RX-Rated: Mazda’s Early Rotary Cars, Part 1

1971 Mazda R100 coupe rear 3q
The Mazda R100 coupe is relatively low, standing only 53 inches (1,345 mm) high, but has a narrow tread width — 47.3 inches (1,200 mm) in front, 46.9 inches (1,190 mm) in back — which combined with narrow wheels and rather soft suspension settings to limit its maximum cornering grip. U.S. cars got larger 145SR14 radial tires on 14-inch (356 mm) wheels compared to the 13-inch (330 mm) wheels and 6.15 x 13 bias-plies on Japanese cars, but aftermarket wheels and rubber were commonly substituted. (author photo)

As a result, Toyo Kogyo was one of only a handful of auto manufacturers in the U.S. or Japan to admit that meeting the proposed NOx standards would indeed be feasible. Company spokespeople told the press that Mazda would have an all-rotary U.S. lineup by 1975. By 1971, automakers like Ford would by knocking on Toyo Kogyo’s door, hoping to buy rotary engines for their own products. Almost overnight, the rotary — and by extension, Mazda — had gone from interesting oddball to possible savior of the auto industry.

That shift of fortune was a vindication for Tsuneji Matsuda, who had fought for the rotary through all its technical hurdles despite considerable skepticism both inside and outside the company. Sadly, Matsuda died in November 1970, and the presidency of the company passed to his son, 48-year-old Kouhei Matsuda, previously Toyo Kogyo’s executive vice president. Over the coming decade, Kenichi Yamamoto would take up his former boss’s banner as the Mazda rotary engine’s principal champion.

In part two of our story, we’ll look at Mazda’s subsequent rotary models — including the Mazda Capella/RX-2, Savanna/RX-3, Luce AP/RX-4, Cosmo/RX-5, and the unusual Mazda Rotary Engine Pickup — and chart Toyo Kogyo’s spectacular rise and fall in the mid-1970s.



The author would like to thank Jens Krämer for the use of his 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 at the show where many of the photos for this article were taken.

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.


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 Motorsports Milestones” [Mazda USA press release], 2004; “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 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, 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, https://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!



Add a Comment
  1. I’ve always loved Mazda’s rotary cars. Fantastic article, and I can’t wait for part 2…

  2. Great story looking forward to part 2. A friend in Tasmania had several of those bertone Luces nice cars the later models had the 1800 Capella engine.

  3. Thanks for the Mazda rotary article. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2. Despite growing up around Mazda rotary-powered cars, I learned quite a bit!

  4. It’s a real shame that no one can seem to lick the engine’s fuel and oil consumption problems. I have heard some discussion of Mazda using rotaries in hybrids, which makes some sense to me. Rotaries are so small and, on paper at least, elegantly designed.

    Man, that Luce coupe is a looker.

    1. I don’t know about hybrids, but Mazda has done quite a bit of development on a hydrogen-fueled rotary, which has been offered on a limited basis for fleet sales in some markets.

      If the next-generation 16X engine materializes, Mazda is hoping to reduce fuel consumption substantially, in part by adopting direct injection. Still, since piston engines keep improving in that regard, as well, I don’t know that the rotary will ever match the reciprocating engine in specific fuel consumption. Some things can be mitigated (like wall quench), but other factors, like the combustion chamber surface area to volume ratio, are sort of the nature of the beast.

      The Luce R130 is indeed a very nice-looking car. I’d never seen one before I started researching this story.

  5. Very interesting article, well, as usual, Aaron!
    The topic was somewhat forgotten in France after Citroën heavily invested in the technology, eventually failed to make it work and had to drop the project in the early 70’s. They had been so serious about it that the models developed in the late 60’s, the GS and the XM, were designed for a rotary. They had to hastily develop a reciprocating engine for the GS and make it fit in the engine bay that was not large enough.
    The XM eventually was painfully fitted with a Peugeot engine.
    Anyway Citroën was never able to design a good engine. This huge investment and its failure played an important role in the demise of the company.


    1. “They had been so serious about it that the models developed in the late 60’s, the GS and the XM, were designed for a rotary.”
      You mean the SM, don’t you?

      1. I believe Nicolas was probably referring to the CX, which replaced the Citroën DS in 1974. I’ve never heard anything about the SM being intended for rotary power — of course the production cars had the Maserati V6 — but I think the CX was. The XM was the CX’s eventual successor, introduced in the late eighties.

  6. Right Aaron, my pen slipped, it was the CX.
    The XM was its successor.
    The SM, stangely enough, was fitted with the (in)famous Maserati V6 even though Citroën had such a faith in the future of the rotary as the ultimate replacement of the reciprocating.


    1. Timing may have had something to do with it. Citroën didn’t build the first M35 single-rotor cars until the fall of 1969, and as I understand it, they were essentially evaluation models, not yet intended for large-scale production. The BiRotor wasn’t introduced until 1974, about four years after the SM debuted. Even if Citroën were keen to give the SM rotary power, it probably wouldn’t have been ready until a few years after launch, even in a best-case scenario.

      If things had worked out differently, I imagine Citroën might have added a rotary engine to the SM later, perhaps in a second-generation version for the mid-seventies. Of course, even if the Comotor engines had been more successful, the SM was not, and might have been dropped without ever getting a rotary engine.

  7. For them the rotary was the future type of engine for all applications, just as well as they were persuaded they had a market for the SM.
    With NSU, Mazda and others working on it it’s understandable.
    Your article is very interesting by showing how Mazda made a success of it, or at least could partly make a living with it, well… that’s a success, isn’t it?
    Strangely enough it didn’t catch on as an aviation engine either.

  8. [quote=Administrator] Citroën didn’t build the first M35 single-rotor cars until the fall of 1969, and as I understand it, they were essentially evaluation models, not yet intended for large-scale production. The BiRotor wasn’t introduced until 1974, about four years after the SM debuted.[/quote]
    Starting in 69 a limited number M35, and in 73 GS Birotor, were sold to selected, faithful (and masochist) clients but the engine proved such a burden to maintain that Citroën offered to buy them back and scraped them. A few people only turned down the offer. The maintenance contracts were canceled for them. The few models still in existence are now very expensive collectors’ items, the day dream of all the GS enthusiasts.
    So there was actually a future for the rotary! ;-) As usual the car that nobody wanted became the car that nobody can afford.


    1. The source I was looking at (John Hege’s The Wankel Rotary Engine: A History) suggests that Citroën had basically intended to buy back the early evaluation engines from the outset, which would make a lot of sense.

      I don’t know about France, but in the U.S., automakers are legally obligated to provide parts support for production models for a specific period of time, typically 15 years — obviously not an appealing prospect for cars or engines that don’t end up in mass production! For that and other reasons, some automakers have tended to offer such evaluation vehicles only as a closed-end lease or other type of loan-out, with no option to actually purchase and keep the vehicle at the end; I assume that not actually selling it avoids triggering certain legal requirements.

  9. The Europeans have basically the same obligations as the Americans. As far as I understood, the deal was under specific conditions and since Citroën offered to buy them back it could cancel any support for those who rejecter the offer. It’s stupid it didn’t keep one example for history.

    Mazda is the only one who succeeded with a rotary over the years while all the others flopped.
    Well done!

  10. This is an interesting article as usual, I’m waiting for the second part. While you’re at it, how about an article covering GM’s attempt to build a rotary engine?

    1. I thought about it, but in researching this article, I’m finding that detailed information about its development seems to be surprisingly scarce. While the development of the NSU, Mazda, and Curtiss-Wright engines is pretty well-documented, GM played it very close to the vest. To really do it justice would probably require talking to some of the engineers who worked on it, assuming that the people involved are still living, and willing (and able) to talk about the program.

  11. No need to mourn it’s passing. A technological dead end. I don’t miss the
    ffffttttt exhaust “note” of them at all.
    Used to be a few about Brisbane, Delighted to see and hear that rust and enlightenment of the owners has made them almost extinct.

    Good riddence. So it could rev to 5 digits.

  12. Wow, FANTASTIC article! Thanks for the great piece on Mazda, the detail and depths you go to are above and beyond. One of the best history-of-automaker stories that I’ve read. Thanks again!

  13. Another great article Aaron. Really appreciating your narrative drive and level of scholarship. I’m starting to believe the R100/1200 body was designed by Bertone as well, but can’t verify. Do you know of any text that addresses the connections between the Italian design houses and the Japanese manufacturers in depth?

    1. I so far haven’t found anything to suggest one way or another whether the first-generation Familia was done by Bertone, although it’s certainly plausible given that Bertone did the first Luce and the Luce Rotary Coupé in that period. Even if Stilo Bertone didn’t do the Familia or the first Capella, those designs have a definite Italian flavor, much more so than subsequent products of Toyo Kogyo’s in-house design studio, which feel more typically mid-seventies Japanese.

  14. I really like that little sidebar referring how to calculate the Wankel’s full displacement. I know Japan has different regulations than the U.S. and that Mazda had no choice to only count one chamber for each rotor (Geometric Displacement) due to extra taxes being placed on “bigger” cars. Either way, I really hope Mazda brings their Wankel rotaries back to the streets, because that awesome RX-Vision concept needs to be on the roads

  15. In retrospect could the prospects of the Rotary have been slightly improved to a certain extent had Mazda and not Citroen established the Comobil later Comotor joint-ventures with NSU, where the development of the Rotary follows a more developed Mazda like trajectory instead of the engine being prematurely released as was the case with NSU and Citroen?

    Would that have been enough had it been feasible to largely butterfly away the poor reputation and resolve the issues of the early Rotary engines or would more changes have been required? Taking into consideration of course the current disadvantages of the Rotary would still remain.

    1. This is one of those “could / would /should” questions. The “could” part is straightforward, at least technologically speaking; Mazda obviously managed to keep the rotary at least reasonably viable for many years, so there’s no technical reason the fruits of their efforts couldn’t have been shared across a broader consortium.

      The “would” and “should” parts are more complicated. NSU-Wankel patent licensing agreements generally included technology-sharing provisions because NSU did not have deep pockets and figured that pooling research data would be the best way to advance the art. (Part of the reason GM’s patent license was so expensive is that GM didn’t want to participate.) Toyo Kogyo participated in that and probably contributed quite a bit to it. However, the way that knowledge was applied ended up being dictated by other factors, including a maze of different licensing agreements (like the one with Curtiss-Wright that affected distribution in North America), the concessions NSU minority stockholders wrested during the Audi merger, and the fact that the Comobil/Comotor project contributed to Citroën’s financial over-extension and eventual bankruptcy.

      Would NSU stockholders have agreed to set up such a consortium or joint venture with Toyo Kogyo? Possibly, and in that area, the progress Mazda had made with the technology might have been attractive. Would Volkswagen have been amenable to it after the NSU-Audi merger? Harder to say; I don’t imagine that Volkswagen or Audi were terribly keen on Comotor given the NSU shareholder concessions, and Toyo Kogyo being involved in that venture rather than Citroën (or succeeding Citroën) would not have changed that part of the equation. The minority shareholder deal ended up signing away most of the opportunity to profit from the rotary, and Volkswagen still wouldn’t have been in a position to use the rotary in its own products. (I don’t think Toyo Kogyo would have been in a position (financial or political) to acquire NSU instead of Volkswagen.) The main point of change in that scenario is that Toyo Kogyo by then had sunk enough money into development that they were more reluctant to simply shelve it.

      Should they have? It depends on a lot of things. If Toyo Kogyo had stepped in AFTER Citroën had been forced to bow out, the venture would have had to rebrand and might still have had a shaky image. There were customers who would have been interesting (AMC, to name one), but Mazda rotary combustion engines of the early seventies were still not without flaw, and the issues might have caused their licensees to jump ship early. (Toyo Kogyo commitment to the rotary had a lot to do with pride and the sunk-cost fallacy, to be honest.) Also, the OPEC embargo would still have really pressed the rotary’s limitations in terms of fuel consumption, which would have still hurt the project’s commercial prospects.

      So, an interesting idea, but I tend to see it coming to a similar end.

      1. Do not envision a joint-venture between NSU and Mazda in place of NSU and Citroen significantly changing things once Volkswagen acquires NSU and merges it with DKW/Auto Union to form Audi, what with the fuel crisis hurting the rotary engine’s projects in Europe. That said the NSU Ro80’s issues would have been largely butterflied away for one thing, though not sure if it would be enough for Volkswagen to actually consider a rotary model for say the 914 (as was experimented in real-life) if not a small mid-engined sportscar or some other vehicle (.

        For Citroen there is one less contributor to its financial over-extension and eventual bankruptcy, leaving only one or few more elements (e.g. Project F, possibly acquiring Maserati for V6, SM instead of DS Sport, etc) to be remedied on its end without being involved in the Comobil/Comotor project. What Citroen goes from hereon is another matter, in the absence of the French government forcing Peugeot to acquire Citroen perhaps Citroen ends up increasingly entangled with Fiat or collaborates with one and more carmakers on a few joint-ventures outside of Fiat (e.g. Alfa Romeo? Subaru? both? etc).

        Essentially the rotary engine in this scenario would be better regarded compared to real-life thanks to Mazda’s early tie up with NSU and a thorough development programme (instead of being prematurely released), yet ultimately undermined by the fuel crisis and only really considered worthwhile for sportscars.

        1. The issue pertaining to the NSU-Auto Union merger (which is explained in more detail in the Ro80 article) is that Volkswagen ended up signing away the lion’s share of Wankel-related profits and agreeing that if it used the rotary in its own products, it would have to pay license fees like any outside customer. In the short term, that was a big win for NSU minority shareholders, but it probably contributed a lot to the eventual stagnation of rotary development outside Toyo Kogyo/Mazda. On the other hand, NSU’s survival WITHOUT a merger would have been very tenuous because they had also overextended their resources with the Ro80 and what became the Volkswagen K70. Whether Toyo Kogyo would or could have afforded a merger with NSU that would have obviated the need for the Volkswagen deal I don’t know; it would have been a politically complex situation, to say the least.

          NSU was undoubtedly aware of everything Toyo Kogyo had been doing regarding rotary development, which to my understanding was a condition of the original license agreement. (I assume NSU would still have had to formally license technology subject to Toyo Kogyo patents, although I don’t think that would have been an insurmountable obstacle.) However, the problem they both faced is that each was exploring different solutions to the challenges involved (like the apex seal issue), and it wasn’t yet apparent what would work best. Toyo Kogyo didn’t attempt anything quite as daring as the NSU floating seal design (which was a brilliant idea undermined by inadequate development testing), but the differences between the earliest 12A twin-dizzy engines and the better-developed 13B found in the first-generation RX-7 are pretty substantial. It’s not that Toyo Kogyo was smarter or luckier than NSU in this regard; it’s that they kept working on it and refining their approach to factors like sealing and porting.

          However, the upshot I assume you’re getting at is that an alliance between NSU and Toyo Kogyo might have resulted in a more lasting commitment to developing the rotary engine as a commercial prospect, with a Comobil/Comotor-style entity offering engines to other companies that were interested in the technology, but either couldn’t afford or didn’t want to spend the money on developing their own. The actual reason that didn’t happen was probably mostly that Volkswagen had very limited financial incentive to bother and Citroën, as mentioned, ran out of money. If Volkswagen were not in the picture (or the settlement with the minority stockholders had turned out differently), NSU survived on its own, and Toyo Kogyo took Citroën’s place as development partner, it might be plausible.

          One other fly in the ointment with that scenario, though, is European hostility toward Japanese automakers. As much as the emergence of Japan as a major player on the automotive scene aroused horrendous racism and nationalistic furor in the U.S., that hasn’t significantly dissuaded Americans from buying Japanese cars, to the point that domestic automakers have more or less abandoned many segments of the market to the Japanese and Koreans. European markets have not been nearly so amenable, and even products Japanese automakers have designed specifically for Continental or British tastes have often been commercial duds. Applying that chauvinism to the early seventies, it’s also not hard to envision a scenario where Toyo Kogyo partnership in a Comotor-type JV ends up leading European punters and pundits deciding that rotary engines are too Japanese, which combined with the pressures of the OPEC embargo might also have been a death knell.

          1. Volkswagen could have attempted to use the rotary in more niche segments like Mazda did with front-engined sportscars though mid-engined in Volkswagen’s case, otherwise Volkswagen could be a passive beneficiary at best upon buying NSU.

          2. As it says in the Ro80 article, there was a lot of enthusiasm within Audi-NSU for the planned Ro80 successor, including some fairly serious talk of installing its 1.5-liter KKM 871/EA871 engine in the Audi C2. However, the minority shareholder settlement would have made using that or other Wankel engines in Volkswagen models fairly costly, which I think was a big part of why the whole plan ultimately didn’t go anywhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments may be moderated. Submitting a comment signifies your acceptance of our Comment Policy — please read it first! You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T SUBMIT COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!