It's difficult to picture now, but the Mazda RX-7 debuted 40 years ago during the "malaise" era in U.S. history, when Americans were less concerned about sports cars than picking the right gas-miser hatchback.
But Hiroshima's pocket-size GT, which went up against the Toyota Celica, Porsche 924 and Datsun 280Z, was not disconnected from the trends of the time. The compact coupe paired a rotary engine with an impossibly sleek and well-proportioned body and a spacious cabin. The RX-7 built upon knowledge gained from Mazda's previous rotary models, working to reduce fuel consumption at a time when fuel was very much at a premium. The 12A engine produced 100 hp with a displacement of just 1.1 liters, which made it a lively performer back in the day, even if blistering quarter-mile times were not its goal.
Just over 417,000 first-generation RX-7s were produced between 1978 and 1985. The second-generation RX-7 added a turbo, and the shape was updated as well — making it a little heavier visually and adopting the boxier look of the 924. But the attributes of the rotary engine remained, allowing the RX-7 to compete with vastly heavier and pricier cars in the segment. By the time production ended with the third generation of the car in 2002, over 800,000 examples had left the factory.
Noting the car's anniversary, Mazda said: "The RX-7's success in competition around the globe further cemented its position as one of the world's best sports cars. [It] took overall victory in the 1981 Spa 24 hours, competed at Le Mans, took part in the awe-inspiring world of Group B rallying and claimed the 1980 and 1981 BTCC titles. In the USA, the RX-7 took an unmatched 100 wins in 12 years of IMSA competition and won the GTU class at the 1979 Daytona 24 hours."
But race resume aside, it is the sheer beauty of the RX-7 that sticks with us. As our colleagues at sibling publication Autoweek pointed out: "There are few 40-year-old cars that you can buy today that look as modern ... as the Mazda RX-7."