Text by Max Gerson. Photography by Corey Davis.
When we mention the 1990s, what comes to mind? Are you instantly reminded of the prevailing peace and prosperity that expanded across Western nations? Or perhaps you remember the blissful TV programming that invaded our homes. Who doesn’t affectionately recall The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Beverly Hills 90210, and Married with Children ? Or perhaps the 90s brings back memories of Vanilla Ice, NKOTB, and Bell Biv Devoe? Whatever your poison (pun intended) we regard the 1990s as a golden decade when peace and technology embraced the masses in a most encouraging way as we hurtled toward the new millennium.
For Luke Chen, the 1990s hold a special appeal for all things automotive. In his own words; "Aesthetics aside, I love cars with the perfect blend of modern technology and raw performance, and that’s why my favorite car era are sports cars from the ’90s. It’s got just the right amount of modern convenience without diluting the driving experience.” This is a sentiment we can very easily understand. The 1990s saw automakers more than a decade removed from the performance emissions regulations of the mid-’70s, gasoline was cheap, and electronic fuel injection was no longer a new and exotic technology. If you knew where to look, modern classics were blooming.
Living in SoCal, Chen grew up with the import scene, where this new automotive culture was actively being defined. His first car was a 1993 Honda Civic coupe, and soon enough, he fitted Enkei wheels and a Wings West body kit (though he promised us he did not install Supra taillights, though we have yet to prove this!). Not much longer after he finished building his Civic, Chen discovered a more purposeful import sports car, the Mazda RX-7.
Before he built this car, he owned (and has since sold) another RX-7, which was chaste white. Both RX-7s were third generation or FD as we call them. The FD designation is built into the VIN of the third-generation RX-7s, (with FD3S for the JDM and JM1FD for the USA VIN).
Having now owned two FD cars, clearly Chen is fond of the third-generation RX-7s, and he’s in good company. With curvaceous bodywork, a high-tech sequential twin turbocharged rotary engine, the appeal of this import was undeniable. In 1993, Playboy magazine compared the FD RX-7 with the then-brand new Dodge Viper. At the end of that comparison Playboy declared that the 13B-powered RX-7 was better than the 10-cylindered Dodge Viper. And don’t think that it was just the Playboy editors that fell in love with this rotary-powered RX-7. Car and Driver named the FD RX-7 to its 10 Best list every year it was sold in the U.S. Road and Track also fell head over heels in love with the third-generation RX-7 declaring it "the purest, most exhilarating sports car in the world.” That’s a bold, bold claim.
So where did this magic come from? The recipe is not complicated: a small and efficient powertrain, and perfect weight balance. Chen describes his affection for this twin turbocharged rotary when asked if he would ever swap in a LS1 V8 engine, "I am amazed at how much power can be delivered from an engine smaller than a small microwave. I think the RX-7’s chassis magic will be lost if anything other than the 13B is running the show.”
The 13B designates one of the familial rotary designs of the German engine pioneer Felix Wankel. Mazda made wide use of it from 1975 (in the early Mazda Cosmo under the AP designation) all the way through 1995 in the RX-7 (in a much more sophisticated 13B-REW designation). These rotary engines are still internal combustion engines but share little with the traditional reciprocating piston engines we all know. The basic design feature of these pistonless rotary engines is one that avoids the inherent vibration and mechanical stress of reciprocating piston engines. The benefit is a compact design with high RPM and a smooth power delivery.
In its third generation, Mazda upped the ante on this rotary powerplant. The 13B-REW engine debuted the first-ever, mass-produced, sequential turbocharger system. Touting 252HP in 1993 and 276HP by 2002, this was more than capable of propelling the 2500-pound sports car.
This sequential twin-turbo setup is both massively complex and profoundly efficient. Using two turbochargers, one for low boost and low revs, and the other to tackle high boost and high RPM, the first turbocharger provided 10 psi (0.7 bar) of boost from 1800 RPM, and the second turbocharger was activated at 4000 RPM and also provided 10 psi (0.7 bar). Again, remember that the displacement of this 13B powerplant is only 1.3L.
Because of the compact dimensions of the 13B engine, it could be located both low and far back in the chassis, allowing for a 50:50 weight distribution and a low center of gravity. Coupled with a five-speed manual and rear-wheel drive, this was a recipe for world-class handling.
Chen clearly chose an excellent platform to build on. After purchasing the RX-7, he handed it over to Banzai Racing, which rebuilt the rotary powerplant to now make 297RWHP. Mated with 18-inch SSR Type C wheels and a Stance Pro Comp suspension and StopTech brakes, the chassis is more than capable of handling the added power.
Outside the car, a 1999 RX-7 front bumper was fitted with an Autoexe CF lip, Feed front fenders and side skirts, and a custom rear fender pull. Odula CF side mirrors look good, and Chen showed restraint in selecting the Odula CF rear wing.
Inside the cabin, Spirit R Recaro seats keep him in place while he slides the FD around his home track of Buttonwillow.
Taking a step back to look at Chen’s FD, we are enamored with the car. This Mazda RX-7, though thoroughly representative of the 1990s, still has a place among the contemporary automotive landscape. The same cannot be said of Vanilla Ice.
AT A GLANCE
Rebuilt 13B with Street Port by Bonzai Racing
Stance Pro Comp Coilovers
SSR Type C 18x9.5 +22
Autoexe CArbon Fiber Lip
99spec Front Bumper
Feed Front Fenders
Feed Side Skirt
Custom Rear Fender Pull
Odula Rear Carbon Wing
APR Carbon Fiber Mirrors
Spirit R Recar Seats
Personal Steering Wheel