John Saad's Mazda RX-3 has won just about everything worth winning on the show scene

Photographers: Chris Thorogood

John Saad set out to build a rotary-powered pocket-rocket that could beat the V8 show cars at their own game and snare the biggest awards on offer. Having taken out the Grand Champion title at Street Machine Summernats 29, I guess you could say it’s mission accomplished for John

This article on John’s RX-3 was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Street Machine

A MAZDA had never won Summernats Grand Champion or Top Judged – that was until John Saad’s incredible 1972 RX-3 came along. Add to this being judged the 2015 MotorEx Grand Master, and you know it’s got serious form.

Mazda RX-3 frontI can almost hear dyed-in-the-wool V8 fans snickering from here. But hang on a minute – any genuinely street-driven machine capable of taking out Australia’s absolute biggest awards definitely warrants closer inspection. Check the detail, check the engineering, comprehend the planning and forethought that has gone into this diminutive screamer, and you’ll quickly understand why FATRX3 has been such a giant-slayer.

This isn’t John’s first award-winning Mazda, either. His previous effort, RXXX3, was good enough to take out gold for Street Elite paint at MotorEx 10. But as good as that car was, John was looking to reset the bar with FATRX3.

Mazda RX-3 front angle“It was my goal to win MotorEx with an RX-3 with a rotor in it,” he says. “I specifically bought the car to build it into this – a car that was beyond belief.”

FATRX3’s entire build was based around its aggressive stance and massive wheel-and-tyre combo.

“In 2008 I ordered the Bonspeed 20x7s and 22×12 rears – Simmons [whose wheels the car now runs] didn’t do 22s at this stage,” John says. “I took the wheels and tyres to Chris at CS Engineering and we sat the car over them until the sills were 100mm off the ground. I told Chris: ‘That’s how I want the car to drive, no airbags – build it around that.’”

Fulfilling this stipulation required a total re-engineer. Four-link, coil-overs, Z-bar and tubs looked after the rear. Up front the original struts got the flick in favour of a CS Engineering-designed double A-arm set-up.

“Tubbing the front and going to upper and lower control arms was the only way we could tuck so much tyre and still turn the wheels,” Chris says. “FATRX3 drives at this height and nothing hits.”

But that’s only half the story; to keep the car registrable and not chop up the chassis, the entire body has also been lowered.

The suspension mounts are a prime example of the forethought used throughout the build. A full-scale drawing was created, from which all the pick-up points were plotted for optimum geometry, including roll centres, roll axis, squat and instantaneous centres. “John could race this car if wanted to,” Chris says.

This level of planning has a lot to do with why FATRX3 has such good road manners.

Mazda RX-3 engine bayConsistency of finish is a big deal in an elite show car of this calibre. None of the factory engine bay remains; it has been completely smoothed over. Those slick-looking wheel tubs started life as rear motorcycle fenders, while the bonnet now opens in the reverse direction to an original RX-3

Another factor is the 13B Cosmo under the bonnet (which incidentally now opens in the opposite direction to a factory RX-3 to better showcase the engine bay). Rather than go berserk and build a high-strung, squillion-horsepower banshee engine, John kept things sensible, as the Mazda was always going to be a driver – which John has proven on multiple occasions. During tuning at Pac Performance, the insanely detailed 13B consistently spun the needle past the 400rwhp mark – more than enough to make this pocket-rocket get up and boogie. Hauling it back to a standstill are colossal 16-inch Wilwood rotors on each corner, clamped by smoothed and polished six-piston calipers.

Mazda RX-3 bootThe engine, along with the Al’s Race Glides Ford C4 auto, have pushed attention to detail to extremes. The engine was completely assembled and bolted to the C4 and the whole package was then sculpted, smoothed and polished as one unit. This way, each piece transitions smoothly into the next. And if that’s not enough, after final engine assembly, the edges of all the perfectly fitting gaskets were brush-touched silver, so that your eye is not drawn to them.

The lack of wiring in the engine bay is another highlight. Mark from Ontrak Auto Electrical has done such a neat wiring job, cleverly hiding much of it in billet tubing.

Mazda RX-3 diffJohn is justifiably proud of his Mark Williams 35-spline diff. It’s one of the company’s modular housings, more commonly found under top-end alcohol and Doorslammer racers. It’s rated at 3000hp, and is filled with an aluminium centre, MW axles, S-Trac LSD and 4:11 gears. “Like the whole driveline, I know it’s overkill,” John says, “but I didn’t want a run-of-the-mill sheet-metal job. This blows people away when they see it”

The cabin is yet another remarkable showcase of Chris’s metal-shaping skills. The all-metal dash, console, tunnel, intricate tub-work, rear tray, door panels and bonnet panels are all by him. Heck, he even made the custom shifter and fully fabricated seats!

Mazda RX-3 front seatsThere’s not a single stock panel on the car; each has been significantly finessed, plus most of the original panel bolts are now hidden from view. Many factory moulds were removed and smoothed over and every square edge radiused. Both front and rear bars were sucked into the body and the radiator support panel moulded in and around the Plazmaman radiator and intercooler. Despite all this, John was careful to ensure FATRX3 never lost its classic Mazda look.

With fabrication finalised, the next stop was Custom Bodyworks, where Claude spent countless hours perfecting the gaps and panel fitment, before spending even more hours finessing all the bodywork into show-winning form. Claude reckons he spent so much time rubbing back the engine bay, undercarriage, chassis, tubs, door jambs, dash and hundreds of other impossible-to-get-at areas, he’s got no fingerprints left!

Mazda RX-3 interior rearOnce Claude was happy, it was time for Custom Bodyworks’ Danny to suit up and lay on the sumptuous two-tone HOK Galaxy Grey – which he and Owen Webb tweaked with extra black.

“I try to do better on every job I do,” Danny says, “but this car was next-level. It had such a high degree of difficulty, given the attention to detail [required] and getting a very consistent finish on every surface. Also working side-by-side with Joe Webb to get the graphics to flow smoothly into the door jambs and back out onto the panels. Along with all the bodywork, painting and buffing, we’ve put thousands of hours into it.”

Mick from Sewtime Interiors is responsible for adding the six-odd hides of baseball mitt-coloured Italian Nappa leather. “Everything in there’s made, nothing’s bought,” Mick says. “It was obvious the car was something special, so I went out of my way to incorporate a lot of innovative things that I’d never done before.”

He also admits that while the job was immensely challenging, the quality of the panelwork supplied by CS definitely made the job a lot easier. “It all went together like a precision-made jigsaw,” he says.

Trimming the seats called for radical, out-of-the-box thinking. The hand-formed seat bolsters were tailor-made to suit John. After shaping the high-density foam, John was brought in for a ‘fitting’, trialling their shape, comfort and functionality before scissors went anywhere near leather.

Mazda RX-3 interior“I had to devise a completely new way of fixing the inserts into the metal shells,” Mick says. “Other trimmers have asked how I did it. All I’ll say is they’re not glued in; the rest is a trade secret.”

“As much as I want to win, when I go to shows, I go to have fun,” John says. “Like when the alternator failed when going for Grand Champion the first year [at Summernats 28] – sure I was disappointed, but hey, I just won Top Judged; that was satisfying enough!”

It’s a given he was even more satisfied the following year at Summernats 29, when he added the much-sought-after Grand Champion sword to his bulging trophy cabinet.

Mazda RX-3 onroadJohn emphatically credits the quality of the car to all the good people involved in the build. “If they didn’t look after me so well and didn’t put in all the extra time and effort, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to get this car to the level it is. I cannot thank them enough.”

Casting your eye over FATRX3, it’s obvious it’s not your typical rotor. It’s loaded with mountains of high-end hot rodding and street machine influences. “I didn’t want it to look Auto Salon,” John says. “I wanted it to change people’s perceptions of what a rotor should look like.”

John Saad driving his RX-3Mission accomplished mate; FATRX3 is arguably the world’s best RX-3.