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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.