RX-Rated: Mazda’s Early Rotary Cars, Part 2

Between 1971 and 1978, Mazda launched nine new rotary-engined vehicles, including the Capella (Mazda RX-2), Savanna (RX-3), Luce (RX-4), Cosmo (RX-5), and the REPU. By 1979, only three survived and the company had come perilously close to collapse. In the second part of our history of Mazda rotary engines, we take a look at those vehicles and trace Toyo Kogyo’s dramatic reversals of fortune in the 1970s.

1977 Mazda RX-3SP grille badge

See Part One of this story

MAZDA IN AMERICA

Toyo Kogyo’s growth in the 1960s was little short of spectacular. In 1960, its first year of passenger car production, the Hiroshima-based company built about 23,000 Mazda automobiles. In 1970, Toyo Kogyo would sell nearly 10 times that number even though the company had only recently begun to export its cars outside of Asia; European and Australian sales didn’t begin until 1967.

Toyo Kogyo made its first tentative entrée into the American market in April 1970 with a handful of dealer franchises in Oregon and Washington. The first regional office, Mazda Motors of America (NW), opened in Seattle in late May, followed by offices in Florida and Texas. Mazda’s initial U.S. offerings were all piston-engined: Familia 1200 coupes, sedans, and wagons (badged as Mazda 1200), the bigger Luce sedan and wagon (badged as Mazda 1800), and the B1600 compact pickup. Mazda’s first U.S.-market rotary model, the R100 coupe, arrived in July. Total sales for the 1970 model year were around 2,300 units — not bad considering the late debut and tiny dealer network, but no threat to Datsun or Toyota, much less Volkswagen, then the number-one U.S. import.

1971 Mazda R100 coupe front 3q2
The first Mazda rotary offered in the U.S. was the Mazda R100 (nee Familia) Rotary Coupe, introduced in July 1970 with a price tag of $2,495 POE. (Neither the earlier Cosmo Sport nor the FWD Luce Rotary Coupe (a.k.a. R130) was ever officially imported.) The U.S.-spec R100 was dropped in 1972. (author photo)

In December, Toyo Kogyo hired C. R. (Dick) Brown, a young sales executive from AMC’s Canadian operation, to be the first general manager of Mazda Motors of America (MMA), based in a tiny office in Compton, California. Brown’s task was to expand the dealer network and build a presence for Mazda in America. Although he would have little control over the actual product, he asked for and received almost total operational autonomy.

Under Brown’s leadership, the U.S. organization adopted a different dealer strategy than in Japan, where Mazda dealers tended to be small single-franchise stores. To attract big, well-funded dealers, Brown made the initial cost of a new Mazda franchise quite high, but offset it with margins of up to $600 per car, comparable to a full-size Chevrolet and much better than most other small cars of the time. That approach proved very effective and within two years, Mazda was averaging more than 25 applications for each new franchise. With more dealers, sales climbed to around 21,000 units in 1971 and more than 53,000 in 1972.

1971 Mazda 616 Coupe rear 3q
In addition to the RX-2, U.S. Mazda dealers briefly offered the piston-engined Capella, initially known as the 616, powered by a 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) OHC four with 88 gross horsepower (66 kW). In 1972, the piston-engined Capella was renamed 618, now powered by the 1,796 cc (110 cu. in.) from the discontinued 1800 (first-generation Luce), making 74 net horsepower (55 kW). The 618 was about $500 cheaper than a comparable RX-2. (author photo)

The rotary engine quickly became the cornerstone of Mazda’s U.S. strategy. While the rotary’s fuel consumption had already become a sales obstacle in markets with higher fuel prices, that wasn’t yet a major concern for American buyers, and the rotary’s power, smoothness, and free-revving nature gave it a distinct identity. Following the passage of the Clean Air Act in late 1970, the rotary also seemed the surest way to meet tough federal nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions standards, then slated to take effect in 1975. By 1972, more than four out of five Mazdas sold in America had rotary power, and the company expected that figure to reach 100% by 1975.

THE CAPELLA RE AND MAZDA RX-2

Until the late sixties, Toyo Kogyo’s bread and butter had been the subcompact Familia and the tiny R360 and Carol mini-cars; Mazda’s first larger model, the 1966-vintage Luce, had been a commercial disappointment. The increased emphasis on export sales, however, brought with it the need for a broader range of products.

The first of these was the Mazda Capella, launched in Japan in May 1970; it arrived in Australia that October and in U.S. in early 1971. Offered either as a sedan or coupe, the Capella was Toyo Kogyo’s first midsize car, splitting the difference between the Familia and the Luce; a starting price of ¥696,000 (about $1,930) put the Capella about ¥36,000 ($100) above the most expensive Familia. Like its smaller cousin, the Capella was a conventional rear-wheel-drive car with monocoque construction, MacPherson strut front suspension, and a live axle, albeit on rear coils rather than the Familia’s semi-elliptical springs. In size, the Capella was comparable to the Datsun Bluebird 510, Toyota Corona, Ford Cortina, or Holden LC Torana.

1972 Mazda RX-2 coupe front 3q
1972 Mazda RX-2 sedan front 3q
In either coupe or sedan form, the Series 1 Mazda Capella/RX-2 was 163.4 inches (4,150 mm) long and 62.2 inches (1,580 mm) wide on a 97.2-inch (2,470mm) wheelbase. For unknown reasons, Mazda’s U.S. organization appears to have rounded its dimensions to the nearest whole number, listing its overall length as 163 inches (4,140 mm), wheelbase as 97 inches (2,464 mm), and width as 62 inches (1,575 mm); we’ve used the factory figures. The factory-quoted curb weight was 2,095 lb (950 kg), but better-equipped U.S. models weighed about 2,300 lb (1,043 kg) all up. (author photos)

The Capella’s standard engine was a 105 PS (104 hp, 77 kW) SOHC four, but there was also a rotary version, initially called R612 and known in some markets as the Mazda RX-2. The RX-2 was powered by the new 12A rotary engine, essentially the 10A from the Familia Rotary/R100 with its rotor housings enlarged from 60 to 70 mm (2.36 to 2.76 in.), bringing total swept area to 1,146 cc (70 cu. in.). The 12A retained the smaller engine’s dual spark plugs, twin distributors, and combination of side intake and peripheral exhaust porting, but traded the 10A’s single exhaust ports for three smaller ports per chamber, an effort to reduce engine noise. Output was quoted at 130 gross horsepower (96 kW) — 120 PS (118 hp, 88 kW) net — with 116 lb-ft (157 N-m) of torque. Federalized cars, fitted with a thermal reactor to reduce hydrocarbon emissions, had 120 SAE gross horsepower (90 kW) and 110 lb-ft (149 N-m) of torque, although a switch to SAE net ratings for the 1972 model year reduced those figures to 102 hp (76 kW) and 98 lb-ft (133 N-m).

1972 Mazda RX-2 coupe front copyright 2010 Telkine (used with permission)
In Japan and many export markets, the early Series 1 Mazda Capella had rectangular headlights, which were not legal in the U.S. at the time. Federalized cars substituted four round lamps, which were adopted in other markets for later Series 2 cars. The Super Deluxe was the top trim level for Capella/RX-2 sedans; Japanese-market coupes were also available in sporty GS form. (Photo © 2010 Telkine; used with permission)

Inevitably, the rotary Capella overshadowed its piston-engined counterpart, which was largely ignored by the press. The rotary car’s performance was harder to overlook: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took less than 10 seconds while top speed was nearly 120 mph (190 km/h), comparable to the BMW 2002tii or Alfa Romeo Giulia GTV. U.S. cars were a bit slower, but could still blow the doors off of rivals like the Datsun 510 or Ford Capri 2000. Enthusiast reviewers found the Mazda’s suspension a little soft for really aggressive driving, but owners spoke highly of the RX-2’s handling. The Capella also won praise for its fine ergonomics and generally excellent fit and finish.

As with the earlier Familia Rotary/R100, the flies in the ointment were price and fuel economy. The rotary Capella/RX-2 was about 20% more expensive than its piston-engined counterpart and a lot thirstier to boot. U.S. cars averaged about 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) overall, reaching perhaps 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km) on the highway. Cars without the thermal reactor did only a little better, which limited sales at home and in Europe. Even in the U.S., consumer surveys found owners dismayed with the rotary’s fuel consumption.

Despite its drawbacks, the RX-2 had much to offer. It won Road Test‘s Car of the Year Award in January 1972 and for a time, demand for the RX-2 in the U.S. market outpaced supply. The RX-2 sold well enough that Mazda Motors of America actually dropped the piston-engined 618 at the end of the 1972 model year.

1972 Mazda RX-2 coupe rear 3q
1972 Mazda RX-2 sedan rear 3q
The Series 1 and 2 Mazda Capella/RX-2 shared the taillights of the smaller Mazda Familia Rotary/R100; Series 3 versions substituted hexagonal units to comply with new Japanese safety regulations. Like the Familia, the Capella had a live axle, but it was suspended on coil springs, located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod. Some early piston-engined Capellas had drum brakes all around, but front discs were standard on U.S. 616/618 models and all rotary cars. (author photos)

In the fall of 1971, the Capella received a modest facelift, giving non-U.S. cars dual round headlights like those fitted to federalized 618s and RX-2s. Automatic transmission, already available on piston-engined Capellas, was now optional on the rotary versions as well, a first. (NSU’s Ro80 had a torque converter, but its transmission was not actually automatic.) The Mazda transmission was made by the Japanese Automatic Transmission Company (JATCO), a joint venture formed in late 1969 by Toyo Kogyo, Ford, and Nissan. The JATCO transmission was a conventional three-speed-plus-torque-converter arrangement, albeit with a special high-stall converter and different shift points to suit the rotary’s torque curve. The automatic hampered off-the-line acceleration, but reviewers found that the JATCO unit otherwise had surprisingly little effect on performance. The automatic became optional in Australia in early 1972 and in the U.S. that December. (A five-speed manual gearbox was introduced on the Japanese-market Capella GSII coupe in 1972, but it was not offered on U.S. RX-2s; we don’t know if it was available in other export markets.)

SIDEBAR: Racing the Capella/RX-2

With strong performance even in stock form, the rotary-engined Capella had obvious potential for sedan racing. A rotary Capella won its class at Japan’s Fuji 1000 km in July 1971 and in October, an RX-2 driven by Gary Cooke took Class C in Australia’s Hardie-Ferodo 500 at Bathurst, although the Mazda could not match the sheer power of Ford’s GTHO Falcons, scoring 26th overall. New rules for 1972 moved the RX-2 to Class B, where the Mazda lost out to the Ford Escort GT, taking second and third in class, 13th and 14th overall. Reclassified yet again in 1973, the RX-2 returned to Bathurst a final time, taking first and second in Class C (2,001 to 3,000 cc displacement), 10th and 12th overall.

In late 1972, Car and Driver editor Patrick Bedard suggested that the magazine prepare and campaign an RX-2 in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Racing Stock (RS) Series, known between 1972 and 1976 as the B.F. Goodrich Radial Trophy Series. IMSA RS was a “showroom stock” series for small sedans like the Ford Pinto and Datsun 510, allowing only a limited range of modifications. While the 1973 RX-2 had less of a power advantage than in previous years — 1973 federalized models were down to 97 net horsepower (72 kW) — the rotary Mazda had obvious potential.

The Car and Driver car was prepared by Roy Woods Racing, while its 12A engine was modified by Jim Mederer of Racing Beat in Anaheim, California. Per IMSA rules, the rotors were stock, but Mederer made extensive carburetion and porting modifications, including adding enormous auxiliary intake ports to each side housing, so large that Mederer had to leave a metal “bridge” through the port to avoid compromising the integrity of the corner seals. The effect was comparable to installing a high-lift, long-duration camshaft in a piston engine: a rough idle, poor low-speed response, and ferocious high-speed power. The “bridge-ported” engine’s estimated output was 198 hp (148 kW), 30 hp (24 kW) more than the original goal, and the addition of a factory racing exhaust system later took the engine to an impressive 218 hp (163 kW) at 8,400 rpm.

IMSA officials reportedly regarded the Car and Driver car — and rotaries in general — with great suspicion, particularly once they saw the car perform. After the RX-2’s first race in June 1973, IMSA ordered the magazine to add 300 lb (136 kg) of ballast as a handicap for subsequent events. The extra weight didn’t stop the RX-2 from winning at Lime Rock in July, the car’s third race, and again at Road Atlanta in September.

The victories made IMSA even more suspicious, but after a complete engine tear-down, officials grudgingly conceded that the bridge porting was legal, at least for the 1973 season. They hastily rectified that for the following year, banning all porting modifications for rotary engines — the equivalent to restricting reciprocating engines to stock valves and camshaft profiles. The loss of the bridge-ported engine meant the RX-2 was no longer competitive, so Car and Driver sold the car to Mazda salesman and racer Walt Bohren.

IMSA subsequently relented on some of its more draconian restrictions on rotary engines, so Bohren took the RX-2 back to the RS Series in 1976. After several victories in 1976 and 1977 (and a variety of lap records), he won the driver’s championship in 1978, also earning Mazda the manufacturer’s cup. Later owners continued to campaign the car in both IMSA and Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events, taking SCCA divisional championships in 1982 and 1983. The RX-2 was eventually sold to racer and race builder Jim Downing, who still owns it today.

SAVANNA RE: THE MAZDA RX-3

Around the same time the Series 2 Capella appeared in Japan, Toyo Kogyo introduced the next phase of its expansion plan: the Mazda Savanna, which bowed in September 1971. The Savanna was essentially a rotary-powered version of the new Grand Familia, a larger subcompact positioned between the Familia and Capella. Interestingly, although the Savanna was looked much like its piston-engined counterpart (known in other markets as 808 or 818) and would be offered with the same body styles, Toyo Kogyo marketed it as a separate entity — a distinct contrast with the rotary Familia, which it would shortly replace.

1972 Mazda RX-3 coupe front 3q copyright 2010 verner_oscar (used with permission)
The Series 1 Mazda Savanna was 160 inches (4,065 mm) long and 62.8 inches (1,595 mm) wide on a 91-inch (2,310mm) wheelbase, making it 9.2 inches (235 mm) longer and 4.5 inches (115 mm) wider than the older Familia. Like the Familia, the Savanna had MacPherson struts in front and a live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs, but with staggered rear shock absorbers to limit axle tramp. Critics were pleased with the Savanna’s handling, noting that it had less body lean than the RX-2, but ride quality left something to be desired, particularly on the wagon. (Photo: “RX3” © 2010 verner_oscar; used with permission)

Like the Familia Rotary, the initial Japanese-market Savanna used the 982 cc (60 cu. in.) 10A engine, now rated at 105 PS (104 hp, 77 kW). Since the Savanna was somewhat heavier than the Familia, performance suffered a bit; claimed top speed was 109 mph (175 km/h). Prices were similar to the Familia: ¥600,000 (about $1,725) to start, rising to ¥700,000 (about $2,015) for a GR sedan or GS coupe.

In early 1972, Toyo Kogyo added a Savanna rotary wagon — another first — and a new GT coupe with lowered sport suspension, a five-speed gearbox, and the 1,146 cc (70 cu. in.) 12A engine from the rotary Capella. Weighing almost 140 lb (65 kg) less than the Capella, the Savanna GT quickly established itself as Mazda’s top rotary performer.

1972 Mazda RX-3 rotary wagon front 3q
The Mazda Savanna/RX-3 wagon, added in 1972, shared the same wheelbase as the sedan and coupe, but was taller (55 inches/1,397 mm), about an inch (25 mm) longer, and 80 lb (36 kg) heavier. From 1973 on, larger bumpers made U.S.-spec RX-3s progressively longer and heavier still; 1973 wagons were up to 163 inches (4,140 mm) and 2,300 lb (1,043 kg), while 1974 models were 170 inches long (4,318 mm) and weighed 2,450 lb (1,111 kg). (author photo)

That spring, the Savanna began arriving in export markets, usually badged Mazda RX-3. In Australia, New Zealand, and other markets, the RX-3 had the 10A engine, but U.S. cars used the larger 12A, albeit with a more restrictive exhaust system that trimmed output to 90 net horsepower (67 kW) and 96 lb-ft (130 N-m) of torque. Export cars had fewer trim options than did their Japanese counterparts and the five-speed gearbox was not initially available, leaving a choice of four-speed manual or JATCO automatic.

Although the Savanna/RX-3 was a bit slower than the RX-2, the smaller car was usefully cheaper — by as much as $270 in the U.S. Before long, the Savanna was outselling its larger brother by a substantial margin, bolstered in part by an impressive competition career (see the sidebar below). More than half of all Savannas were coupes; of the rest, it appears that wagons may have outsold sedans despite not being offered in all markets.

The Savanna got a mild makeover in late 1973, including a new front clip and taillights, the latter a response to emerging Japanese safety regulations. The 10A engine was dropped, replaced by the latest single-distributor version of the 12A. Like U.S. cars, the JDM Savanna now had a thermal reactor to reduce hydrocarbon emissions. Although Japan’s own pending emissions standards were still mired in political debate, as an interim measure, the government had decided to offer tax incentives for the purchase of low-emissions vehicles. Models with the thermal reactor (which Mazda christened REAPS, Rotary Engine Anti-Pollution System) were called Savanna AP, for “Anti-Pollution.”

1974 Mazda RX-3 sedan side copyright 2011 verner_oscar (used with permission)
This Mazda Savanna/RX-3 appears to be a facelifted Series 2 sedan, which was not sold in the U.S. The Mazda RX-3 sedan was dropped from the American market after the 1973 model year, but remained available elsewhere through at least 1976. RX-3 wagons remained available in the U.S. through 1976, the coupes through 1978. (Photo: “RX3” © 2011 verner_oscar; used with permission)

Even with the bigger engine, the addition of the thermal reactor and a 100 lb (45 kg) weight increase meant that Series 2 Savannas were no faster than before. Nonetheless, the Savanna remained the most popular of the early Mazda rotaries, which for a time was enough to make the RX-3 the world’s most successful rotary-engined car. In its first two and a half years alone, Mazda built 218,842 copies.

SIDEBAR: The Savanna/RX-3 in Competition

While the Capella/RX-2 had some racing success, it paled in comparison to the exploits of the smaller Mazda Savanna. On the street, the Savanna/RX-3 couldn’t match the RX-2’s performance, but on the racetrack, the Savanna’s lighter weight and wider track were definite advantages. The availability of both 10A and 12A engines was also a plus, sometime allowing the Savanna to compete in multiple classes. The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS), for example, classified rotary engines based on two times their geometric displacement, which put 10A RX-3s in Class B (1,301 to 2,000 cc) and 12A models in Class C (2,001 to 3,000 cc).

In Japan, the Savanna made an impressive debut in touring car competition at the 500-mile (620-km) Fuji Tourist Trophy in December 1971, scoring first overall and ending a 49-race winning streak for the Nissan Skyline GT-R. The following May, Savannas took first, second, and third in the T-b (touring car) event at the Japanese Grand Prix — the first of five Japanese GP championships. For the next five years, the Savanna would be one of the fiercest competitors in Japan’s super touring car class, with 100 victories between 1971 and 1976.

In Australia, a 10A-powered RX-3 took second in Class B at the 1973 Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathurst, scoring ninth overall; it actually finished ahead of the RX-2 that took the Class C championship. The following year, a 12A-powered RX-3 won Class C, taking 6th overall, while a 10A model again took second in Class B, coming in 10th overall. The big-engined RX-3 would achieve another Class C victory in 1975, taking second in class in 1976. The RX-3 continued to compete throughout the decade, although racers were hampered by CAMS regulations forbidding porting modifications.

1978 Mazda RX-3 - Jim Downing IMSA RS #63 front 3q copyright 2005 Johnny Aguirre (used with permission)
This 1978 Mazda RX-3SP coupe was driven by Jim Downing in the 1981 IMSA RS Series (known at the time as the Champion Spark Plug Challenge), earning Mazda its fourth Manufacturer’s Championship in that series. (Photo: “Rx-3” © 2005 Johnny Aguirre; used with permission)

Ironically, most of the RX-3’s American racing success came in the model’s twilight. Stuart Fisher drove an RX-3 to the SCCA B-Sedan National Championship in 1977; RX-3s took the SS/B National title in 1980 and 1981, followed by a GT-2 National Championship in 1982, almost five years after the end of production. Although an RX-2 took the 1978 IMSA RS Manufacturer’s Championship, RX-3s would dominate that series through 1983, taking the manufacturer’s cup in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1983 and the driver’s championship in 1982.

Savannas and RX-3s remained competitive in smaller events for many years afterward. One of the most successful was driver Tom Ellam’s 1972 RX-3, which racked up an impressive string of championships in SCCA Solo II and Pro Solo events well into the 2000s. In 2006, for example, Ellam won the SCCA Solo E-Modified National Championship and then loaned his car to Jennifer Lee, who immediately drove it to the E-Mod Ladies National Championship.

MAZDA LUCE RX-4

The introduction of the Savanna lifted Mazda’s annual rotary production past the 100,000-unit mark, but Toyo Kogyo remained committed to offering the rotary in nearly all of its products. Next in line was the second-generation Mazda Luce, which arrived in October 1972. (Except for the rare front-drive R130, the previous-generation Luce had been offered only with piston engines.) Unlike its Bertone-styled predecessor, the second-generation Luce was designed in-house; the new car had sporty proportions, but drew criticism for its fussy detailing.

1974 Mazda Luce sedan front 3q press - copyright Mazda
With an overall length of 167 inches (4,240 mm), the Mazda Luce/RX-4 sedan was actually 5 inches (127 mm) shorter than its predecessor, although the new model had a slightly longer 98.8-inch (2,510mm) wheelbase and a much wider track. Surprisingly, the new Luce retained its predecessor’s Hotchkiss drive rear suspension, although reviewers found the axle well controlled. This sedan is a Series 2, sporting the coupe-like nose introduced on four-door models in late 1973; the RE13 badge on the grille indicates the presence of the new 1,308 cc (80 cu. in.) 13B engine. (Photo circa 1973, copyright and courtesy Mazda)

The Luce was initially offered as a four-door sedan in Special, GR, and GRII trim, or a two-door hardtop coupe in SX, GS, GSII, or luxurious Grande trim. (A four-door wagon — offered in the same trim levels as the sedan plus a Grand Turismo version with fake wood paneling — was added in 1973.) Non-rotary cars were once again powered by a 1,796 cc (110 cu. in.) SOHC four, but the rotary cars had the 12A engine with either 120 or 130 PS (118 or 128 hp, 88/96 kW) and offered a choice of four- or five-speed manual gearboxes or JATCO automatic. There was also a thermal reactor-equipped AP version, which became a popular fleet vehicle in Japan.

1974 Mazda RX-4 coupe front 3q
Outside the U.S., the Mazda RX-4 hardtop coupe was 170 inches (4,320 mm) long, 3 inches (76 mm) longer than the sedan, although both shared the same wheelbase. U.S. coupes, with mandatory 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers, were 177 inches (4,496 mm) overall; federalized sedans were 179 inches (4,547 mm) long while the wagons were 184 inches (4,674 mm) overall. (author photo)

A facelifted Series 2 Luce arrived in December 1973, including a new front clip for sedans that made them look more like the coupes. Both coupe and sedan were now available in GT form, with wider tires, radius rods for the rear axle, and a new 1,308 cc (80 cu. in.) 13B engine with 135 PS (133 hp, 99 kW) and 133 lb-ft (180 N-m) of torque. The extra power made the Luce GT the fastest rotary Mazda since the Cosmo Sport L10B; Toyo Kogyo quoted a top speed of 121 mph (195 km/h) and a 0-400 meter (quarter mile) acceleration time of 15.8 seconds.

The first Luce exports began in early 1973, badged 929 in piston-engined form, RX-4 with rotary power. American buyers didn’t get the piston-engined Luce (the 929 wouldn’t be offered in the States until 1988), but the U.S. RX-4 arrived in early 1974. The RX-4’s sole engine was the federalized 13B, rated at 110 net horsepower (82 kW) and 117 lb-ft (159 N-m) of torque, mated to either a four-speed gearbox or the three-speed automatic. The five-speed gearbox wouldn’t arrive until 1976, part of an effort to improve fuel economy.

191974 Mazda RX-4 coupe rear 3q
Despite its weight — 2,610 lb (1,184 kg) for the coupe, 2,875 lb (1,304 kg) for the wagon — the Mazda RX-4 was the quickest U.S. Mazda to date, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in well under 10 seconds. It was also the most expensive, with prices starting at $4,095. This car’s wheels and tires are obviously not original; stock RX-4s had BR70 tires on 13-inch (330mm) rims. (author photo)

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

By the fall of 1973, Toyo Kogyo was riding high. Total passenger car production for the calendar year would be more than 450,000 units, up 50% from 1970. To accommodate its export business, the company now had assembly plants in Malaysia, Indonesia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with a new Philippine plant following in January 1974. U.S. sales for the 1973 model year had totaled more than 117,000, nearly twice the previous year’s figure.

By 1973, interest in the rotary engine was also reaching its peak. The pending U.S. NOx standards meant that nearly every automaker in the world was at least considering offering rotary power. GM was paying $5 million every six months on a $50 million license from NSU and Curtiss-Wright while promising that the two-rotor GM Rotary Combustion Engine (GMRCE) would go on sale by the 1975 model year. Nissan and Toyota had taken out licenses of their own in 1971 and 1972, while Ford hoped to get a leg up by acquiring a piece of Mazda. (Negotiations collapsed when Toyo Kogyo made it clear the rotary would not be part of the deal.) Mazda’s American advertising cheerfully pointed out that what other automakers were still struggling to develop, Mazda already had; the company built its 600,000th production rotary in 1973.

Despite that success, all was not rosy for Toyo Kogyo and the company was already facing a number of serious problems.

1972 Mazda RX-2 sedan red front 3q
Thanks to the depreciation of the dollar, the U.S. list price of a Mazda RX-2 sedan went from $2,750 in 1971 to $3,695 for 1974, pricey for a small import. RX-2 sales fell dramatically in 1974 and it was dropped from the U.S. lineup by the end of the model year. (author photo)

The first issue was currency exchange rates. Since 1949, the value of the Japanese yen had been fixed at ¥360 to one U.S. dollar. The Nixon Administration’s decision in August 1971 to abandon the gold standard, which had kept the value of the dollar relatively stable, led to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates based on the dollar. Allowed to “float” on the currency trading market, the yen’s value quickly increased, climbing to around ¥270/dollar by 1973. That shift, combined with new U.S. tariffs on imported goods, led to an escalation in the U.S. prices of various Japanese-made products as manufacturers struggled to keep pace. That inflation affected all Japanese automakers doing business in the U.S., but was particularly troublesome for Mazda, whose rotary products had been fairly expensive to begin with.

The second problem concerned the rotary’s reliability and maintenance costs. Despite their mechanical simplicity, the Mazda rotaries were not necessarily any cheaper to maintain than a four-cylinder reciprocating engine; oil consumption was inherently high and early engines had two ignition systems to maintain as well as a prodigious appetite for spark plugs. Both J.D. Power & Associates and Consumer Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) reported problems with seal failures in federalized 10A and 12A engines. In sharp contrast to NSU’s experience, Mazda’s apex and corner seals turned out to be surprisingly robust in service — several automotive magazines did teardowns of high-mileage Mazda rotaries and found little wear in those areas — but the same was not necessarily true of the oil seals or the gaskets mating the rotor housings to the side plates. On early engines, those seals were rubber O-rings, which took a beating from the rotary’s considerable waste heat, limiting their lifespan.

By the 1973 model year, Toyo Kogyo had developed more durable seals, but some owners complained that the company was reluctant to replace the seals on earlier cars under warranty. Mazda’s U.S. organization responded in March 1974 by adding a three-year, 50,000-mile (62,500-km) warranty for new rotary models, but complaints about earlier cars eventually resulted in a lawsuit that was not settled until 1980.

1973 Mazda RX-3 rotary wagon badge
Toyo Kogyo didn’t offer rotary wagons in all markets (none was officially exported to Australia, for example), but they sold reasonably well in the U.S. Curiously, during the 1975 and 1976 model years, American dealers offered two rotary wagons (the RX-3 and RX-4), but only one four-door sedan (the RX-4). (author photo)

The third problem was the rotary engine’s high fuel consumption. As we mentioned in Part 1 of this story, the rotary’s combustion chamber has a large surface area for its volume, resulting in reduced thermal efficiency; more of the heat of combustion is lost to the cooling system than in a typical overhead-valve piston engine. Furthermore, the large surface area can create an effect called wall quench, where some of the vaporized fuel mixture re-condenses on cooler areas of the combustion chamber (or even on the rotor itself) and passes into the exhaust stream without burning.

Fuel consumption was even heavier on emission-controlled cars thanks to their thermal reactors. The thermal reactor was essentially an afterburner, injecting fresh air into the exhaust stream to continue the combustion process. Although the afterburner’s purpose was to reduce hydrocarbon emissions at the tailpipe, the thermal reactor didn’t work effectively unless the exhaust leaving the engine had high levels of unburned hydrocarbons. To accomplish that, Toyo Kogyo opted for very rich fuel mixtures, making Mazda’s early emissions-controlled cars even thirstier.

1973 Mazda RX-3 rotary wagon rear 3q
The Mazda RX-3 was the fastest compact wagon on the market in the early seventies, but had a stiff and rather jiggly ride, prodigious thirst, and a high base price of $3,395. The rotary engine also had an annoying tendency to backfire, a product of unburned fuel escaping through the exhaust. (author photo)

By U.S. standards, the rotary’s fuel consumption only seemed unreasonable in comparison to four-cylinder rivals; it was roughly comparable in fuel economy to a big American six. However, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ran a 1973 Mazda RX-2 through the new EPA simulated fuel economy cycle, the RX-2 returned a dismal 10.6 mpg (22.2 L/100 km); the smaller RX-3 did little better. The EPA eventually adopted new test procedures intended to more accurately reflect real-world driving conditions (including the now-familiar city/highway split), but that did Mazda little good in the short term; the early test results put the Mazda rotaries in the same league as full-size American luxury cars with big V8s.

Kenichi Yamamoto, the head of rotary development, was already working on improving the rotary’s fuel economy, but political events elsewhere in the world were moving much faster, creating a crisis that would nearly become Mazda’s undoing.

THE OPEC EMBARGO

Since the mid-1950s, major Western oil companies had maintained tight controls on the production and price of Middle Eastern oil. While those restrictions kept fuel prices stable and relatively low, Middle Eastern leaders chafed at the limits on their income and what they saw as the lingering specter of Western colonialism. That growing frustration only worsened with the depreciation of the U.S. dollar following the end of the Bretton Woods system, which effectively reduced the value of crude oil.

By 1973, a series of minor clashes with the oil companies had led the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to two powerful conclusions: First, that the price of oil (around $3 a barrel in early 1973) was well below what the oil would actually be worth on the open market, and second, that the major oil companies would bend if sufficient pressure were applied.

1973 Yom Kippur War map by User:Raul654, with past edits by Kordas, Hohum, ChrisO, and Andrew Hampe (CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic)
A map showing the territories contested during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (Image: “Yom Kippur War map” by User:Raul654, based on information provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, with the permission of Israel Embassy in Poland, and incorporating past edits by Kordas, Hohum, ChrisO, and Andrew Hampe (see the original image link for full change history); resized PNG rendered version and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

On October 6, 1973 — the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur — a coalition of Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian military forces mounted a large-scale assault on the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, hoping to regain territory and prestige lost in the wake of Israel’s 1967 offensive. Although taken by surprise, the Israeli Defense Force soon rallied and mounted a counteroffensive, thanks in no small part to military aid from the United States and other Western powers.

The war provided the pressure OPEC needed to dramatically increase oil prices. By mid-October, crude was up to $5 a barrel and there was talk of significant production cuts. That was only the beginning. Of the belligerents, only Iraq was a member of OPEC, but many other members were sympathetic to the coalition’s cause. On October 19, OPEC announced an embargo on oil sales to the U.S. in protest of the U.S.’s new $2.2 billion aid package for Israel.

Diplomatic pressure ended the shooting war on October 26, but the embargo would continue into the new year. By early 1974, oil prices had reached nearly $12 a barrel, sending fuel prices soaring. In the U.S., the average price of a gallon of gasoline climbed from 36 cents to as much as 60 cents while fuel shortages led to long lines at gas stations and various rationing measures, including limiting fuel purchases to alternating days based on the last digit of a car’s license plate number.

The embargo, which lasted until March 1974, put a damper on the public’s appetite for large or thirsty cars. Even in countries that weren’t targeted by the embargo, the spike in fuel prices caused sales to plummet except on the smallest, thriftiest models. The rotary engine’s gas guzzler stigma meant that Mazda sales were hit particularly hard, falling about 30% in Japan and more 40% in the U.S. Alarming as they are, those figures don’t fully suggest how badly Mazda’s rotary sales suffered. Worldwide production of the rotary Capella/RX-2, for example, fell from 54,962 in 1973 to 7,656 in 1974, while the Savanna/RX-3 dropped from 105,819 units to only 29,678.

1973 No Gas sign (© 1973 David Falconer for the Environmental Protection Agency - U.S. government public domain work; National Archives Identifier 555416, National Archives and Records Administration)
Aside from greatly increased fuel prices, the OPEC embargo brought fuel shortages across the United States. This sign was photographed in the window of a gas station in Lincoln City, Oregon, in October 1973. (Photo: “‘NO GAS’ SIGNS WERE A COMMON SIGHT IN OREGON DURING THE FALL OF 1973, SUCH AS AT THIS STATION IN LINCOLN CITY ALONG… – NARA – 555416” © 1973 David Falconer for the Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. public domain image from the National Archives and Records Administration Archival Research Catalog, ARC Identifier 555416)

Despite the drop in sales, Toyo Kogyo’s production continued unabated. By the end of the 1974, Mazda had huge stockpiles of unsold cars: an estimated 140,000 in Japan, more 50,000 in the U.S. At home, where Mazda dealers already struggled with slim margins and high carrying costs, salespeople began to jump ship. By year’s end, the company had lost a fifth of its domestic sales force. Dick Brown also departed, resigning in July 1974; his replacement was former Chrysler executive Sidney Fogel. (Brown went on to become president of the DeLorean Motor Company, followed by stints at Avanti and Daihatsu.)

The OPEC embargo cooled much of the enthusiasm other automakers had shown for the rotary engine. As regulatory attention shifted from air pollution to fuel economy, the 1975 emissions standards were pushed back, giving automakers more time to develop emissions controls for reciprocating engines. GM announced in September 1974 that it was indefinitely suspending its Wankel engine plans. Comotor, a joint venture between Citroën and NSU to produce rotary engines, collapsed after the failure of Citroën’s GS Birotor. The NSU Ro 80 would survive through 1977, but after that, Toyo Kogyo would be going it alone.

PARKWAY, REPU, AND ROADPACER

Despite the energy crisis, Toyo Kogyo still had ambitious plans for the rotary, many of them in motion long before the embargo.

A revised Series 3 Mazda Capella bowed in Japan market in late 1973, sporting hexagonal taillights, a new dashboard and bumpers, and the 1,146 cc (70 cu. in.) 12B (single-distributor 12A) engine with a thermal reactor and optional five-speed gearbox. the new Capella arrived in some export markets in early 1974, but U.S. cars got only a few of those changes. The U.S. RX-2 was discontinued at the end of the 1974 model year, although the Series 4 Capella, introduced in Japan later that year, continued in other markets through 1978.

1974 Mazda REPU front 3q copyright 2010 Rex Gray / modified 2011 by Mr.choppers (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The Mazda Rotary Engine Pick-Up (REPU) was 173 inches (4,395 mm) long on a 104-inch (2,640mm) wheelbase with a curb weight of 2,865 lb (1,300 kg). With the 13B engine, the “REPU” was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 11 seconds, enough to out-sprint some contemporary sporty coupes, including the last federalized BMW 2002s. Top speed was 103-105 mph (165-170 km/h). (Photo: “Mazda RE Pickup”, a modified version (created 2011 by Mr.choppers) of the original photo “197x Mazda pickup – red – fvr” © 2010 Rex Gray; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The next new rotary Mazda was the first intended solely for the American market: the Rotary Engine Pick-Up, or REPU. Launched in April 1974, the REPU was a rotary version of the Mazda B1600 truck, trading its 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) piston engine for the federalized 13B. Since the pickup’s curb weight was about the same as the RX-4 wagon’s, the 110 hp (82 kW) rotary gave the REPU brisk performance for the era. The truck was also surprisingly nimble and had better-than-average ride quality. However, with a base price of $3,495, the REPU was $500 more expensive than the B1600 and fuel economy was decidedly heavier, typically running to 16-17 mpg (13.8 to 14.7 L/100 km/h) overall. The REPU sold 14,366 units in its first year, but demand dried up after that. Only 113 were built in 1975, a meager 632 in 1976, and 1,161 in 1977, its final year.

1974 Mazda REPU rear 3q press - copyright Mazda
The Mazda Rotary Engine Pick-Up’s flared fenders were added to cover its substantially wider tread width; at 57 inches (1,448 mm) front and 56 inches (1,422 mm) rear, the REPU’s track dimensions were 6 inches (155 mm) and 5 inches (127 mm) wider, respectively, than those of standard B1600’s. To deal with the engine’s thirst, fuel capacity was also increased, to 20.4 gallons (75 liters). (Photo circa 1974, copyright and courtesy Mazda)

Three months after the REPU, Toyo Kogyo introduced perhaps its strangest rotary model: the Mazda Parkway Rotary 26. The Parkway was not a car, but a rotary version of Mazda’s recently introduced 26-passenger bus, itself based on the Mazda Titan commercial truck. While the standard Parkway 26 was offered with either a four-cylinder petrol engine or a choice of diesels, the Rotary used the thermal reactor-equipped 13B, linked to a four-speed manual gearbox. The Parkway Rotary was built in limited numbers — 44 between 1974 and 1976 — and we don’t believe any were exported.

1974 Mazda Parkway Rotary 26 front 3q press - copyright Mazda
Developed more for emissions reasons than performance, the Parkway Rotary 26’s 135 PS (133 hp, 99 kW) 13B engine provided a top speed of about 75 mph (120 km/h). Like the piston-engined Parkways, the Rotary was 243.9 inches (6,195 mm) long on a 129.3-inch (3,285mm) wheelbase, weighing about 6,360 lb (2,885 kg). (Photo circa 1974; copyright and courtesy Mazda)

As those models debuted, Kenichi Yamamoto was hard at work on Project Phoenix, a crash program intended to reduce the rotary’s fuel consumption by 20% for the 1975 model year and 40% for 1976; see the sidebar below.

The first all-new model introduced after the start of Project Phoenix was another Japanese-market oddity: the Mazda Roadpacer AP. Introduced in March 1975, the Roadpacer was essentially a rebadged version of the Holden Premier, the second-largest model offered by GM’s Australian subsidiary, trading the Premier’s GM-H powertrain for a JATCO automatic and an emissions-controlled 13B. Probably aimed at senior company executives and government officials, the Roadpacer was by far the largest and most expensive Mazda, with a ¥3,800,000 list price (around $13,000), and among the thirstiest, returning less than 10 mpg (24 L/100 km) in hard driving. Sales amounted to only 800 units through 1978.

1975 Mazda Roadpacer AP front 3q press - copyright Mazda
Early Mazda Roadpacers were based on the HJ Holden Premier, but later cars were based on the facelifted HX model, which debuted in Australia in mid-1976. All were 190.8 inches (4,850 mm) long on a 111.4-inch (2,830mm) wheelbase, weighing around 3,475 lb (1,575 kg). Overall width was 74.3 inches (1,885 mm), which we assume was a handful on narrow, crowded Japanese roads. (Photo circa 1975; copyright and courtesy Mazda)

The Roadpacer was not sold in the U.S., where Mazda dealers were putting renewed emphasis on the piston-engined 808, which had previously accounted for less than 10% of sales. For the 1976 model year, Mazda even offered a fuel-sipper 808-1300 model, the Mizer, powered by the 1,272 cc (78 cu. in.) four used in Japan and elsewhere. Despite the Mizer’s impressive EPA fuel economy, Mazda’s U.S. sales remained slow, totaling around 61,000 for MY1974 and 65,000 for 1975.

1977 Mazda RX-4 wagon front 3q copyright 2010 MartinHansV CC (BY 3.0 Unported)
The Series 3 Mazda Luce/RX-4 was introduced in Japan in October 1975, with a new front-end treatment reminiscent of Mercedes-Benz (or the contemporary Ford Granada). A five-speed gearbox became standard on federalized RX-4s for the 1976 model year, but the coupe was discontinued in some markets, possibly to avoid competition with the pricier Cosmo/RX-5. This generation of the Luce ended production in the fall of 1977, but export RX-4 sedans and wagons survived through the 1978 model year. (Photo: “MHV Mazda RX4 1977 01” © 2010 MartinHansV; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

SIDEBAR: The 12A, 12B, and 13B Rotary Engines

Toyo Kogyo made a number of significant changes to its rotary engines in the mid-seventies in hopes of reducing the rotary’s fuel consumption and making it cheaper to manufacture.

The earliest Mazda production rotaries had used carbon-aluminum apex seals running in aluminum rotor housings with electroplated chrome surfaces. Getting the chrome to adhere to the aluminum was difficult and time-consuming, so Toyo Kogyo later switched to the Transplant Coating Process (TCP), which sprayed the rotor housing with a thin layer of steel prior to chrome plating.

In mid-1973, TCP was superseded by the Sheet-metal Insert Process (SIP), which used a chrome-plated steel insert for each rotor housing, comparable to the pressed-in cylinder liners of an aluminum-block piston engine. The switch to SIP allowed the adoption of thinner cast iron apex seals with flexible corner seals to reduce blow-by; the side and oil seals were also redesigned for a longer life.

To improve fuel consumption, Toyo Kogyo engineers adopted a new bathtub-type Medium Deep Recess (MDR) combustion chamber design and modified the accessories to reduce mechanical losses. Perhaps the most obvious change was a new ignition system, eliminating the earlier 10A and 12A engines’ twin distributors. Later engines still had twin spark plugs, but from 1974 on switched to a single distributor with dual coils, making the later “single-dizzy” engines immediately recognizable.

1973 Mazda RX-3 rotary wagon 12A engine
The 1973 model year was the last for the twin-distributor 12A engine, seen here in a 1973 Mazda RX-3 wagon. (author photo)

Because of those changes, Toyo Kogyo initially christened the single-distributor version of the 12A the 12B. The 12B was accompanied by the new 13B, a 1,308 cc (80 cu. in.) version created by widening the 12A/12B’s rotor housings from 70 to 80 mm (2.76 to 3.15 in). The 12B nomenclature never really caught on and Toyo Kogyo eventually returned to the 12A name, which is how Mazda sources describe the smaller-displacement engine today. The 982 cc (60 cu. in.) 10A engine was dropped after 1973 and was not offered in single-distributor form.

Additional changes followed in 1975, including a new “Long Deep Recess” (LDR) combustion chamber and various ignition, porting, and carburetion changes that traded high-end power for greater mid-range torque. Federalized and AP models also had a new thermal reactor that used pre-heated injection air, reducing the need for over-rich fuel mixtures. Those changes, combined with taller gearing, provided substantially better fuel economy — by 1976, federalized RX-3s were up to 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) on the contemporary EPA highway cycle.

COSMO RX-5

The big news for 1975 was the Mazda Cosmo AP, introduced in October after debuting at the Frankfurt Motor Show. A big four-seat coupe reviving the name of Toyo Kogyo’s first rotary production car, the Cosmo AP had some commonality with the Luce, sharing the same wheelbase and track, but in the best American tradition, the coupe was longer, lower, and wider. The new Cosmo’s styling had a distinct Detroit flavor as well, resembling both GM’s “Colonnade” intermediates and the 1974 AMC Matador Coupe.

The Cosmo shared the Luce’s transmissions and engine lineup — the familiar OHC four in 1,796 cc (110 cu. in.) and later 1,970 cc (120 cu. in.) forms for the cheaper models, the 12A and the 13B for rotary cars — but suspension was more like the Capella’s, trading the Luce’s rear leaf springs for coils, trailing arms, and a Panhard rod. All Cosmos had four-wheel disc brakes and 14-inch (356mm) wheels. Japanese-market models also offered the choice of a JATCO automatic or a five-speed gearbox with a fluid coupling rather than a plate clutch, an arrangement shared with the Japanese Luce, but not offered on U.S. export cars, which had a conventional five-speed instead. Upper-level Cosmos were lavishly equipped, in keeping with their lofty prices; the RE Limited started at ¥1,795,000, equivalent to more than $6,000.

1976 Mazda 121 front 3q copyright 2011 Alain Durand (used with permission)
Export Mazda Cosmos of this generation were usually badged 121 with a piston engine and Mazda RX-5 with rotary power, but surprisingly, Mazda retained the Cosmo name for the American market. Non-U.S. Cosmos were 176.2 inches (4,475 mm) long — 179 inches (4,545 mm) with bumper overriders — on the same 98.8-inch (2,510mm) wheelbase as the Luce, weighing around 2,650 lb (1,200 kg) in 13B Limited form. Federalized Cosmos were 182 inches (4,623 mm) long and weighed about 2,825 lb (1,280 kg). They used the same 110 hp (82 kW) 13B engine as the U.S. RX-4. (Photo: “The second generation CD Cosmo appeared in 1975 and lasted until 1981. It was known as the Cosmo AP in Japan, and sold internationally as the Mazda RX-5, though in some export markets its piston-powered counterpart was called the Mazda 121.” © 2011 Alain Durand; used with permission)

If Toyo Kogyo had hoped for a piece of the lucrative American personal luxury car market, they were to be sorely disappointed. Federalized Cosmos arrived in early 1976 to lackluster reviews and general buyer disinterest. Extra weight made the Cosmo slower than the cheaper RX-4 coupe and the Cosmo’s Americanized looks did it no favors with U.S. import buyers; customers who wanted a Detroit-style luxury coupe could buy a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for less money. One New York dealer tried to drum up some interest by running a Cosmo in the 1976 24 Hours of Daytona, but Mazda’s U.S. organization was still struggling to interest buyers in any new Mazda, much less a $6,000 luxury coupe. We don’t have a breakdown of U.S. sales by model, but Mazda only sold around 35,000 cars in the U.S. in 1976 and we suspect very few were Cosmos.

The Cosmo met a similar fate in other export markets, but it turned out to be a big hit in Japan, which took the lion’s share of production: over 50,000 in the first year alone. In July 1977, the Cosmo even spawned a still more American-looking variation, the Cosmo L Landau, with a notchback roof and padded vinyl top.

1976 Mazda 121 rear 3q copyright 2011 Alain Durand (used with permission)
Although it didn’t seem to go over well with American buyers or critics, the Mazda Cosmo’s ‘glass pillar’ hardtop roof became its signature, retained on the subsequent HB Cosmo. While the chrome frames are fixed, the glass is retractable, an unusual touch. The interior is archetypal seventies luxury, with plush velour, woodgrain dashboard, and a genuine wood steering wheel. (Photo: “The CD Cosmo/RX-5 series was a flop internationally as Mazda tried too hard to ‘americanize’ the car.” © 2011 Alain Durand; used with permission)

The Cosmo was popular enough at home to make it profitable, but mediocre export sales made it less successful than anticipated and it was not quite enough to stave off the company’s mounting losses.

THE END OF A DYNASTY

The end of the OPEC embargo had not brought much of a recovery for Mazda. Total sales for 1975 were down an additional 22%; the company declared a loss of ¥17.3 billion (roughly $60 million) for the fiscal year. By the end of the calendar year, Toyo Kogyo was close to bankruptcy.

That was not a happy prospect for the Hiroshima area, where Toyo Kogyo was responsible, directly or indirectly, for about 25% of the industrial jobs, or for the Sumitomo Bank, which was the company’s second-largest shareholder and creditor, with a total financial exposure of around ¥60 billion (more than $200 million). The bank tried to convince Toyota to purchase an equity stake in Toyo Kogyo in hopes of bolstering the company’s capital position, but when that didn’t pan out, Sumitomo Bank agreed to step in directly to keep Toyo Kogyo afloat.

1977 Mazda RX-3SP front 3q
The final U.S.-market Mazda RX-3 was offered only as a coupe. Introduced in March 1977, the RX-3SP was 40 lb (18 kg) lighter and $150 cheaper than the previous RX-3 coupe, bringing its base price below $4,000. Since 1976, the federalized 12A engine had used a two-barrel carburetor rather than the previous four-throat, but porting changes had improved output to 95 hp (71 kW) and 102 lb-ft (138 N-m) of torque. The RX-3SP was no longer available in California, although buyers in other states now benefited from a five-year, 75,000-mile (120,750-km) engine warranty. (author photo)

Kouhei Matsuda, who had succeeded his late father as president in 1971, has ended up shouldering much of the blame for the company’s near-collapse. Unlike his father, who had been a persuasive leader of considerable vision, Matsuda ruled through intimidation as much as respect and many employees and executives were afraid of him. Toyo Kogyo had always been essentially an autocracy; there were many executives and executive committees, but most actual decision-making power resided with the president. Since no one was eager to give Matsuda bad news, much less argue with him, he was slow to recognize problems and slower still to respond even when business turned sour.

Even in the face of the company’s financial crisis, Matsuda resisted outside attempts to change the company’s direction. In January 1976, he reluctantly allowed Sumitomo Bank to appoint bank executive and troubleshooter Tsutomu Murai as Toyo Kogyo’s new executive vice president. Murai and managing director Hiroshi Mineoka, another Sumitomo appointment, enlisted the support of other Toyo Kogyo executives to develop and implement new procedures and strategies throughout the company. Murai also made some important appointments of his own, including making Hiroshima plant manager Yoshiki Yamasaki the new head of production.

1977 Mazda RX-3SP side
The Mazda RX-3SP’s rather gaudy spoilers, stripes, and decals were nominally optional, a $345 appearance package. It remained available in the U.S. through the 1978 model year, although Savanna production had ended in 1977. This car’s wheels are once again not stock. (author photo)

Perhaps the most unusual strategy Toyo Kogyo adopted during this period was the dispatched worker program, which put volunteers from throughout the company through a two-week sales training course and then shipped them off to dealerships around the country for temporary stints as car salesmen, making up for the recent losses to Mazda’s sales force. At its peak, the program involved almost 3,000 employees.

In December 1977, Matsuda agreed to relinquish the presidency to Yamasaki, ending the Matsuda family’s five-decade dominion. By the time of Matsuda’s departure, Toyo Kogyo had managed to reduce costs, increase sales and revenues, and improve relationships with its suppliers. Since the company union had agreed to accept delays or reductions in bonus payments as an alternative to salary cuts or layoffs, the cost in jobs and wages was relatively modest. The company reported a net profit of ¥15 billion (perhaps $65 million) for fiscal 1978 and did even better the next two years, due in part to Ford’s belated acquisition of an equity stake: 12.9% in 1979, rising to 25% in 1980. Only seven years earlier, Henry Ford II had declared Toyo Kogyo worthless except for the rotary; now, Ford was more interested in Mazda’s piston-engined compact pickups than in the rotary engines.

1977 Mazda Luce Legato front 3q press - copyright Mazda
Mazda’s eighth new rotary of the decade was the Luce Legato, introduced at the Tokyo Auto Show in October 1977 as a replacement for both the Luce/RX-4 and the Roadpacer. The Legato was even bigger than the Cosmo — 182 inches (4,625 mm) long and 66.5 inches (1,690 mm) wide on a 102.8-inch (2,610mm) wheelbase — and was offered as a four-door sedan, a station wagon, or a four-door pillared hardtop. Like the Cosmo, the Legato was available with a choice of four-cylinder piston engines or the 12A and 13B rotaries. Piston-engined versions were sold in some other markets as the Mazda 929L, but the rotary cars were not exported. (Photo circa 1977, courtesy and copyright Mazda)

While the company’s late-seventies recovery had a lot to do with the new piston-engined Mazda Familia (a.k.a. GLC or 323), introduced in January 1977, the financial crisis and reorganization did not mean the end of the rotary engine. Kenichi Yamamoto — by 1977 a director of the company as well as manager of rotary development — persuaded Sumitomo Bank of the rotary’s continued viability, promising even greater reductions in emissions and fuel consumption. With the bank’s support, the rotary would survive into the 1980s, albeit on a more limited basis. Yamamoto’s career also continued to advance: He became senior managing director in 1983, president in December 1984 (shortly after Toyo Kogyo officially became the Mazda Motor Corporation), and chairman from 1987 to 1991.

THE WIND-UP

By the late seventies, Toyo Kogyo’s ambitions for an all-rotary line were fading. While the company mostly avoided canceling products outright — the main exceptions were the Mazda Roadpacer AP and the REPU, both dropped by 1978 — it gradually pruned its export offerings. As existing rotary models reached the end of their lives, they were not necessarily replaced. The new Familia was not offered with a rotary engine, nor was the next Capella, introduced in Japan in October 1978. The luxury-oriented Luce and Cosmo would continue to offer rotary power, but would no longer be exported in any numbers. Both models were dropped from the U.S. lineup at the end of the 1978 model year, vanishing from Australia and other export markets by mid-1979.

1984 Mazda HB Cosmo RE Turbo front 3q copyright 2007 天然ガス Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
Introduced in 1981, the third-generation Mazda HB Cosmo was offered in two- or four-door hardtop form or as a four-door sedan, all sharing a lot of structural commonality with the Luce/929. At launch, the Cosmo was available only with a piston engine, but a new six-port 12A engine was added in 1982, followed by a 12A turbo and the latest version of the 13B. Blackout pillars and retractable headlights mark this 12A turbo coupe as a facelifted Series 2 model, introduced in 1984. (Photo: “Mazda HB Cosmo 001” © 2007 天然ガスTennen-Gas; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The Savanna was another matter. Even with the energy crisis, the Savanna/RX-3 had been a solid success, selling 285,887 units worldwide, and its racing exploits had given the coupe a strong performance image in Japan. Rather than sacrifice that recognition, Toyo Kogyo applied the Savanna name to Mazda’s new rotary-powered two-seat sports car, the Savanna RX-7, which debuted in Japan in March 1978. In other markets, the new car would be called simply RX-7.

1985 Mazda RX-7 GS front 3q
The first-generation (SA/FB) Mazda Savanna RX-7 was sold from 1978 through 1985. This is a 1985 U.S.-spec RX-7 GS, powered by a carbureted 12A engine with 101 hp (75 kW). The pricier GSL-SE had a fuel-injected 13B with 135 hp (101 kW) as well as four-wheel disc brakes, a sunroof, cruise control, and air conditioning. (author photo)

Although the Savanna RX-7 would become Mazda’s best-selling rotary for the rest of its 26-year lifespan, the company continued to offer rotary engines in the Japanese-market Luce and Cosmo into the 1990s. The 1982 Cosmo RE Turbo would be the world’s first turbocharged rotary production car, while the 1990 JC Cosmo, sold through Mazda’s Eunos sales channel, would be the first production car to offer a three-rotor engine.

Mazda would continue to develop rotary engine technology into the 21st century, adding catalytic converters, fuel injection, resonance supercharging, twin-scroll and sequential turbocharging, and even a hydrogen-fueled version. Mazda rotaries also saw considerable competition use, culminating in the remarkable four-rotor 787B that won Le Mans in 1991.

1990 Eunos Cosmo front 3q press - copyright Mazda
The JC Cosmo, sold through Mazda’s Eunos sales channel from 1990 to 1996, offered either a turbocharged 13B engine or the twin-turbo 1,962 cc (120 cu. in.) 20B-REW three-rotor engine, conservatively rated at 280 PS (276 hp, 206 kW) and 297 N-m (402 N-m) of torque. Top-spec ECCS models were laden with luxury features, including a 12-disc CD changer, an in-dash television, GPS navigation, and touchscreen audio and climate controls. Despite its mandatory four-speed automatic and 3,600 lb (1,640 kg) curb weight, the Cosmo ECCS was capable of 0-62 mph (0-100 km/h) in 6.2 seconds, although top speed was electronically limited to 124 mph (200 km/h). Total production was 8,875 units, only a few of which ever left Japan. (Photo circa 1990; copyright and courtesy Mazda)

The company’s most recent rotary model, the RX-8, made a promising debut in 2003 with first-year production of 60,100 units, but declining sales and difficulty meeting Euro V emissions standards led to its withdrawal from European markets in 2009. It was dropped from the U.S. market at the end of the 2011 model year. Mazda announced in October 2011 that Japanese production would conclude in June 2012 with 1,000 copies of a final Spirit R limited edition.

In 2007, Mazda released information about its next-generation rotary engine, known as the 16X. Still a two-rotor engine, the 16X has a narrower rotor housing than the 13B or current RENESIS, but a greater eccentricity and epitrochoidal radius (comparable to reducing the bore and increasing the stroke of a piston engine) for a total geometric displacement of 1,598 cc (98 cu. in.). Despite the increased displacement, Mazda claimed that a lower surface-to-volume ratio and the adoption of direct injection would give the 16X fuel consumption comparable to the company’s four-cylinder 2000MZR engine, making the 16X at least 30% more efficient than the RENESIS. As of this writing, a shortage of development capital has forced Mazda to table the 16X project, but Mitsuo Hitomi, general manager of powertrain development, has maintained that the company has no intention of abandoning the rotary.

2007 Mazda RX-8 40th Anniv and 1967 Cosmo front 3q press - copyright 2007 Mazda
A 40th Anniversary Edition RX-8 poses with a 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport. The white L10A is the same Cosmo Sport seen in part one of this story; it was originally owned by Curtiss-Wright and was acquired by Mazda in 2007. (Photo circa 2007; copyright and courtesy Mazda)

Considering the rotary’s ups and downs in the marketplace, that perseverance may seem quixotic, but Mazda has remained committed to the rotary engine for far longer than even NSU, which pioneered the design with inventor Felix Wankel in the 1950s. While poor fuel economy ultimately limited the Mazda rotary engine’s impact on the family sedan market, the company nonetheless managed to sell a million rotary-powered vehicles from 1967 to January 1978. The first-generation RX-7 would account for another 500,000 units between 1978 and 1985.

Moreover, Mazda succeeded in making the rotary a viable production engine, where even Daimler-Benz and General Motors had given up. That’s quite an accomplishment for a small automaker and it’s a fine legacy for Kenichi Yamamoto and the late Tsuneji Matsuda, who decided back in 1960 that the rotary engine would become his company’s signature. Fifty years later, it still is.

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AUTHOR NOTE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Johnny Aguirre, Alain Durand, ‘verner_oscar,’ and ‘Telkine’ for the use of their photos; Halie Schmidt of Hill & Knowlton, Mazda’s PR agency, for her assistance in obtaining images and information from Mazda’s archives (some of which were provided on a nifty flash drive shaped like a trochoidal rotor); and Bob Nichols for the generous loan of his camera to take some of the author photos in this article.

The title of this article was inspired by the tagline of a mid-nineties U.S.-market Mazda ad, although the original ad was for the Miata, not a rotary-engined car.

For the record, the author has never owned a Mazda rotary, but does own a Mazda3 sedan, and years ago was compensated by a marketing firm hired by Mazda for participating in a couple of owner focus groups related to that model.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Information on the development and history of the rotary engine and Mazda’s rotary-powered cars came from “1969-1972 Mazda Luce R130: Putting Mazda on the Map” (10 September 2010, Autopolis, autopolis.wordpress. com/ 2010/09/10/ 1969-1972-mazda-luce-r130-putting-mazda-on-the-map/, accessed 7 October 2011); “A Dozen Small Wagons,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 2 (October 1973), pp. 38-49; Mike Ancas, Mazda RX-7 Performance Handbook (Motorbooks Workshop) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 2001); R.F. Ansdale, “Wankel Progress,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 2 (February 1966), pp. 29-31; Arban’s Mazda site, n.d., home.online. no/~arban/, last accessed 19 October 2011; Tony Assenza, “Can the Rotary Engine Survive the ’80s?” Popular Mechanics Vol. 154, No. 4 (October 1980), pp. 83-85, 206; Patrick Bedard, “The Karma of the Kosmo,” Car and Driver Vol. 38, No. 12 (June 1993), pp. 103-109; Ryan Beene, “Mazda halts production of the RX-8 rotary-engine sports car,” Autoweek 22 August 2011, www.autoweek. com, accessed 12 October 2012; Bernard, “Rotary Rocket: 1972 Mazda RX-2 Coupe!” (21 May 2009, California Classix, www.californiaclassix. com/ Bernard/ RX-2-1.html, accessed 9 October 2011); “Brief Test: Mazda RX-2 Automatic,” Road & Track Vol. 24, No. 6 (February 1973), pp. 57-58; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Craig’s Rotary Page, cp_www.tripod. com/ rotary/ index.htm, last accessed 25 October 2011; Per Danny, “My 1969 Mazda Cosmo Sport (L10B)” (6 January 2010, Australian Mazda Owners Car Club/Forum, www.ozmazda. com/ board/ index.php/ topic/ 11304-my-1969-mazda-cosmo-sport-l10b/, accessed 6 October 2011); Connie Goudinoff Downing, “The Little Engine That Did” (1992, MazdaSpeed Motorsports, www.mazdausa.com, accessed 1 November 2011); Jim Dunne, “Chevy’s new Vega-size, Wankel-powered car,” Popular Science Vol. 204, No. 4 (April 1974), p. 84-86, 172; Jim Dunne and Ray Hill, “Capsule Test: Mazda Cosmo,” Popular Science Vol. 208, No. 3 (March 1976), p. 50; Kelvin Fu, Aaron J. Knobloch, Fabian C. Martinez, David C. Walther, Carlos Fernandez-Pello, Al P. Pisano, Dorian Liepmann, Kenji Miyasaka, and Kaoru Maruta, “Design and Experimental Results of Small-Scale Rotary Engines,” Proceedings of 2011 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition (IMECE2001/MEMS-23924), November 2001; Carl Grothmann, “First Driving Report: Japanese Wankel-Powered Car,” Popular Science Vol. 190, No. 4 (April 1967), pp. 81–84; Hans Greimel, “Mazda’s rotary engine stalled, not forgotten,” Autoweek 20 October 2010, www.autoweek. com, accessed 12 October 2011; Bill Hartford, “Mazda RX-4: What, no altimeter?” Popular Mechanics Vol. 142, No. 2 (July 1974), pp. 96, 162, and “Speed and the Single Rotor,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 147, No. 3 (March 1977), p. 198; John B. Hege, The Wankel Rotary Engine: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001); Takeo Hoshi and Anil Kashyap, “Chapter 5.2: Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) and Sumitomo Bank,” Corporate Financing and Governance in Japan: The Road to the Future (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001), pp. 153-158; HoTWire, “Rare Car: Mazda R130,” Retro Scene Mag 4 September 2008, retroscenemag. com/ post/ Rare-Car-Mazda-R180.aspx, accessed 7 October 2011; Hiroshi Inoue, [“Giugiaro-Design Mazda S8P (First-Generation Luce Prototype)”], 11 October 2012, indexindex. jp/?paged=3/, accessed 23 September 2015; “Is the Wankel the auto engine of the future?” Changing Times: The Kiplinger Magazine Vol. 26, No. 7 (July 1972), pp. 43-48; Wanda James, “Chapter 10: Mazda Makes Its Mark,” Driving From Japan: Japanese Cars in America (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007); “Japanese Car Production: Mazda” (no date, Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 3 November 2011); Dale Jewett, “Mazda marks end of RX-8 production with Spirit R edition in Japan,” Autoweek 7 October 2011, www.autoweek. com, accessed 12 October 2011; Edwin Krampitz, Jr., “Mazda 16X Rotor Dimensions and Technical Details” (22 September 2009, RotaryNews.com, rotarynews. com/ node/ view/ 1050, accessed 12 October 2011); Mike Knepper, “The Meyers Mazda,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 3 (November 1973), pp. 36-38; Michael Lamm, “PM Owners Report: Mazda RX-2 and RX-3: Enthralled by performance, appalled by mileage” and “Taking the mystery out of miles per gallon,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 142, No. 2 (July 1974), pp. 97-101, 162; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1971 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1971), World Cars 1973 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1973), World Cars 1979 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1979), and World Cars 1985 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1985); Jay Leno, “Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S: An Under-Appreciated Classic,” Popular Mechanics October 2009, www.popularmechanics. com/ cars/ jay-leno/ 2629006, accessed 7 October 2011; Arvid Linde, Preston Tucker & Others: Tales of Brilliant Automotive Innovators & Innovations (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2011), pp. 48-52; E.F. Lindsley, “How they improved the Mazda mileage,” Popular Science Vol. 208, No. 3 (March 1976), pp. 52, 130, and “The rotary is not dead,” Popular Science, Vol. 213, No. 3 (September 1978), pp. 78- 81; Brian Long, RX-7: Mazda’s Rotary Engine Sports Car (Revised 2nd Edition) (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2004); Karl Ludvigsen, “How Big Are Wankel Engines?” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #32 (April 2008); Peter Lyon, “Driving the Mazda Cosmo Sport: Legendary Rotary-Powered Coupe Tugs at the Heart-Strings, 40 Years On” (24 December 2010, Motor Trend, www.motortrend. com/ roadtests/ coupes/ 1012_driving_the_mazda_cosmo_sport/, accessed 9 October 2011); Madaz, “My Mazda Luce Rotary Coupe” (27 November 2007, Japanese Nostalgic Car, japanesenostalgiccar. com/ forum/ viewtopic.php?t=812, accessed 17 October 2011); Wesley Mahler, “How a Rotary Engine Works” (25-26 November 2005, Rotary Engine Illustrated, www.rotaryengine illustrated.com/ how-a-wankel-rotary-engine-works/ index.php, accessed 13 October 2011) and “Rotary Engine Porting” (15 October 2006, Rotary Engine Illustrated, www.rotaryengine illustrated.com/ porting/ peripheral-port-14.html, accessed 13 October 2011); Frank Markus, “1970 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S: Driving Mazda’s Original ‘Hum-m-m-m-er'” (23 August 2007, Motor Trend Blog, blogs. motortrend.com/ 1970-mazda-cosmo-sport- 110s-1017.html, accessed 12 October 2011); Nate Martinez, “Mazda’s 10 Most Significant Rides” (20 May 2010, Motor Trend, www.motortrend. com/features/consumer/ 1005_mazda_10_most_significant_rides/viewall.html, accessed 19 October 2011); John Matras, Mazda RX-7 (Sports Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1994); “Mazda Heritage” (no date, Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 3 November 2011); “Mazda Magic: Fastback 2-plus-2 from Japan – with Wankel Power,” Hot Car Magazine February 1970, pp. 37-39; Mazda Motor Corporation, “Great Cars of Mazda” (no date, www.mazda.com, last accessed 25 October 2011), “History of Mazda” (no date, www.mazda. com, last accessed 17 October 2011), “Mazda Spirit: The Rotary Engine” (13 August 2007, www.mazda. com, last accessed 20 October 2011), and “Next Generation RENESIS (Rotary Engine 16X) (no date, www.mazda. com, accessed 12 October 2011); “Mazda Luce Rotary Coupe RX-4,” Old Cars of Japan ’70, 17 May 2011, ah5243.blog72.fc2. com/blog-entry-92.html?sp, accessed 22 September 2015; “Mazda Motorsports Milestones” [Mazda USA press release], 2004; “Mazda Museum” (no date, CorkSport Mazda Performance, www.corksport. com/ mazda-museum.html? currency=cad&sl=EN, accessed 9 October 2011); Mazda Performance Corner, “Racing Heritage: A Conversation with Connie” (no date, Mazdaspeed Motorsports, www.mazdausa. com, accessed 1 November 2011); “Mazda Roadpacer” (no date, Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 3 November 2011); “Mazda Rotary Pickup: A revolutionary concept!” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 11 (July 1974); “Mazda Rx-2” (30 August 2009, African Muscle Cars, www.africanmusclecars. com/ forum/ viewtopic.php?f=39 &t=3350, accessed 9 October 2011); “Mazda RX-2,” Road & Track Vol. 22, No. 9 (May 1971), pp. 78-81; “Mazda RX3” (no date, Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 3 November 2011); David Morris, “Eunos Cosmo History” (no date, DMRH Special Vehicles, www.dmrh. com.au/ jchistory1.htm, accessed 16 October 2011), “Mazda R100 History from Down-Under” (no date, Mazda Rotary Club, mazdarotaryclub. com/ mazda_history/ mazda_r100_history/ mazda_r100_history.htm, accessed 7 October 2011), “The Quiet Achiever” (no date, DMRH Special Vehicles, www.dmrh. com.au/ hb_series2.htm, accessed 16 October 2011); “MrMazda” and “superrob” (21 February to 3 March 2011, Mazda Owners Club SA, www.mazdaownersclub. co.za/ viewtopic.php?f=2&t=6367, accessed 9 October 2011); Troy Nassar, “Chrysler South Africa in the 1970s” (no date, Allpar.com, www.allpar.com/ world/ south-africa.html, accessed 9 October 2011); “New Japanese Wankel?” Popular Science Vol. 195, No. 3 (September 1969), p. 118; Karim Nice, “How Rotary Engines Work” (29 March 2001, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ rotary-engine.htm, accessed 13 October 2011); Masami Nishimoto and Kenichi Yamamoto, “Winds of Change at Mazda: The Story of Half a Century,” Installments I and II, The Chugoku Shinbun, 22-23 January 1998; Jan P. Norbye, “Mazda RX2: 18 Months and 30,000 Miles on a Wankel,” Popular Science Vol. 202, No. 5 (May 1973), pp. 84-85, and “The View Down the Road,” Popular Science Vol. 201, No. 3 (September 1972), pp. 44-45, and The Wankel Engine: Design, Development, Applications, 2nd printing (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1972); Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Popular Science Vol. 201, No. 2 (August 1972), pp. 36-46; Jan P. Norbye, Jim Dunne, and Jim Davis, “PS Puts 10,000 Miles on the New Mazda: Wankel-Powered Car Proves Silent, Powerful, and Trouble-Free,” Popular Science Vol. 200, No. 1 (January 1972), pp. 83-85; Masako Osada, Sanctions and Honorary Whites: Diplomatic Policies and Economic Realities in Relations Between Japan and South Africa (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002); Minoru Ota, “The Maedas’ Touch” Zoom Zoom Magazine, Summer 2008, www.mazdausa. com, accessed 13 October 2011; Alexander Palevsky and Jay Lamm, “God of RX-7,” Sports Car International, August-September 1998 (Vol. 14, No. V); Richard Pascale and Thomas P. Rohlen, “The Mazda Turnaround,” Journal of Japanese Studies Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer 1983), pp. 213-263; Tim Pollard, “CAR interviews Mazda design chief Ikuo Maeda (2010),” CAR 2 September 2010, www.carmagazine. co.uk, accessed 13 October 2011; Laurence Pomeroy, “Laurence Pomeroy Probes Engine Development,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 2 (February 1966), pp. 22-25; “RX-2” (no date, Mazda Rotary, www.mazdarotary. net/ mazda_rx2.htm, accessed 9 October 2011); Aaron Robinson, “A Tale of Two Rotaries,” Car and Driver September 2007, www.caranddriver.com/ news/ car/ 07q3/ a_tale_of_two_rotaries-car_news, accessed 15 October 2011; “rotaRRacing,” “Mazda CD Cosmo / Rx-5 History Worldwide” (22 November 2006, AusRotary.com, www.ausrotary. com/ viewtopic.php? f=3&t=118253, accessed 16 October 2011); “rotaryking,” “R130 Luce – 13A Rotary Goodness” (9 October 2011, AusRotary.com, www.ausrotary. com/ viewtopic.php? f=31&t=153800, accessed 28 October 2011); David Scott, “Has Japan Grabbed the Lead in Wankel-Powered Cars?” Popular Science Vol. 192, No. 4 (April 1968), pp. 75-77; Douglas Self, “Rotary Steam Engines” (27 October 2009, The Museum of Retro Technology, www.aqpl43.dsl. pipex.com/ MUSEUM/ POWER/ rotaryengines/ rotaryeng.htm, accessed 7 October 2011) and “Rotary Internal-Combustion Engines” (19 October 2009, The Museum of Retro Technology, www.aqpl43.dsl. pipex.com/MUSEUM/POWER/ unusualICeng/ rotaryIC/ rotaryIC.htm, accessed 7 October 2011); Don Sherman, “Mazda Cosmo,” Car and Driver Vol. 21, No. 8 (February 1976), pp. 60-64, 82; Steve Smith, “1972 Mazda RX-2: With or Without Rotary Power, This Car is Ergonomic Perfection,” Motor Trend Vol. 24, No. 11 (November 1972), www.motortrend. com/ classic/ roadtests/ 7211_1972_mazda_rx_2/ viewall.html, accessed 9 October 2011; “Specifications: 1974 Imported Cars,” Car and Driver Vol. 19, No. 5 (November 1973), pp. 93-95; “Super Coupe Comparison Test,” Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 6 (December 1971), pp. 25–32, 68–70; “Superrob” (12 January 2011, Mazda Owners Club SA, www.mazdaownersclub. co.za/ viewtopic.php? f=2&t=6128, accessed 9 October 2011); “The new Mazda — checking it out on the road,” Changing Times: The Kiplinger Magazine Vol. 26, No. 6 (June 1973), pp. 11-13; “The Series….1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. Rx2… Capella 616” (no date, home.alphalink.com. au/ ~hillsk/ capella1.htm, accessed 9 October 2011); Andrew Tobias, “The Mazda Drives East,” New York Vol. 5, No. 48 (27 November 1972), pp. 66-69; Charles Trieu, “1973 Mazda RX 3 – Rotary Experiment,” Super Street February 2010, www.superstreetonline. com, accessed 10 October 2011; Mark Warner, Street Rotary: How to Build Maximum Horsepower & Reliability into Mazdas (New York: HPBooks, 2009); Larry Webster, “How It Works: The Mazda Rotary Engine (With Video!)” Popular Mechanics September 2011, www.popularmechanics. com/ cars/ news/ fuel-economy/ how-it-works-the-mazda-rotary-engine- with-video, accessed 7 October 2011; J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980); Wally Wyss, “Mazda Wankel vs. Comet 302,” Motor Trend Vol. 23, No. 5 (May 1971), pp. 76-78, 87; and an email to the author from Ben Hsu of Japanese Performance Cars, 28 October 2011.

Additional information on Mazda’s rotary competition efforts came from “Bathurst 1971: Hardie-Ferodo 500,” “Bathurst 1972: Hardie-Ferodo 500,” “Bathurst 1973: Hardie-Ferodo 1000,” “Bathurst 1974: Hardie-Ferodo 1000,” “Bathurst 1975: Hardie-Ferodo 1000,” and “Bathurst 1976: Hardie-Ferodo 1000” (no date, Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 7 November 2011); Patrick Bedard, “Rotary Racer and Piston Politics,” Car and Driver Vol. 19, No. 10 (April 1974), pp. 58-74; Jim Donnelly, “Baby, It’s You: IMSA RS, the Ellis Island of Japanese-branded sedan racing,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #56 (April 2010); “Former Hunterdon resident Walt Bohren, Mazda car racer for many years, drowns in British Virgin Islands,” Hunterdon County Democrat 10 February 2011, www.nj. com, accessed 13 October 2011; Michael J. Fuller, “An Interview with Jim Downing,” conducted 20 January 1996 (2000, www.mulsannescorner. com/ downing.htm, accessed 12 October 2011); Alexis Gosseau, “IMSA RS Challenge : everybody could go racing” (25 October 2009, IMSAblog, alex62.typepad. com/ imsablog/ 2009/ 10/ imsa-rs-challenge-everybody-could-go- racing.html, accessed 10 October 2011); Berny Herrera, “Rotary Power Shines at the 2006 SCCA Solo National Championships” (4 October 2006, RotaryNews.com, rotarynews. com/node/view/844, accessed 12 October 2011); Jeff Koch, “Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B to appear at the Japanese Classic Car Show” (24 August 2011, Hemmings Blog, blog.hemmings. com/index.php/2011/ 08/24/ le-mans-winning-mazda-787b-to-appear-at-the- japanese-classic-car-show/, accessed 13 October 2011); Aaron Robinson, “Checkered Past,” Car and Driver April 2007, www.caranddriver. com, accessed 15 October 2011; Chris Rosamond, “Epic Mazda 787B Rides Again: 700hp rotary racer to return for Le Mans demo” (23 May 2011, PistonHeads, www.pistonheads.com/news/default.asp?storyId=23665, accessed 13 October 2011); “Second Crop of Classes Halfway to a Solo National Championship” (27 September 2007, SCCA, 216.58.238.210/ newsarticle.aspx? hub=3&news=3163, accessed 12 October 2011); and Brock Yates, “The New Little Engine That Couldn’t,” Sports Illustrated 16 April 1973, pp. 79-81, sportsillustrated.cnn. com, accessed 19 October 2011.

Additional information on the environmental legislation of the 1970s and the 1973 OPEC embargo came from Chris Bishop, ed., The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare (London: Amber Books/Barnes & Noble, 2004); California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board, “Key Events in the History of Air Quality in California” (13 January 2011, ARB, www.arb.ca. gov/ html/brochure/ history.htm, accessed 18 October 2011); Anthony Curtis, “Is cleanliness three-cornered?” New Scientist and Science Journal Vol. 49, No. 740 (25 February 1971), pp. 415-417; Environmental Protection Agency, “Milestones” (9 July 2007, EPA, www.epa. gov/ oms/ invntory/ overview/solutions/ milestones.htm, accessed 10 October 2011); David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Michio Hashimoto, “History of Air Pollution Control in Japan,” How to Conquer Air Pollution: A Japanese Experience (Studies in Environmental Science 38), ed. Hajime Nishimura (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., 1989), pp. 1–90; David C. Isby, Jane’s Air War I: Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (New York: Collins Reference, 1997); National Traffic Safety and Environmental Laboratory, “Overview and Future Prospect of Emissions Regulations in Japan” (4 February 2003, NTSEL, www.ntsel. go.jp/e/ symposium/040203session4.pdf, accessed 10 October 2011); Donald Neff, Warriors Against Israel: How Israel Won the Battle to Become America’s Ally 1973 (Ft. Collins, CO: Linden Press, 1981); Hajime Nishimura and Masayoshi Sadakata, “Emission Control Technology,” How to Conquer Air Pollution: A Japanese Experience, pp. 115–115; the official website of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, www.opec. org, accessed 14 November 2011; and the Wikipedia® entries on the 1973 oil crisis (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis, accessed 13 October 2011) and the Yom Kippur War (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yom_Kippur_War, accessed 14 November 2011).

Additional information came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1963-1966 NSU Wankel Spider” (24 July 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, www.howstuffworks. com/ 1963-1966-nsu-wankel-spider.htm, accessed 7 October 2011); International Money Fund, “Cooperation and reconstruction (1944–1971)” and “The end of the Bretton Woods System (1972–1981),” About the IMF: History, N.d., www.imf.org/external/about/history.htm, last accessed 2 April 2014; Jim Kaler, “Capella” (13 December 1998, University of Illinois Department of Astronomy, stars.astro. illinois.edu/ sow/ capella.html, accessed 13 October 2011); “Kohei Matsuda, Former President of Mazda,” New York Times 4 August 2002, www.nytimes. com, accessed 14 November 2011; Jona Lendering, “Ahuramazda and Zoroastrianism” (no date, www.livius. org/ ag-ai/ ahuramazda/ ahuramazda.html, accessed 13 October 2011); “NSU Wankel Spider” (2008, NSU Prinz, www.nsuprinz. com/ Models /NSU_Spider.asp, accessed 7 October 2011); Masaaki Sato, The Honda Myth: The Genius and His Wake (New York: Vertical, Inc., 2006), and The Toyota Leaders: An Executive Guide, trans. Justin Bonsey (New York: Vertical, Inc., 2008); “Showroom Stock Sedans: The Nine Cars on the Track,” Car and Driver Vol. 17, No. 11 (May 1972), pp. 38-45; Eiji Toyoda, Toyota: Fifty Years in Motion (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1987); the Wikipedia entries on the Bretton Woods system (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bretton_Woods_system, accessed 1 November 2011), Jim Downing (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Downing, accessed 12 October 2011), Jujiro Matsuda (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jujiro_Matsuda, accessed 13 October 2011), the Mazda Capella (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Capella, accessed 28 October 2011), Mazda Cosmo (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Cosmo, accessed 16 October 2011), the Mazda Familia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Familia, accessed 26 October 2011), Mazda Grand Familia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Grand_Familia, accessed 3 November 2011), the Mazda Luce, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_Luce, accessed 16 October 2011, the Mazda R100 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_R100, accessed 7 October 2011), the Mazda RX-2 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_RX-2, accessed 9 October 2011), the Mazda RX-3 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_RX-3, accessed 10 October 2011), NSU Motorenwerke (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NSU_Motorenwerke, accessed 7 October 2011), the NS Savvanah (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NS_Savannah, accessed 13 October 2011); The Return of Ultraman (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Return_of_Ultraman, accessed 9 October 2011), and the SS Savannah (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Savannah, accessed 13 October 2011).

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of Japanese and U.S. currency at the time, not the contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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  1. The US RX-2 was updated for model year 1974 with the new single distributor engine. The car received the new taillight assembly and highly styled dashboard, but retained old style front end bodywork to accommodate the new large 5 mph bumpers. It was visually very distinct from the 1973 and earlier cars. It is a rare car because the RX-3 was cheaper and newer, and the new RX-4 had the luxury upscale side of the rotary market well covered.

    The first generation RX-3 12A engine 4-door sedan is a very rare car. The twin distributor 12A RX-3 was mostly sold in the US, and very few sedans were sold (which is why it was dropped for 1974). RX-3 coupes and wagons were the big sellers.

    The RX-3 may not have been a substantially better race car than the RX-2, but when Mazda got serious about sedan racing in about 1973 and 1974, the RX-3 was early in its model run, and the RX-2 was later in its cycle. It would make sense to “market” through racing success the car that was likely to be offered for a longer period of time. The RX-3 was also marketed as a “sporty” car and the RX-2 was more of a luxury car, though the mechanical specs were similar.

    Late in the RX-3’s production life, the US only RX3-SP was introduced, actually an 808 with the rotary engine and certain specific trim changes and driveline upgrades. The optional stripe and trim kit was manufactured in California and installed at the port. This iteration of the RX-3 encouraged grassroots racing of the rotaries and helped keep the rotary alive as a “sporty” engine until the arrival of the RX-7.

    1. Thanks for the clarification on the ’74 RX-2. Because of its rarity, detailed information on it was rather scarce.

      The Savanna wasn’t really that much younger than the Capella/RX-2 — the difference was less than 18 months — so I don’t know how much that really had to do with it. The Savanna had the potential for a better power-to-weight ratio in racing trim, and more advantageous dimensions. Aside from being substantially shorter (a plus in some types of event), the Savanna was actually 15mm wider than the Capella, and its tread width was 15mm/10mm greater, which makes for less body roll, even with stock suspension. Of course, they did pitch the Savanna at a different audience than the Capella, particularly in Japan.

      The RX-3SP is mentioned in the text. It’s not exactly an 808; the 808 was the export designation for the Grand Familia, which was the piston-engined version of the Savanna. Although Mazda marketed them as separate entities (rather than as a single line with a choice of piston or rotary power), my understanding was that the differences between the Savanna/RX-3 and comparable Grand Familia/808 weren’t any greater than the differences between the Capella/616 and RX-2 — larger fuel tank, some minor changes to accommodate the rotary’s exhaust system and emissions controls, etc. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

      Since I don’t think the RX-3SP arrived until after Mazda had already announced that they would be launching a new sports car, I assume you’re right that it was basically an appetizer for the RX-7. I don’t have production figures for the U.S. model, unfortunately, but Mazda listed total Savanna/RX-3 production as 9,825 units for the 1976 calendar year (encompassing part of the ’76 and ’77 model year) and 1,606 in 1977 (encompassing the latter part of ’77 and the ’78 model year), so it can’t have been a lot — although it’s clear there were at least enough to homologate it for IMSA and SCCA competition!

      1. The RX-3 was always distinct from the 808 in its interior fittings and dashboard. The SP’s interior is an exact duplicate of that year’s 808. There is actually no “rotary” badging except for the “Rotary Engine” badge on the trunklid (and the “RX3SP” on the right rear fender). The RX-3 always had chrome window driprails and rocker panel trim. Later 808s did not and neither did the SP. The SP taillight assemblies were parts binned from the Australian 808. Beyond the VIN, a fake SP is easy to tell if it is made from an earlier RX-3, but hard to tell from a late 808, if the bolt-on parts are changed. The 808 derivation of the SP is not supported by documentation, but instead by careful observation of how the various year RX-3s and 808s were put together.

        Keep in mind too, that by mid 1975, Rx-3s were essentially special order vehicles, manufactured in small batches. 808s were still being turned out in the tens of thousands per year. Which leads me to production numbers.

        Worldwide RX-3 production was recorded by calendar year. But US production was by model year, starting the previous August or September. Also, only US cars were included in the S124 serial number sequence (12A engine) until late 1973. Other markets got the 10A engine and a separate S102 serial number sequence until late 1973. Overall roughly 80,000 non-US market 10A engined (S102A) coupes and sedans were built, 75,000 US market 12A engined wagons (S124W), and about 85,000 mostly US but worldwide 12A engined coupes and sedans (S124A) were built.

        Here is what makes the understanding of production numbers difficult. Most RX-3 US production for a given model year is actually produced in the last part of the prior calendar year. So the calendar 1976 production is largely 1977 model year cars for the US. The other thing to keep in mind is that from late 1973 through mid 1976, the 12A engined production sequence (S124A) is not just the US any more, but represents worldwide production.

        So US sales for the early twin distributor car through late 1973 were about 60,000 coupes & sedans (S124A) and 55,000 wagons (S124W). Worldwide, about 20,000 of the second generation coupes and sedans were sold in 1974 and 1975. The 1976 “Savanna” model (special taillights and the introduction of the ‘air dam’ front lower valance) totals about 2,000 cars worldwide. The SP (US only) totalled about 3,000 for 1977 and 800 for 1978. Most of the 1977s were built in late 1976 and the 1978s were built in the fall of 1977. All continued the S124A serial number sequence, out to just over car number 85,000 (VIN S124A-185000). So those last 25,000 cars or so were sold worldwide, not just in the US. That is why the later cars are so hard to find in the US or anywhere else.

        Just to confuse things further, a small batch of “V-100” cars were built for Japan. They are essentially right hand drive RX3SPs, right down to the big bumpers, but with alternate badges. But rather than using the S124A VINs in sequence, they pick up the numbers in the 460000 range. I do
        not recall the prefix used, but the last part of the number appears to be in sequence with the 808s of the time. Perhaps the US cars stayed in the RX-3 sequence to satisfy the US authorities. The V-100 VIN sequence also suggests the late rotaries were a batch pulled from the 808 production.

        1. Given the slowdown in sales, it would make sense that later Savannas and RX-3s would have greater commonality with the piston-engined cars. During that period, Toyo Kogyo was also trying to increase inter-model commonality in general, as part of the effort to reduce unit costs. Different dashboards are expensive, especially for what’s become a slow-selling specialty model.

          If I may ask, where do your production numbers come from? I wasn’t able to get U.S. production breakdowns from Mazda, and the only figures I have there are model year totals that aren’t divided by model. Mazda’s figures only show total worldwide calendar year production, and the numbers I have are only for rotary models. (I asked about piston-engined cars, but wasn’t able to get that information.) I realize there’s a big discrepancy between model year and calendar year production (which among other things makes it hard to tell how many might belong to each model year, or each generation in years where they overlap).

          Thanks again for the info!

          1. The RX-3 is the only older rotary in which the US model year sales can be roughly discerned. Every other model uses one VIN series worldwide, with no country by country breakdown. Because for most of its production life, the RX-3 used separate VIN sequences for the US (due to the larger engine size), the US sales can be estimated, and also by model year.

            I use Mazda’s old dealer manuals that include VIN sequences as part of the model/year ID process at the dealer level. I guesstimate the numbers from memory, but now I have the books in front of me.

            Total cars about 240,000. Early non-US 10A engines, about 80,000. Early 12A US 55,999 coupes/sedans plus 50,103 wagons. So the total early cars about 186,000 of the 240,000 total. Second generation (now worldwide) roughly 27,000 coupes/sedans plus 22,000 wagons. This figure includes the “Savanna” cars.

            Finally, roughly 4,000 US RX3SPs (more than people think there were) and maybe? 1,000 Japanese V-100s.

            Roughly 2/3 of the second generation 27,000 are probably US, but a maximum of 1,845 of the US cars are the model year 1976 “Savanna” style (but still badged as RX-3, not Savanna). That one is the rarest US car, and very hard to find here (The US version did not get the alternate dashboard package on that model). It is the one style more abundant abroad rather than in the US, but still not common anywhere.

          2. Okay, that makes sense. Serial number sequences aren’t always 100% accurate (sometimes numbers are skipped for various reasons, or used out of sequence, etc.), but it’s certainly a reasonable basis for estimation.

            The figure Mazda provided for total worldwide Savanna/RX-3 production is 285,887, starting in calendar year 1971 and ending in 1977. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any sort of model breakdown.

  2. The maintenance and repair of the rotary engine was carefully planned at the dealer level as the cars were introduced. It was assumed that the dealers would disassemble the engines to replace the “wear parts” and gaskets at specified intervals. Special disassembly tools and procedures were put into place.

    In fact, the engines had a multitude of issues, and a variety of unplanned catastrophic failures (partly due to improper or poor owner maintenance habits). The orderly disassembly of engines was cancelled and an engine exchange program was introduced. The old core engines would be rebuilt with new parts by Mazda and cycled back into the dealer pipeline.

    The US engine license with Curtiss-Wright did not allow for engines to be purchased separate from a whole car, so the engine exchange was the way things had to be done. One could not go to Mazda and purchase a whole engine, not even a competition engine (which could be purchased outright in Japan). Only parts could be bought and built up into an engine, or a rebuilt engine could be swapped into a car for the old one.

    On the engine exchange program, the car’s VIN had to be recorded by the dealer and turned in to Mazda with the core engine, in order to get a new one (again, the C-W license restrictions). While Mazda may or may not have made money on the engine exchanges, the dealers certainly made money, and competed for the business. Some enterprising dealers went to the junkyards and pulled whole engines, while carefully recording the junked vehicles’ VINs, so they could stockpile new engines ahead of time and offer quicker turnaround to the customers. Years later, 10A and early 12A engines could sometimes be found in dealers’ back rooms, still sealed in the boxes, and were let go for a song to clear the space of unwanted inventory.

    1. Interesting — thanks for the info!

  3. The Cosmo RX-5’s profile was echoed by the later 1977-1979 Ford Thunderbird, though the RX-5’s “opera” window actually rolls down, unlike the T-bird’s fixed glass.

  4. I was waiting with bated breath for the second part of this series.

    Have you seen the (in)famous Mazda "boinger" commercial?

    Neat bit of rotary-related ’70s camp.

    1. That is pretty funny — I knew they did commercials along those lines, but I hadn’t seen that one.

  5. The early RX-3s had a strange quirk that could be pretty frightening if you weren’t prepared for it. Suddenly let up on the gas after a long hard blast and the car would backfire apparently from the thermal reactor – it sounded like a 12-gauge shotgun going off under the car and one would expect to see pieces of the exhaust system left behind on the road. That wasn’t the case, but it was still pretty unnerving.

    1. A lot of the period reviews noted something similar. It appears that it was a side effect of the rich mixtures used to increase the reactor’s effectiveness, and that when you closed the throttle, it momentarily jumped from rich to [i]very[/i] rich, causing the backfiring when unburned fuel hit the hot thermal reactor.

  6. It’s uncanny how much the Capella resembles the Renault 12, in the overall appearance apart from the coke-bottle kink there are a lot of similarities in the grille, rear end and roof profile/c-pillars

    1. Wow, that hadn’t occurred to me, but I agree. The sedan, in particular; the Capella coupe still looks more Alfa-like to me, but the sedan’s resemblance to the 12 is pronounced.

  7. I had an RX3-SP and ruled the streets for awhile in my College Neighborhood of Northridge, California back around 1978. Loved how the Mazda magazine car ads claimed the ‘SP’ did not stand for ‘slow poke’. The specs claimed my RX3-SP could ‘stick’ a Boss 302 V8, and it really did. Before my ride got ‘totaled’ in a car wreck with a Lady from Texas, I was slowly converting my Mazda for weekend Amateur Racing. Had the car ‘dropped’ a bit and added high performance Koni Shocks. The engine was stock, with the big Rotary engine seal replaced, under some kind of Mazda ‘Re-call’ thing. She could easily hit 123mph on the 101 fwy when the fuzz weren’t around.

  8. Just Picked up a Nice 1978 RX3SP from Puerto Rico and had it shipped to Florida, my first one was back in 1977 in EL Paso Texas, while serving int he US ARMY,I have had all the models from the RX2 to the 1993 Mazda RX7, Mazda Rotary Pickup but none of them come close to what you really feel for the RX3SP, its a nice toy to have and to pamper and take care of. THe sound of a Rotary Engine Bride Ported and overlap is music to any Rotary Fan.
    Would like to post picture but I guess on this site it cannot be done. But Thanks for the memories.

  9. Going to high school in 1980’s Oregon, rotary powered Mazdas were a common sight. Including mine, there were at least three rotary pickups in the school parking lot on any given day. My yellow 1975 rotary truck (along with a new Cosmo) was purchased by my uncle in ’77 or ’78 from a warehouse of unsold inventory in Japan and shipped back by the navy.

    It was an epicly fun little truck, but had some very odd quirks. They had a significantly stronger suspension system than other late ’70s small pickups and had no trouble reaching freeway speeds with very heavy loads. The small hatch in the side of the bed behind the passenger door in your picture is where the battery lives. That would corrode quite badly over time. The exhaust system was also one of the heaviest I’ve ever seen. In addition to the standard exhaust pipe with mufflers and such, there was a small straight pipe directly from the thermal reactor. I was told that was a pressure relief pipe to keep the muffler from exploding when the engine backfired.

  10. Thanks for the write up, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of the FWD rotary Luce, or even a piston 1500cc 1500, only seen sedans.
    4dr sedans no matter what the make are more common than coupes/hard tops.
    I bought Mazdas for all my first cars, a 1974 RX3 sedan I bought in 1992, then a lot of 808s for spares and run abouts while working on the RX3 (changed the 12A and 3spd auto to a 13B extend port and 5spd manual out of an RX5), I think I owned about 4 808s, saving the best panels from them when I got them taken away for scrap.
    Of course in 1993 I also bought a 1973 RX4 hard top for another project car.

    Still have them, but stripped down in parts as unfinished projects these days unfortunately, but couldn’t bare to get rid of them.

    Lots of old RXs are still around in Australia and Puerto Rica. If you search places like youtube for ‘mazda rotary cruise’ you’ll see and hear a lot still running on the roads.

  11. Largest Australian Holden was the Statesman, Premier was a shorter wheelbase. FAB site.

    1. Oops, you’re quite right. Thanks for the correction — I’ve amended the text.

  12. Looking for a picture of the Mazda rotary 4 door sedan I owned in the 1980s bought used in Upstate New York. The interior was really plush. I loved this car but it began to rust. Cannot remember the model name. I do not see it listed in this article. Thanks. Paul

    1. Well, if it was a U.S.-market car and a four-door sedan, it was either a) a 1972–1974 RX-3 (a.k.a. Savanna), b) a 1971–1974 RX-2 (a.k.a. Capella), or c) a 1974–1978 RX-4 (a.k.a. Mazda Luce), which are described in the article (although naturally I may not have a picture of the specific version you had).

      Based on the time frame and plushness, my guess would be the RX-4. The RX-4 (known as Luce in Japan and Mazda 929 in piston-engined export form) was the biggest and plushest rotary sedan Mazda sold in this country.

      If the car was RHD and not originally a U.S. model, it might also be a later Mazda Luce or the four-door hardtop version of the Cosmo (which is pictured in this article), which were never officially imported here, although a few have shown up as gray-market imports and there may be some in Canada. I’m assuming if you had a RHD car you would have mentioned it, though — generally, people who have RHD Japanese-market imports have a pretty good idea of what their car is! — so my guess would be the RX-4.

  13. My father had a 1978 RX-4 rotary. I used to ask for the keys to “go to a friends house”. In reality I was headed for hwy 100, the nearby cruise boulevard. Noticing that the rotary had a strong pull from around 3000 rpm and up I found a way to run with the muscle cars back then. The dark green 4 door was not quick off the line with an automatic transmission. I definitely had to avoid a drag race, but those were not as common as the 35-40 mph floor it till 60 mph or so bursts to see who could pull ahead by a fender length or more. That is where I realized that if the transmission was left in first gear the little rotary was in it’s power band. Many drivers were surprised by that little import and the strange screaming sound it made as it pulled ahead of them and then back firing when lifting off the gas. Running in first gear up and down the cruise strip on Fri. and Sat. nights eventually took it’s toll. After two summers of this kind of abuse I was able to leave a smoke screen under certain conditions. Interestingly my father though I was putting gas in the car as he kept business mileage records. Maybe fuel efficiency was better at higher rpms. It sure liked to rev. Power band like a two stroke dirt bike, not much initially but hang on when it starts to pull.

  14. I too had a 1978 Rx3-SP. $4500 new. 5speed stick. Got it up to 125mph a few times. Beat a few 350cu in V-8 vettes, and could hold the lead up to about 100mph. It was a rocket off the line, and light weight (in lbs) car. Vettes were heavy V8 iron engine dogs, even with Fiberglas bodies.
    Rarely ever lost a race in 5years in the suburbs of Chicago, to any car.

    Car rarely needed service. But you had to replace the plugs every 6mos. Due to oil by design was injected into rotary “cylinders” for lube.
    I cleaned them religiously 3mos, and replaced them every 6mos, with OEM Mazda plugs, which cost $3 each….2x normal plugs at the time.
    Rotary engines were awesome. I really thought they were the future, and not camshaft cylinders. Oh well, bring on the Electric cars!

    1. As I understand it, the plugs in a rotary engine inevitably lead a fairly hard life because they’re buried in the “combustion chamber” area of the housing. In a reciprocating engine, the tip of the plug is exposed to uncompressed intake air during each intake stroke, but that’s not the case with a rotary, where the mixture is already compressed (and hot) before it gets to the plug. This is why the housings of (as far as I know) all production rotaries are aluminum: the aluminum is more conductive to heat than iron, and without that, the housing ends up cracking due to thermal stress. (This happened to various test engines using cast iron housings, which in certain other ways would have been preferable.)

  15. hello how many us 1973 rx3 sedans were made cause I have one

    1. I’m afraid I’ve been unable to find sales breakdowns by model or body style — sorry! I wish I knew.

    2. A U.S. model 12A engine sedan is more rare, and a rest-of-world 10A engine sedan is more common. The U.S. version was the only one with the 12A engine in 1973 (twin distributors), and while the rest of the world bought quite a few RX3 sedans, the U.S. buyers preferred coupes and wagons. As all true RX3s have become quite rare these days, rest assured that the car is not common any more, in any case. Basically all parts of the car are fragile (paint, interiors, sheet metal, trim, engines), and do not hold up well to abuse, poor maintenance habits, or exposure to the outside elements.

      I believe 1973 was the last year for RX3 sedans in the U.S., but I could be wrong about that.

      1. On the last point, as best I can determine that is correct, but I’m not positive either.

  16. From 1974-1976, I worked for Tilton Mazda in Sioux Falls, SD. At that time I bought a new 1975 RX-3. I found the window sticker about 3 months ago. WOW! Prices were: dealer prep $50.00, Freight $85.00. The AM radio set me back $69.00. MSRP for a Flare Yellow 2-Dr was $3697.00. Total was $3901.00. It listed the Engine No.as 12AS57958. The sticker was printed 5/19/75 and I bought it in July 1975. As I recall I paid $3500.00. This car was a blast to drive. It came with white vinyl interior, did they offer black? That engine was so smooth. I loved the buzzer to let you know when to back off.

    1. Many of the RX-3s I’ve seen have had black vinyl interiors, so I’m guessing the answer to your question is yes, although white might be slightly less painful on a hot summer afternoon!

  17. Back in around 1978 I was in Taupo, New Zealand. One day I heard a banshee wail, clearly a Rotary in the distance. It took quite some time to come into view. Eventually there was a Mazda Ute, resplendant in the company blue and white livery, with a pretty radical exhaust. I did not know that rotary utes were ever issued, this being s right hand drive one was probsbly concerted from a B1600. This dealer’s workshop vehicle had a VERY overloaded B1600 on the other end of a tow rope. With little torque and heaps of revs in low gear the whole cavalcade crawled into view with a cacophany that all Taupo heard. It was a ROTARY!

  18. i hav a 72 rx3 series 2 with a ground up rest which im selling for 8 grand the car is a solid rust free car with a canary yellow paint fresh rebuilt motor 12a mild streetport rotor rims 13 inch and mickey thomsons in the rear the car is really fast call me if interested my name is melvin from chelsea massachusetts 02150

    1. Hey Melvin,

      I redacted your phone number — if you really want to publish it, let me know and I’ll put it back, but I take no responsibility for any consequences. (I don’t know about you, but I hate spam calls!)

  19. When the RX2 was released here in Oz, guys I knew would go to the dealer for a test drive, and see if the chaperone who rode with them knew what the over-rev buzzer meant! I also used to go to sedan car races when Alan Moffat’s RX7 was running – boy did it have a sharp barking exhaust note! Especially when being scrutineered under a tin roof!

    jp

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