Because we, along with title sponsor Mazda, were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the rotary engine this year, a large contingent of piston-less cars were lined up at the starting grid of the 2017 Touge California. Joining them were decades-old twin-cam Toyota fours, Nissan straight-sixes and even a V8 or two. Most were carbureted, and with a 200-plus-mile journey ahead including elevations of 4,900 feet in scorching, triple-digit heat, it would prove to be a test of endurance for all.
We began with Touge California tradition. Driver and navigator teams were instructed to assemble at an undisclosed location, and were not given specific details about the course until route books were handed out at the beginning of the day. Accompanying the books were sealed envelopes containing workarounds for the most challenging sections, the Touge Stages if you will. At the finish line at Mazda North America’s R&D facility, we asked for the envelopes back. If they were still sealed, they would receive an “I Survived the Touge California” sticker along with a poster and generous gift bag from our partner companies.
This year, we began at the base of El Cajon Mountain in central San Diego County. As per the rules, all participants cars were from 1980 or earlier (continuation models, such as a 1985 Mazda RX-7, were allowed because its generation began prior to the cutoff).
The motley crew included old reliables like Datsun 240Zs and Fairlady Roadsters, Toyota Celicas, and SA22 Mazda RX-7s. However, we were also graced by the presence of many JDM gems never sold in the US — a pair of 510 Bluebird Coupes, a Hakosuka Skyline, RHD Toyota TE27 mangos, and even a grand Toyota Century. And then there were the rarities, cars sold in the US but which are painfully scarce in modern times — Mazda RX-2s in both coupe and sedan form, an RX-3 SP, Carina and Sunchaser Toyotas, and even a Dodge Colt-badged Mitsubishi Galant.
Perhaps the unlikeliest (and bravest) entrant was car collector Myron Vernis, who shipped his rare 1972 Mazda Cosmo Sport all the way from Ohio to participate in the Touge. Joining these entrants were a collection of cars from Mazda’s own Heritage Collection — including a REPU, a 10th Anniversary FC3S with fewer than 17,000 miles on the clock, an FD3S RX-7, and a 3-rotor Eunos Cosmo from Japan — plus four ND Miatas for Mazda employees, as well as 2018 CX-5 and CX-9 SUVs for our Touge California staff. The lone RX-8 was the personal car of JNC‘s resident Mazdafarian and checkpoint staffer Dave Yuan.
With roundels (rotor-els?) affixed, the rally commenced. It was here that we lost our first car, a beautiful Celica Liftback attacked by electrical gremlins. The owner headed home (but would rejoin us for the reception at Mazda). The rest of us headed south past Lake Jennings and east thorough the Western Granitic Foothills. While many of the roads on this first leg meandered between scenic mountains and along wide valleys, none were quite twisty enough qualify as a Touge Stage.
As the sun climbed, so did temperatures. The second leg began heading north from the small town of Descanso, California, on the edge of what is known to locals as the Mountain Empire. Soon, the rally charged into first Touge Stage, the Oakzanita Touge, a winding, 4.5-mile piece of California Route 79 weaving through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
The route thus far had concealed how high we had ascended. Soon, we found ourselves snaking around pines and evergreens, flora that doesn’t typically grow in southern California at lower, warmer elevations. Due to the heat and altitude, we soon had our second casualty, a 1985 RX-7 GSL-SE downed by vapor lock.
Just a few miles later cars entered the Cuyamaca Touge, a four-mile stretch up to the highest altitude of the day, about 4,900 feet, on the way to Lake Cuyamaca. We gathered lakeside to assemble the cars, as some had gotten lost. Using the stop as respite from the July sun, hoods opened to let in what little cooling the ambient air could provide.
When it was time to roll out, Touge California veteran Kelvin Chung’s Mazda RX-2 Coupe wouldn’t start. The battery appeared to be the culprit, but attempts to jumpstart it with the support cars failed. There was no choice but to push it over a small crest and let the momentum bump-start it in second gear. At each stop henceforth until the end of the rally, each time the RX-2 set off a crew of helpful rallyists and Mazda folks would help push-start the car in an act of heartwarming camaraderie.
It must have been a sight for the tourists in the town of Julian as three dozen rare Japanese classics rolled into town. We took a break for lunch, chased down by slices of the area’s famous apple pie. While spirits were high, the higher midday temps were positively scorching, hovering in the high 90s. Few cars had air con, making the journey truly an enduro, and we had yet to see the worst the sun could throw at us.
From Julian we headed north to Aguanga along part of the historic Butterfield Overland Mail, a stagecoach route established by President James Buchanan 160 years ago. The road fed into what would be the third and most challenging of the Touge Stages.
Wilson Valley Touge was a serpentine, 5.6-mile downhill strewn with boulders on either side and no guardrails. It looked less like SoCal and more like an alien rock planet. Even with the mercury spiking to the three-digit mark here in the desert, the rally persevered.
Thankfully, all cars made it out of Wilson Valley in tact and headed west through Temecula wine country before bending in a northerly direction towards Lake Elsinore. After circumventing the lake, began our uphill climb towards the longest and most visually magnificent of the Touge Stages.
The Ortega Touge is a 15-mile stretch that curls its way 2,000 feet up a steep mountainside before slowly descending through a breathtaking phalanx of peaks. True to the mountain passes of Japan for which our rally was named, it is the main path cutting through the Santa Ana Mountains between the Elsinore Valley and the Pacific Coast.
Scaling the uphill section, the large body of freshwater that is Lake Elsinore sprawled out below, flipping from one side of the car to the other with each hairpin taken. The descent was even more stunning, with entire ridges that panned across windshields and seemingly opened like curtains before us. All the while cars weaved through a narrow ribbon of asphalt dangling high above the ravine below.
Arriving at sea level, the rally meandered through the McMansion wilds of Orange County and down to the famed Pacific Coast Highway. The last stretch would have our squad of Nihon steel navigating tanned shoregoers and beach traffic where Maseratis are as common as Camrys.
We reached the finish line at Mazda North America’s R&D facility with sunlight to spare, unlike last year, thanks in part to the longer days of summer. The temperature, too, was finally dropping. Our gracious hosts had dinner and a lineup of Soul Red offerings waiting for us. Mazda allowed the rotary-powered among us to park in formation inside the hallowed design courtyard that gave birth to such cars as the Miata, MX-6 and FD RX-7. For Mazdafarians, it was an honor to have their personal cars parked there, one that few can claim.
A brief ceremony ensued, in which teams exchanged their sealed envelopes with the workaround instructions for their hard-earned “I Survived the Touge California” stickers. Aside from having to push-start the RX-2 a few more times, no other cars suffered mechanical difficulties. For his troubles, Kelvin received a $200 car care kit from sponsor Mothers Polish. To be perfectly honest, given the thin air, high temps and cars over 40 years old, that we didn’t lose any more cars was an accomplishment that surprised even us.
At last, it was time for the grand finale, a tour of Mazda’s “basement,” their collection of classic, race and concept cars. Inside, we saw rarities such as a front-drive R130 Luce Rotary Coupe, history makers such as the first Miatas, and legends like the RX-7 replica of the 1979 24 Hours of Daytona winner.
The cars, especially the competition machines, reminded us of Mazda’s long history of endurance racing. What we managed on Touge California was a mere fraction of those trials, but the brutal conditions were still a testament to the original engineering of these beloved cars, as well as the blood, sweat and tears expended by their drivers and navigators. It was an arduous trial of mechanical soundness and sheer will, and we can’t wait to do it again next year.
Special thanks to the sponsors of Touge California:Mazda North America, Yokohama Tire, Hot Wheels, Hagerty Classic Car Insurance, Eneos Oil, Koyorad, Mothers Polishes and Waxes, and Model Citizen Diecast.
For 2017 Touge California posters, please visit the JNC shop.