From a successful kei car to lost luxury brands.
Mazda has a deep history, so we'll start throwing facts at you in the introduction. The company was founded in Hiroshima in 1920, making it over 100 years old. However, it wasn't founded as Mazda or started just by the legendary Jujiro Matsuda. It began as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Company and made artificial cork. That didn't go so well, though, and the company started to make machine tools instead in the late 1920s. As Toyo Kogyo, the company moved into making the Mazda-Go auto rickshaw. During World War II, Toyo Kogyo was pushed into producing weapons for the military. After the war, the Mazda-Go auto-rickshaw was the first sighting of the name Mazda, and it was used for every vehicle the company produced until it became the official brand name. It wasn't until much later that the company officially became Mazda. The name comes from Ahura Mazda, the god of harmony, intelligence, and wisdom. The name Mazda is close to the pronunciation of its main founder, and the Japanese company is named as such - Matsuda Kabushiki-gaisha.
Until 1960, Mazda's automotive output consisted of motorbikes and small trucks, all with varying amounts of success. The company's first car was the Mazda R360, a two-door four-seater coupe that dominated the kei car market for years after its release. It was a massive step for Mazda and used the latest in technology (such as a torque converter for the two-speed automatic) while raising efficiency in manufacturing to bring costs down, which Mazda passed on to customers. The R360 secured 60 percent of the kei car market in its first year, with 23,417 units sold.
Mazda started developing its first rotary engine as soon as 1963, and until then, that type of pistonless engine was predominantly used in aircraft and occasionally for motorcycles. The Wankel design that Mazda adopted is more compact and lower in weight than piston engines with equal power. Mazda wasn't the only company to license the Wankel engine, but the automaker stuck with it far longer than any other and with great success. The Cosmo Sports 110S appeared in 1967 and just in time for Mazda to start a mass export of cars to Europe and then the US three years later. Over the next 50 years, Mazda sold almost two million rotary-powered vehicles, including the legendary RX-7. After that, the sporty bur flawed RX-8 followed, also with rotary power.
We have to be careful using the word "ever" as it's a definitive word that stretches both ways - backward and forward. However, we feel safe calling the third generation of the RX-7 the greatest rotary-powered road car ever. Mainly as it's so unlikely a manufacturer will ever build another road-legal rotary-engined car. The FD generation RX-7 was built on the previous generations to create a lightweight sports car with incredible chassis balance, spiritually satisfying steering, and a sequential twin-turbocharger added to the 1.3-liter twin-rotor engine. By the end of its run, the little engine that was set far back in the bay to create a front-mid-engine configuration made 276 horsepower.
Automotive history is full of two-seater sports cars catering to driving enthusiasts, but it's not specialists like Porsche that have sold the most. Mazda and the affordable yet fun MX-5 Miata rule the roadster segment. Since its introduction as a Lotus Elan-esque British roadster with Japanese engineering and reliability in 1989, the MX-5 has never needed a brutally powerful engine to provide driving pleasure, whether on the road or on the track. Amazingly, the conception of the Mazda MX-5 Miata is rooted in the US as a suggestion from MotorTrend journalist Bob Hall in 1976. Hall was an expert in Japanese cars and fluent in the language and brought the idea up with Mazda research and development leaders Kenichi Yamamoto and Gai Arai. Hall changed careers to become a product planner with Mazda USA, and the concept was defined in Southern California. The project received final approval in 1986, and engineering and production took over in Japan to create the first-generation MX-5.
In 1991, Mazda won the esteemed 24 Hours of Le Mans race with a car running a rotary engine. That made the Group C Prototype Mazda 787B the first (and currently only) car to win the race without using a reciprocating engine. The 787B was the culmination of exhaustive development and used a 2.6-liter 4-rotor Wankel engine that developed 700 hp at 9,000 rpm. It wasn't sheer pace that won the race for Mazda, though, but the 787B's reliability over the grueling event. The race car's only failure during the race was a blown headlamp bulb. As you can tell from the video below, it sounds incredible at full chat.
Ford started with a seven percent stake in Mazda but quickly increased it to a 24.5 percent stake in 1979, which triggered an American partnership with the Japanese automaker that lasted over forty years. If you drove a Ford Courier in North America from 1972 to 1982 or a Ford Ranger from 1994 to 2010, you were really driving a Mazda B-Series truck. Mazda made manual transaxles for Ford in the 1980s and shared its Familia and Capella platform for cars like the Ford Escort and Probe. The badge engineering was mostly used in Europe, but partnership projects sprung up in New Zealand and South Africa too. When Mazda found itself in financial trouble in the 1990s, Ford restructured the company and laid the foundations for profitability and Mazda's current success. The financial crisis of 2008 led to Ford needing to streamline its business and prompted the corporation to sell 20 percent of its stake, thus surrendering its control of Mazda. In 2015, Ford sold its remaining stock back to Mazda.
In Japanese and Australian markets, Mazda experimented with spinoff brands until the turn of the 20th century. Eunos (1989 to 1996) is the most well-known spinoff and was launched as an upscale fun-to-drive brand, including the Eunos Roadster known to us as the Miata or MX-5. Autozam was briefly its kei car brand, and Efini ran from 1991 to 1997 in Japan as its luxury arm. The one that nearly came to be and was planned to come to America as Mazda's answer to Honda's premium Acura brand was Amati. It was announced in 1991 and scheduled to launch in 1994 but was quickly doomed by the collapse of the Japanese economy. Mazda canceled its plans for the Amati brand in 1992. Not much is known publicly about the debacle, but it's generally understood that Mazda effectively dumped the investment overboard. The company won't even acknowledge the project publicly, likely out of shame - misplaced or otherwise. However, the Amati 500 did make it to the US as the Mazda Millenia in 1994. It's a generally forgotten model but remained on sale until 2002.