window, a cigarette lighter, recirculating ventilation and a centre armrest. And how about that rather 1960s-looking three-spoke, thin-rimmed, wooden steering wheel? Proper stuff that. Except it’s actually vinyl wrapped and not wood. But who cares, it looks smart. The ignition key’s a work of art, too. There’s another squiggly Mazda ‘M’ logo set in sparkling, ruby-red enamel. It just looks so much nicer than any of the miserable, cheap plastic you see now.
“Please don’t disappoint,” I muttered to myself as I pulled away. And listening to the low-rev bark of the busy little snare drum up front, reverberating off the narrow Victorian terrace of townhouses in Tumbridge Wells, it didn’t. Sure, it’s loud. Not enough to annoy me, but enough to almost certainly annoy the infamous Mr. Disgrunteled of Tumbridge Wells, which seemed like a great way start things off. It’s not an unusual-sounding engine at the bottom of the rev range. It sounds like a cross between an MGB’s B-Series and a Jaguar E-Type’s XK, with a lovely, almost metallic burble.
Once beyond the confined Victorian streets, experiencing the freedom offered by the Garden of England’s rolling countryside, I could wind the thing up. That changed the noise dramatically. The parp of the RX-3’s whizzing rotors become truly distinct as the revs piled on. Imagine a large-capacity two-stroke chainsaw, fitted with a cherry bomb. Now you’re about halfway there. If that sounds like a bit of a grating racket it really it isn’t. It’s great, just very unlike anything else. The engine’s never anything less than perfectly balanced, but the noise has already gone a bit rogue by 5,500rpm and just plain wicked as you whizz from there towards 7,000. It’s a little tin-roofed hornet on wheels, humming away enthusiastically. Hard edged but so pleasing to the ears, and then there’s the way it revs…seriously, it’s on a never-ending quest to headbutt the red line.
And aren’t rotary engines supposed to lack torque? There is a blackhole when I shove my foot down hard at 2,000rpm, but that’s not a general lack of torque. It’s a hesitation. A fault, which we later discover is a vacuum pipe hanging off that should’ve be plugged onto the ignition advance. Well, it wouldn’t be a classic car without a few foibles, right? Otherwise, the engine picks up and pulls superbly in any gear. Okay, it’s a little laboured if you’re in third, heading up a steep hill and the revs are at the bottom-third of the dial, but otherwise, wow is it linear. It just keeps pulling and pulling and pulling.
That’s not all that’s good about it. It’s also very responsive (again, bar the errant vacuum pipe issue) and relatively quick. Nice quick. Not too fast. Useably fast, so you can stoke up its spirit without breaking the speed limit. My guess is the combination of modified carb, coils and exhaust pipe are adding handsomely to the standard 12A’s 110hp. If it didn’t need two gearchanges to hit 60mph, I reckon it’d be knocking on that particular door from a standstill in eight or so seconds. Certainly quick enough breeze easily past an MGB of the period.
Mind you, that’s not to suggest the gear changes are a blight, just the shortish ratios. It’s a lovely little ‘box. The gear lever is quite tall but that doesn’t seem to affect its precision. It slots into every gear with a delightfully mechanical, cog-meshing clack, and when the gear’s engaged the gear the lever stops. Dead. No rubberiness. No sloppiness. Just proper engineering, right there in the palm of your left hand. Better still, the pedal box is offset to the right, which sounds bad but means that, even with my gangly limbs, I could just manage to blip the throttle on downshifts. Not only does this sound great but it means I not going to lock up the rear axle.
That would’ve surely been a distinct possibility, because the skinny tyres don’t provide much grip. For that I give praise, because on a day of summer downpours the RX-3 would do a little dance – a 20mph four-wheel drift – around roundabouts. Now that’s fun, and with no danger of hitting anything because it’s all happening in slow motion. Except the smiles. They appear in a flash. Speaking of slow motion, I had been warned that it doesn’t stop very well. It’s definitely true that the lack of grip means it locks up quite easily, but the pedal is solid and feelsome, so you can finesse the cadence braking to scrub the speed well enough. This also becomes part of the interactive fun.
I can’t say there was a lot I didn’t like about the RX-3, to be honest. There’s not a vast amount of sensation from the unassisted steering box, and it’s a bit light and vague to begin with. But once you’ve cranked on a few more degrees and overcome the flex in the sidewalls, it builds a decent degree of resistance and accuracy. So much so, you end up steering with your fingertips: yes, it’s one of those kind cars. And I love those cars. I also love the body control, which is surprisingly good for something with a live axle. Only severe bumps on a quick country road get it skipping. Generally, it floats along feeling controlled and damping out the undulations quite happily. The car’s light, though, so that helps. I am told 884kg, which no doubt is why it rides so well – it’s a noisy ride, but the RX-3 was miles more pliant than the modern, family SUV it’d driven down in.
Even the seat is comfy. That’s fairly unusual for an old car but it’s true: good cushioning, and grips you well in the corners so you’re not sliding around on all that shiny vinyl. Mind you, if it’s a hot day and there’s any skin-to-vinyl contact there’ll be no sliding. In fact, there’s every chance you’ll leave a layer of skin stuck to it when you get out it get so sticky. I suppose that’s a negative, then. Oh yes, and the seat belt garroted me. I didn’t like that very much, either. But I loved everything else about the RX-3, including finding out more about this ultra-rare car. Sadly, there are just 13 showing registered here in the UK, which is far to few for a hero. A true hero that’s shot right up there with the Skyline in my affections.
Specification | Mazda RX-3 Coupé
Engine: 1,146cc twin-rotor Wankel, naturally aspirated
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 110 @ 7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 100 @ 4,000rpm
0-60mph: 10.8sec (with standard 12A motor)
Top speed: 115mph
Weight: 884kg (DIN)
On sale: 1971-1976
Price new: £1,633
Price now: £30,000 (ish)
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