Global test Porsche 924, Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV vs Lotus Eclat Type 84 and Mazda RX7 Series 3

2014 Drive-My

Everyman exotica. The Porsche 924 and its rivals from Lotus, Alfa and Mazda today offer a bargain blend of pace and practicality. But which does James Page prefer? Photography Tony Baker. Considering that this quartet ended up being such natural rivals in the crowed coupe market of die 1970s and ’80s, each went about their business in remarkably different ways — and for different reasons. For the 924, Porsche dipped a hesitant toe into the world of water-cooled engines in its search for an entry-level model. With the Eclat, Lotus wanted to move in the opposite direction and got serious in its attempt to go upmarket. Alfa’s GTV gave the new Alfetta saloon a glamorous flagship, and Mazda’s RX-7 reflected the firm’s determination to make a rotary engine work in a sports car – and in the process pinch some US sales from Nissan.

test Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV

From top: original prettier than plastic-clad GTV of the ’80s; complex alloys and stylish cabin; two Dell’Ortos for enduring twin-cam; delicate details.

The Alfetta name harked back to the Tipo 158 and 159 single-seaters that dominated Grand Prix racing in the immediate post-war period. This wasn’t solely a marketing ploy. In ail effort to improve the handling of the new model, Alfa worked hard to distribute the weight as evenly as possible. To that end, the Alfetta featured a rear transaxle, plus de Dion suspension – a basic set-up that it shared with later developments of the 159. It’s a tenuous link, but by no means the most absurd road-race tie-in.

The Giugiaro-styled coupe version appeared in 1974 as the GT. Shorter, lower and wider than its sibling, at first it used the same 1779cc engine as the saloon, with which it shared the rest of its running gear. Two years later, the 1962cc engine was dropped in to create the GTV 2000.

Alfa refined Giugiaro’s concept in the wind tunnel to make it as efficient as possible, but form still triumphs over function. This is a very well-proportioned coupe, with beautifully clean lines from its low snout to the sharply cut-off rear end. Neat details abound – the delicate doorhandles, the mini-buttresses on the rear and the ‘GTV’ cut-out that serves as an air vent. It isn’t as low or as overtly sporting as the others, but it doesn’t really have a bad angle.

test Porsche 924

From top: simple alloys look tiny; VAG 2-litre lacks thrills; elegant appearance changed little in nearly a decade; trim wears easily, but not in this mint car.

It offers the lightest interior, too – like a ray of sunshine after the unremitting gloom elsewhere. Paul Heeney’s car was retrimmed in hide by a previous owner but it suits the Alfa well. The instrument layout is somewhat unconventional, in that ahead lies only the speedometer. A separate pod in the centre of the dash contains the rev counter, warning lights and minor gauges.

On the road, initial impressions aren’t wholly favourable. While the pedals line up well with the dished steering wheel, you do have to adopt a ‘bent-knee, straight-arm’ driving position. The Alfa also echoes its exterior stance by feeling higher and less sporty than the others from behind the wheel, and turn-in is accompanied by a far more noticeable degree of body roll.

The gearchange came in for a lot of criticism when the car was new. Alfa’s decision to place the clutch at the rear with the gearbox, allied to the problems of getting an effective linkage between lever and ’box, meant that only when everything was warm could you engage each cog without the occasional fight somewhere along the way. Heeney warns that second can be stubborn, but double-declutching seems to do the trick.

Then you decide to explore the upper reaches of the rev range and suddenly it ail makes sense. The twin-cam engine is an absolute gem. After the briefest of pauses from the carburettors, it pulls hard towards the redline with a throaty grow! that is utterly addictive. Push harder into comers and you realise that, after the initial roll, the Alfa settles and feels very composed. It doesn’t take long before the disappointment of the first mile or two is swept away completely and the car’s sporting nature makes itself known.

Lotus Eclat Type 84

In the same year that the GT was launched, Volkswagen-Audi posted record losses, leading to new managing director Toni Schmucker cancelling the sports-coupe programme that it had been working on with Porsche – at just the time the Stuttgart marque needed something more affordable than its delayed 928. It was therefore logical to buy back the design that its Wolfsburg colleagues no longer wanted.

The new model would be built at VW’s former NSU plant in Neckarsulm, and rely heavily on VW components. That was hardly a first for Porsche, but this time there was a number of fundamental departures from tradition. For a start, the engine would be up front and (whisper it) water-cooled. The 2-litre Audi powerplant has been the subject of much derision, mainly because it was adapted from that used in the VW Transporter, but it could have been worse. There were proposals for it to be dropped ‘as it comes’ into the 924, which would have meant front-drive. At that point, Porsche’s engineers put their collective foot down. They also split the engine and gearbox to give a transaxle layout, improving die car’s handling.

The original shape was penned by Harm Lagaay, and it’s a no-frills effort with few extra-neous details. The ultra-sharp Alfa and Lotus could only be products of the 1970s, but the Porsche – and, to a lesser extent, the Mazda – is harder to date. Whether or not that is a good thing depends on your personal viewpoint.

The door closes with a quality ‘thunk’ as you settle into a solidly black interior on Porsche’s familiar slimline, pinstriped seats. The three cowled dials (central speedo, rev counter to the right, combined fuel level and temperature on the left) straight ahead look suitably sporting and, while rear visibility might not be up to much, it’s a decent if slightly plasticky interior.

Lotus Eclat Type 84

Clockwise, from above: lip spoiler on rear of Riviera; interior very ’70s; wheels shared with Elite; bespoke script; troublesome motor is the most powerful here.

The only irritations are a handbrake positioned to the right of the driver’s seat, meaning that you nib your knuckles every time you use it, and a steering wheel that sits far too low.

When you’re travelling at modest speeds, the spongy gearchange isn’t particularly pleasant, but it improves immeasurably when you’re pressing on and moving the lever with more urgency. There is, however, no disguising the engine’s humble origins. It offers smooth performance throughout the rev range but it’s functional rather than inspiring in its delivery.

The same goes for the handling. This is certainly not a car that will bite the unwary, like some of Porsche’s more feted models. The front suspension is basically Golf/Scirocco, while the rear is derived from the Beetle. It comers well and offers a comfortable ride, but it’s unlikely to put a wide smile on your face.

Not something that could be said of the Lotus. The Eclat was the fastback version of the Elite, stylist Oliver Winterbottom coming up with a shape that is the very definition of a ’70s ‘wedge’. The Elite featured more of a shooting- brake look thanks to its longer roofline and upright rear – the Eclat is altogether more dynamic. Brian Fleckney’s car is one of the rare Riviera special editions, which means that it boasts a lift-out roof panel in addition to minor styling changes, including a rear spoiler. It’s far more aggressive in attitude than our other coupes, its wide, low stance making them seem almost submissive in its presence.

Series 1 Eclats came in a bewildering array of specifications, from basic 520 to fully specced 523 and automatic-gearbox 524. Those cars – designated the Type 76 – also had a felt layer between the chassis and body that trapped moisture and provided the perfect breeding ground for rust. When the updated Type 84 was introduced for 1980, Lotus had equipped it with a galvanised chassis. It gained the 2174cc ‘912’ version of the firm’s slant-four engine, too, in place of the earlier 1973cc ‘907’ powerplant.

While the exterior is a bit bonkers, the interior is black. Very black. The only thing to lift it slightly is the wood veneer in the centre console. The dash is a simple affair – one square pod houses the set of Smiths dials, the square section in the middle contains the various switches and controls, and the square bit in front of the passenger contains the glovebox, Curves do not feature heavily here. The reclined driving position is good, the seats particularly supportive. Those in the rear are heavily sculpted and, while contemporary pictures do show two adults contained within, it’s not clear how they actually got in and out. Even for shorter folk, headroom is tight and legroom all but non-existent.

That bigger engine makes the Eclat feel like the quickest car here in a straight line. It’s a gruff unit, not unpleasant when revved but not as tuneful as the earlier Ford-based Twin Cam. It does imply a feeling of strength, though, and the five-speed gearbox is a joy to use.

Predictably, the handling is the Lotus’ trump card. The steering is incredibly communicative at any speed. Even in a straight line, you know exactly what’s going on with the front wheels – in direct contrast with the Mazda and, to a certain degree, the Porsche. On twisty, undulating roads, it’s superb, the long nose going exactly where you point it with minimal inputs, and perfect damping meaning that it instantly settles after crests and bumps. Lotus might have gone upmarket with the Eclat, but it hadn’t forgotten how to make a great driver’s car.

And so to the RX-7. In the late 1960s, Akio Uchiyama came up with a two-seater sports car powered by a rotary engine, but the project stalled until US board member Sinpei Hanaoka decided that Mazda needed something with which to counter the success of Nissan’s 240Z. Uchiyama’s idea was given a second lease of life and was developed throughout the decade, finally going on sale in 1978.

The Japanese firm invested considerable resources into making a reliable rotary, experimenting with different materials for the housing and internals, until eventually it was confident that its 13A unit was up to the job in terms of durability, emissions and fuel economy.

Dave Mackay’s car is a Series 3 version of the first-generation RX-7. It retains the Si’s neat, compact styling, which was the work of Matasaburo Maeda and Yasuji Yamamoto, but comes with a period TWR bodykit. Tom Walkinshaw Racing successfully campaigned the little Mazda in the British Saloon Car Championship, Win Percy taking the title in 1980 and ’81. As aero kits of the era go it’s a subtle one, and makes the exterior styling a touch more racy.

Inside, it’s very… Japanese. All before you is grey plastic, with a large orange-on-black rev counter taking pride of place in the centre of the instrument panel. The steering-column stalks will be familiar to any owner of a Mkl MX-5, while the digital clock confirms this particular car as being a product of the 1980s.

There isn’t a great deal of room in any direction: headroom is limited even for shorter drivers, and the tiny rear seats look suitable only as somewhere to store luggage. The sunroof offers an opportunity to lessen the hemmed-in feel and can even be removed completely, an operation Mackay describes as “a bit of a faff”.

For the S3, a new oil intercooler transferred heat to the coolant in an attempt to obtain a closer relationship between die temperatures of the two liquids-something vital to the longevity of a rotary. It’s an intriguing unit, undoubtedly smooth, and just keeps getting stronger through the rev range. So silken is it that Mazda saw the need to fit an audible alarm at 6500rpm to prevent owners unintentionally over-revving. The sound is also very different to that of a piston engine, but it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s any nicer. It’s more of a ‘buzz’ than the Alfa’s throaty growl, and goes quiet as soon as you lift off the throttle, rather than the noise gently dying away. Odd, but interesting.

The recirculating-ball steering is almost entirely dead when you’re travelling in a straight line, but it loads up nicely once you start attacking corners. If that’s not enough, Mackay reports that you can fit the front subframe from a Mk2 car to give a rack-and-pinion helm. The ride is the firmest here, with the payoff that the Mazda changes direction keenly and corners flat.

The RX-7 is the leftfield choice. Its badge might lack the prestige of the others, but it’s fun to drive and, while the engine is an unknown quantity for some, Mackay- a lifelong rotary fan and owner – has never had any problems.

It is certainly a worthy 924 rival, although the Porsche is a difficult car to objectively mark down. We even drove it into rush-hour London, perhaps not something that could have been undertaken in the Alfa or Lotus with similar ease or so little tear of anything going wrong. In that respect it’s a typical Porsche, but it lacks the bit of magic that you expect from the marque. That said, they are currently absurdly cheap.

Mazda RX7 Series 3

From top: clean rims; frees pinning rotary gives a unique character; TWR bodykit conceals purity of 924-inspired shape; bland dash but supportive seats.

So, Lotus or Alfa? The former is light years ahead in terms of handling; the latter has the more charismatic engine. It’s nicer inside, too, with rear seats that can almost be described as usable. Both look good, the Brit more dramatic, the Italian prettier. The Eclat would probably get my vote, but that wouldn’t stop me looking with envy at every GTV that went past.

Thanks to Mary Plank and Classic Jaguar Replicas jaguarreplicas.com

CAR SPECIFICATIONS 
Car

Porsche 924

Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV

Lotus Eclat Type 84  Mazda RX7 Series 3 
Made as Germany Italy GB Japan

Sold

1976-1985 1976-1986 1980-1982 1984-1985
Number built 121,239  126,082 (all GTVs) 223 471,018 (all Mk 1s)
Construction

steel monocoque

all-steel monocoque

galvanised steel backbone chassis with glassfibre body 

steel monocoque

Engine

iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 1984cc, four, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection 

all-alloy, DOHC 1962cc, four, twin Solex or Dell’Orto carburettors 

all-alloy, DOHC 2174cc 16-valve slant- four, twin Dell’Orto 45DHLA carburettors

steel-coated aluminium housing, iron-rotor 1146cc Wankel rotary, single Nikki four-barrel carburettor

Max power (DIN) 125bhp/5800rpm

130bhp/5300rpm

160bhp/6500rpm 115bhp/6000rpm
Max torque (DIN) 122lb ft/3500rpm 131lb ft/4400rpm  160lb ft/5000rpm 112lb ft/4000rpm
Transmission five-speed (from 78) manual, RWD five-speed manual, RWD 

five-speed manual (optional three-speed automatic), RWD

five-speed manual, RWD
Suspension

independent, at

front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar

rear semi-trailing arms, transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers

independent, at

front by wishbones, torsion bars

rear de Dion tube, Watt linkage; telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r 

 

independent, at

front by wishbones, anti-roll bar

rear trailing arms, lower links; coilover dampers f/r

front independent, by MacPherson struts

rear live axle, Watt linkage, trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r

Steering

rack and pinion

rack and pinion

rack and pinion, with optional power assistance recirculating ball
Brakes

discs front, drums rear, with servo

discs, with servo

discs front, drums rear, with servo vented discs, with servo
Measurements

Length 13ft 9in (4203mm)

Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)

Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 8 1/2in (2349mm)

Length 13ft 9in (4191mm)

Width 5ft 4in (1625mm)

Height 4ft 4 1/2in (1333mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 11in (2413mm)

Length 14ft 71/2in (4458mm)

Width 5ft 11 1/2in  (1816mm)

Height 3ft 11in (1201mm)

Wheelbase 12ft 1 3/4in (2484mm)

 

Length 14ft 8in (4320mm)

Width 5ft 6in (1670mm)

Height 4ft 2in (1260mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 11in (2420mm)

Weight

2300lb (1045kg)

2423lb (1099kg)

 2429lb (1102kg) 2392lb (1085kg)
0-60mph

9 secs

8.9 secs

7.1 secs 8.9 secs
Top speed

126mph

120mph

132mph 123mph
Mpg

25

23.5

23 21.3
Price new

£6999 

£4799 (1976)

£16,042 (1980) £10,319 (1984)
Price now

£1-7000

£2500-7000

£4-10,000 £1-5000

Thanks to Hurst Park Automobiles hurstpark.co.uk. Thanks to Mazda Rotary Club mazdarotaryclub.com. Thanks to Club Lotus clublotus.co.uk; Elite and Edot Register e-mail. Thanks to Alex Jupe Motorsport alexjtjpemotorsport.co.uk.

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