Fourteen brilliant rotary Mazdas you've probably never heard of

14th April 2020
Gary Axon

One can only admire those ‘party animals’ at Mazda in Hiroshima. Just like Maserati and BMW before it, Mazda is currently pressing the throttle hard, celebrating the centenary of its parent company’s original founding in 1920.

Mazda has just globally launched a ‘100th Anniversary’ special edition of its popular MX-5 sports car, and its numerous importers and distributors the world over are currently being kept busy by issuing countless press releases and news stories about this Japanese car maker’s fine heritage. This has successfully helped to generate many miles of media coverage, including this recent piece here by my esteemed GRR colleague, Bob Murray, counting down the seven best Mazdas of all time.


Not wishing to deprive Mazda of its centenary celebrations and fun, it is worth remembering that this Japanese firm almost went bankrupt in the late 1920s and didn’t actually build its first vehicle (a crude motorised three-wheeled rickshaw) until 1931. Mazda’s first four-wheeled passenger car (the cute 360 coupe ‘kei’ car) was only launched 60 years ago in 1960, so arguably its centenary celebrations might seem a little premature. Mazda is not the first (and almost certainly won’t be the last) to apply this party mode strategy.

The aforementioned Maserati and BMW have already (and successfully) employed the same policy, getting ahead of themselves to wear party hats and blow out 100 candles. Maserati celebrated its 1914 founding in 2014 (overlapping well into 2015), despite not building its first self-branded car until 1926, and BMW used its initial 1916 establishment date (to make aero engines) to mark its first 100 years, although it didn’t actually produce its first motor car until 1928 (with its earliest motorcycle built in 1923).

This isn’t to decry Mazda of suitable acknowledgements since making its first ‘real’ car 60 years ago, and the Hiroshima marque has certainly crammed more into the past 60 years than most vehicle manufacturers established many years before it. Amongst its many notable achievements, Mazda was the among first Japanese mass-market car makers to realise the importance of using overseas (Italian) expertise to style its products and make them internationally desirable (via Bertone), for example, as well as single-handedly successfully ‘reinventing’ the traditional two-seater soft-top sports car in 1989 with its much-loved MX-5/Miata/Eunos Roadster.

One area in which Mazda has excelled over all other vehicle makers though is in its belief, development and commitment to the rotary Wankel engine.


Invented by German engineer Felix Wankel, and patented by him in 1929, the ingenious Wankel rotary motor was a viable alternative to the ubiquitous internal combustion engine, achieve four strokes – intake, compression, combustion and exhaust – while rotating.

Wankel struck a deal with German motorcycle (and later revived passenger car) manufacturer NSU in 1951, with the Bavarian firm bravely introducing the world’s first Wankel-powered motor car (the NSU Spider) in 1964. As a rotary engine is smaller and lighter than a conventional piston unit, with a superior power-to-weight ratio, it has no reciprocating parts — just a three-sided rotor spinning in a housing — so it is quieter and smoother too, offering outstanding performance for a given displacement. At the time Mazda’s President, Tsuneji Matsuda, quickly recognised the rotary engine’s potential and soon put pen-to-paper on a technical co-operation deal with NSU.

Mazda itself later claimed that “without the rotary engine, there would probably be no Mazda. And without Mazda, the rotary engine certainly wouldn’t have been in production for over 50 years.” As cash-strapped NSU struggled with this new rotary engine (ultimately leading to the Company’s collapse and 1969 absorption into Audi) Mazda’s engineers took Wankel’s unique engine design concept to fruition, and ultimately commercial success.

Mazda also embraced the rotary in order to be different, a ‘defy convention’ philosophy that thankfully still continues in this all-too rare (these days) engineering-led car company. While other car makers had tried (but failed) to make the Wankel engine a success, Mazda doggedly refused to let the challenges of this complex motor get in its way.

The Wankel’s recurring mechanical problem was scratching — nicknamed ‘devil’s claw marks’ — on the inner surface of the rotary engine’s casing, caused by the seals on the triangular rotor juddering, instead of sliding smoothly, against the inner casing. This scoring led to poor seal durability, and caused the early demise of rotary proposals from many other automotive manufacturers, including Citroën, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, General Motors, Nissan and many others.

Led by gifted engineer Kenichi Yamamoto, Mazda eventually solved the Wankel problem with a graphite-aluminium alloy seal, and also cured other drawbacks, such as excessive oil consumption and a lack of low-end torque. At last, Mazda had made the rotary engine realistically feasible in real-world ownership, combining reliability with strong power for its size.
The acclaimed rotary-powered 1967 Mazda 110S Cosmo Sport (as already covered in Bob Murray’s ‘top seven Mazdas’ GRR selection) cemented Mazda’s reputation as a small but influential carmaker, ultimately securing the organisation a permanent place in motoring history. Mazda’s later rotary-powered RX-7 and RX-8 sportsters significantly helped to enhance this reputation and really put Mazda on the map, both models also mentioned in Bob’s top seven.

By the early 1970s, around 100,000 rotary engined Mazdas per annum were being sold in the USA alone, so despite the mid-‘70s fuel crisis, the rest of that decade saw half of Mazda’s total car production powered by the rotary engine.

To complement Bob Murray’s ‘Top Seven’ Mazda models, including the Wankel Cosmo 110S, Savanna RX-7, RX-8 and Le Mans-winning 787B (the first, and to-date, only rotary powered car to win the legendary 24-hour race), here are a baker’s dozen of lesser-known rotary-powered Mazda models to savour.


1968 Mazda R100 (Familia) Coupe

After starting mass production of the Type 10A dual-rotor motor with the Cosmo Sport 110S in 1967, Mazda began to expand beyond the limited sports car market in 1968, the year the Wankel R100 (Familia) two-door coupe was launched in Japan. 

To prove the reliability of its rotary engine to the (vital exports) world, Mazda entered a trio of R100 Coupes into the grueling ‘Marathon de la Route’ endurance race at Spa in 1969, just ahead of Mazda’s first export push into Europe and North America. Of the three R100s, one finished a credible fifth (a strong achievement for a new car and brand name with a revolutionary new type of engine). The other two R100s expired.

The R100 enjoyed some moderate sales success in the important new export markets (especially Australia and New Zealand) with the conventional internal combustion engined Mazda 1000 and 1300 sister models struggling to make a useful sales dent against established rivals such as the Volkswagen Beetle and Ford Escort.


1969 Mazda Luce R130 Coupe

One of the best-looking (but most unknown) coupes of the late-1960s, the beautiful Bertone-styled Mazda Luce R130 was sadly reserved just for the domestic Japanese home market.

This stylish pillarless coupe was the sporting member of the piston-engined Luce saloon and estate family, the R130 being Mazda’s first (and so far only) front-wheel-drive rotary-engined model. Penned by the talented designer Giorgetto Giugiaro while working at Bertone, the Luce R130 was equipped with a 1.3-litre 13A engine producing 126bhp and 172Nm (127lb ft) of torque. It is now considered to be an ultra-rare collector’s item, and arguably the best-looking Mazda ever produced.


1970 Mazda RX500

First shown to the public at the 1970 Tokyo Motor Show, the RX500 prototype was powered by a twin-rotor 10A rotary engine and featured forward-swinging butterfly-wing doors. It was promoted by Mazda as a mobile test bed for the company’s advancements in road safety technology.

A popular Matchbox diecast toy in the 1970s, this unique Mazda concept has only been seen outside of Japan once, when it was displayed on the Cartier ‘Style et Luxe’ lawn at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2014.


1970 Mazda RX-2 (Capella)

Mazda’s second ‘mainstream’ rotary model for global exports was the RX-2 (Capella in Japan), an attractive mid-size saloon and coupe, joined in early Mazda showrooms by the piston 616, which shared the RX-2’s bodyshell, but differed fore and aft with rectangular headlamps (quad circular units in the RX-2, in line with later rotary models) and four round rear tail lamps, in place of oblong units for the 616.


1972 Mazda RX-3 (Savanna)

The Wankel-powered version of the ‘regular’ piston Mazda 808/818 (and Mizer in the USA!), the RX-3 was a desirable Escort-sized sporting saloon, coupe and estate. The RX-3 proved to be a precocious performer, with power supplied by the 982cc (2x 491cc) 10A motor, with 0-60mph dispatched in a sprightly 10.8 seconds.

Of all of the pre-RX-7 rotary cars Mazda built, the RX-3 was comfortably the most popular and successful Wankel Mazda model made, right up to its demise in 1978, helped by valuable competition achievements.

At Bathurst in 1975, for example, Mazda victory came at this Australian race when an RX-3, (driven by Don Holland and Hiroshi Fushida) took a class win and a healthy fifth outright, beaten only by significantly more powerful Australian V8 rivals. The Aero Design DG-1 aircraft also used twin RX-3 rotary engines, with each driving a propeller, with one at the front and the other at the rear of the aircraft.


1974 Mazda RX-4 (Luce)

The elegant late-‘60s Luce range was replaced by the new piston 929 and rotary RX-4 Luce models in 1974, with the subtle Italian style sacrificed for a brasher American look, design inspiration being taken from the Ford Torino, as popularised by the 1970s TV cops, Starsky and Hutch and their famous red Detroit coupe with white side stripes.

Competing in Europe with respectable Triumphs, Rovers, Saab and BMWs, this thirsty range-topping rotary Mazda was a niche product that hit the market just as the fuel crisis kicked in, making the RX-4 a difficult product to sell for the still unestablished Mazda brand. The piston-engined 929 version didn’t fare much better, due to low awareness and the gaudy transatlantic styling.


1974 Mazda Rotary Pickup (REPU)

The Mazda REPU (Rotary Engined Pick Up) was (and remains) the world’s first and only rotary-powered pickup truck. The REPU was available solely in the USA and Canada and boasted Mazda’s 1.3-litre 13B Wankel engine.

Around 15,000 REPUs were built — the majority of those in 1974, with this distinctive pickup now highly sought and valuable.


1974 Mazda Parkway Rotary 26 Bus

At the same time as launching the unique rotary REPU pickup, Mazda also introduced the world’s first, and to-date only, Wankel-engined minibus, the Parkway.

Based on Mazda’s Titan truck chassis, the Parkway could accommodate 26 passengers and was sold exclusively in Japan. The Parkway was fitted with Mazda’s 13B rotary engine, with turbo options (a rotary first) and displacements of 2.5 and 2.7 litres. Production ended in 1977.


1975 Mazda RX-5 Cosmo AP coupe

Sold in Japan and exported to just a handful of European markets (excluding the UK), the prestigious RX-5 was a luxury GT coupe, aimed at competing with contemporary rivals such as the Triumph Stag and BMW 6 Series.

Exclusive and expensive, few RX-5s were sold, with the fastback coupe later joined by a curious notchback ‘landau’ piston-engined coupe called the 121 (not to be confused with the later Kia Pride and Ford Fiesta-based Mazda 121 hatchback models).


1975 Mazda Roadpacer AP

The Mazda Roadpacer AP (Anti-Pollution) was a strange beast. Created solely for the domestic Japanese market to rival the prestigious Toyota Century, Nissan President and Mitsubishi Debonair, the Roadpacer ‘borrowed’ an existing RHD bodyshell from GM’s Australian Holden HJ Premier model.

The Holden’s torquey V8 motor was replaced by Mazda’s 1.3-litre, 130bhp 13B Wankel engine. A high selling price, poor performance and lousy fuel consumption (averaging 9mpg) took their toll on sales, with production ending in 1977 after only 800 examples had found buyers.    


1990 Eunos Cosmo

In the late 1980s, a cash-rich Mazda went sub-brand crazy with a proliferation of new ‘invented’ marques, including Autozam, Efini and Eunos; the latter having a sporting character.

Reviving the revered Cosmo name – first used on the rotary 1967 Mazda 110S – the 1990 Eunos ‘Series JC’ was a classy coupe, rivalling the Nissan Skyline and Toyota Soarer. 

A electronic gadget tour de force, the fourth-generation Cosmo has the distinction of being the first production car in the world to be equipped with a standard satellite navigation system. The Eunos came with a choice of two rotary engines; a ‘mild’ 1.3-ltre 13B RE motor or a more potent 135BHP 2-litre 20B REW.


1995 Mazda RX-01  

Created as a stylish back-to-basics sports car prototype in the vein of the second-generation RX-7, the 1995 Mazda RX-01 sadly never made it beyond the concept stage. However, its 13B-MSP rotary engine went on to be developed into the RENESIS motor that would go on to power the successful production Mazda RX-8.


2007 Mazda Furai and Taiki concepts

In 2007 Mazda presented a pair of jaw-dropping rotary-powered concept cars, the forged-from-the-wind Furai (meaning ‘sound of the wind’), plus the sporting Taiki, both showcasing the potential future direction of the celebrated Mazda rotary engine.

The Furai took a chassis based on Mazda’s C65 Le Mans race car prototype. It was powered by a new-generation 20B three-rotor Wankel engine that put out a fearsome 450bhp. The more subtle Taiki concept used a prototype 16X RENESIS rotary engine, producing up to 300bhp with a lengthened stroke, reduced width rotor housing, direct injection, and aluminum side housings to create a rotary club worth joining.

Here’s to a new Mazda rotary model being launched a.s.a.p. please. Pretty please.

  • Mazda

  • RX-2

  • RX-3

  • Cosmo

  • RX-4

  • RX-5

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  • Furai

  • Taiki

  • Busses

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