This year sees Mazda celebrate its 100th anniversary. The brand is most famous now for the iconic MX-5 but long before that tiny sports car burst onto the scene Mazda had already made a name for going its own way in a history that’s taken in everything from making cork boat parts and motorised trikes to surviving a nuclear bomb and winning Le Mans.
Mazda’s roots lie back in 1920 when the Toyo Cork Kogyo company was founded to make materials for shipbuilding and construction. Within a year president Jujiro Matsuda decided the company should switch focus to machine construction and within a decade it had embarked on its own vehicle manufacturing.
Taking its name from the ancient eastern god of harmony, the Mazda-Go was a three-wheeled truck designed for deliveries and cargo carrying. Even in the early days, Mazda, as it was to become known, was innovating, using lightweight materials and more advanced transmissions than rival vehicles.
By 1940 the firm had developed its own prototype passenger car but the outbreak of war and subsequent devastating bombing of its home city of Hiroshima saw progress halted. Within four months of the atomic bomb being dropped, production of the three-wheel truck had restarted but it took another 15 years before Mazda branched out into motor cars.
1960’s R360 was Mazda’s first “proper” car although at less than three metres long it was barely any bigger than the Mazda-Go. Built to conform to Japan’s strict kei car regulations the R360 was just 2.98m by 1.2m and weighed as little as 380kg – making it the lightest car on sale in Japan. Powered by a tiny 356cc V-twin engine with just 15bhp it was nonetheless marketed as a four-seater and found huge popularity in its home country.
Kei cars – in the shape of the Carole, Chantez and Autozam – remained an important part of Mazda’s business up until the 1980s but a 1961 partnership with a German motorcycle brand was to herald a new direction that has come to define Mazda almost as much as the MX-5.
Forced by government tinkering to secure a partnership with an overseas manufacturer, Mazda latched onto NSU and the unusual Wankel rotary engine demonstrated in its Prinz III. Early experiments revealed the Wankel to be weak, unrefined and lacking in torque and most manufacturers who had considered the technology quickly abandoned it. However, not to be put off, Mazda’s engineers honed the basic design until they had something suitable to be fitted to a road car.
Six years after signing the deal with NSU, in 1967, Mazda unveiled the Cosmo Sport, the world’s first two-rotor rotary engined car. Looking and sounding like nothing else on the roads, the sleek Cosmo was an ideal showcase for Mazda’s revolutionary engine technology and set the tone for a range of rotary coupes running from 1968’s Familia to several generations of the 929 and the legendary RX-7 and RX-8.
But it also applied the technology in more mainstream applications, using it a range of family saloons, pick-up trucks and even school buses. All the while Mazda was developing the technology to reduce emissions and improve economy and eventually introduced turbocharging in 1982’s Cosmo RE Turbo before going further and fitting a sequential twin turbo to 1990’s three-rotor Eunos Cosmo coupe (also the world’s first car with built-in sat nav).
While Mazda focused a lot of energy on utilising the rotary engine for its road cars it also wanted to prove the technology’s worth in motorsport. In 1968 it sent a twin-rotor Cosmo to compete in the gruelling Marathon de la Route – an 84-hour slog around the Nurburgring – where it finished fourth. In domestic and international racing the RX-3 and RX-7 enjoyed significant success in the 1970s and 80s but it was in 1991 that the rotary engine had its finest hour. After years of various rotary-engined cars competing but not winning, the Mazda 787B with its four-rotor 2.6-litre engine finally claimed its one and only victory in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, covering just over 3,000 miles at an average speed of 127mph. The following year, regulations outlawed rotary engines, cutting short the Mazda’s potential.
Right from early models such as the Luce 130, Mazda has been dedicated to the idea of sporty coupes as much as it has the rotary engine but in 1989 after a decade of internal debate, discussion and design it unleashed a future icon which was neither rotary nor a coupe.
The MX-5 took the basic principles exemplified by many British sports cars of the 50s and 60s and added some modern engineering and a robustness the likes of MG, Lotus and Triumph could only dream of. Even for the time the 115bhp from the Mk1 MX-5’s inline four-cylinder wasn’t huge but sent to the back wheels and combined with a kerb weight of less than a tonne and chassis dynamics that still hold up today it was a brilliantly fun car to drive. What’s more it was relatively affordable, looked great and had a fabric folding roof for the full wind-in-the-hair experience.
When the motoring world had given up on small, affordable sports cars in favour of hot hatches, Mazda once again bucked the trend and in doing so created one of the most popular roadsters of all time. Over four generations it has sold more than one million examples and never deviated from the light, simple philosophy that has won it so many fans.
Before and since the launch of the MX-5 Mazda has continued to innovate. In the 1980s it added four-wheel-drive to its 323 family hatchback and developed the world’s first speed-sensitive four-wheel-steering for the 626. It was also among the first to explore the possibility of hydrogen power – both as a combustion fuel and in fuel cell form, and was experimenting with electric vehicles in the early 90s, ranging from an electric MX-5 to a battery powered Bongo van.
Even now, Mazda continues to cut its own path. While other car makers have all downsized and turbocharged their engines, Mazda has been exploring other routes to improve economy and emissions, resulting in the world’s first spark controlled compression ignition petrol engine. And it hasn’t forgotten about the rotary engine either, with plans to use one as a range-extender in its MX-30 EV.
The MX-30 with its clean lines and rear-hinged doors is the latest interpretation of the brand’s Kodo design and heralds a new direction with the adoption of electric power. Even here Mazda is going its own way, using a smaller battery with shorter range to save weight and meet most drivers’ daily needs. And even as it is moving towards the future, the MX-30 is looking back, with cork interior panels paying homage to where it all started for Mazda 100 years ago.