THE YEAR is 1991. Mazda has just done the unthinkable and snatched victory at the Le Mans 24 hour, embarrassing the favourites Jaguar and Mercedes in a din of quad-rotor cacophony. Later that year, the third generation of its RX-7 would start production, powered by a new sequential twin-turbocharged version of the evergreen 13B, marking the start of one of Mazdaís most successful rotary-powered models to date. It was a good year for the Japanese companyís cult-classic Wankel engine, but it would prove to be the peak of rotary power, and after the RX-7ís successor, the COTYwinning RX-8, went out to pasture in 2012 without producing an heir to the rotary crown, the bloodline of Mazdaís unique engine went cold.
In the shadow of ever-tightening emissions regulations and plagued by reliability problems, the design was shelved in favour of conventional reciprocating engines.
But the spirit of Mazdas past is kept alive by a veracious and dedicated following of fanatics that live, breathe and have even continued to evolve the fundamentally flawed Wankel engine long after its keeper seemingly gave up on the idea.
Itís the reason I hopped in the companyís current sports hero Ė the MX-5 Ė and came to the Fuji Speedway for a 40th-anniversary celebration of the RX-7. I want to see if people still live the rotary dream even though its characteristic brap-brap was silenced from production long ago.
Nearly 300 RX-7s have turned out, along with countless other examples of other rotary-powered Mazdas, to brave the oppressive combination of radiating asphalt, strong autumnal sunshine and exhausting humidity. An RX-7 gathering is not like a Harley meet where all owners are cookie-cut from the leather and facial hair casting agency. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer diversity of the crowd. Iím taken aback. Young, old, groups of lads, female drivers and their male passengers, í80s rocker throwbacks and Harajuku girls; theyíre all here.
Then you get to the cars. The carpark is like a tunerís menu, from low-mileage, near-stock examples, through every level of modification in between, to hyperbolic time-attack cars. Iím drawn to one heavily fettled FD with Lamborghini-style scissor doors, only to find it has been fitted with a twin-turbo quad-rotor that the owner fashioned from the modular casings of 13Bs. Lord only knows who made the eccentric shaft.
RE Amemiya; FC convertibles; three FDs with Porsche 911 headlights; a 20B-powered drag car with a 130mm turbo compressor; every single Bride and Knight Sports upgrade you can imagine and more. Now my head is spinning like a rotor.
I get chatting to Miyoshi-san Ė the owner of a mirrorwrapped FD. Not that you would recognise it from many angles thanks to the grille and lights of an RX-3, arches that have been fattened like a foie gras goose and air suspension that allows it to practically squat on its chassis.
Miyoshi has driven seven hours and 600km from his workshop in Kurashiki to be here, as if attempting to disband the notion that the rotary canít be relied on. Although he does concede the sometimes troublesome standard twin-turbo system has been swapped out for a monster single-blower set-up and V-mounted intercooler.
Later, I make the mistake of standing near a Mazda 13B-powered drag car as its owner revs the 1.3-litre, twin-rotor, 900kW, methanol-fuelled RX-7 to the limiter, and the resulting tinnitus is a souvenir I hadnít planned on bringing home from Japan.
Dazed, I amble off toward the completely unguarded paddock and meander between unattended pit garages before an unexpected sight arrests me. You can count on one hand the number of times in a year Mazdaís priceless 787B and 767 racecars see the light of day, yet here before me were both, resplendent in unmistakable Renown green and orange livery. Minutes later my transfixed stare at racing royalty is broken as the engineers arrive to start warming the R26B quad-rotor engines that produce up to 670kW despite only displacing 2.6 litres with no turbos.
The ensuing howling from the pits draws in a crowd like moths to a flame and then the pair roll out into the evening light, unleashing a sound that is simply indescribable as they conclude the dayís proceedings.
The light is starting to fade now and I run down a flight of stairs to corner 29-time Le Mans driver Yojiro Terada straight out of the 787Bís cockpit. Iím irritated at how much cooler than me he appears to be, despite just completing 10 laps of Fuji in anger.
When asked what the most challenging part of piloting the car is, Terada tells me, ďItís easy; you can do it,Ē although Iím still waiting for an official invitation at the time of writing.
Mt Fuji, cloaked in thick cloud all day, emerges to cast an intimidating shape over the track as it fills with hundreds of cars. The attendees are forming a parting convoy to bid farewell and draw the 40th anniversary Expensive headlight globes sparkle into life, drivers salute me with peace signs as they crawl through, and the incredible variety of cars prepares to dissipate in an orchestra of wonderful exhaust notes.
As the procession departs, the circuit falls eerily silent and Iím slumped back in the RF gathering my thoughts from the day, ears ringing like Iíve just emerged from an all-night club lock-in.
My induction into the rotary institute has been an incredibly immersive experience, but the day was tinged with sadness, like oberving the last ageing individuals of an endangered species about to die.
But my sorrow is unfounded. Just days later, Mazda confirms the rotary engine will once again return to its ranks. Rather than a demonic quad-rotor fire-spitting power hero that invokes the 787B or tuned RX-7s, the next-gen rotary will be coupled to an electric motor and be ďexceptionally quiet,Ē says its maker.
Itís not the enfant terrible some were hoping for, including me, but a returning rotary engine rekindles a bloodline of performance potential for the brand. Yes, the revenant rotary will be quiet and fuel efficient, but details are academic at this stage. What really matters now is that Mazdaís brilliant engine will not drift into obscurity, fading from memory with each year that passes, and immortalised only by a diminishing group of cars and their diehard owners.
The rotary engine will return.
I couldnít come all the way to the RX-7 bash and not get behind the wheel of something rotary-powered. Mazda threw me the keys to a 40,000km-old FD RX-7 from their R&D fleet and I was able to add a motoring milestone to my to-do list. Its output of 188kW might sound paltry compared with todayís equivalent sportscars but the FD is still properly fast in a dangerously addictive way. The rev-limit buzzer is essential because thatís where youíll spend every second on a good road. Everything about the third-gen RX-7 feels as though it was benchmarked against a Porsche 911 of the same era, and itís no wonder good examples donít go for less than $40,000 today. My house deposit is looking seriously under threat.