30 May 2017

Mazda's 50 years since its first rotary car

It’s 50 years today since Mazda launched its first rotary-engined car, the Cosmo Sport, writes Brian Byrne.

Powered by a twin-rotor version of the Wankel engine, licensed by Mazda from German company NSU, it was also Mazda’s first sports car, supplying the DNA that has gone into models like the Mazda RX-7 and Mazda MX-5.

Only 1,176 Cosmo Sports were built, but the model marked the company’s transformation from a maker of predominantly trucks and small cars to a unique brand characterised by its convention-defying approach to engineering as well as design.

Mazda’s engineers surmounted numerous hurdles to making the rotary engine commercially viable, and although dozens of companies including most major carmakers signed licensing agreements with NSU to develop the technology, only Mazda was successful. The company would go on to build almost 2m rotary-powered vehicles, and also achieved considerable racing success.

The RX-7, for example, dominated its class at International Motor Sport Association events throughout the 1980s. Mazda’s biggest single triumph on the track came in 1991, when a Mazda 787B powered by a 2.6-litre 4-rotor motor producing 710hp won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The same attitude resulted in the MX-5 conventional-engined sports car, and in Skyactiv technology in powertrains, platforms, car bodies and other elements of the modern car.