In the world of modifying there are select parts that will guarantee a build gets off to a good start if they’re applied to the right car in the right way. Think Cibie rally spotlights on your Irish AE86 Corolla GT, Dayton Wires on your ’64 Impala, Nardi Classic steering wheels on anything JDM. But not all of these norms are quite so well known.
It will likely come as no surprise, but way down here in New Zealand we have big love for the Mazda rotary. And just like our cousins across the water in Australia do, we have a unique way of modifying them – a quintessential style that never seems to go out of fashion. This simple but tough look – a byproduct of the 1990s Kiwi street scene – is exactly what Mad Mike Whiddett set out to achieve in the newest (and at the same time oldest) recipient of his iconic FURSTY licence plates.
If you caught my recent visit to Mike’s MADLAB workshop, there’s a good chance you would have seen his 1973 Mazda RX-2 sedan in a few of the photos. There’s a cool story behind how Mike came to acquire this left-hand drive, USDM-spec slice of Mazda rotary history, and it starts in Florida, USA at the Orlando Speedway round of the 2015 Formula Drift Championship series. It was here that a fan named Chris asked Mike if he’d be able to autograph the dashboard of his RX-2, which of course he was happy to do.
Fast-forward to the following year; Mike had built his 1974 PITBUL Mazda REPU (Rotary Engine Pick Up) for the 2016 season, and meeting up with Chris again at Orlando somehow resulted in the pair agreeing to swap cars.
It worked out well, too: Mike got his ‘Holy Grail’ Mazda from the 1970s – an original series two RX-2 with half-moon taillights, silver exterior and black interior – and Chris got an authentic Mad Mike build, which around six months later was released in Hot Wheels 1:64 scale form.
Ultimately, the RX-2 was shipped from the USA to New Zealand, where Mike set about getting it legal for the road. While we do have strict laws here when it comes to roadworthiness and modifications, getting something like a 40-plus-year-old Mazda registered, certified and licensed is pretty straightforward as long as the vehicle is up to spec.
The fact that this car has such a clean and original body – there’s just 33,000 miles (53,000km) on the clock – was a big plus, and I think it’s cool that Mike hasn’t ditched the patina for a glossy new paint job. What he has done to the RX-2 is totally reversible too, should he ever want to put it back to factory spec. But I can’t really see that happening – this is the throwback look he loves and grew up around.
I asked Mike what it was that initially drew him to these cars and this particular style, and he didn’t need to think about for a second:
“Rotaries attracted me at a very young age, because they were loud, obnoxious, unique, fast, and most importantly cheap. At around 13 years old me and the boys were buying up old Mazdas from the Trade & Exchange [a pre-internet classified ad newspaper in New Zealand] and then swapping skateboards and BMX bikes for crashed RX-7s and parts. That’s how the ‘RotangKlan’ was established. I never met my father so was self-taught when it came to working on cars, and back in the day we built some pretty sweet Rotangs to burn rubber and irritate the public through the city streets.”
It’s a pretty simple recipe too: take an old school Mazda – preferably of RX grade – lower the suspension as Mike has done here with QA1 shocks and custom springs, ensure the rotary engine has a hearty pulse, fit a classic SuperTrapp muffler, and slap on a set of small, wide wheels – in this case chrome-plated 13-inch Mangels ‘Modgie’ Modulars shod in retro 215/50R13 Bridgestone SF-330 Eager rubber.
Mike adds: “Over in Australia they’ve always been about putting 17, 18 and even 20-inch wheels on these old Mazdas, but here in New Zealand it’s always been about deep 13-inch wheels with Eagers, which in the day were cheap.”
When it comes to rotary engine performance, Mike is perhaps best known for his custom four-rotor engines, both in naturally aspirated peripheral port and twin-turbo guise, but under the RX-2’s hood things are far more simple. That’s not to say all is stock.
While the engine remains a twin-rotor unit, it’s a larger 13B variant – not the 12A the car left the factory with. It’s also been treated to a stage two street-port and fitted with a Weber 48IDA carburettor, with exhaust gasses exiting through a custom stainless steel system. It makes all the right noises, and Mike tells me that it goes pretty well, too.
The interior, meanwhile, really is a thing of beauty – and it’s all stock. Finding an old Mazda with its entire cabin still intact is rare these days, let alone one in such good shape and not a ’70s shade of brown.
Even better, the car’s original paper tags explaining how to use the engine choke (AKA throttle wire) at start up and the air ventilation system are all in place. And how about that head unit…
As expected, the trunk space is equally clean, and of course stocked with an old rotary starter kit – tools and rags, jumper cables, spark plugs, 2-stroke oil, and a fire extinguisher.
In a stable full of crazy, high-tech rotary weaponry – and now a nitrous-fed and Liberty Walk-kitted Lamborghini, too – the ‘granddad’ of the collection is unashamedly simple, and Mike’s 100% fine with that.
He did mention perhaps upgrading to a bridge-port engine setup in the future as that would bring him even closer to the 12A and 13B-powered cars he skidded up in his teenage years, but that’s where it will likely end – this one is Kiwi old school Mazda perfection in every other way.