The Long Read: Mazda's rotary roll call


It's 50 years since Japan's Mazda Motor Co. launched a production car powered by a Wankel rotary engine, the revolutionary and ultra-compact 'half-turbine, half-piston' petrol power unit invented before World War II by an unschooled but inspired German inventor, Felix Wankel.

Well this is a far prettier badge, isn't it?
Well this is a far prettier badge, isn't it?
It took time for the idea to catch on (especially since Wankel was a pillar of the Hitler Youth and a Jew-hater, imprisoned for years after the war) but the engine eventually ran on a bench in 1957 and powered some NSU cars in the early 60s, before being adopted for the beautiful and much-admired NSU Ro80, whose production lasted a decade from 1967.

Mazda, which has always had non-conformist tendencies, acquired its own rights to the rotary the early 60s and has developed it every since, through a train of 24 concepts, race cars and production cars. Even so, its 50-year anniversary wouldn't normally be the kind of anniversary to set you celebrating all weekend. But it may have bigger implications than we all think...

Mazda UK certainly believes in its importance: last weekend the company gathered up a small band of writers, matched them with half a dozen rotary-engined classic cars it owns, and set them off on a six-leg, Saturday-Sunday driving exercise to connect its UK headquarters at Dartford with the Goodwood circuit in West Sussex, and return.

Smooth, repsonsive, compact... it has plus points!
Smooth, repsonsive, compact... it has plus points!
Despite the long history, Wankel models have never been exactly mainstream at Mazda. This kind of engine is known for smoothness, power, throttle response and compactness, but also cylinder sealing issues (especially in earlier cars) combined with high fuel consumption and exhaust emissions problems that put them beyond the pale of most buyers. Yet when you drive one, you can't help loving the willingness and superb sounds. A decent rotary sounds like an ultra-smooth, ultra-refined two-stroke and pulls from nothing to 9,000rpm with such a lack of complaint that you a beep-warning to stop you sending it a mile into the red.

That's the preamble. Now to the point of that weekend driving exercise. Two years ago at the Tokyo motor show, Mazda launched a beautiful rotary-engined concept coupe called RX-Vision, an obvious continuation of its Wankel-powered sporty line, hinting that rotary fuel consumption and emissions problems could be overcome and that a business case could be made for a car like this around 2020. Further hints along that line came to light a year later, in 2016.

Where it all began!
Where it all began!
Now we're getting ready for the 2017 Tokyo show, with Mazda promising two concepts that include a yet-unspecified sports car. So Mazda UK's event assumed - at least in a journalist's mindset - an extra significance. Was it a hint about what we might see there (Mazda people looked blank). If it was a hint, would the next rotary Mazda model use the Wankel to run a generator in a range extender model, or would it drive the wheels (blank again).

Knowing that car companies nowadays rarely launch concepts that are purely speculative - and understanding that Mazda are keen to progress their successive design philosophy of recent years - we thought again of the viability of RX-Vision. We'll know much more in a fortnight.

Back at Dartford last Saturday morning, Mazda UK's collection of rotary models spanned 40 years, from a superb white 1968 Mk2 Cosmo (made lengthened from the Mk1 so Europeans could fit) to a 2008 RX-8, the funky four-door coupe offered in Mazda showrooms until 2012. In between were a rowdy 1973 RX-3 coupe - an example of which I drove when new in my first week as a motoring journalist - and three different RX-7s. That group consisted of a timewarp 1984 Mk1 with fewer than 300 miles on the clock (because it had spent its life in barn storage) an early Mk3 still in perfect health after 93,000 miles, and a 280hp twin-turbo special edition called the Bathurst and sold only in Japan, to commemorate the fact that it was set up to race at Australia's famous Mount Panorama circuit.

RX-3 a particularly significant car for Steve
RX-3 a particularly significant car for Steve
I worked through the range, from old to new. The Cosmo was perhaps the most interesting, created in an era when the Japanese were still building their export markets, were still humble about their own creativity and so collected design influences from all directions. The Cosmo is a pretty car, but you can practically read down its designers' styling checklist: Perspex-covered headlights, a Lotus-like frontal air scoop, a super-low coupe body, assorted bonnet louvres, a teardrop tail like an early Alfa Spider, and slotted wheels also with a distinctly Alfa look. The name Cosmo marked the fact that the space-race was in full swing.

It's a very rare car these days, as today's £80-90K auction price proves, and drives pretty well for 50 years old. Our test car's engine blew clouds of smoke at start-up, which reduced with warmth and miles, though in a following car you always saw a puff on gearchange. It was decently quick, more because of its wide powerband and quick upshift than its total power, and it was eerily smooth for such an old car. The soft and underdamped chassis was a bit of a curiosity, but you could still make decent progress (tolerating some bouncing) across country.

Early RX-7 has less than 300 miles on it!
Early RX-7 has less than 300 miles on it!
The RX-3 had a fabulous engine, and here in 2017 faithfully played the role it had at the beginning of its life. It was loud and animalistic, but also smooth, and quick in the powertrain; its 44-year-old chassis possessing all the characteristics we used to list for Japanese cars in those days - far too much springing and far too little damping. It leapt and bucked all over the road, but did it at impressive speed and sounded great while doing it. By comparison the refined and flat-riding 'barn-find' Mk1 seemed flat and soft: its principal appeal was a superb velour interior, and the surreal experience of driving a showroom-fresh 1984 car.

The Mk3s looked great and felt pretty modern. Not many of them were sold here because, despite positive road tests at the time they had to fight the Porsche 924/944 and Lotus Excel (not to mention the Toyota Supra and Mitsubishi 3000GT) in the showroom, and this was an era when people were beguiled by big brand appeal. The Mk3s were low, too, and very snug in the cockpit, but their low bonnets, with pop-up headlights, made the view of the road as inspiring as their brisk performance. The Bathurst car's poke was especially urgent.

How did they make RX-7s so pretty?
How did they make RX-7s so pretty?
Finally the RX-8: though an earlier model, it felt supple, refined, quite quick but above all modern. There are better RX-8s than this (notably the later R3 model, running improved suspension and shorter gearing) but this car did make me wonder whether we'd been respectful enough to the RX-8 while it was around. Perhaps not.

It was a fascinating exercise, anyway. Every iteration of the Mazda rotary we tried showed its strong driver appeal, and made me (an MX-5 owner) wonder why on earth they haven't fitted this sportiest of engines to their little roadster, the Mazda with by far their best chassis of all. Pervading everything was feeling that something is coming on the rotary front. On this weekend's showing, it'll be very welcome.

Steve Cropley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments (39) Join the discussion on the forum

  • JohnGoodridge 03 Oct 2017

    Nice. Mk. 2 RX-7 [absent here] wasn't exactly a classic, but it was the one I owned, and enjoyed.

  • Horsetan 03 Oct 2017

    There is at least one other original Cosmo in the UK, owned by a fella named Phil Blake (who also owns about 20 Ro80s).

    If it hadn't been for the perseverance of Kenichi Yamamoto, the rotary would have had no future at Mazda.

  • Robmarriott 03 Oct 2017

    Horsetan said:
    There is at least one other original Cosmo in the UK, owned by a fella named Phil Blake (who also owns about 20 Ro80s).

    If it hadn't been for the perseverance of Kenichi Yamamoto, the rotary would have had no future at Mazda.
    I suspect this was the one which was for sale recently, there was at least one Ro80 in the background of the photos which were in a barn.

  • Horsetan 03 Oct 2017

    Robmarriott said:
    I suspect this was the one which was for sale recently, there was at least one Ro80 in the background of the photos which were in a barn.
    That would be his "spare" Cosmo. He has one other which is in running condition. Before he moved to Suffolk, he used to have Ro80s parked in various parts of South London - I remember going to view one or two in Coulsdon.

  • Sway 03 Oct 2017

    Excellent read - quick point of order, Goodwood is in West Sussex, not East...

    Still hanker for a fd rx7. One day my budget and use will align and it'll happen - I hope! At the moment I just do way too many miles to even think of it.

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