SIDEBAR: Racing the Mazda Capella/RX-2
With strong performance even in stock form, the rotary-engined Mazda Capella had obvious potential for sedan racing. A rotary Capella won its class at Japan’s Fuji 1000 km in July 1971 and in October, an RX-2 driven by Gary Cooke took Class C in Australia’s Hardie-Ferodo 500 at Bathurst, although the Mazda could not match the sheer power of Ford’s GTHO Falcons, scoring 26th overall. New rules for 1972 moved the Mazda RX-2 to Class B, where the RX-2 lost out to the Ford Escort GT, taking second and third in class, 13th and 14th overall. Reclassified yet again in 1973, the RX-2 returned to Bathurst a final time, taking first and second in Class C (2,001 to 3,000 cc displacement), 10th and 12th overall.
In late 1972, Car and Driver editor Patrick Bedard suggested that the magazine prepare and campaign a Mazda RX-2 in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Racing Stock (RS) Series, known between 1972 and 1976 as the B.F. Goodrich Radial Trophy Series. IMSA RS was a “showroom stock” series for small sedans like the Ford Pinto and Datsun 510, allowing only a limited range of modifications. While the 1973 RX-2 had less of a power advantage than in previous years — 1973 federalized models were down to 97 net horsepower (72 kW) — the rotary-engined Mazda had obvious potential.
The Car and Driver car was prepared by Roy Woods Racing, while its 12A rotary engine was modified by Jim Mederer of Racing Beat in Anaheim, California. Per IMSA rules, the rotors were stock, but Mederer made extensive carburetion and porting modifications, including adding enormous auxiliary intake ports to each side housing, so large that Mederer had to leave a metal “bridge” through the port to avoid compromising the integrity of the corner seals. The effect was comparable to installing a high-lift, long-duration camshaft in a piston engine: a rough idle, poor low-speed response, and ferocious high-speed power. The “bridge-ported” engine’s estimated output was 198 hp (148 kW), 30 hp (24 kW) more than the original goal, and the addition of a factory racing exhaust system later took the engine to an impressive 218 hp (163 kW) at 8,400 rpm.
IMSA officials reportedly regarded the Car and Driver RX-2 — and rotary engines in general — with great suspicion, particularly once they saw the car perform. After the RX-2’s first race in June 1973, IMSA ordered the magazine to add 300 lb (136 kg) of ballast as a handicap for subsequent events. The extra weight didn’t stop the RX-2 from winning at Lime Rock in July, the car’s third race, and again at Road Atlanta in September.
The victories made IMSA even more suspicious, but after a complete engine tear-down, officials grudgingly conceded that the bridge porting was legal, at least for the 1973 season. They hastily rectified that for the following year, banning all porting modifications for rotary engines — the equivalent to restricting reciprocating engines to stock valves and camshaft profiles. The loss of the bridge-ported engine meant the RX-2 was no longer competitive, so Car and Driver sold the car to Mazda salesman and racer Walt Bohren.
IMSA subsequently relented on some of its more draconian restrictions on rotary engines, so Bohren took the RX-2 back to the RS Series in 1976. After several victories in 1976 and 1977 (and a variety of lap records), he won the driver’s championship in 1978, also earning Mazda the manufacturer’s cup. Later owners continued to campaign the car in both IMSA and Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events, taking SCCA divisional championships in 1982 and 1983. The RX-2 was eventually sold to racer and race builder Jim Downing, who still owns it today.
SAVANNA RE: THE MAZDA RX-3
Around the same time the Series 2 Capella appeared in Japan, Toyo Kogyo introduced the next phase of its expansion plan: the Mazda Savanna, which bowed in September 1971. The Savanna was essentially a rotary-powered version of the new Mazda Grand Familia, a larger subcompact positioned between the Familia and Capella. Interestingly, although the Savanna was looked much like its piston-engined counterpart (known in other markets as 808 or 818) and would be offered with the same body styles, Toyo Kogyo marketed it as a separate entity — a distinct contrast with the rotary Familia, which it would shortly replace.
The Series 1 Mazda Savanna was 160 inches (4,065 mm) long and 62.8 inches (1,595 mm) wide on a 91-inch (2,310mm) wheelbase, making it 9.2 inches (235 mm) longer and 4.5 inches (115 mm) wider than the older Familia. Like the Familia, the Savanna had MacPherson struts in front and a live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs, but with staggered rear shock absorbers to limit axle tramp. Critics were pleased with the Savanna’s handling, noting that it had less body lean than the RX-2, but ride quality left something to be desired, particularly on the wagon. (Photo: “RX3” © 2010 verner_oscar; used with permission)
Like the Familia Rotary, the initial Japanese-market Savanna used the 982 cc (60 cu. in.) 10A engine, now rated at 105 PS (104 hp, 77 kW). Since the Savanna was somewhat heavier than the Familia, performance suffered a bit; claimed top speed was 109 mph (175 km/h). Prices were similar to the Familia: ¥600,000 (about $1,725) to start, rising to ¥700,000 (about $2,015) for a GR sedan or GS coupe.
In early 1972, Toyo Kogyo added a Savanna rotary wagon — another first — and a new GT coupe with lowered sport suspension, a five-speed gearbox, and the 1,146 cc (70 cu. in.) 12A engine from the rotary Capella. Weighing almost 140 lb (65 kg) less than the Capella, the Savanna GT quickly established itself as Mazda’s top rotary performer.
The Mazda Savanna/RX-3 wagon, added in 1972, shared the same wheelbase as the sedan and coupe, but was taller (55 inches/1,397 mm), about an inch (25 mm) longer, and 80 lb (36 kg) heavier. From 1973 on, larger bumpers made U.S.-spec RX-3s progressively longer and heavier still; 1973 wagons were up to 163 inches (4,140 mm) and 2,300 lb (1,043 kg), while 1974 models were 170 inches long (4,318 mm) and weighed 2,450 lb (1,111 kg). (author photo)
That spring, the Savanna began arriving in export markets, usually badged Mazda RX-3. In Australia, New Zealand, and other markets, the RX-3 had the 10A engine, but U.S. cars used the larger 12A, albeit with a more restrictive exhaust system that trimmed output to 90 net horsepower (67 kW) and 96 lb-ft (130 N-m) of torque. Export cars had fewer trim options than did their Japanese counterparts, and the five-speed gearbox was not initially available, leaving a choice of four-speed manual or JATCO automatic.
Although the Savanna/RX-3 was a bit slower than the RX-2, the smaller car was usefully cheaper — by as much as $270 in the U.S. Before long, the Savanna was outselling its larger brother by a substantial margin, bolstered in part by an impressive competition career (see the sidebar below). More than half of all Savannas were coupes; of the rest, it appears that wagons may have outsold sedans despite not being offered in all markets.
The Mazda Savanna got a mild makeover in late 1973, including a new front clip and taillights, the latter a response to emerging Japanese safety regulations. The 10A engine was dropped, replaced by the latest single-distributor version of the 12A. Like U.S. cars, the JDM Savanna now had a thermal reactor to reduce hydrocarbon emissions. Although Japan’s own pending emissions standards were still mired in political debate, as an interim measure, the government had decided to offer tax incentives for the purchase of low-emissions vehicles. Models with the thermal reactor (which Mazda christened REAPS, Rotary Engine Anti-Pollution System) were called Savanna AP, for “Anti-Pollution.”
This Mazda Savanna/RX-3 appears to be a facelifted Series 2 sedan, which was not sold in the U.S. The Mazda RX-3 sedan was dropped from the American market after the 1973 model year, but remained available elsewhere through at least 1976. RX-3 wagons remained available in the U.S. through 1976, the coupes through 1978. (Photo: “RX3” © 2011 verner_oscar; used with permission)
Even with the bigger engine, the addition of the thermal reactor and a 100 lb (45 kg) weight increase meant that Series 2 Savannas were no faster than before. Nonetheless, the Savanna remained the most popular of the early Mazda rotaries, which for a time was enough to make the RX-3 the world’s most successful rotary-engined car. In its first two and a half years alone, Mazda built 218,842 copies.
SIDEBAR: The Mazda Savanna/RX-3 in Competition
While the Capella/RX-2 had some racing success, it paled in comparison to the exploits of the smaller Mazda Savanna. On the street, the Savanna/RX-3 couldn’t match the RX-2’s performance, but on the racetrack, the Savanna’s lighter weight and wider track were definite advantages. The availability of both 10A and 12A engines was also a plus, sometime allowing the Savanna to compete in multiple classes. The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS), for example, classified rotary engines based on two times their geometric displacement, which put the 10A-powered RX-3 in Class B (1,301 to 2,000 cc) and 12A models in Class C (2,001 to 3,000 cc).
In Japan, the Savanna made an impressive debut in touring car competition at the 500-mile (620-km) Fuji Tourist Trophy in December 1971, scoring first overall and ending a 49-race winning streak for the Nissan Skyline GT-R. The following May, Savannas took first, second, and third in the T-b (touring car) event at the Japanese Grand Prix — the first of five Japanese GP championships. For the next five years, the Savanna would be one of the fiercest competitors in Japan’s super touring car class, with 100 victories between 1971 and 1976.
In Australia, a 10A-powered Mazda RX-3 took second in Class B at the 1973 Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathurst, scoring ninth overall; it actually finished ahead of the RX-2 that took the Class C championship. The following year, a 12A-powered RX-3 won Class C, taking 6th overall, while a 10A model again took second in Class B, coming in 10th overall. The big-engined RX-3 would achieve another Class C victory in 1975, taking second in class in 1976. The RX-3 continued to compete throughout the decade, although racers were hampered by CAMS regulations forbidding porting modifications.
This 1978 Mazda RX-3SP coupe was driven by Jim Downing in the 1981 IMSA RS Series (known at the time as the Champion Spark Plug Challenge), earning Mazda its fourth Manufacturer’s Championship in that series. (Photo: “Rx-3” © 2005 Johnny Aguirre; used with permission)
Ironically, most of the RX-3’s American racing success came in the model’s twilight. Stuart Fisher drove an RX-3 to the SCCA B-Sedan National Championship in 1977; RX-3s took the SS/B National title in 1980 and 1981, followed by a GT-2 National Championship in 1982, almost five years after the end of production. Although an RX-2 took the 1978 IMSA RS Manufacturer’s Championship, Mazda RX-3s would dominate that series through 1983, taking the manufacturer’s cup in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1983 and the driver’s championship in 1982.
Savannas and RX-3s remained competitive in smaller events for many years afterward. One of the most successful was driver Tom Ellam’s 1972 RX-3, which racked up an impressive string of championships in SCCA Solo II and Pro Solo events well into the 2000s. In 2006, for example, Ellam won the SCCA Solo E-Modified National Championship and then loaned his car to Jennifer Lee, who immediately drove it to the E-Mod Ladies National Championship.
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