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


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); PNG rendered version resized 2011 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

On October 6, 1973 — during 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 substantial 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 and 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 one-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.


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.-market Mazda 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 iterations of the BMW 2002. 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 2011 by Aaron Severson 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 Mazda 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 rotary engine. Since the pickup’s curb weight was about the same as the RX-4 wagon’s, the 110 hp (82 kW) rotary gave the Mazda 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 rather 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 Mazda Parkway Rotary 26 bus’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 engine’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 examples of the Mazda Roadpacer AP 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 Mazda Roadpacer was not sold in the U.S., where Mazda dealers were putting renewed emphasis on the piston-engined Mazda 808, a model that 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 the federalized Mazda RX-4 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 2011 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

SIDEBAR: The Mazda 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 engine’s fuel consumption and making it cheaper to manufacture.

The earliest Mazda rotary engines to enter production 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 engine the 12B. The 12B was accompanied by the new 13B engine, 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 Mazda RX-3 models were up to 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) on the contemporary EPA highway cycle.


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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.

    1. I had one and am wondering if the speedometer reached 180 or 160?

  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!


  20. A fellow student bought a new R100 when they first went on sale. He marveled at the power and how smoothly it was delivered. One day he happened to return to his closed garage after a normal drive and discovered a glow under the car. I think it was caused by the muffler being red-hot.

    1. It was probably the thermal reactor, which was a common issue in the ’70s. (Early catalytic converters had the same issue; some ’70s cars had “catalyst” heat warning lights for that reason!) The thermal reactor was essentially an afterburner, used to reduce hydrocarbon emissions at the tailpipe. This naturally generated a lot of waste heat as well as increasing fuel consumption because the exhaust leaving the manifold had to be fairly HC-rich for the catalyst to work effectively. Fortunately, more precise mixture control and three-way catalysts largely eliminated the problem by the mid-eighties!

  21. Thanks to all contributors for such informative and interesting reading. I have loved rotary Mazdas for many years. This love has recently been revived with my purchase of a lovely RX3 coupe in phoenix blue. A 1971 build with cherry taillights, and according to the seller (an old Mazda dealer in Belgium), the very first LHD world market RX3 ever produced. The chassis number is S102A130000. I even have the original factory windscreen printout tag if anyone can translate japanese. Unfortunately the 10a died some time ago so originality is somewhat lost with a 12a but maybe I will stumble over an 0866 10a one day.

  22. I have 76 cosmo, purchased new . sunrise red, 5 speed, white interior ,mag wheels , all oem.
    Interested in pics or info , reply Mazudrilling@yahoo.com

  23. Hi there, any info on the South African assembled Cappella rs? Very hard to find info on!
    Am looking at one trying to confirm originality. It has the single dizzy 12a, but has a spare wheel well which is odd. It also has the s series chassis rather than c.

    Any help appreciated.

    1. I’m afraid this is the first I’ve heard of it — I didn’t run across it in my original research. If someone has more insight on it, I’d be curious to know as well!

  24. Apparently the Mazda Chantez Kei Car was planned to use a 360cc 3A single-rotor Wankel engine until other Kei Car manufacturers protested (even if their concerns in retrospect would be unfounded).

    Would have been interesting seeing such a car reach production and Mazda in turn remaining in the Kei Car segment instead of abandoning it for over a decade, the closest comparison would have to be the NSU Spider and even then Mazda Chantez is both smaller and lighter.

    1. Well, the concern a 3A kei or keitora would have presented, aside from fuel economy, was that a 360cc rotary engine was not on the same footing as a 360cc reciprocating engine, which is troublesome in a market segment defined by strict displacement limits. Japan ended up settling on a 1.5:1 formula, so the 3A would have been deemed 540cc, out of line for the strict requirements of the class.

      The kei market has gone through some significant doldrums over the years. Part of the reason a lot of manufacturers backed away from it for a while was that as the Japanese consumer economy took off, kei cars and sub-1,000cc cars like the original Publica turned out to be a tougher sell than either their makers or MITI assumed. There was too much stigma attached. A Toyota Corolla or Datsun Sunny wasn’t that expensive to run, by comparison, and didn’t scream “poor person’s car.”

      1. The 3A would have still been eligible for the 550cc Kei Car era from 1976-1990 had Mazda decided to remain in the segment and slightly delay the introduction of the engine or develop an earlier 240cc unit.

        Is it known what the output was for the 3A single-rotor engine or any other figures exist? Cannot make out the info for the engine at the online Mazda Museum.

        It would have been interesting to see how the 3A single-rotor unit would have evolved during the 550cc and 660cc Kei Car eras prior to the max 64 hp limit (or whether it would have any influence on increasing the limit to around 75-80 hp), along with how Mazda would respond to other Kei car manufacturers using turbos and superchargers.

        Envision rotary Kei versions of the Autozam AZ-1 and Mazda-rized version of the Suzuki Cappuccino.

        1. I unfortunately can’t find a photo of the museum display engine that makes the sign text readable (the museum’s Japanese website doesn’t appear to have pages for specific exhibits), and I can’t find any indication of whether Mazda quoted an output for it. It would of course have been constrained by the contemporary kei class limits.

          1. Understand.

            Have to wonder though how long hypothetically speaking Mazda would have been able to continue producing Wankel-engined Kei Cars, especially given the inevitable trend towards front-wheel drive (with the larger Familia becoming FWD from 1980).

            That is unless Mazda cannily decided to develop earlier in-house Wankel-engined Kei Car-sized sportscars akin to the larger MX-5 years before rivals in order to retain the rear-wheel-drive layout

          2. Well, rotary engines are certainly not incompatible with FWD — the R130 Luce Rotary Coupé was not what I’d call an especially modern FWD layout, but it does illustrate the point. The compactness of the rotary engine is helpful in that regard. If anything, the packaging challenge would be that if you really take advantage of that compactness in designing the rest of the powertrain and the space allotted for it, you could end up with a car that can’t easily take a conventional I-3 or I-4 engine.

          3. It is probably why the rotary would be reserved for Mazda’s kei sportscars despite the likely 440cc displace (equating to 660cc via the 1.5 formula), though it is possible they would look for ways to make up for the displacement shortfall (and other limitations) compared to conventional engines such as turbos, superchargers or hybrid.

            While Mazda re-entered the Kei Car segment with a rebadged Suzuki, did they explore developing any 3-cylinder engine projects either an all new design or based on the Mazda B engine? Am assuming they would have eventually developed some other alternative Kei Car 3/4-cylinder engine had Mazda remained in the segment.

  25. You have overlooked the first Bertone designed generation of the Luce – the 1963 Luce 1000. So all your Luce generations are off by one.
    Otherwise excellent write up.

    1. The 1963 Mazda Luce was designed by Bertone, but it was a prototype, not a production car. (Its evolution is discussed at length in the 2015 Curbside Classic article “Automotive History: Mazda, Bertone And The Alfa That Wasn’t” — in the interests of full disclosure, the author did consult with me (albeit in a minor way) about it prior to its publication, as is noted at the end of the text.) Mazda describes the 1972 Luce as the second generation and the 1977 iteration as the third generation, so they don’t regard the prototype as a distinct generation.

      1. Thanks for clarifying.

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