Don’t Forget About ’80s Rotary Power

Rotary-powered machines are often known to be somewhat unreliable and inefficient, yet we still love them.

The way they sound, their compact footprint, their simplicity; they’re just so darn nifty. Before I get into the details of an especially rad remake of one of these beauties, I think it’s appropriate to break down the cool-factor.


Firstly, rotary engines have a second very charming formal name we all know well: Wankel. Felix Wankel was, obviously, the innovative thinker who invented the weight-saving spirograph-shaped motor. These simple engines were put into all sorts of machines in relatively low volume – things like go-karts, helicopters, and Ladas – but it was Mazda who really brought the rotary wide-spread attention.


In the 1960s, the Japanese government was attempting to consolidate 10 automakers into three conglomerates in order to strengthen the country’s post-war economy. Mazda was a tiny company at the time and Japan’s plan was to merge them with Nissan and Toyota. While these plans never came to fruition, the company’s president Mr. Matsuda thought the only way to maintain independence was to present some sort of innovative technology. In doing so, he turned to Felix Wankel’s interesting new engine and the rest is history.


Mazda first put their rotary engine in the Cosmo (110S), then the Familia Rotary (R100) and Luce R130, followed by the Capella Rotary (RX-2), Savanna (RX-3), Luce (RX-4) and Cosmo (RX-5). Things were going OK for the company, but they wanted more from their cars. In 1978, the first-generation Savanna RX-7 hit the Japanese market, and the timing couldn’t have been better.


In the late ‘70s, other automakers were struggling to produce excellent sports cars. The C3 Corvette was losing its charm, the newest 280ZX was sort of awkward looking, and the Porsche 924 was built with a haphazard assortment of VW and Audi parts. The RX-7 however, was sleek, thrilling to drive, and affordable. Early models had a window sticker as low as US$6,500, and many 40-year-old versions of the same car sell for that much or more today.


The new rotary-powered machine was small and light, but its tiny Wankel engine was what really allowed it to have a sports car feel. The compact engine is mounted behind the front axle to provide a 50/50 weight distribution so the driver feels planted despite being in a featherweight car. The RX-7’s small size also helped exempt Japanese owners from paying the higher taxes associated with larger vehicles in that market, which further added to their popularity at home.


By 1980, North America received an updated version of the RX-7 with all sorts of period luxury features. These ’80s essentials included a gold paint option, AM/FM stereo with a six-speaker sound system, cassette player (surely with a Eurythmics tape inserted) remote-powered side mirrors, and other extra-cool additions that became the norm throughout the decade.

If that wasn’t enough for you, Mazda claimed that their 1984 model could achieve almost 30mpg on the highway, which is not bad at all for an ‘80s sports coupe. If you were the type of consumer who was primarily motivated by advertising, Mazda had that down too. I mean, just check out this brochure slogan: “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted in a True Sports Car”. I’m sold.


I’m unfortunately a bit of a history nerd when it comes to Japanese classics, so instead of further granulating all the tiny details I’m going to go ahead and move on to the car at hand. RX-7s were obviously really impressive without modifications, but when someone with a vision uses a first-gen car as their canvas, I’m all about it.

Old School Cars & Kids

I’m absolutely guilty of lurking on Instagram and bothering owners of interesting cars on the daily. Dion was one of these lurk-able owners and, lucky for me, he was willing to let us get to know him and his 1982 RX-7.


Dion, like many of us, grew up around cars. His dad and grandparents were into classic stuff; if the car was old they were about it. He remembers spending time in everything from rat rods and muscle cars to luxury Cadillacs, but when it was his time to pick up his own project he wanted something different. Dion was big into kaido racer and shakotan culture in Japan, so he knew he wanted something vintage and Japanese. He was also totally about ‘80s aesthetics, so something from the era of jazzercise and parachute pants was a must.


From there, Craigslist filters were applied and a sweet little FB eventually popped up. Dion brought home the car about eight years ago, and at the time there weren’t too many kaido-influenced builds, so he found himself with the unique opportunity to create something without being influenced by social media. He began synthesizing the car with a mix of his own personal style and proven Japanese aesthetics.


Once Dion got to a place that felt complete in the build, he began taking his RX-7 to shows. The community did what it does and welcomed him in. Cars seem to (nearly) always act as a unifier; people from all walks of life find themselves close friends because of their love of a similar niche car style. Isn’t that the magic of it all?


Dion told us that everyone from little kids to people late in their lives react to the car. It digs up some deeply nostalgic moments for people who had an FB RX-7 in high school, or remember how cool they were when they hit the market. And the next generation of car enthusiasts are fans of the bygone styling, too.


But, enthusiast or not, there’s bound to be a particularly sentimental car out there for you. Vehicles are an integral part of our cultural identity, symbolic of a decade or community.


The first-gen RX-7 was the quintessential early ‘80s sports car and as such many people remember them with some sort of fondness or chuckle. However, Dion’s rendition of the car is very different from what most people imagine when they think about an RX-7, so it’s no surprise he gets a lot of attention. I mean, just look at it…

Built To Satisfy

While the car looks pretty excellent with its factory styling, Dion’s addition of side skirts fill out the body lines a little for a more genre-specific look. He’s furthered plumped it up with a Kamei front air dam, but still the car looks sleek and petite in the best way possible.

Dion’s gone with ‘80s SSR Reverse Mesh wheels and powdercoated them in gunmetal grey, topping them off with some center caps from Barrel Bros. If you ask me, mesh wheels are an all-time favorite on anything from this period (maybe just after turbofans).


Dion swapped out the original suspension in his ‘82 model for a full setup from an ‘85 GSL-SE. He welded Ground Control coilovers sleeves to the SE struts up front and utilized Eibach springs with Tokico shocks out back.


The style doesn’t end there, though. When you open up the driver’s door you’ll find a real nice Bride Stradia II seat and period Nardi steering wheel.

If you’re lucky enough to be in earshot when the car is fired up you’ll hear the Racing Beat exhaust sing its pleasant ‘80s note. The result is an original vision compiled from many interests and influences, and it’s a total head-turner.


Dion noted that he hasn’t really modified the car much in a while, and it needs some work, specifically a new motor. The engine still starts and drives totally fine, but the little 12A is nearing the end of its life. He obviously wants to keep it correct and replace it with a rotary, but he’s not sure what exact model he’ll fit. While Dion’s in there, he’s going to redo the entire engine bay, too, which is going to be quite the project.


Relatable yet unique builds like Dion’s are a helpful reminder that building a car is about fulfilling your own vision and meeting new people, and nothing is better than that.

Sara Ryan
Instagram: pockowokosara

Photos by Trevor Yale Ryan
Instagram: trevornotryan



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Nice build!
To me the lowering, combined with the side skirts and the Kamei front air dam make the car way more sporty and... mature... than unchanged models. I like it a lot!!


Nice looking FB but not a huge fan of the stretched look. I'd like to see some OEM waffles with RWL 13" tires instead. To each his own. I'm just glad fro some rotary love on these pages. Thanks.


got to agree the wheels and stance just look ridiculous, i can imagine a proper fast road set up on this thing would be awesome.




The one "eye" open is killing me... so freakin' rad!!! Love everything about this car especially the '80s concept from the SSR's to the Kamei spoiler – well done!! And yes I too was one of those who immediately had a flashback of when I wanted one of these cars when it first came out.


Killer shots by Trevor. Been waiting a long time to see this feature. Cool car, but even cooler dude. I think the only thing this is missing would be Dion smoking a cigar.


"rotaries are unreliable"

ah yes, the type of automotive platitude that I've come to expect from speedhunters. tbh you guys could save some $ and just skip the commentary altogether.


-says rotaries aren't unreliable-

-article also states car needs a new engine-

Man, nothing wrong with an engine being fragile.. these things just break & wear down all the time. The ones lasting a bit are the exceptions, like failing BMW engines are an exception too.
Can't understand why rotary fans don't just admit that?

Saw the Angel Motorsports brand new engine break down; it was trash.

Rotary is just not a good concept for reliability.

You can still love it.

I love tons of things that aren't reliable.

Also, the majority of them sound like crap, like a 50cc moped with the exhaust flange rusted off.

Rotary fans then always reply with a Le Mans video.

Yes, sure buddy.


"Rotary-powered machines are often known to be somewhat unreliable" Calm down mate, Sara didn't say they were or she thought that.


Loving it. How do you get away with that much on your windscreen? In the UK there's no chance of it. I got a notation on my MOT for having furry dice 'in the way' :)


Very Happy Dion got featured... pics do this fb no justice!


LS Swap it!