I owned a used 1979 Mazda Rx-7 in 1991 and survived.
A dealer at a Mazda dealer repair shop called it a classic.
I would refine that description by calling it a classic example of poor engineering.
The model was 1979. The Muppets, Alien and Kramer Vs. Kramer battled Apocalypse Now at the box office. Kurt Russell starred in a career-launching made-for-TV movie playing Elvis. Cable TV channels like C-SPAN, Nickelodeon and ESPN began 24-hour broadcasting in the United States.
And Mazda rolled out this flawed car featuring a rotary engine. It was a standard engine, and I had yet to learn how to drive a stick-shift.
My mother had agreed to front me the cash to buy my first car, and I was so anxious to have one, I did not shop around long enough. I found something that looked sporty, was high-maintenance, and had been so poorly maintained by its previous owner, I should never have bought it in the first place.
Against all conventional wisdom, I asked my mother to write the check, and overspent $1600 for a 1979 model in 1991. I didn’t even buy the car from the owner, but from a friend who was in charge of selling it. The title transferred smoothly, so I got off easy on that one. I was 18 years old…make that 18 years stupid.
But, I had a car. Insurance was high, for I was 18. I had a job. I had no idea how to drive a stick-shift. This was a cautionary tale waiting to happen.
After a friend drove me home, he parked the car and handed me the keys. A neighbor, an older gentlemen who was tickled that this was my first car, offered to buy me my first tank of gas. It was surreal to get into this car’s driver’s seat, and be an owner. I had driven my parents’ vehicles for years. Theirs were nicer, yet they came with accountability and curfews. This was mine. I turned on the radio only to discover the only station it seemed to get was the one the seller briefly turned on to prove it worked. I’m not an ’80s hard-rock fan. But I owned it.
It was my own personal, fully-paid-for piece of ugly crap.
At first I was in love. The honeymoon last minutes.
The Tucson summer heat, mercifully in the lower 90’s that day, was making me sweat so bad from the cheap animal skin bucket seat covers the previous owner had worn out with his, described by the seller, 300-pound frame, I had a choice. Use the key and turn on the engine or stay here in this parking spot, or the patch of desert acting as a parking spot.
Now, despite having driven cars and trucks for years, I suddenly found myself fumbling my own keys, inserting them into the ignition slot.
Then, I tried hard to remember what my Driver Ed teacher had taught years prior about starting and operating a stick-shift. My mother was incapable of operating one, so my dad made sure we owned vehicles with automatic transmissions. Minutes passed, and I could not get the right combination of pedals-pushed in the right gear. Every movement I tried to make with the stick caused this scary grinding sound that resulting in me being electrocuted. I knew, in theory, millions of previous drivers in the history of driving had mastered this task, so it was possible for me to figure this out. Humiliating, but possible.
I finally found neutral, realizing there was no formal parking gear, as there is in an automatic transmission vehicle.
I managed to get a single rev of the engine before it died, for I failed to keep the clutch down. I lurched forward as a consequence of my ignorance, but I had learned to get the car to start.
Now, with the clutch kept down, I got the engine running. I did a little victory move, screaming in victory, perhaps overheard by the various desert rodents that lived nearby. I was not in a highly populated residential area, and the two people who helped me get this far were long gone. This was a decade before cell phones – the kind everyone had. Lethal Weapon 2 was still in theaters. I was alone, except for the sounds of the rodents outside laughing at me.
So, now, engine idling, I attempted to move forward. I found the gear I thought was forward and press the gas. And, straight out of a B-movie, I went into reverse, into a ditch, not-quite crashing my car into a shallow ravine such that I was, as a driver, experiencing what first-time astronauts might experience when learning to fly from the laying-down position. Ah, the sky.
I spoke aloud to myself. “Okay, that wasn’t it. At least no one can see me. Hopefully I didn’t damage the car. Mental note: wrong gear.”
I found first gear, on accident, and steered my way out of the patch of dirt that was happy to see me go. I found my way to a paved road and then my first stop light, finding gear 2 – no – 3 – 2 – no – 4.
Again, straight out of a B-movie, a brand new convertible car full of uniformed cheerleaders pulled up next to me to see me drive the car through the next green light, one exaggerated, jerky movement at a time. It took another day or so, but I finally learned to drive a stick.
I quickly learned what a lousy engine was in the 1979 Rx7 and the local dealership was less than helpful. It went out of business in 1994.
I paid more for repairs than I paid for the car and spent more time asking for rides to work and riding the bus than driving my own first car. Today I enjoy two vehicles, both in good shape, but I’ll never buy another Mazda.
I eventually sold that hunk of junk to another driver for $900, and openly told them every troubled part of that car I could think of. In an age or industry when most people try to focus more on the positives of a product, I played the anti-salesman and they bought it anyway. I was glad to see it go. A few months later, I saw it sitting in a movie theater parking lot, so the next owner seemed to make it work.
As kids today watch Transformers and even Christine, I have to laugh at how anticlimactic my first car experience was. As Jason Robards bellows on in an abbreviated monologue in the 1990 film Parenthood, “The first time I got **** was in a car like this,” I have to laugh about my own first-car experience, Not even close.
No backseat antics were possible because the hatch would never stay up on its own. The cost to repair it exceeded the blue book value of the car.
Cory Parella is a Christian movie producer in Denver, Colorado. He is married with three children. He currently drives automatic transmission models from Toyota and Kia.