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Car History

Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

With the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb taking place this weekend, I thought it’d be a good idea to share with you one of my favourite cars to ever grace the mountain. I chose this not because of its success, but for its story. And what a tale it is. This is the tale of an ex-Pikes Peak, ex-RE-Amemiya 4WD ‘88 Mazda RX-7 FC3S, restored to its former glory and terrorising circuits in New Zealand.

Pikes Peak had taken on a whole new breed of monster. This introduced species from Europe had taken over the Colorado Mountain Range like a swarm of bees, causing the native stock cars and buggies to go extinct. This new breed is none other than ex-Group B rally cars, brought in during the mid ‘80s. Audi had dominated the event with their ground-breaking Quattro, the most notable victory going to Michèle Mouton in 1985. Only a year later, renowned Pikes Peak racer Bobby Unser tackled the wild S1 variant to take the record. By then the event was dominated by Europe’s finest, attracting drivers from all over the globe.

The days of these VW-engined buggies were numbered.
The days of these VW-engined buggies were numbered.
Michèle Mouton, the first Woman to win at Pikes Peak, with her Quattro, 1985.
Michèle Mouton, the first Woman to win at Pikes Peak, with her Quattro, 1985.

One such driver was New Zealander Rod Millen. He had achieved local fame in the mid 70s, winning the national NZ Rally Championship 3 times with a Mazda RX-3 in 1975, ‘76 and ‘77 before moving to the US in ‘78 and founding his own racing company, Rod Millen Motorsports in 1980. He would continue racing in the US under the factory Mazda America colours, regularly taking championship wins over the years with specially designed 4WD first-gen RX-7s and win the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship in 1989 with a Mazda 323 GT-X.

Although it wasn’t the first 4WD RX-7 Rod Millen Motorsport had built, it was their most ambitious. Their previous creations based on first-gen Rx-7s competed in and won national rally championships in NZ and USA, but none had taken on Pikes Peak.

One of Rod Millen's 4WD FB RX-7s which paved the way for the Pikes Peak machine.
One of Rod Millen's 4WD FB RX-7s which paved the way for the Pikes Peak machine.

Chapter 1: Rod's Rocketship

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

In 1986, Rod Millen contacted American rotary specialist Racing Beat to start work on a 550hp 2-Rotor Turbo engine that would be bolted onto a custom 4WD drivetrain setup. Power from the 13B comes through a 5 Speed sequential Weismann transmission, with a transfer case bolted on. This then sends the power to the 2 differentials front and rear and in turn, the wheels. The diffs in question are a modified Alfa Romeo up front, chosen for its compact build, and a Mazdaspeed LSD diff for the rear end. Suspending the chassis is double wishbone setup all round, with adjustable coilovers to ensure the rough stuff at Pikes Peak is under Millen’s submission.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

No compromises were taken, and the body was no exception to that philosophy. About 5% of the FC RX-7 remained, as per the rulebook: the A-Pillar and a third of the firewall, kept to save the driver’s feet from burning. And the rest? Well that’s all chrome-moly tube frame with some fibreglass panels strapped onto it to make it look like an RX-7. All of this resulted in a kerb weight at a mind-bending 770kg. Add that to the 550HP from 2 spinning doritos and a giant snail and you’re left with a completely bonkers machine purpose built to climb. Finished off in a stunning Mazda America racing livery, it was ready to race.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

In front engined AWD Group B rally cars like the Audi Quattro, the engine is placed on top and over the front axle, causing unwanted understeer going into a corner. Meanwhile, in this RX-7 setup, the Rotor engine was mounted front-mid, behind the front axle. This would improve weight distribution and help eliminate the aforementioned understeer, resulting in a more nimble car. Combine the innovative 4WD layout, compact rotary engine and featherweight body and you have the perfect recipe for a Pikes Peak monster.

An early rendition of Millen's AWD setup. This was used in an earlier FB RX-7 (hence the N/A carb filter and live rear axle).
An early rendition of Millen's AWD setup. This was used in an earlier FB RX-7 (hence the N/A carb filter and live rear axle).

While Peugeot and Audi battled it out in the Unlimited Class with their 205 T16 and Quattro S1 Pikes Peak respectively, Millen had opted to compete in the Open Class. So in 1987, the car rolled onto the start line, and although he didn’t set the place into a firestorm, the trusty little RX-7 proved to have the potential for further improvements. Determined to take the class victory, Millen returned after 4 long years in ‘91 with a completely evolved beast. The engine was swapped for a larger 3 rotor 20B from the then new Mazda Cosmo. The Sequential twin turbo’s were replaced with a single one and a handful of other mods were installed, resulting in a power hike to the tune of around 600hp.

Millen lining up, 1987. That blue box in the passenger side dash is the ECU.
Millen lining up, 1987. That blue box in the passenger side dash is the ECU.
Showing off the unique wing-mounted twin oil coolers. Circa 1988.
Showing off the unique wing-mounted twin oil coolers. Circa 1988.

That year Rod got his way, and took the Open Class trophy along with the record. It would sadly be the last year for the RX-7 on the mounatin, as Rod had signed a deal with Toyota the following year. From there he went on to dominate the mountain in a bright yellow Celica and Tacoma for years to come.

While the chapter of Millen and Mazda had faded into history, for the FC a new chapter was just starting. It was sold to someone in Japan by the name of Isami Amemiya.

Chapter 2: RE-Amemiya

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

Amemiya-san had high hopes for his newly acquired 4WD RX-7. Not a whole lot was done underneath the fibreglass bonnet, primarily a handful of Trust upgrades, including a whopping Greddy T88-33D turbocharger thanks to RE-Amemiya’s primary sponsor, Greddy Trust. The rest was cosmetic. New bumpers, headlights and wing were put on, and it was resprayed blue and pink and renamed the GReddy7.

It was planned to run in Option Magazine’s famous 0-300km/h time trials, but it’s unsure whether that came to pass. It did make its way into Tokyo Auto Salon as RE-Amemiya’s demo/show car.

The finished GReddy7 at TAS 1997.
The finished GReddy7 at TAS 1997.

After the ‘97 TAS, the FC appeared to have disappeared completely. It was only until 2005 that the FC was rediscovered, outside the RE-Amemiya workshop, some eight years after it was seen last as TAS. It was discovered by a group of Kiwi rotary enthusiasts in Japan. These pictures would ingite a flame that would never be quenched.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History
Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History
Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

The flame burned inside a man by the name of Glenn Munro. He had been a prominent rotary tuner in NZ and good friend of Rod Millen. He travelled to Pikes Peak to see this same car compete all those years back, and often wondered what happened to it. But once he saw the tube-framed LHD FC, he knew it was the same monster. It was an opportunity he definitely wasn’t passing up, so he struck a deal with Amemiya-san and had it shipped to New Zealand, starting yet another chapter.

Chapter 3: Ressurrection

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

Munro’s plan for the FC was simple. Bring it back to its former glory, livery and all. Saldy, Glenn passed away in 2010, leaving RotorSport, New Zealand’s first rotary specialists, in the hands of his family. A year later, Glenn’s son Grant took upon the project himself. By mid 2012, he was about half of the way through his build. It was around this time when Speedhunter Brad Lord discovered the RX-7 and shot a great number of shots in its half-restored form.

It turned out that most of the parts on the car were in very good condition, only needing a good clean up. Such was the case with the giant Trust T88 turbo. Grant discovered it had never been run! The 20B engine was also in surprisingly good nick, making the rebuild a breeze. Grant also added a few parts to improve efficiency and reliability, including a very thorough balance and blueprint, as well as a lightened flywheel.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

At around the same time Grant was busy restoring Rod Millen’s FC, Brad Lord interviewed Mr. Millen concerning his experience with the FC. He said it was very similar to his Celica used later on, but was let down by tyres and a lack of aero, because of the Open Class rules stating that the car had to resemble the production model. These two issues were fixed with the Celica, which competed in the ‘anything goes’ Unlimited Class.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

Fast forward a couple years, and the FC has been completely restored from the gound up. The 4WD system working in harmony with the screaming 3-rotor turbo engine. The car was only going to have one livery once it was back in the hands of the Munro’s: The iconic Mazda USA, with its specifically retro 80s design, as well as a few sponsor stickers.

Grant also swapped the dirt tyres it used 30 years ago for some sticky semi-slicks wrapped around 3-piece BBS wheels, giving it a nice modern touch. The modern touches continue inside, swapping out the gigantic engine management system for a much more compact and efficient Haltech EMS system, as well as a Haltech display, showing him all necessary instrumentation. Another significant modification was the addition of a passenger seat, because according to Grant, it’d be rude to not let others experience the sheer rawness of the car.

The 80s Mazda USA livery restored to its former glory.
The 80s Mazda USA livery restored to its former glory.

Grant now uses the FC at select events, fine tuning the engine, drivetrain and suspension to his preference. His plans for the future include competing in the Leadfoot Festival, New Zealand’s version of the GoodWood Festival of Speed, which ironically takes on Rod Millen’s driveway. Who knows, we might even see the big man drive his car once again after all these years, but only time will tell.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History

And so ends the story of the ex-Pikes Peak, ex-RE-Amemiya show car, 4WD FC3S RX-7. It had come around the world: First, in Japan where it was built, then in the US to be exported and mutated into a tube-frame 4WD monster, built to tackle the world’s most famous hill climb. Then it found its way back into Japan, in the hands of Japan’s famous rotary tuner, only to be neglected for 8 years. It then travelled to New Zealand, undergone a complete restroation from the ground-up, and now spends its days carving up circuits in New Zealand.

That’s all from me. Thanks a heap for making this far. As your reward, enjoy a bunch of amazing shots of the car in its finished state, taken at the Rotary REunion festival, where it made its public debut once again, 30 years later on the other side of the world.

Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History
Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History
Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History
Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History
Mazda - Pikes Peak Stories: 4WD Mazda RX-7 - Car History