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Piece by piece — 1973 Mazda RX-3 (S124A)

22 December 2014

This classic has spent the last nine years maturing into perfection, one small project at a time

Everyone has their dream car. For some, it’s an exotic supercar that very few will ever get to see in their garage, while for others, it’s something a little more achievable, although which is maybe becoming harder to find in decent condition. For Brendan Smith, the Mazda RX-3 has always been his dream car, but, when he decided it was time to purchase one of his own, it became a lengthy test of patience to find a shell in good condition, as he explains: “It took me two years of travelling all over New Zealand, looking at dozens of RX-3 sedans and coupés, until I finally came across this one in Wellington. Almost straight away, me and the old man drove to the hire shop, picked up a trailer, and headed down there.” 

This is no tale of years and years of hard slog over a rusted-out shell; the coupé that Brendan came across had recently had a fresh panel-and-paint and was a runner, with a 12A PP and 51mm IDA. So, it was a complete car, although not in 100-per-cent perfect condition, but with really good bones. Brendan continues: “The interior, boot, and many other bits and pieces needed tidying up, but I knew this was the one. After a test drive, complete with a few sideways antics by the old owner, the car was soon on the trailer and on its way back to Auckland. We trailered it half way up the North Island, and I then drove the rest.”

With his exhaustive two-year search now over, it would take the best part of nine years for the car to reach the state it is in today, with Brendan chipping away at it to get the RX-3 to become something very close to his view of perfection. Carrying out the build step-by-step, undertaking a new project each winter, has meant plenty of road kays have also been clocked up, so it hasn’t just spent nine years sitting on blocks. “I’ve got some good mates in the rotary scene, and, so, with plenty of beers, hard work, and late nights after normal work hours, most winters, the car gets parked up and played with, in between [me] keeping the missus happy by building things around the house,” Brendan says. 

One of the first big projects was the inside of the car, which received a full interior re-trim in factory black vinyl. The result is an interior that looks as if it just rolled off the Hiroshima production line, helped in part by a swag of reproduction trim pieces imported from Australia. 

The 12A PP that originally came with the car is still going strong, although plenty of upgrades have taken place. These include the introduction of a custom Real Deal–radiator-and-oil-cooler combo, which sees the latter tucked in behind the grille. The entire cooling system has been plumbed in massive -20 AN fittings, braided lines, and a Davies Craig electric water pump in place of the factory pump. As proof the AN fittings and braided lines don’t muck around, a blocked overflow port in the filler neck built up enough pressure in the first of two alloy radiators that it expanded and warped, splitting the electric fan and exhibiting enough serious force to move from its spot between the chassis rails. Brendan and his mates are lucky it didn’t explode.

The most recent engine-bay revamp saw electronic fuel injection replace the IDA and distributor. “I did this for a bit more reliability and ease to drive,” explains Brendan, “being a PP, it likes the gas and revs, and the old IDA set-up had its days either running good or bad, but now it runs like a dream, and I got to take it out to Tony at RX-7 Heaven, where he adjusted a few things and tuned it to run as good as it is.” Like all good old-school rotaries, the engine bay has been kept extremely clean, with a full de-loom, and the Bosch HEC coils mounted in the cabin. But it could be about to get a whole lot more busy. 

The 158kW (212hp) to the rear wheels is enough to make it a fun street car, but it seems the 12A’s days are numbered, as Brendan looks towards a future engine transplant. It’s a tough decision to make, but some pretty cool options were being bandied about at the photo shoot. 

In the meantime, he plans to get out and use the car as much as time allows, or until his mind has been made up. After all, he’s already patiently waited two years to find the best starting point, then spent another nine perfecting it. Our hats come off to Brendan for his patience — he has certainly put together one beautifully presented RX-3, and the fact that he is in no way finished only makes it that much more exciting.