Cosmo 1963 Tokyo Motor Show

Back to the future for reborn rotary

Riley Riley

I had the privilege of meeting the designer of Mazda’s RX-8 a few years ago.

Ikuo “Speedy” Maeda was lead designer on the project and a very cool, very laid back kinda guy.

But as good as the RX-8 might have been, Speedy confessed that he would have rather designed a successor to the RX-7.

You see it was his father, Matasaburo Maeda, who designed the original RX-7 sports car.

But that unfortunately was never going to happen, at least back then . . . as I’ll attempt to explain.

Mazda only signed off on the RX-8 on the proviso the car had four doors.

And four doors it did, along with a back seat — though probably not quite as anticipated.

Produced over a 10-year period from 2003 to 2012, the two front doors of the RX-8 opened normally to reveal two smaller, suicide-style rear doors that opened rearwards to provide access to two individual rear seats.

Frustratingly, however, these doors could not be opened before the two front doors were opened.

Mazda wanted four doors because the market for two-seat coupes had virtually dried up and it figured it had more chance of selling a four-door, four-seater.

And that folks is why a successor to the RX-7 was never on the cards.

Oh well . . .

The RX-8 is however regarded as a successor to the RX-7 and the two cars of course share a rotary engine.

And the switched on Maeda-san did go on to become head of global design for Mazda.

Although Mazda is not the only manufacturer to have used a rotary engine in its cars, rotaries have become almost synonymous with the brand over the years.

From the launch of the 1967 Mazda Cosmo to the end of RX-8 production in 2012, Mazda produced almost 2 million rotary-powered production models — including a ute and even a bus.

But it was success with rotaries on the race track that made it and the Mazda name famous, and helped to sell those production models.

Ikuo “speedy” Maeda

From Mazda’s very first efforts in international motorsport with the Cosmo in 1968, the rotary engine’s lightweight, small size, power and high revving characteristics have made it perfect for racing.

In the early Seventies the Mazda RX-3 was raced in championships around the globe, while the first-generation RX-7 took this to a new level winning championships on four continents.

Then, most famously in 1991, the Mazda 787B of Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot won the Le Mans 24 Hours – the first Japanese brand to do so.

However, it wasn’t just four decades of production cars and motorsport success that made the rotary famous.

Mazda’s hallmark engine also appeared in a host of concept cars.

In Mazda’s centenary year we take a look at some of the most radical and advanced rotary-powered and inspired concepts, starting with the prototype rotary sports car driven to the 1963 Tokyo motor show by the father of the rotary engine, Kenichi Yamamoto.

Strictly a test prototype, as opposed to a pure concept car, it led to the production of 60 Cosmo test mules in 1965, followed by the first production Cosmo sports cars in 1967.

Subtly different from later production models, the 1963 802 prototypes were the first chapter in Mazda’s rotary success story.

Similarly, the Bertone designed Mazda RX-87 concept of 1967 was almost identical to the beautiful 1969 R130 Luce Coupe production car it previewed.

Likewise the 1967 RX-85 concept became the 1968 Mazda R100 coupe.

Revealed at the 1970 Tokyo Motor Show, the next rotary concept was unlike anything seen before.

A pure futuristic design, it was a showcase of safety technology and looked like a car from a different planet to the Cosmo, Luce and R100 rotary production cars on sale at the time.

The Mazda RX-500 was a wedge-shaped, mid-engined, rear-wheel drive sports car with forward-opening butterfly swing doors.

Promoted as a road safety test bed, it had a strip of multi-coloured rear lights that indicated whether the car was speeding up, cruising or slowing down by changing colour.

The 10A 250ps rotary engine was accessed by gullwing opening engine covers.

Painted orange with no headlights for its show debut it was later repainted silver.

Today the RX-500 concept can still be seen at the Hiroshima City Transport Museum, while it also starred on the Cartier Style De Luxe lawn at the 2014 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Even more radical than the RX-500, the 1983 Mazda Le Mans Prototype was penned by maverick designer Luigi Colani, who was famous for his radical ‘biodynamic’ forms.

While it never went beyond conceptual stage, the 1983 Le Mans Prototype was an extreme wing car conceived to be powered by a 670kW four-rotor engine that would have been capable of 380km/h if it had become a reality.

The one-off theme continued with the 1985 Mazda MX-03, which unlike the Colani Le Mans Prototype, was a fully working concept.

Powered by a triple rotor 235kW engine, this low-slung coupe was pure futuristic exuberance, with a cabin that featured an aircraft-style yoke rather than a steering wheel, plus digital displays and a head-up display.

Its technology tally also including four-wheel steering and all-wheel drive, while the long low body delivered an aerodynamic Cd figure of just 0.25.

Completely different from the MX-03, the MX-04 concept was a front-engine rear-wheel drive sports car chassis with removable fibreglass panels — not just one but two different sets.

This enabled the car to be switched from a glass dome roofed coupe to a beach buggy style open sided roadster.

Father of the Mazda rotary Kenichi Yamamoto pictured in 1967.

Powered by a rotary engine this barmy shape-shifting sports car was shown at the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show.

While it was never a serious contender for production, by then Mazda was already developing the MX-5, and just two-years later, the most famous non-rotary Mazda sports car arrived.

By the 1990s, Mazda’s rotary engine had scored its biggest achievement with victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Revealed at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show, the Mazda RX-01 previewed the next-generation of rotary road cars.

A fully driveable concept, it featured what would go on to be the Renesis engine that powered the last production rotary to date – the RX-8.

With a 2+2 seat layout, some of the RX-01’s styling cues also hinted to the RX-8, which was revealed in 2003.

Highlighting the flexibility of Mazda’s rotary engine technology, between 2005 and 2007 Mazda produced dual-fuel, hydrogen/petrol powered rotary prototype test bed Mazda RX-8s and Mazda5s — leased to companies in Japan and Norway.

Showing the suitability of rotary engines for use with hydrogen, the RX-8 RE Hydrogen was the fifth Mazda rotary to be powered by hydrogen after earlier HR-X, HR-X2, MX-5 and 626 rotary powered concepts and prototypes.

Further highlighting Mazda’s environmental development, the 2007 Mazda5 RE Hydrogen was a plug-in hybrid, while the 2013 Mazda2 EV prototype featured a tiny 330cc 22kW single-rotor range-extender engine.

Today, Mazda is committed to the development of a rotary range-extender version of the forthcoming Mazda MX-30.

Other 21st century rotary concepts focused on the performance elements of the rotary engine.

Revealed at the 2008 Detroit Motor Show, the stunning Mazda Furai was built on the chassis of a Courage C65 LMP2 race car and its 335kW triple-rotor engine was powered by ethanol fuel.

A fully working race car-based concept, it was developed by Mazda North America and was tested at several US and European tracks.

Furai means ‘sound of wind’ and this racy concept was the fifth and last of the ‘Nagare’ line of concept cars.

The fourth car in this lineage also featured a rotary.

Unveiled in 2007, the Mazda Taiki concept was a dramatically, aerodynamically optimised coupe with a tapered teardrop-shaped body with rear wheels hidden inside scooped covers.

Inspired by flowing robes its sleek body had a drag coefficient of just 0.25 and it was arguably the most radical looking of the ‘Nagare’ concept cars.

With butterfly doors and a darkened glasshouse it was a pure concept fantasy, but conceived to be powered by the same Renesis engine as the RX-8.

Production of rotary engines in the early days.

Mazda’s Le Mans heritage with the rotary engine came to the fore again in 2014 with the reveal of the Mazda LM55 Vision Gran Turismo virtual concept car.

A digitally rendered concept for the Gran Turismo computer game, this low-slung Le Mans style prototype was named after the race number worn by the winning 787B at Le Mans in 1991.

Bringing the performance and sound of the rotary engine to a whole new generation in the gaming world, the LM55 Vision came to life as a full-size show car at the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed where it proudly sat atop Mazda’s Kodo design inspired central feature sculpture alongside the Mazda 787B.

But it was later in 2015 at the Tokyo motor show, that Mazda revealed what is arguably the most beautiful concept car conceived for a rotary engine — the RX-Vision.

Mazda’s vision of the perfect front-engine, rear-wheel drive sports car and the ultimate expression of Kodo design, the RX-Vision’s stunning proportions and delicate surfacing saw it named the Most Beautiful Concept Car of the Year at the 31st Festival Automobile International, while it also made an appearance at the exclusive Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Esta in 2016.

Under the long bonnet of the RX-Vision, Mazda’s designers envisaged that this sports car would be powered by a next-generation of rotary engine called Skyactiv-R.

Taking this a step further and bringing the RX-Vision to life in the virtual world, Mazda’s designers created the RX-Vision GT3.

Just as the LM55 came to life in the virtual, the RX-Vision GT3 was added to Gran Turismo Sport on May 22 this year.

With its wider front and rear track and expanded wheel arches, the lower and more purposeful GT3 version features the wings and rear diffuser you’d expect of a virtual racer.

And rotary fans in the digital world get to enjoy the next-generation four-rotor 425kW Skyactiv-R engine.

Almost 60 years after preview of the first Cosmo prototype, Mazda’s debut rotary sports car, the rotary engine lives on in the hearts and minds of Mazda’s engineers.

The technology is being explored as part of Mazda’s multi-solution approach to ever more efficient cars, including range-extender applications.

Mazda has been promising an MX-30 with an electric motor and range extender rotary that will reportedly make its debut sometime next year — maybe even sooner.

What this all means is that the rotary is far from dead and that distinctive hum could well be heard once again.


CHECKOUT Mazda’s rotary powered ute revealed:

CHECKOUT: Heart was willing, but the head said Mazda

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