Even on a chilly Monday morning, Southend-on-Sea’s two-mile-long promenade is a place where attentions are snap-quick and show-offs wildly competitive.
Palm trees meet chippies and quaint, multi-coloured beach huts sit next to the Modernist water features that represent the latest of this Essex seaside town’s amusements.
Vying for the attention of Southenders and off-season tourists, our two brightly-coloured convertibles join a surprising number of classic cars cruising down the strip.
A Guards Red Porsche cabriolet still might not yet be the sort of image a coin-pushing slot-gamer would appreciate.
Its £39,000 list price back in 1989, some £5000 more than an already pricey 944 S2, has stubborn connotations of flashy wealth that, even with a decade behind it in the budget section of the classified ads, it hasn’t shaken off entirely.
Still, it glides along with utter self-assurance and, against the white SUVs and wheelieing ’bikers, carries an elegance that is increasingly endearing.
Its piercing white paintwork is difficult to miss, and, while some might be double-checking if the 944 is a Porsche, many others will be wondering what on earth this other 1980s whizz-bang is at all.
Costing £24,000 in 1989, the RX-7 Turbo II convertible wasn’t so eye-wateringly expensive, but today it’s a much rarer sight than its German rival and carries with it a sort of prestige of curiosity – not to mention today’s blossoming appeal of the Japanese modern classic.
They’re both dressed for the part, with pop-up lights hidden in rounded nose cones, flared wheelarches showcasing neat alloys and interior detailing that rewards those who get close enough to peer in.
The Porsche 944 hugs the road with athletic confidence, its wide rear haunches and subtly sculpted bonnet confirming its graduation from the original and rather more skinny 924.
From its misfiring beginnings as a Volkswagen sports car, arranging an Audi 100 engine and gearbox into a neat transaxle 2+2, then through an awkward adolescence as an adopted Porsche, the 944 S2 of 1988 upon which this convertible is based is some distance from that 1970s Project EA425.
A curious work of Porsche engineering, this big ‘four’ calmed vibrations with an exceptionally strong bottom end cast in one piece and a counter-rotating balancer-shaft system licenced from Mitsubishi, while the compression ratio rose ever higher with a knock-sensor and combustion turbulence resulting in the somewhat forgettably named ‘Thermodynamically Optimised Porsche’ engine.
The 1987 944S introduced a double-overhead-cam arrangement, and in 1989 displacement was up to 3 litres for the 944 S2, with a compression ratio of 10.9:1, making 208bhp. The ‘S’ package also brought with it the turbo’s bodykit and suspension set-up.
The 944 S2 became available, for the first time, as a convertible.
The conversion work was subcontracted to the Karosseriewerke Weinsberg coachbuilder, later bought by the American Sunroof Company, based close to Porsche’s Neckarsulm facility near Stuttgart.
The chassis was reinforced, with a new floorpan welded in and bracing added at crucial points, while the roofline was lowered slightly with a shorter windscreen.
The 944’s glassback silhouette is traded for a long, flat rear deck and, to afford some boot space above the transaxle rear, the bootlid rises higher than the laws of elegance would prefer.
But, with a small fabric roof ahead of it, the arrangement just avoids awkwardness and is instead simply distinctive, helped along the way to being a classic Porsche design with Teutonic details such as angular tail-lights and the S2’s wavy rear splitter.
It’s a similar story inside, where the post-1985 dashboard is a 911-echoing array of dials and scattered switchgear set horizontally into an austere roll of vinyl.
The matching Guards Red seats, on the other hand, are a loud, unapologetic display of German prestige: like the period Motorola phone and complicated Blaupunkt Dresden RCR 45 stereo, they are nostalgic trappings of yuppie days past, juxtaposed against classic Porsche conservatism.
But it’s not the digital radio displays or the electrically operated extras that define the 944 on the road.
Like the switches that operate them, the 944’s main controls are weighty, with a little initial imprecision suggestive of the major engineering behind them.
At low speeds the car elicits a sense of dismissive impatience, its firm springs thumping ripples in the road through to the sports seats, and the big ‘four’ whirrs along with indifference to the gear you haven’t been bothered to change.
There is enough torque that, when you do clear the beach crowds and the holiday homes, not much more than a lean on the throttle sweeps the Porsche towards its preferred higher speeds.
A heavier foot produces a determined, gravelly note from ahead and a proper shove in the seatback, and the gearbox, steering and pedals soon feel more wieldy.
The 944 flies over undulating topography with exceptional composure, unperturbed by humpback bridges or askew cambers.
Hugged securely by the narrow seats, there’s a true sense of the road underneath through that familiar, ‘Porsche-branded’ fine damping and tactile steering.
Lining up its subtly flared bonnet and leaning the ever-so-slightly perceptible weight of the transaxle through corners is enjoyable in its accuracy, if not quite an inspiration of joy.
The Mazda is, in contrast, bursting with energy.
Amplified by controls that are almost fingertip-light, the RX-7 darts from corner to corner, rolling on its chassis more freely than the more serious, more composed Porsche.
It takes a brief moment for the turbocharged rotary to swell with urgency, but with a whine and an intake of breath it catapults you forwards on a multiplying surge of torque.
Fizzing with free-revving enthusiasm, the little engine quickly abandons turbo lag and delivers a delightfully sharp throttle response at the top end.
The 7000rpm redline seems ludicrously early, and conscious effort is needed to avoid the shrill little warning buzz emitted by the dashboard.
The steering and gearbox are as slick and free as the unfettered engine, although it lacks the mechanical feel of the Porsche’s more work-for-it helm.
Mazda’s variable-rate steering only reveals a layer of feedback right at the edge of grip, but it is swift in response.
The RX-7 feels smaller and more nimble than the Porsche, despite its slightly longer wheelbase, and invites playful use of the controls rather than careful and considered inputs.
This car, though, had ambitions beyond the light, effervescent spirit of the original RX-7.
Longer, wider and heavier than that car, many suggest that this ‘FC’ generation was too much of an appeasement to the American boulevardier market, but the reality is probably more to do with it following the general shift of sports cars towards GTs.
Inside, this means more buttons and more space, while emulating the same driver-centric shape of the original. It is formed from black plastic in the classic Japanese style, although the leather seats and wheel are joined by an attempt at a soft-touch dashboard top.
The most exciting part is certainly the instrument binnacle, which houses a complete set of striking orange-on-black dials and incorporates a novel collection of switchgear, gathering controls for the lights, wipers, heated rear ’screen and even a switch to flip open and closed the pop-up headlights.
It was probably once considered the height of ergonomic design…
It’s not, but, combined with the swept-round curvature of the dash top that includes neat, door-mounted air vents, it achieves a sporty cockpit feel and is miles ahead of the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of the Porsche’s steadfast fascia.
The Germans ought also to have taken notice of the Mazda’s bonnet scoop, underneath which is the air-to-air intercooler helping to maintain the 197bhp and 195lb ft that ensure the 944 is only ever a fluffed gearchange away from a Porsche-branded embarrassment.
Like the 944’s ‘four’, the RX-7’s turbocharged rotary is one step from its final evolution, but its development history stretches back still further.
Having won a technical partnership with NSU in 1960 by a stroke of luck, Mazda had championed the novel Wankel rotary engine ever since.
Its first was the 10a underneath the bonnet of the 1967 110S Cosmo, and by 1986 the derivative 13b had been developed into a far more robust, fuel-injected form for the latest RX-7.
As well as a clever twin-plenum intake system, Mazda pursued turbocharging to further its rotary-powered ambitions – and in no small measures.
Its determined engineers partnered with the industrial giant Hitachi to pioneer a twin-scroll turbo, aiming for the dream combination of low-end response and high-end punch.
It was achieved using computer-controlled pathways in the turbocharger to modulate pressure on its internal blades as the volume of exhaust gas increased, blending seamlessly with the rotary’s inherently flat power band while keeping lag to a minimum – at least by 1980s standards.
Mazda had also been at work on the RX-7’s chassis for this second-generation model.
It developed an early form of multi-link rear suspension by adding a couple of locating links to floating hubs held by semi-trailing arms and marketing it as the Dynamic Tracing Suspension System.
It resulted in more benign responses than both earlier RX-7s and Porsche’s torsion-bar-suspended rear, but purists complained about geometry tending towards understeer.
The rack-and-pinion steering’s computer-controlled variable assistance was perhaps a step too far into 1980s technological optimism, but its reported tendency to go light as grip falls away does at times manifest itself.
A convertible version was put into the RX-7 FB’s planning from the beginning, and was produced in-house.
Comprising both a solid targa central panel and a folding rear fabric section with a heated glass window, this hybrid arrangement requires some boot space – for the targa panel – and willing hands to fold the rear section away, unlike the pushbutton Porsche hood.
But there are speakers in the headrests and a neatly integrated windguard to regain an advantage over the 944’s specification.
Reinforcements were made to the RX-7’s body including bracing behind the engine, rear seats and over the rear suspension struts, and the result is a car that feels just as solid over awkward surfaces as the impressively rigid Porsche.
As we line up on a quiet jetty at the old fishing port of Leigh-on-Sea, it’s obvious from the RX-7’s profile that Mazda deliberately targeted Porsche’s 944 with the FC-generation car, and even with the altered proportions of the convertibles the resemblance is striking.
The Mazda’s fussy bodykit, BBS wheels and big tail-lights with smoked lenses look like an attempt to get one-up on the Germans, despite it being a game the 944 just wasn’t playing.
It’s easy to be captivated by it, though, particularly when your eyes have already been widened by the bright white paint.
You can almost forget to spot the slightly slab-sided bodywork and chubby front wings that contrast with the Porsche’s finely proportioned athleticism.
The 944 doesn’t need showy details – its alloy wheels almost verge on the boring – but it looks and feels right.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Porsche’s transaxle convertible that so appeals, and then the driving experience reflects every carefully chosen line.
It’s clearly the more resolved sports car underneath, but with the roof off, the Mazda has the sort of playful allure that promises fun and intrigue more than high culture.
A bit like those old gaming machines, it’s difficult to deny thoughts about finding a place for your own.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to: Mazda Motors UK and Porsche 944 owner Steven Ball
Porsche 944 S2 Cabriolet
- Sold/number built 1989-’91/5656
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 2990cc ‘four’, Bosch Motronic 2 fuel injection
- Max power 208bhp @ 5800rpm
- Max torque 207lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear torsion bars, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 13ft 9½in (4200mm)
- Width 5ft 8¼in (1735mm)
- Height 4ft 2¼in (1275mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 2954lb (1340kg)
- 0-60mph 7.1 secs
- Top speed 149mph
- Mpg 28
- Price new £39,713 (1989)
- Price now £10-20,000*
Mazda RX-7 Cabriolet
- Sold/number built 1985-’92/272,027 (all FC RX-7s)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine cast-iron rotors, alloy rotor housing with chrome-molybdenum plating, six-port 2616cc twin-rotor, two fuel injectors per chamber
- Max power 197bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 195lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link, semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering variable-rate power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 1¾in (4315mm)
- Width 5ft 6½in (1690mm)
- Height 4ft 1¾in (1265mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 11¾in (2430mm)
- Weight 2976lb (1350kg)
- 0-60mph 6.7 secs
- Top speed 149mph
- Mpg 24
- Price new £25,544 (1989)
- Price now £5-9000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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