The fastest rotary in Europe…

10_492c2ad92d8ac-lightboxI run a small family garage in Poole, Dorset (www.stertegarage.com). My dad has always been a car nut, specifically old quirky Citroens such as the DS, CX, GS and 2CV so I guess it was always in my blood to be interested in cars, especially the oddballs.

After a few years of owning Citroens, I took the plunge and bought my first Japanese Sports car, a Honda Integra – I have never looked back since. Eventually my passion for Japanese exotica spread to my dad and we started importing, doing up and selling Japanese cars as a sideline to the usual grind of servicing, MOT’s and repairs we undertake in the garage. After a few Skyline GTR’s I decided I wanted to try an RX7 so I bought one for myself. I was instantly hooked by the quirky but incredibly powerful engine, the striking looks, the fantastic handling and brakes and one of the best owners clubs that I have ever come across, FD:UK (www.fduk.org – FD is the first two letters of the chassis number on the third generation RX7). People were so welcoming, friendly, witty and down to earth, I could own a 3rd generation just to be a part of the club.

After I had owned two RX7’s I managed to talk my dad into us buying an RX7 together to run as a track/project car. Although very unsure at first my father reluctantly agreed. In August 2004 we saw a car in the auctions in Japan that was exactly what we were after. It looked great, with some mild body modifications and fantastic looking BBS wheels; it would mean that we didn’t need to spend any money on the externals of the vehicle and could concentrate on getting the engine and chassis right for our needs.

Roughly six weeks later the car was with us.
For me there are so many good reasons to buy and run an RX7. The first reason is the engine. The rotary engine works differently to a piston engine and its greatest advantage is the amount of exhaust gas the engine forces out. So why does this matter? A large quantity of exhaust gas means the ability to spool up a large turbocharger quickly. The fact is you simply can’t beat the combination of a rotary engine and turbo for low down, smooth and progressive response.

My 2nd RX7 had been converted to run a large single turbo rather than the small twin turbochargers fitted to a standard car so I already had a taste for this incredible power delivery. With a very large single turbo – capable of flowing say 5-600bhp and a completely standard rotary engine, you will see meaningful boost from as little as 3,000 rpm. The engine builds power and torque so smoothly you really never get that ‘big hit’ associated with cars running large turbochargers.

My other reasons also included:

The looks: The RX7 is a fantastic looking car, sleek, low slung – basically the looks of a traditional sports car.

The handling and braking: Until fairly recently the RX7 was the fastest stopping production car available. The handling is extremely progressive for a front engine rear wheel drive car; the steering feel is also fantastically communicative.

The simplicity: The RX7 is really a very simple car; it has nothing in the way of fancy electronics and driver aids, barring ABS.

It is in theory then, not incredibly expensive to maintain. Its thirst for fuel however thoroughly makes up for this.

Believe it or not, when choosing the car the cost of engine maintenance was also factored in. Don’t fool yourself, any highly tuned turbocharged engine will require fairly regular rebuilds, the fact is the cost of the rebuild on an RX7 is far, far less than the equivalent piston engine. Where a full rebuild on say a 2.6 litre 6 cylinder turbocharged Nissan Skyline GTR engine will generally cost you in excess of £5,000, a full rebuild on the rotor motor can cost as little as £2500. To tune the engine you also don’t need to buy expensive forged pistons, steel head gaskets, up rated camshafts and all the other many parts in a piston engine, you simply need to enlarge the inlet and exhaust ports for more power and if you really want to lavish money on the engine, ceramic rotor tips.

So there we have it, that’s why we wanted an RX7.

It would take far too long to go over everything we have done to improve the car, the list is enormous, however I can summarise a few of the upgrades we have performed. We have dramatically stripped and lightened the car, increased structural rigidity with braces and a roll structure. The brakes have been uprated to cope with track abuse; the engine has been rebuilt and heavily ported. The turbo has been changed several times (we are waiting now for a 700bhp capable turbo to arrive from Japan). The engine cooling system has been improved and the fuel management system has been remapped on several occasions for better reliability and higher power output. We have spent so much on the damned car it’s unreal; we discovered very quickly that running a car for track and hill climbing was an expensive, near-bankrupting experience.

So how does the car drive today?

It’s pretty amazing. The steering is incredibly sharp and responsive; it really takes a bit of getting used to as the slightest turn of the wheel really turns the car in rapidly. The brakes are fantastic. The AP Racing 4 piston set up has superb feel with a progressive but firm pedal; they resist fade completely.

The suspension, (Ohlins adjustable coilovers do the damping) is surprisingly supple and even with larger uprated anti-roll bars the car still rolls enough to let you feel when the rear end is going to ‘let go’. It makes the car a fairly useable road car… …if it wasn’t for the cabin noise. This isn’t ideal for track in some ways as the car does slide fairly easily, fine if you’re a very capable driver, but personally as a bit of a track novice I prefer the comfort of a little more grip.

Under acceleration the car is remarkably stable. The car runs about 1 bar boost on normal super unleaded which is around 500bhp with the latest turbo setup. If the roads are even slightly damp, it’s unlikely you will be able to get any meaningful power down until you get into 4th gear.

The power from the engine is immense; building from 3,000rpm the engine provides effortless shove which continues in full force right up to the 9,000rpm redline. The gear change has a very short shift action, and feels fabulously tight and mechanical to engage. Due to the stripped out interior and soundproofing the vehicle is fairly noisy inside, you can hear every little stone under the car and the tire drone at speed is pretty unpleasant. If it wasn’t for this, the petrol station addiction and the rubbish heater the car has it would be a useable everyday car.

The car is mainly used for speed hill climbing. We take part in the Gurston Down hill climb championship, with my father driving. This year we are planning to also do a bit of drag racing, not to mention the usual track days, airfield days and other events; it really gets around. After the initial doubts my father loves the car, and is ever looking for more ways to improve his times at the hill climb. Hopefully a clutch type limited slip differential, an uprated clutch and a little bit more power still will do the trick this year.

My most memorable drive was at the Ten of the Best competition in 2005. Over 1.25 miles we achieved 183.3 mph making the car the fastest rotary engined car over that distance in Europe; in fact I think it’s the highest top speed achieved for a rotary engined car in Europe full stop.

The feeling of travelling at that speed in a car designed to top out at 150mph is pretty incredible. The adrenaline rush is intense; over 150mph the car started steering itself slightly to the left and right and I felt like I was pushing the car beyond where it really should go aerodynamically, it no longer felt safe, which enhanced the adrenaline rush! When I found out that we had beaten the record the experience was even better…

 

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Anthony Fleming