Images by William Walker, Video by Cory Lutz
On Could 30, 2017, Mazda celebrates 50 years because the launch of its first manufacturing rotary engine. Rotary engines aren’t distinctive to Mazda, however greater than another automaker, Mazda is synonymous with the expertise.
Mazda’s historical past with the rotary goes again to the early 1960s when it licensed Wankel expertise from West German automaker NSU, now a part of Audi. Created by Felix Wankel within the early ’50s, the rotary engine is an inner combustion engine that makes use of spinning rotors as an alternative of pistons to energy a automotive. The benefits of a rotary over a piston engine are its compact dimension, gentle weight, and excessive energy for its dimension. Some disadvantages are elevated oil consumption, decreased gasoline economic system in comparison with equally sized piston engines, and that they run most reliably and effectively if held at a continuing rpm.
Again within the early ’60s, Mazda, one of many smallest Japanese automakers, had to choose: revolutionize or die. The Japanese authorities was pushing Mazda to consolidate with one other Japanese automaker. With a purpose to keep away from that destiny, the automaker needed to give you a singular proprietary expertise to assist make it viable. It selected the Wankel rotary engine.
After a couple of years of improvement, Mazda was completely happy sufficient with its progress to launch its first manufacturing rotary, the 0810 within the 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S, 50 years in the past. To have a good time that iconic first rotary engine, Mazda was form sufficient to open up its basement storage to us and allow us to pattern 5 rotary-powered Mazdas—every representing a special decade of the rotary—beginning with that particular 1967 Cosmo.
1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S: 110-hp 1.2-liter two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S represents two large firsts for Mazda—it was the automaker’s first rotary-engined automotive and its first sports activities automotive. Beforehand recognized just for passenger vehicles and pickups, the Cosmo Sport was the primary in a protracted line of legendary sports activities vehicles from Mazda; we’ve this automotive to thank for the long run RX-7s, RX-8s, and Miatas.
Though by no means formally bought in the USA, this specific automotive has a fairly fascinating backstory past being the very first rotary-powered Mazda on North American roads. This Cosmo was shipped from Japan to Woodridge, New Jersey, in November 1967 to Curtiss-Wright. Most likely finest recognized for constructing P-40 Warhawk fighters in World Warfare II, the airplane producer hoped it might engineer its personal rotary engines for normal aviation airplanes and acquired the Cosmo Sport to review the engineering behind its engine. In 2007, Mazda purchased this right-hand-drive automotive to have a good time 40 years of rotary and shipped it west to its North American headquarters in Irvine, California.
Mazda’s ’67 Cosmo Sport just isn’t solely uncommon on American roads (it’s believed that there are solely about two or three within the U.S..), but it surely’s additionally uncommon, interval—the automaker solely made 343 of those early short-wheelbase Sequence 1 Cosmo Sports activities earlier than shifting manufacturing to a long-wheelbase model in July 1968.
These information are wrapping themselves round my head as I method the pint-sized Cosmo Sport 50 years later exterior of the Mazda headquarters. Regardless of the inherent weirdness of the Cosmo’s 110-hp 1.2-liter two-rotor Wankel, the little Mazda’s design exhibits a exceptional quantity of restraint. The Cosmo’s design as an entire has aged properly, with the Japanese sports activities automotive sporting some apparent influences from the European and American sports activities vehicles of the day, together with the break up jet-inspired taillights and the traditional houndstooth checkered fabric seats.
With little greater than some choke and a very good stab of the throttle, the Cosmo’s 0810 two-rotor fires proper up, with essentially the most unbelievable racket coming from its tailpipes. That’s exceptional for a automotive that’s reached the half-century mark. With my proper hand gripping the wood-rimmed steering wheel and my left on the wood-topped shifter, I slot the Cosmo’s four-speed handbook into gear and set off.
This 50-year-old automotive feels remarkably trendy to drive. The clutch is simple to modulate with its a transparent engagement level, and the shifter is gentle and exact. The unassisted steering is direct and talkative; there’s a little bit of play within the steering on middle, but it surely weights up superbly as you’re employed the automotive by corners. If the Miata had made its debut in 1969 as an alternative of 1989, that is what it’d be prefer to drive.
And that’s all earlier than we get to the Cosmo’s engine. If you happen to’ve by no means pushed a rotary, right here’s what it is advisable to know—they’re at their happiest (and making their energy) spinning at a excessive rpm. The Cosmo isn’t any totally different. Attempt to child the Mazda as you’ll a standard traditional piston-engine automotive by upshifting round 2,000 rpm, and the Cosmo’s 0810 bogs down prefer it’s in overdrive. No, the Cosmo, even at 50, begs to be revved. Like several good naturally aspirated engine, the Mazda provides the driving force extra the upper you discover in its powerband.
The Mazda Cosmo is an absolute pleasure to drive, however with 4 extra many years of rotary to look at, it was time to maneuver on.
1978 Mazda REPU: 130-hp 1.Three-liter two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda REPU is a particular truck, and one I’ve been scouring Craigslist for since I drove it. Brief for “Rotary Engine Choose Up,” the Mazda REPU was simply that—a model of the automaker’s B1600 pickup for North America with the rotary engine from an RX-Four. The REPU was designed to be a instrument, sure, but it surely was additionally designed to inject some sportiness into the Mazda lineup. Its 130-hp 1.Three-liter two-rotor engine had practically 50 horsepower greater than the comparable Chevrolet LUV or Dodge Ram 50 of the day, and Mazda sought to enhance dealing with by shifting the battery from below the hood to below the mattress, amongst different issues.
Mazda’s 1978 REPU is a automobile Motor Pattern is fairly conversant in, having pushed it on the 2016 Touge California rally final yr. It’s been modified barely; it’s received a Racing Beat exhaust, which is a good bit louder than inventory, and it’s had its inventory four-speed handbook changed by a five-speed handbook from an RX-7. (Later REPUs really got here from with a five-speed from the manufacturing unit).
It’s superb to me how small compact pickups was; a brand new Mazda3 hatchback completely towers over the REPU and may most likely haul simply as a lot inside, but it surely has nothing on the REPU’s persona.
The REPU’s rotary is a monstrous little engine. It fires proper up into this manic, high-pitched idle that’s nothing just like the loping idles of full-size American pickups of the period. The REPU’s engine is an keen revver; its 130 hp comes on about halfway by the tach at round Four,000 rpm, and it actually rewards the driving force for wringing the engine out for all its value. It feels very related in character to the Cosmo’s engine, but it surely’s as if Mazda’s engineers on the time used each trick they needed to extract each final horsepower out of the REPU’s engine.
The remainder of the REPU package deal is a testomony to its period. The steering wheel feels solely vaguely related to the street, the brakes are picket, and the vinyl- and wood-trimmed cabin has the everyday creaks and rattles of the period. However who cares? The REPU, because it sits, is a remarkably charming truck and an essential step in each the evolution of the rotary engine and in sport vans just like the GMC Syclone.
1988 Mazda RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Version: 182-hp 1.Three-liter turbocharged two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Version celebrates simply that, 10 years of the legendary RX-7 sports activities automotive. The RX-7 first appeared in 1978, with the second technology making its debut in 1985 and profitable Motor Pattern Import Automobile of the 12 months in 1986.
The second-gen automotive—like my lunchtime date, this 1988 RX-7 Turbo II 10th Anniversary Version—was designed to compete face to face with sports activities vehicles of the day such because the Porsche 944. Its 13B 1.Three-liter turbocharged two-rotor engine made 182 hp, a very good 36 horsepower bump over the bottom naturally aspirated RX-7. A 1989 revision would increase energy even additional to a good 200 hp.
After getting out of the Cosmo and REPU and into the 1988 RX-7, I’m instantly blown away by simply how quiet and comfy it’s. Twenty years of rotary improvement actually shine by as a result of the 13B spins quieter and smoother than earlier than but with a not-at-all-insignificant energy increase.
Turbocharged vehicles from the 1980s are recognized to be fairly laggy, and the RX-7 isn’t any exception. Even with a small turbo mounted onto the two-rotor engine, the RX-7 doesn’t make any energy till about Three,000 rpm. When you hit that restrict, all bets are off because the Mazda surges ahead, constructing pace because the tach needle races to the 7,000-rpm redline. As you method the rev limiter, the automotive buzzes urging the driving force to shift up.
The remainder of the 1988 RX-7 expertise is finest described as “fairly ’80s.” The clutch is mushy and mushy, and the gearshift solely vaguely feels mechanically related to the remainder of the gearbox. Even nonetheless, it’d run circles round many quick vehicles of the day, such because the Camaro IROC-Z or the Merkur XR4Ti.
1993 Mazda RX-7: 255-hp 1.Three-liter twin-turbo two-rotor Wankel
To those that grew up taking part in racing video video games comparable to Gran Turismo, the third-generation Mazda RX-7 is the automotive that cemented the RX’s legacy. I imply, have a look at it! Even 25 years after the “FD” RX-7 went into manufacturing in 1992, it’s nonetheless stunning to take a look at.
In some ways the third-gen RX-7, just like the 1993 mannequin in Mazda’s assortment, represents the head of rotary improvement in manufacturing vehicles. An evolution over the second-gen RX-7’s engine, the RX-7 featured 1.Three-liter twin-turbo two-rotor Wankel that produced 255 hp at 6,500 rpm in early variations like this clear, white 1993 mannequin. After the RX-7 exited the U.S. in 1995, it produced as a lot as 280 hp within the closing years of its manufacturing run. Torque peaks at 217 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm.
Many early ’90s Japanese sports activities vehicles had been sophisticated and technologically superior for his or her day. The RX-7 was no exception. Its twin-turbochargers labored sequentially; the primary spools up instantly, constructing energy because the engine revs, and the second turbo comes on-line about midway up the 9,000-rpm tach, supplying the two-rotor with about 10 psi of increase. The RX-7 additionally featured a Torsen limited-slip diff from the manufacturing unit, one of many first avenue purposes of the expertise.
Meant as an NSX fighter, the RX-7 promised NSX-like numbers with a brilliant fly 2,800-pound curb weight and a claimed sub-5.Zero-second dash to 60 mph. We preferred the factor sufficient to call it our 1993 Import Automobile of the 12 months.
Sufficient about the way it was then—how is it now?
In a phrase, fast. The RX-7’s twin-scroll rotary gained’t violently bash you over the top like a forced-induction V-Eight will, but it surely’s definitely going to throw you again in your seat and maintain you there because the engine screams to its redline. Rotaries and turbos wouldn’t look like a very good combine as a result of each want revs to make energy, however the sequential twin-turbos carry a whole lot of energy to the desk nearly instantly off the bat. With the 2 turbos on-line, the Mazda comes alive. The RX-7 is the very definition of a cruise missile—it needs nothing greater than to hit its 160-mph prime pace and to simply park the speedometer there.
Even at sane, street-legal speeds, the 1993 RX-7 is absolutely enjoyable to drive. The turbo lag is a enjoyable problem to drive round, and the slick five-speed handbook is satisfying to work as you accomplish that. The journey is agency however not punishing, and the steering is classy as a result of the automotive feels one with the driving force by bends.
The RX-7 was a automotive forward of its time. It’s a disgrace it’s gone.
2011 Mazda RX-Eight LM20: 230-hp 1.Three-liter two-rotor Wankel
The Mazda RX-Eight has been out of manufacturing for six years, and this actual 2011 Mazda RX-Eight LM20—a particular version celebrating 20 years since Mazda’s 1991 Le Mans victory—is the final rotary-engined automotive Mazda ever introduced into the USA. That makes it a becoming bookend for the day.
On reflection, the RX-Eight seems to have been an try by Mazda to develop with RX-7 consumers. It had two primary doorways, two suicide-swinging clamshell doorways, like an extended-cab pickup, and a child-friendly again seat. The dual-turbos from the RX-7 had been gone, and as an alternative the RX-Eight featured a 1.Three-liter naturally aspirated two-rotor engine good for 230 hp and 159 lb-ft of torque, with a tach studying to sky-high 10,000 rpm. It was out there with an computerized transmission, however a six-speed handbook is the one transmission that’s value mentioning.
In comparison with the madness that was the twin-turbo RX-7, the RX-Eight is a way more relaxed, sedate automotive. There’s no energy down low, however like all good naturally aspirated vehicles, the RX-Eight is a deal with to work excessive. No marvel gasoline economic system was so abysmal. Nonetheless, regardless of the Mazda’s inherent steadiness, good shifter, and enjoyable engine, there’s no hiding the truth that it’s sluggish for a sports activities automotive (a 2004 mannequin we examined went from Zero to 60 mph in 6.Four seconds) and swills gasoline on the identical price as a comparable V-Eight-powered muscle automotive. I totally loved driving the RX-Eight as a result of it’s a candy, particular automotive, however on the identical time I fully get why it’s now not with us at this time.
Rotaries had been left in a very good place when the RX-Eight went out of manufacturing. Nonetheless, the RX-Eight’s 1.Three-liter two-rotor consuming 16/22/18 mpg metropolis/freeway/mixed on the EPA cycle and its equal thirst for oil made discontinuing the rotary a sound enterprise determination in 2011.
However Mazda has by no means totally deserted the Wankel engine. In 2012 it began testing Demio RE EVs—Mazda2 within the U.S.—powered by a front-mounted electrical motor and batteries however backed up by a teeny trunk-mounted rotary vary extender, which gave the automotive practically 250 miles of vary. Extra just lately, the Mazda RX-Imaginative and prescient idea from the 2015 Tokyo Motor Present teased an RX-7 successor powered by a new-generation SkyActiv-R rotary engine. Since then, patent drawings have emerged showcasing a brand new technology of rotary engine, although Mazda has remained mum on what it plans to do with it.
When requested immediately, Mazda reps admit that the way forward for the rotary engine is muddied by inner politics, however a small, terribly devoted staff is tough at work in Japan maintaining the dream spinning. With Mazda’s 100-year anniversary quick approaching in 2020, I can consider no higher technique to have a good time than with a rebirth of the engine that 50 years in the past saved Mazda alive.