Mazda is celebrating the 50th anniversary of it first production rotary engine, the technology with which it remains synonymous despite it being on hiatus since the 2012 death of the RX-8.
The back story, as the company tells it, goes a little like this. Mazda, then called Toyo Kogyo Corporation, needed to stand apart from other fast-rising Japanese car makers, and to stay independent.
In 1961 it licensed the rotary engine technology from NSU Motorenwerke AG and Wankel GmbH, sharing research with the German companies in hopes of making wider use of the engine.
Things got off to a bad start. Within an hour of the first prototype engine starting testing in Hiroshima, it seized.
Mazda had “wagered its entire existence” on this one engine technology.
“Failure would not be an option, but early impressions meant there was much to be done to keep Mazda afloat,” the company claims.
Knowing the importance of getting the rotary right, chief engineer Kenichi Yamamoto assembled a team of Mazda’s most talented engineers – known as the 47 Samurai – to make the rotary viable.
This is despite other automakers from the around the world failing to do the exact same thing.
After an eventual debut at the 1964 Tokyo motor show, on May 30 1967, Mazda’s Cosmo Sport 110S – the world’s first production twin-rotor, rotary-engined car – went on sale in Japan.
It was Mazda’s first sports car – the company had been known only for its small passenger cars and work trucks to that point.
Just 1176 Cosmo Sports would be built, “but its legacy would stretch much, much further”.
From the earliest races, such as the 84-hour Marathon de la Route in 1968, Mazda kept working at it. The highest point of Mazda’s development of the rotary engine was in 1991, when the quad-rotor-powered Mazda 787B won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
During its production, more than 1.99 million rotary-engine vehicles were produced, from sports cars to sedans and even a 26-passenger bus.
The RX-8 rotary died in 2012 after failing to meet modern emissions requirements, but Mazda insists that it’s trying to make the tech viable for road cars again.
Alas, though, the gorgeous RX-Vision concept that we thought might materialise by 2020, remains on the backburner as Mazda focuses on its core bread-and-butter cars.