Luce Canon
Juni Asuncion's definitive ride from the Rotary Renaissance.

Randomly shout the word "rotary" nowadays and the average car guy, if not puzzled by your unprovoked blurt, will probably conjure in his head an image of the mighty RX-7. Or, if he happens to be a crime-fighting mutant, perhaps its successor, the futuristic-looking RX-8 is more his style. This may in turn lead to wonderment about that vestigial oddity of a motor, somehow plodding along in one model despite the entirety of the remaining automotive universe, including Mazda's own portfolio, running on conventional pistons and rods. There once was a time, however, when rotaries freely roamed (at in least Mazda's full vehicle lineup) and heralded a new direction in internal combustion.

In the early 1970s, Mazda was slowly replacing all traditional engines in its models with rotaries and banking its future on them. From econoboxes to pickups, luxury sedans to buses, piston-free powerplants were nestling into engine bays like puppies into a basket of blankets. It was a rotary Renaissance. Many of these vehicles, given exotic-sounding names like Capella, Savanna and, uh, Cosmo in Japan, came to the US with cool dual-letter designations like RX-2, RX-3 and RX-5. Appropriately, it was during this era of bold innovation and experimentation that the Mazda RX-4 came into being.

Derived from the Italian word for "light," the Luce (actually pronounced LOO-chay) made landfall in 1974 as luxury flagship of the American Mazda fleet. Available in hardtop, sedan and wagon flavors, it slotted neatly and numerically above the sporty RX-3 and economy RX-2. In Japan, its introduction had come a few years prior, in October of 1972, when it replaced the first generation Luce known as the R130 in export markets (of which the US was not one). It debuted with a 12A but in December of 1973 the Luce received an upgrade in the form of the larger 13B. Unfortunately, luce refers light of the optical kind, not mass, and the RX-4's curb weight of 2620 pounds made it a bit more ponderous and thirsty than most Americans would accept from a Japanese car at the time.

Despite its intentions as a refined, comfortable tourer, the lines of the RX-4 look sleeker and more purposeful than its actual sport-oriented RX-3 sibling. The bonnet's center ridge crests at the leading edge of a slightly downturned hood overhang, surrounding a broad recessed grille and headlamps, and makes the front end look positively menacing compared to the RX-3's tortoise beak. Its relatively large size for its time may have relegated it to boulevard cruiser status, but navigating amongst contemporary Civics and Cavaliers, it appears a featherweight. Particularly for the hardtop coupe, its extra length compared to the RX-3 pulls the C-pillars rearward into a more dramatic sweep.

Of course, being slammed on staggered old school Epsilon meshies doesn't hurt either. In this stance, the RX-4 looks like it belongs in a 1970s cop drama car chase, squealing and peeling to a brass funk track. That is, if the horns can outblare the 6-port bridgeported 13B's exhaust rumble. Fender mirrors may impede hood sliding, but you wouldn't want to scratch the bright Lamborghini blue paint anyway.

The creator of this modern Starsky and Hutch-mobile is Juni Asuncion, the hardest working man in So-Cal with responsibilities at no less than three simultaneously operating businesses - JRX Rotary, his tuning shop specializing in those little spinners; IT director at Gigafast, a computer networking equipment joint; and at BRS Auto Design, whose widebody kits can be found gracing numerous high-end show cars, usually in candy magenta pink. In fact, on the day we met up with him, the BRS FD* RX-7 was being carted off for a guest appearance on CSI: Miami. It's hard to figure out when the man sleeps, much less finds time to restore and modify his rare ride.

Four years ago, Asuncion had been searching for an RX-4 with little luck. But one day, serendipity did him a real solid, and while filling up a customer's FC at the end of a test drive, a dark blue stocker pulled into the gas station. The owner began chatting with him about rotaries and as it turned out, was looking to sell his car for about $1200 and move up to a more modern second generation RX-7. The fantastic thing about owning a shop is that spare cars have a habit of lying around. A few days later, the gentleman was driving out of JRX Rotary in an FC that Juni had bought for $300, fixed up and slapped some rims and racing seats onto.

Immediately, the interior came out, as did the tired 12A and matching 4-speed. Juni personally did all the bodywork, patching up a few rust spots and three decades of parking lot dings. The bumpers and trim all received a nice rechroming and the front end got a fiberglass chin spoiler before the shell donned its new paint. The electrics were completely redone, a good idea for a car of this age.

Underneath, RX-7 running gear supports the front, from first-gen struts and brakes to an FC strut tower brace. Rear suspension retains mostly stock components, from leaf springs (albeit with hijacker air shocks), drums, rear end and two-piece driveshaft. The aforementioned bridgeported 13A is mated to these components with a first-gen 5-speed and spits deep brap-ap-ap-aps via Racing Beat headers and a custom exhaust with Magnaflow pre-silencers.

As often is the case with classics, locating cosmetic pieces in good condition can prove more demanding than a full-time job. For the RX-4, the black trim that surrounds the taillights is rather soft and doesn't stand up well over time. Asuncion sourced his from Australia, where many early Japanese imports arrived unchanged from their JDM models, RHD and all. Some parts, such as original wing mirrors, are even difficult to come by in Japan, hence the Celica substitutes. The bumpers, particularly the wonderfully contoured front one, only appeared on 1974-75 models. The 1976 facelift gave the RX-4 a protruding snout inlaid with eggcrate grille, kind of a reverse nose job that all but neutralized slick front end.

So what happened to the visionary rotaries? Just about the time Mazda was forging ahead with a near all-rotary lineup, the gas crisis of 1973 struck. In retrospect, it could be said that the Poe-like descent into madness reached its denouement when Mazda decided to install rotaries, already too thirsty in existing platforms, in utter behemoths like the 1974 Parkway 26-seater bus and nearly 3500-pound 1975 Roadpacer AP, which in case you were wondering stands for "Anti-Pollution." In such applications the high-revving rotary's performance, with the majority of its torque near redline, did not differ significantly from that of a hummingbird strapped to an oxcart. The resulting financial downturn lasted throughout much of the decade, until 1979 when Ford Motor Company purchased a 25% stake.

Prescient then, that the third generation Luce introduced in October 1978 would fully embrace the late 70s slab aesthetic that stubbornly defied all known principles of aerodynamics, with a double-stacked front light motif that simultaneously appeared on its future corporate housemate, the 1978 Ford Granada. An unsportier shape could not be constructed of Legos, nor, apparently, could a sufficiently stylish 2-door be derived, for the variant disappeared entirely.

Yet the rotary remained. Its days as Mazda's golden child had passed, but even as subsequent Luce generations grew in both size and mass, the rotary engine soldiered on as an option alongside pistoned motors of ever-increasing displacement. Not that any of these cars ever made it to the States, mind you. In fact, the Luce was not seen again here on American shores until 1988 when it returned as the first-gen 929. But by then, the notion of a rotary-powered luxury car had been absent too long and even motivated by a turbo 13B seemed especially incongruous. Not surprisingly, Mazda gave us a single engine option this time around - a traditional 3.0-liter V6.


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