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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)