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Car Heroes: David Lane

July 31, 2011 by Matt

David Lane's Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE CarTech Turbo

It’s cliché, but even in the car world, we’re not islands untethered, but stand on the shoulders of those who have come before and had an impact on us. This post begins a new series paying tribute to those people I consider seminal in my development as a car buff.

When reflecting on the forces that shaped my perspective on cars in general, I look back most often to a gentleman named David Lane. David is Director of Admissions at Peabody Conservatory and a long-time fixture on the first-generation (’79-’85) Mazda RX-7 mailing list. Our car interests occupy different orbits now, but his influence on my early days of tinkering is something of an anchor in my mind.

Our paths crossed in late ’99 on the first-gen RX-7 e-mail list. E-mail lists seem to be an obsolescent species nowadays, as natural selection continues to favor the more accessible medium of online forums. That said, David’s even-keel and avuncular demeanor complemented the e-mail list format perfectly; his talents would be wasted in the bite-size, rapid-fire world of forums. He excelled in online diplomacy, holding the list together through many flame wars and other disagreements. His warm writing style underscored the wisdom he offered to guys like me, often discouraged by speed bumps and setbacks in the course of our first car projects. And when it was all said and done and I had completed my first engine swap in the summer of 2000, David extended the kind of verbal pat on the back that made me feel like I had been initiated into the ranks of the mechanically accomplished, even though there were many pitfalls yet to come.

And then there was his car. You can read the full spec sheet here, but suffice it to say that it remains a legend in the first-gen RX-7 world, the “pinnacle of one path of automotive evolution,” as one fan remarked. It created a sort of template in my mind of the attributes I would aspire to create in whatever project car I took on: Understated style, attention to detail, and well-sorted but brutal performance when the hammer was down.

More than that, though, his words in the following article provided a philosophical foundation for my opinions about the cars and communities I would come into contact with in the ensuing years. It’s written with RX-7s in mind, but the principles it contains are transferable to any model of car owners feel a passion for. It’s worth the read.

Every now and again we get a message from someone who is probably just trying to yank our chains with this “blown engine” stuff. I will use the most recent one in a very loose way as a model, but there is nothing personal here.

First it’s:

“Should I buy an RX-7? I hear the engines break all the time.”

Then we hear a bunch of justification to somehow “prove” this is the case by comparing the number of times the term “rebuild” is mentioned in various news groups. Finally, we get a whole list of high mileage cars that have been owned for a period of time by the writer–and the implied challenge: “Will an RX-7 be as reliable as this Honda/Volvo/Toyota/etc?”

I think we are asking the wrong question here. But to answer directly, PLEASE do not buy an RX-7. Buy anything else but an RX-7. You will hate it, and you will bombard this list of generally caring people with question after question about why your car does this or that. Eventually you will probably blame all of us for “convincing” you to do something you were in doubt about in the first place. Don’t do it.

You see, people who own RX-7s are not conflicted about them. We don’t have to justify our choice of car by bragging that it went a zillion miles without an oil change. Normally we brag that we change the oil religiously. We also brag about the aesthetics of owning, driving, and competing in our cars–even though some of them barely produce a hundred horsepower. While some of us may eventually decide to buy a Supra, or a Volvo, or a Honda, we almost always end up regretting the loss of our rotaries. We consider it to be a sacrifice to the gods of practicality, maybe, but never “trading up to something better.”

Next time you are out on the street, check out the number of older RX-7s there are out there. See who is driving them. You might be surprised to notice that many of these high mileage cars on the road are still in use as daily drivers by secretaries and college students–not just enthusiasts. Also, most of these cars were not originally bought by Mercedes-Benz types–rather they were purchased by “value oriented” people who are not always the sort who baby their cars. Many have had a rough life, and have soldered on amazingly well. You can see it in the faded paint and door dings.

The 3rd gens were not designed for that crowd. They were priced out of that range. Besides, most of their capabilities are wasted doing yeoman duty as stop and go machines in rush hour traffic.

Can you overheat them and have them keep going? Nope.

Can you let them knock like a New York Taxicab and have them survive forever? Nope.

Can you hop them up to double their horsepower and expect them to live as long as a stock engine? Hardly.

Then why might you want one?

Maybe because every RX-7 is a well balanced, responsive, rear wheel drive sports/GT car that is a delight to flick around.

Maybe because with average care, a stock machine is quite durable and does, in fact, last a long time.

Maybe because, as I have said before, the great cars are not the perfect ones. The great cars are the ones worth repairing.

So, if you are going to put a Toyota Camry in the same sentence with an RX-7, buy the Camry. If you think a Volvo is a better car than an RX-7 because the engine is more likely to survive a broken coolant hose, buy the Volvo.

If you think a Supra is a better car because you prefer its balance of attributes–fine. Buy the Supra.

There is only one reason to buy an RX-7. It is simple, really. You drive it. You grin. You want it. You buy it. If you are unlucky and you lose an engine due to age, abuse, or simple bad luck, you start pouring over the catalogs and drool about the extra power you can have built into the new one. Most owners fret for only a few days before getting to that stage.

Earlier I said I thought questions about reliability were the wrong questions when considering an RX-7. The right questions are: How do you want your car to respond to you? What excites you? In addition to transportation, what would you like to do with your car?

If the answer to these questions does not differentiate between an RX-7 and a Camry or Volvo or Honda, there is no reason to buy the RX-7–or to waste our time.

If, on the other hand, the answers to those questions point you to an RX-7, we will stick by you as you bring your older car up to snuff. Once there it will last a long time. You will be proud of it. You and your car will work together to make driving much more than just “getting there.”

And you will get frustrated when people try to boil the entire experience of sports/GT car ownership into something as monolithic as “is the engine more likely to need replacement in an RX-7 than in another type of car.

If you have to ask, you are trying to judge something with your head which was designed to be treasured by your emotions.

It’s not going to work.

For more of David’s writing, check out his articles about various topics, or read his banquet introduction during a nationwide RX-7 SevenStock gathering in ’07.

Filed under: Car Heroes, Mazda, Rotary

1 Comment

  1. Rod The Drumber says:

    This is not a comment re Mazda RX-&’s. I just wanted to send a request to Dave Lane. He was my old Band teacher. Hey Dave, do you have any of the music on tape of NHS band years 1974-77? I would like my kids to have heard me play, Thanks.

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