I was determined today to not do another Mopar or even an American car for Glorious Garbage, because I felt like I was already getting into a rut. I mean, it’s been two Plymouths and a Dodge so far – that’s hardly fair, right? So, with that in mind, I flew far, far from America for today’s honoree, leaving behind fuel-slurping V8s and, hell, even pistons themselves as I alight onto the shores of Japan, where we find an absolutely glorious bit of garbage: the 1973-1978ish Mazda RX3-SP.
Now, this is a car with a loyal and dedicated fan base, so I think many of you may be affronted by the application of the word “garbage” to this very collectible and desirable little car . If that’s you, I’d counsel taking a moment and remembering that despite the outsized power the word “garbage” commands, it’s partner to a very important modifier: glorious. The whole point of this series is to highlight cars that, while flawed, often deeply so, are also wildly desirable and charming cars, both in spite of and often because of those same features that shuffled them into the “garbage” camp. This isn’t just garbage – it’s Glorious Garbage, so please keep that in mind as we talk about this car.
For most people, if they know about the RX3-SP at all, they probably have seen one of these old ads, largely thanks to some art director’s determined use of a can of lighter fluid and a match:
Look at that! Flaming skidmarks going off into the distance, like what’s in the underpants of the intern who works at Taco Bell’s top secret test kitchen. Where the regular RX3 was what Mazda called the rotary version of their Grand Familia car (it also had conventional piston engine options) the RX3-SP took the RX3 coupé and added all kinds of stripes, a bigger radiator, the larger of the two possible gas tanks (because rotaries are thirsty), the higher-output two-rotor engines – two 491cc rotors for a total of 982cc and over 100 horsepower, though in later years emissions regulations pushed the displacement up and the power down, as in how in 1978 you had a 2-rotor 1146cc engine making just 95 hp.
And then there’s that amazing front air dam that could probably do snowplow work if you needed to in the winters, or at the very least force you to map driving routes that avoid any road obstacle taller than 20 cents of dimes stacked on each other. Oh, and there’s that rear window louver setup, which gives you all the louvering you could possibly need in day-to-day driving.
Still, that engine was a rotary, and that’s a huge factor in both the glory and garbage angles of the car. Mazda was, of course, one of the only companies that would sell you any sort of rotary engine at the time in America (and, really, the world) with everyone else, even pioneer NSU, getting out of the rotary business.
Mazda saw the marketing opportunities of being the only rotary maker, and played that up in ads. Even if they maybe came off a bit insecure? Like this one:
I appreciate the jaunty song there, but it takes some serious ‘nads to mock all piston engines with that boing-boing sound and the kid on the pogo stick – after all, literally every other fucking car, from a Trabant to a Rolls-Royce, used piston engines. So, 99.9% of the world’s cars are being propelled by ridiculous bouncing crap, Mazda? Is that the point here?
Bold. I admire it.
Also, why did that dude’s girlfriend abandon him in the woods? Because that rotary engine was so smooth?
The problem was, of course, that rotary engines, despite their smooth power delivery and undeniable technical elegance, were maintenance nightmares. Sure, it now had carbon-aluminum apex seals and advanced inner surface materials inside the engine, but that didn’t change the reality that rotaries were engines full of wear parts and burned oil by design and unless an owner had near obsessive levels of maintenance, things would wear out and engines would fail. Almighty forbid if you weren’t good about warming it up or let it overheat, too.
Getting 80,000 miles from a rotary like this back in the day was doing great. And, to Mazda’s credit, they had a five year/75,000 mile warranty, and the company swapped many, many rotary engines out under that generous plan. Maybe that guy’s girlfriend left him because she desperately wanted that smoooooth rotary goodness all to herself, but he can likely console himself with the knowledge that, like most of these ’70s rotary owners, she’d find herself stranded on the side of the road before too long.
But, when they did run, they were great! Lots of power for their displacement, that smooth, linear power delivery, and in cars like the confusingly-named-because-it-was-better Mazda RX2, with its rear coil springs instead of leaves, that power could really be used to deliver a fantastic driving experience.
The RX3s, though, had a live axle at the rear with leaf springs, you know, like what a horse carriage used in 1862. Or, I guess if I want to be less of a jerk, what a Ford Mustang used in 1965 (Also Mustangic on these? The taillight design). Anyway, this didn’t help handling, leading to period reviews of the RX3-SP from outlets like Car and Driver (quotes via Hemmings) saying things like
“The most limiting factor in the SP equation is the chassis, which was barely adequate for high jinks five years ago and remains so today,”
And then going on to complain about heavy, imprecise steering and then just getting downright mean when they described how the SP looked with its larger tires as
“A eunuch wearing holsters.”
Jesus, Car and Driver, take it easy.
So, what we have here is a car with decent power but an outdated chassis with marginal handling and a body design that tends to the garish side of hilariously overdone, and not great mechanical reliability as well. But, at the same time, we have a car with a really novel and interesting engine, a good basic design, excellent general build quality (the reliability issues are from design limitations, not how it was put together, you see) and gobs and gobs of character.
You can say all of this about the regular RX3s, but when you add in the intense stickerization and the air dam and other excesses of the SP version, you just spoon on more and more of the glorious. Look at that video up there of those SPs collected by that lucky fella. They’re just fun.
I’d say all of this adds up to some genuinely glorious garbage. And it’s not even Mopar.