P.S. I am writing this postscript after reading the interview once again before posting it. I really envy Alan. He shares a passion for cars, like we all do. But his knowledge of cars and his ability to convey his passion and knowledge with words...it's beautiful.
1. How did you find the RX-7? I found it scouring Craigslist while hunting for cars to write about on Bring a Trailer. I couldn't believe the price or condition and got on the phone at the earliest decent hour the next morning.
2. What's the back story? How many owners? Where did it live its life? Unfortunately documentation was limited to the title. No maintenance or previous ownership history, but the seller claimed to have bought it from the original, San Diego-based owner a few months prior. A Palmdale farmer with a small collection of desert toys that suggested he had a thing for interesting machines, he had bought the car as a surprise gift for his son who had just begun driving. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he told me he passed on it in favor of his grandmother's 2001 Kia Spectra because it had an MP3 input jack and A/C, though to be fair I'm not sure I'd want to daily drive a car without the latter in the desert, either.
3. What needs to be worked on? It needs a new transmission, I think. It shifts well but bearings sound like a cement mixer in all gears except for straight-through fourth and when the clutch is depressed. A common fault on early, optional 5-speeds from what I've read and not necessarily an indication of abuse. Fortunately they're cheap, easy to find, and easy to replace. Door gaskets are dried out and ugly, but I've got a set of NOS replacements on order. I've got plugs, wires, cap and rotor on hand but haven't gotten around to putting them in. Gear oil in the diff and trans have been changed with Royal Purple synthetic (the latter in a failed and expensive attempt to cure the cement mixer syndrome), engine oil and filter have been changed, coolant system flushed, and the air and fuel filters are fresh as well. Everything else feels great--tight suspension, good clutch, brakes, steering and so on.
It's been repainted in the original red at some point, but it was only a so-so single-stage job that's fading pretty heavily. Thinking of taking it down to Tijuana and getting it resprayed by the guy who did my brother-in-law's beautiful '87 Jetta coupe. He paid something like $1,200 for a better-than-OEM, window and trim-out job with some minor dent removal, too. I don't want to spend too much on it, but the car is so straight and clean it really deserves to look its best.
4. What's your plan for the car? Keep it? Flip it? That's the debate. My wife approved the purchase on my sincere plans to flip it, but she knows I've always wanted an early RX-7, too, and has softened her stance on the matter since I've brought it home. Her dad and brother are gearheads, too, and she has a casual appreciation for cool old cars, but this is the first old, small Japanese sports car I've brought home that she really likes. I'll probably flip it before the end of the year, but in the meantime I'm taking my time to get it perfect first. Taking lots of late-night errand runs/joy drives, too.
5. It's a clown car, it's so tiny. How do 21st century humans fit in it? Haha, yeah. Good question. I'm a big dude, too. Well, wide, anyway. It's not super-roomy inside but it's not uncomfortably cramped for two, either. Plenty of leg and head room for my 5"9' frame and probably enough for someone three or four inches taller, too. I've never ridden on the shallow rear luggage compartment, though ;)
6. How is the handling? Brakes? Oh yeah, it needs tires. I haven't pushed it too hard yet because it's riding on nearly-bald Falkens. Having a hard time finding the correct 185/70/13's from a good brand. I might have to put my snobbiness to the side and order the Hankooks. The 205/55's on it right now just don't look right, and since the wheels are totally curb rash free and the car 100% stock the right look is important to me. Steering is by manual recirculating ball and feels distinctly old-fashioned--heavy, oiled, a bit slow-witted but with good off-center response. From what I can tell so far it feels light-footed with quick turn-in and very neutral balance, but seems like it will be very easy to steer on the throttle once I get new rubber. Feels like a well set-up chassis. Brakes have tons of gritty, analog feel and are a real joy to work thanks to minimal vacuum boost and a firm pedal, but aren't at all up to modern standards when it comes to raw stopping power. I don't tailgate.
7. Rotary engines are not known for their longevity. How did this one survive? Either it's been taken very good care of (warmed thoroughly always, taken to redline often, oil level checked often), or the 23k and change miles it shows on the five-digit odometer are accurate. Or both. Lots of things hint that the mileage may be accurate (near flawless-interior, clean, rust-free body, unworn pedal covers) while others (faded respray, worn tires) suggest it may have rolled over before. It's a mystery. It starts instantly with a few carb-priming throttle pumps even after sitting for a week. It likes some choke when cold, but I love how there's a whole little ritual to getting it going. I've started pre-mixing with a combination of 2-stroke and Marvel Mystery oils direct into the gas tank at fill-up. Rotary guys swear by it for extended apex-seal life. I don't know if it works but it's fun.
8. What is the significance of this model, in the grand scheme of Japanese performance cars? Well, as the first-ever year for the model it's the purest, simplest and earliest form of RX-7, arguably one of the most important Japanese sports car nameplates of all-time. In a narrower way I also think it makes for an interesting contrast to the ever-more complex and more capable versions that followed it, though I suppose that's just expanding on my first answer. I also find it fascinating that for decades it stubbornly remained the only holdout to still use a rotary engine, when only a few years before its introduction the Wankel was widely being proclaimed to be the future of internal combustion.
9. Why do you like it so much? I like weird cars, and I like Japanese sports cars, and the RX-7 is just as much either of those things as it is the other. It's from the year of my birth, which is pretty cool. I like flip-up headlights, the way the engine has to be driven hard in order to stay healthy, I like the sound it makes and the smoothness with which it revs. I really enjoy the way it looks, especially at the rear. The way the tapered glass rear hatch makes the car's narrow hips appear much wider than they really are, the broad, flat-deck just aft of the lid and simple, split tail lamps below remind me of the exotic first generation Cosmo somehow, and really sum up what I enjoy about old Japanese cars' aesthetic in one neat little snapshot. Little quirks like the big, centrally-mounted tach that doubles as a pre-ignition voltmeter, forward-tilting hood, the way the bright blue air filter housing withMazda Rotary Engine markings dominates the engine bay view. It's more than the sum of its parts, too, there's just something about it that's impossible to convey. It just feels special.
10. What happened to the Lexus? Do you miss it? I sold it to my wife's crazy uncle. An ex Qualcomm satellite engineer who loves first generation LS400's and telling stories about how his drinking buddy Nelson Piquet would pick him up in a helicopter at his (the uncle's) cattle ranch in Brazil outside of Rio. Guy's been everywhere and done everything and isn't shy about telling anyone who will listen. His '91 had recently suffered an engine failure following a bad overheating incident (faulty thermostat that failed when he was stuck in bad northbound Tijuana/San Diego border crossing traffic) and I knew he would take good care of mine. I've been told we can take it out and valet park it at a nice restaurant next time we're feeling fancy.