Home » The Mazda RX3-SP Is The Rotary Coupé You Can’t Help But Love Even Though It’ll Probably Disappoint You: Glorious Garbage

The Mazda RX3-SP Is The Rotary Coupé You Can’t Help But Love Even Though It’ll Probably Disappoint You: Glorious Garbage

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

Rx3 Cutaway

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

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“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.

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Leo T.
Leo T.
10 months ago

How did the rx hierarchy work? 2 is better than 3, but what about the 4 and 6?

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
11 months ago

“any road obstacle taller than 20 cents of dimes stacked on each other.”

Yep that’s the new paradigm, it’s spread to all sorts of cars now.

Mike F.
Mike F.
11 months ago

I remember that ad, or maybe some similar ones. To this day, whenever I hear of a rotary engine Mazda, that “piston engine goes boing boing….” song comes back to me.

Thomas Benham
Thomas Benham
11 months ago

Old timer story here.
These were the shizz in SCCA showroom stock B class for a period in the late 70’s. SCCA had a claiming rule at the time to try and control costs and keep people from building cheater cars. An entrant could claim a competitor’s car for “Blue Book” value plus a set fee to help offset the cost of required safety equipment. By the time it was discovered that the RX3-SP was the hot car, they had become a little thin on the ground. A few cars got swapped around, some feelings got hurt, and SCCA dropped the claiming rule shortly after.

Spectre6000
Spectre6000
11 months ago

With all due respect, Torch, and there is much, you are the OG of an entire flavor of automotive journalism, you’re better than the cookie cutter anti-rotary tropes. You need to really get in that headspace or something to understand what the rotary engine’s particular soupcon of glorious garbage really is. Saying that they burn oil is kind of silly. They’re SUPPOSED to burn oil. If you complained that a BMW burned oil, and let’s be painfully clear, they ALL do prodigiously, you’d be 100% justified in your criticism. But to call that a demerit on an entirely different type of engine isn’t deserved. It’s like saying, “that jet turbine is great, but it spins too fast” or “that two stroke really packs a lot of power, but it sure doesn’t have many moving parts.” Ditto with warming it up and letting it overheat; what older engine doesn’t prefer to be warmed up (but still works just fine if you don’t), or doesn’t suffer damage if allowed to overheat? You MIGHT be justified in saying, “darn those rotaries and needing to be taken to their impossibly high redline regularly while the corners of my mouth do their damnedest to merge with my ear canals so my head flaps in the breeze like a Canadian in order to clear out carbon buildup in the exhaust ports” as that is not exactly a good thing that happens by design… But kind of a hard thing to complain about.

Mike G.
Mike G.
11 months ago
Reply to  Spectre6000

I believe Torch used the phrase “burned oil by design“, so who is being silly? 🙂

Also, while I agree with you that all engines in the 70’s were more finicky than they are today. I had a very close friend with a 2004 RX-8 and it still had all kinds of caveats to ensure long-term health. If you started it, you had to let it get fully warm before turning it off, so moving it out of the garage to the driveway turned into a 15-minute ordeal (if you were in a hurry). You had to lightly rev the engine before shutting it off to ensure no excess gas in the combustion chamber, for some reason I never understood. You couldn’t use synthetic oil in it because it was designed to burn non-synthetic oil only, synthetic could cause issues…

Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful car and a wonderful driver, but it was finicky, in 2004, like a car from the 70’s…

Spectre6000
Spectre6000
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike G.

He did say “by design”, but it was couched as a negative. That’s my point. It’s not a negative, it’s just something that is. It’s neutral.

I have a 2009 RX-8 sitting in my driveway right now. True story: yesterday I fired it up, moved it a hundred feet across the driveway, shut it off without anything special, changed the oil with Mobil 1 full synthetic, then had my wife move it back with her clean hands the same hundred feet so I could do the same to my BMW, and she shut it off again just like a normal car. Zero concerns about any sort of longevity or not starting or any other anything. Too much misinformation out there.

1961ford
1961ford
11 months ago

I had an 1974 RX-3 (not SP). Bought it with a used-up motor, transplanted a 13B from an RX-4. Only minor mods required to fit the slightly longer engine. Cut one coil from the front struts and removed the gas shocks to lower the car a couple of inches.
Instant 145 mph cruiser. It would easily outrun my friends’ malaise-era “muscle” cars.
Sold it before it turned into a rolling pile of rust like my earlier Mazdas.

Thomas Benham
Thomas Benham
11 months ago
Reply to  1961ford

Sold it before it turned into a rolling pile of rust like most my earlier Mazdas.

FTFY

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
11 months ago

(Please don’t tell your mother you’re going to buy one.)

I’m pretty sure my Satanic-Panic-era mom would never even have let me hang that add up on my wall.

J Ludwik
J Ludwik
11 months ago

it never ceases to amaze me how ugly americanised-bumper versions of cars look from this era

Erik Hancock
Erik Hancock
11 months ago

This is peak Glorious Garbage – part of you wants sooo desperately to believe it’s going to be great despite the mountain of evidence, instinct, advice, and worrying smells to the contrary.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
11 months ago

My grandparents owned an RX2 back in the day, and they’ve told me it was by far the most fun car they’ve ever owned. It was the only car they ever drove over 100 mph in, because they couldn’t help themselves, it was so fun. They probably would’ve been more than happy to drive it until the wheels fell off if not for one major problem:

They moved to a colder climate, and the poor little rotary engine simply could not handle the cold – it vapor locked every time they tried to start it when it was cold out. Since they literally couldn’t use the car for most of the year, they ended up having to sell it to make room for something they could actually use.

They’ve moved all over the country since then, so probably could’ve made do with the RX2 in places they’ve lived since, though it was too late to reasonably find another one by then. I think it’s still the car they miss the most.

Lincoln Clown CaR
Lincoln Clown CaR
11 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

My parents had an RX-2 in Wisconsin and vapor lock was definitely part of the story I heard from my dad. I seem to recall that they replaced the fuel pump with a different arrangement that might have helped. I think there was also a rotor seal replacement in there somewhere. Which is why it was surprising when he bought a Turbo II 10 years later.

ScottyB
ScottyB
11 months ago

I could live with something in the neighborhood of 100% less stickers, but otherwise we could only dream of Japanese cars that looked like this today. I would be running to the Mazda dealer, begging them to take my money.

Myk El
Myk El
11 months ago

Now this is a candidate for an electric powertrain conversion. As opposed to the current eclectic powertrain.

Peter Andruskiewicz
Peter Andruskiewicz
11 months ago
Reply to  Myk El

While I disagree, stick a more modern rotary in there, I like your wordplay, so take your star

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
11 months ago

I love these early rotary cars. I nearly bought an RX3 wagon a couple of times, but they were always too far away for me to justify. Cost too much to bring home. I guess I love the later rotary cars too, because I would be very happy driving a Eunos Cosmo.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
11 months ago

People here in Canada actually didn’t worry that much about the rotary’s lifespan. The cars would be iron oxide long before the seals would wear out.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
11 months ago

My dad ALMOST bought a 2002 tii but ended up in one of these back in his youth. Definitely not one of his better decisions.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
11 months ago

It doesn’t look bad, runs like crap but doesn’t look bad.

David Meyer
David Meyer
11 months ago

The RX-2 did not have independent rear suspension. It had a live axle, but it was a little better than the RX-3 because that axle was located with 4 trailing links, a panhard rod and coil springs.

My first car was a then 10 year old RX-2 that I got for $150 in 1982. It had a rusted up engine because it had been overheated and water got into the combustion chambers. I rebuilt that engine and drove it for years. Now I really wish I would have kept it

Skmini
Skmini
11 months ago
Reply to  David Meyer

I also had a ’72 Rx-2 I wish I could have kept. Mine still had the original engine that eventually had the cooling jacket O-ring failure, which leads to the overheating, etc. I swapped the engine for one from another Rx-2 that had a factory-replacement engine.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
11 months ago

The side view up top gave me strong 70s Celica vibes-especially the rear haunches. Then, later, is the picture of the yellow one. That’s a bit of a mashup: best I can describe it is ‘a neckbearded Celica having a serious flashback’—with a little Datsun 510 influence at the front of the hood/grill area.

The spoiler is so impractical & tacky it makes me grin

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
11 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Look back in 50 years or so at today’s BlobUVs and tell me which inspired the rest. Japanese stylists, in particular, in those days just copied everything else on the road. Toyota, Datsun, Mazda, Mitsubishi, all had stuff that more or less looked the same. Honda and Subaru seemed to be outliers, but that’s because they tried some different form factors.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
11 months ago

My newest way of dealing with boredom in traffic these days is noting the various takes on the Hofmeister kink on S/CUVs by different manufacturers. And, I get that being a car designer is tough: there are common expected/accepted elements, and the line between homage and derivative can be very thin

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
11 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Hofmeister kink? Oh wow. They’re everywhere. Thank you. I’ll be doing this now as well.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
11 months ago

Yeah, some are pretty extreme. There’s a Lexus (I think-they all look alike to me as I’m profoundly uninterested in S/CUVs) that has a weird tiny window at the narrowest part right after the kink. It amuses me

I’m not saying no one should have one: people should drive what they want. I just currently have no need for one-and would actively prefer an old-fashioned station wagon if I did need a multi-passenger vehicle

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
11 months ago

So do the girlfriends prefer appliances that go “boing, boing, boing?”
Or the ones that hum instead?
Asking for a friend whose birthday is soon…

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
11 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

EV is the way. You shouldn’t burn gasoline indoors.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
11 months ago

Never limited my activities to just indoors.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
11 months ago

I have one of these in green! It’s a Hot Wheels car, so it will never let me down. The Hot Wheels is also one of Ryu Asada’s designs, so its a bit extra special.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
11 months ago

Is it just me or can anyone else visualize this thing screaming down the highway, planing off the top layer of the road surface with that chin spoiler and extruding the product through the louvres on the back window like a giant Play-Doh Fun Factory? It’s just me? I was afraid of that.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
11 months ago

I think the suspension was fine (for the time) but what makes it garbage is the quality of steel and corrosion protection. They’re all dead because they start rusting with even morning dew on them.

But…. think of it this way: 1960s/70s American car, 2/3 scale, 1/2 weight, rotary engine with high redline and stickshift.

It’s cool as heck. The rust tho…

Thomas Benham
Thomas Benham
11 months ago

That flaming tire track ad is seared (get it?) into my memory. When I worked retail, one of my biggest peeves was the person calling at 3 minutes to closing and asking how long we were open. I pretty much used that visual to describe what I look like leaving work at 6:00:02 PM.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
11 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Benham

Also Back to the Future

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
11 months ago

That amazes me that Mazda offered better warranties 50 years ago on a rotary than anyone does today on anything. That’s awesome.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
11 months ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

Hyundai/Kia enter the chat

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
11 months ago

Do they still do that? Theirs has never been transferable though, only applied to first owner. I haven’t seen it advertised in forever so I assumed they dropped it but I’ve never cared enough to look.

Citrus
Citrus
11 months ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

No they’re transferable.

Source: Ex bought a second-hand Sonata, all warranty and the free roadside assistance came with.

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
11 months ago
Reply to  Citrus

Interesting. They weren’t a few years ago. My sister bought both a soul and Santa Fe and managed to blow engines in both and neither were covered

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
11 months ago
Reply to  Citrus

The 10 year/100k mile powertrain warranty is not transferable. For the second owner, it falls under the regular 5/60k regular warranty, which is transferable.

The exception is if it’s a certified pre-owned car – then that extends it back up to the 10/100k mark.

Last edited 11 months ago by GreatFallsGreen
Cool Dave
Cool Dave
11 months ago

Back when I was still a fresh driver in Australia (I miss my little MkII Escort!) there was a local guy with a bridgeported RX3 who I would see in traffic.. man, that thing sounded great. I always loved the body style of the RX3, my buddy even looked at buying one at one point!

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