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1972 MAZDA RX-2 CAPELLA

TWELVE MONTHS IS NOT A LOT OF TIME IN THE CAR BUILDING WORLD, BUT IT WAS ALL THE TIME SVEN NEEDED TO PULL OFF A PERFECT 10 WITH HIS RX-2 COUPE BUILD

Split it whichever way you want — 12 months, 52 weeks, or 365 days — it still sure sounds like a long time, but, in carbuilding terms, that span can ebb away without so much as spinning a spanner. So, when we learned that that’s all it took for Sven Highman to take a dilapidated left-hook RX-2 coupe and turn it into something truly showstopping, we were floored. Why? Because this was no ‘slap-on-some-paint-and-wheels-and-call-it-a-day’ affair. No sir, this was a complete ‘tear-down-to-a-bare-shell, mount-it-on-a-rotisserie, and media-blast-it’ restoration. 

While most sane people would have set a realistic goal of a few years to complete such a mammoth project, Sven had other ideas, and pinned a target of 12 months to go from rags to riches. We suspect this was because he had been out of the game for a few years focusing on other aspects of life, so when it was time to get back amongst it, he didn’t damn well want to waste any time.But, first things first — he would have to locate his dream machine, which was easier said than done when said machine was an RX-2 coupe. 

After all, back in the early ’70s, car-buying folk generally favoured the family-friendly sedan format, with its four doors and easily accessible back seat, which dictated that production volumes would sway that way. Fast forward 40 years, and those buying trends have left their mark. Finding a sedan is not a problem, but locating a decent coupe is where you start to run into trouble. Sven’s hunt sent him to the Mazda capital of New Zealand, as he explained: “It didn’t take too long, and I was in Hamilton looking at a couple of cars, which turned out to be sacks of sh*t and disappointing, as they had no original features left. 

I wanted something honest, with as many of the old original parts — that make these cars cool — still intact. I was told of a coupe that was recently imported from America and in pretty average condition, so thought, why not look while I’m down here? As soon as Paul and I saw it, we knew this was the car. She was all there and complete but very neglected, with 40,000 original miles [64,374km] on the clock. An unmolested original gem; the perfect car.” Being a US-model RX-2 meant that it was left hook and had a few other little oddities that set it apart from the more common New Zealand, Oz, and JDM models commonly found here.

 Some of them he planned to keep — like the side marker lights — but left hook wasn’t something that interested him, so it had to go. From the outset, the idea was always to restore the car, although wanting it to look old yet handle and perform like something a lot more modern meant they had to walk a fine line to get it right. Enter Stephen Dean from SD Performance (SDP) — the man behind the underpinnings you see before you.

 

EFI Hardware tapered throttle bodies with 650cc injectors sit atop a lobster-back peripheral-port manifold. The engine is based on an S6 RX-7 block with peripheralported housings, enlarged exhaust ports, lightened and balanced S5 naturally aspirated rotors, and ported and polished oil galleries. The front cover is from an early model RX to allow both an S5 Crank-angle sensor and custom front engine mounts

To achieve this set of goals, Stephen quickly turned the idea of a resto into something a little more sinister — with much more chopping than Sven had ever imagined. Starting with a set of 16×8-inch V5 Simmons, the entire project was then put together around the need to fit the wheels at the ‘suitable’ ride height. To do so required the kind of surgery that might’ve seen a lesser man faint. First, the shell was bead-blasted on a rotisserie to reveal the true extent of the work needed. Chopper’s Autobody took care of some rust in the regular places, and, while there, the team also replaced both front chassis rails, stitching in a pair from a righthand-drive front-cut that Sven had acquired. 

Chopper’s team was also charged with handling the rest of the panel work and the luscious paint job. But before any paint could find its way onto the shell, the car was returned to SDP, where Steve continued the cutting, raising the entire gearbox tunnel around 40mm to allow driveshaft clearance, while a section of the rear floor was raised to allow a bigger Hilux diff. Getting it slammed was one thing, but Sven still wanted it to handle, so the rear suspension geometry was reworked, with the factory four-link ditched in favour of a three-link design. Traditionally, running a three-link means a centrally located link sitting on top of the diff, which is fine in a race car, but because Sven wanted to retain the rear seat, a rework was needed. 

The third link now resembles a ladder bar, with a pivoting rose-jointed link locating the diff. The two outer body mounts were moved to correct geometry. Up front, a combination of RX-2 and later-model FC RX-7 parts make up the suspension, with BC Golds found at each corner. The brakes were adopted from an FC. With the fabrication side of things finished, it was back to Chopper’s for paint. What was laid on the shell was a new Mazda Soul Red, although, until that point, Sven would have laughed in your face if you had suggested painting the car that hue. Originally, it was going green, but, after a few test panels, he found that he didn’t really vibe the colour, and Mazda Soul Red was suggested. He checked it out on a few cars and fell in love, especially when sat next to the gold-centred Simmons. 

While all this was going on, the interior was getting taken care of, again in that factory-but-refined style, and, thankfully, the colour originally chosen to go with the green also suited the red that the shell eventually ended up. The project was steaming along well, and, with everything falling into place, a deadline was set for the V 4&Rotary Nationals show a few months out. It would be close, but the push was made by everyone, and, at 5am on the morning of the show, the coupe was running and driven into the hall under its own power: “People were telling me to forget making it run and just push it, but I wanted to drive it in; there was no way I was pushing it.

” Sadly, he missed out on judging, which had taken place the night before, but that didn’t really matter — the car was complete, and it was never intended as a show pony; it was, after all, built as a 100-per-cent road car. With any build, the road to completion is never an easy one, and Sven’s path was no different. A few dyno dramas have been ironed out and all those little jobs ticked off the list. Now, all that stands in Sven’s way is getting it road legal here in New Zealand, a process that is about to go down. So, next summer, this RX-2 will be ready to hit the streets with a vengeance — and it would seem that the bug is well and truly back, as he is already eyeing up a new project to keep himself busy. Some might say he’s a sucker for punishment.

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