In December of 2004, I was a 22-year-old with not many worries and a 1991 Mazda RX-7. It was a normally aspirated coupe with nearly 230,000 miles on it. It was in very good overall condition. The engine had been rebuilt at 140,000 miles and I had upgraded quite a few things to add my own personal touch. I had owned the car for almost five years and had a lot of great memories in it. A few days before Christmas that all changed. I came outside during a break at work, walked to my spot, and did not see my car. In disbelief, I walked the whole parking lot as if I had somehow decided to park in a new spot that day and just forgot. It was nowhere to be found; it had indeed been stolen.
The search for a replacement began quickly. I was hopeful my original RX-7 would be found, but I knew these stories typically didn’t end well. I wanted another RX-7 and was willing to travel a bit to get what I wanted. My search quickly narrowed in on a 1991 RX-7 Turbo II outside of Atlanta. It looked decent in the pictures and the engine had just been rebuilt. The seller and I exchanged some messages and agreed on a price. I sent a deposit and started planning my trip. I asked a few friends, but given the holidays, nobody was available. My mom volunteered and we would depart early in the morning on New Year’s Eve.
We left at 4 am hoping to be there before lunch. The drive up was incredibly uneventful. A gas stop and a run inside for some Mountain Dew and a Snickers were all that was needed. We arrived in the northeast suburbs of Atlanta around 11 am. I inspected the car, we haggled a little on the final price as I found some issues that weren’t evident in the initial pictures. A quick test drive later and I was soon leading the way back to Florida in a new-to-me RX-7 Turbo II. The first few hours were smooth sailing. Things were going so well; I’d be home in plenty of time to gorge myself on shrimp cocktail before watching the ball drop.
A few miles before the Georgia-Florida state line, we stopped to fill up on gas. As we pulled away, I heard loud squealing. My mom pulled up alongside me and as soon as I rolled the window down, I could tell it was the RX-7. I shrugged it off and we pulled back onto the interstate, roughly 240 miles from home.
Shortly across the state line, it happened. I heard a loud bang and all the lights in the warning cluster lit up. The alternator belt had snapped. I pulled off at the next exit and parked at a gas station. Today, this situation would be much easier to handle. A quick Google search on my smart phone and I could find the nearest parts store. An online inventory search would tell me if they had the correct belt in stock. I could check out on my phone and head to the store to pick it up. However, this was 2004. The iPhone was three years away. I owned a Motorola flip phone. It was now about 4:30 pm on New Year’s Eve and we were in a sparsely populated region of the Florida panhandle. The nearest NAPA was already closed. We called an Advance and luckily they had the belt we needed. They were 30 miles away and luckily didn’t close for another hour. Given the impending darkness, we bought a flashlight as well. So, in the dark, with the light from a tiny LED flashlight, I changed the alternator belt on the RX-7. There are four accessory belts and of course the alternator belt is the most inboard of these. I started to realize I probably wasn’t going to have any shrimp cocktail this New Year’s Eve.
After an hour of working with the limited tools I had brought, I was finished. I turned the key and hoped for the best. The car ran flawlessly the rest of the way. I arrived home shortly after 11:30 pm tired, beaten, hungry, but feeling closer to whole with a rotary in my possession once more. The new RX-7 blew a second alternator belt a week later. I cleaned up any possible burrs I could find on the pulleys and switched to my preferred brand of belts and never had an issue again.
As a final postscript, my original RX-7 was found. The thieves had stripped, the engine, transmission, my shiny aluminum radiator and possibly some interior parts. It was ditched in a wooden area and set on fire. I had trust issues for a while after that.