Ever since I began to realize that not all cars were created equal, I’ve been a fan of the Mazda RX-7. Maybe it’s the exotic flair of its rotary engine, making it unique among sports cars. Maybe it’s the timeless, sporty but classic styling. Maybe it’s the relative rarity. I’m not sure, but the car had my interest. They’re not cheap cars, though, and a good example will set a buyer back several thousand.
I knew this because I had a standing Craigslist search for any RX-7s that showed up in my area. Usually what came up were well more than I could justify spending on a flight of fancy. A 3rd-gen FD, sleek and fast, would cost more than my Fiesta did new. A 1st-gen would be a bit too old and creaky, requiring extensive modification to modernize it. They’re very cool and retro looking, but I wasn’t interested in that kind of commitment — and with their increasing rarity, they are still not cheap. But a 2nd-gen…not the fastest car in the world (unless you bought the infamously finicky Turbo II model), but arguably the best-looking of all the RX-7s and possibly a good balance between the two. A good-quality one could still be $8,000 or more…but what about a less-good-quality one?
I had a chance to find the answer to that question one fine day in 2015. My email pinged…someone had a 1988 RX-7 convertible on Craigslist for…$2,500? I took a look at the photos, and it looked exactly like a bad idea. The unibody was banged up (difficult and expensive to fix), the top leaked, the paint job could not decide what shade of red it wanted to be…all in all, $2500 was probably double what the car was worth.
Naturally, I emailed the owner right away.
Taking a test drive, I determined that under the aging, beat-up exterior beat a heart of pure rust. The brakes were…nonexistent. The shift bearings were shot, so changing gear felt like stirring a bowl of soup and you didn’t always find the one you were after, to your surprise as you released the clutch. The suspension was done for, and the famously nimble sports car cornered like a rhinoceros. It would take less time to list the bits of the car that did work. He had also replaced the passenger seat with a seat from a 3rd-gen RX-7. A tan leather seat. Which he had attempted to dye black. Badly.
As you might expect, I made him an offer. He must have known that $2500 was…ambitious, as he took my much lower offer without hesitation.
It was by far the sketchiest transaction I have ever been a part of. I paid him in cash. His notary introduced herself using a different name than it said on the form (and was apparently his mom). I found out later that the license plate that was on the car was an expired plate registered to a 1998 Lincoln Towncar (it is, by the way, a felony to drive with a plate not registered to your car. Presumably the lawmakers assume that if you’re slapping a bogus plate on your car you were probably on your way to do something nefarious). He also dropped off the face of the earth immediately after selling me the car. As I began to take a good look at the car, I could figure out why.
The brakes didn’t brake very well because the pads were down to the backing plate. I have no idea how he drove it all the way to my workplace. Driving it for more than a few miles would heat up the brake fluid so much that the car lost whatever modicum of braking power it at one point had. The calipers were also mostly destroyed. I ended up buying three new calipers and rebuilding the fourth using parts from the one I replaced (since I couldn’t buy a quality refurbished one anywhere). It was basically a complete brake system overhaul.
The suspension was so bad the car would not pass inspection. I replaced all four struts, as they were weeping oil. It was not cheap, but the upside was that the car could turn a corner or go over a speed bump without wallowing.
When I was disassembling the inside of the car to get at the rear strut towers, I was fishing around between the body work and the interior panels. I found a small baggie. Given the man I bought it from, I was 100% sure I had found a baggie of either meth or coke. Turns out it was fishing line, some weights, and a couple of lures. Life is full of surprises.
Remember that new seat he installed in the passenger side of the car? Turns out the mounting brackets were not compatible. Didn’t bother him any…he just drilled a bolt hole through the floor pan of the passenger seat and screwed the car in directly to the sheet metal. In an accident, the seat would have absolutely ripped itself free from the car and possibly the atmosphere. I have since replaced both seats with stock ones that are, though not by any means pristine, in much better condition (and also much safer) than the ones I bought it with.
I could give a litany of all the things which are still wrong with the car, but I will say this: it makes me very happy. I still have it today, five years later, and it has never left me stranded (which is more than I can say for the Ford Fiesta). It’s still a junker (and at this point I’ve put enough money into it that I’ve paid out more than I negotiated off the sale price), but I love driving it around when the sun is out.
These days, I could use the garage space and I get to drive it much less than I would like. But every time I take it out, I come back with a smile on my face. I don’t own too many things that I can consistently say that about, so I keep it around.
For those keeping count, the RX-7 is the second car I ever bought, and it could not be more different than the first. The story of the third has already been told, but there’s a fourth contender who will have to wait for another time. The Fiesta will always be the first car I bought, but the RX-7 will always, despite its flaws, be my dream car.