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Triple Rotor Kiwi Icon – 1973 Mazda RX-3

12 February 2024

West Auckland has never seen so much billet — a quintessential Kiwi build, powered by an all-billet 20B. Is this the ultimate Mazda streeter?

Words: Warren Sare Photos: Glen McNamara


We got word of a recently finished build by car nut, collector, and racer Phil Brown who had “always wanted to build one” (an RX-3) to his dream spec, so we headed out to the far, far west of Auckland to check it out and found something so immaculate that it truly lives up to the billing of so clean you could eat off it. 



If there is one thing this writer has learned over a few decades around car enthusiasts, it’s that there’s a very high chance that most have at one point or another entertained the thought of building a Rotor. Which shape, platform, or engine may vary, but there is just something about these captivating, obnoxious, smelly machines that grabs the imagination and pulls at our heart strings. “I started to modify cars in the last 10 years, but it hasn’t always been rotaries. I first started with a Toyota Starlet and progressed to V8s and then rotaries in the last five years,” Phil tells us.

Builds of any and every colour you can imagine set the standard way back when and to this day many still stand the test of time. Kiwi Rotary culture is alive and well and we believe that we might just have found one of the best built in NZ to grace this issue’s cover. 


Phil’s build has been executed in truly classic show car style as a ground up restoration and reimagination to his specifications and it wouldn’t be out of place at a car event anywhere in the world. He explains, “It was always going to be a ground up rebuild and I really liked the idea of an NA rotary. Originally I wanted a four-rotor, but settled with a three-rotor.”


Throw in the fact that he went shopping in the Pac Performance catalogue and you truly have what for many would be almost the ultimate build. 

 “When we got it, it looked like an axe had been used to fit a V8 in it,” Phil says. Essentially, it was rougher than the morning after a box of Double Browns. Luckily Phil knows a thing or three about putting together a quality build, having started with his first Mini way back at age 15. A number have graced the pages of NZPC or been seen at racetracks around NZ with a good amount of success. You can see by the in-build photos just how extensive things got — simply put “it was a piece of shit” to start with, according to Phil.

It can’t have been that bad, right? Well, instead of repairing the issues, he found it was easier to simply refabricate the entire floor pan of the car! Ricky Bone completed the steel fabrication in house which presented the opportunity to incorporate a custom exhaust tunnel. The body was then sent off to Charlie’s Custom Paint & Pinstriping for some love and attention to the very highest level (if you saw issue 300’s cover car, that’s Charlie’s handy work!) There really isn’t any way to actually describe the hundreds if not thousands of hours that have gone into getting this classic and much loved shape back to millimetre perfect and, even more amazing, is the fact the team have managed to complete reassembly without damaging a single thing. “One of the most challenging parts of the build was reassembling the whole car without scratching or damaging the paintwork,” Phil says, laughing.

One of the other reasons you need to see and experience this car is the sound. It’s like nothing else I can describe and that may be to do with the fact a Billet by Pac engine has made its way into the bay, being of the 20B semi-PP variety. Also commonly called the ‘three-rotor’, there are three distinct two-inch primaries you can see in the engine bay which feed into a custom three-inch stainless steel exhaust that truly does create a unique aural experience. Billet engines are highly favoured for their reliability under the most extreme circumstances and, while ultimate power doesn’t seem to be the goal here, this engine will take whatever is thrown at it. Still on a run-in tune of a very limited 224kW, Phil just wants to drive and enjoy the response and theatre on tap, rather than chasing numbers — it’s not like he doesn’t have other toys for all out attack sessions. 

This engine bay is full show car with a hidden full loom tuck completed — think old-school cool with a modern twist. The individual throttle bodies by EFI Hardware grab your attention briefly before taking in the simple, clean execution. This is actually a nice change in an era where dinner plate size turbos are often in your face and dominate the whole bay. You know a system called ‘Big Poppa’ is bound to be up to some serious abuse and this well named cooling kit by Pac is employed to keep temperatures from climbing once things get a bit more vigorous. Like most true quality builds, it’s the little touches that make this vehicle and the longer you look the better it gets. 


Exterior wise, the legendary RX-3 lines are hard to improve on and, once the panels were straight, it was on with what is called ‘Charlie’s custom green’ which was made until it was just green enough for the owner’s liking and has a gold metallic and then a gold pearl applied over the top. The perfect panels are the best possible place to show off the classic but perhaps slightly larger than normal 17-inch Simmons rims, while the overall impression benefits from the ride height achieved using BC coil over suspension. 

The intention here is a usable and functional ride but given Phil’s circuit racing background handling hasn’t been ignored with upgraded Pac performance bushes and a front sway bar employed, while stopping power comes from a Wilwood four-piston set-up installed all round to ensure that any drive in the Waitakeres is going to be a bit of fun — watch out Scenic Drive!


If the engine noise isn’t enough to whet the appetite, there is also that unique sound to further assault the senses that comes from straight dog-cut gears in a TKO five-speed gearbox mated to a twin plate clutch and then delivering drive to a nine-inch diff with an LSD unit fitted. When you’ve got an engine that will rev all day it makes sense to have the drivetrain to back it up should the need to turn a tyre ever enter your head.   

A build like this needs to be comfortable enough to enjoy for driver and passengers and it is, with the subtle and smooth interior the work of Waikumete Car Upholsterers, who have customised everything. The driver is supported but not overly restricted in Recaro seats, while any lucky rear passengers also sit in custom luxury as the pilot keeps an eye on the custom dash-mounted Microtech seven-inch dash. There are some nice little touches again here and there like the new switches and engraved handbrake that just add class overall to a car the team simply call ‘Billet’.


Call it a dream build, call it what you want, it’s the time to do the little things right on this car that make us feel like Phil and his build team have truly created an instant classic. Go on, admit it right now, there is just a little bit of you that now wants to build your own.


This article originally appeared in New Zealand Performance Car issue 304