The Mazda Cosmo broke new ground in both its native Japan and the US by being the first production car to be powered by a two-rotor engine.
A few units of the Mazda Cosmo did in fact make it to a few different global markets, but export sales were so low (in the single digits for the first generation) that it might as well have been a JDM-only car. But despite low export sales, the Cosmo was a big hit in Japan, and this rotary-powered GT served as Mazda’s halo car for nearly 30 years. Its legacy might now be overshadowed by the sexier RX7, but the Cosmo was nonetheless very important to Mazda.
The first production car in the world to be powered by a rotary engine was the NSU Spyder, a car which was fairly unremarkable in almost all respects apart from its engine. This was a single-rotor engine, and although it was interesting, the one rotor didn’t make for an especially powerful car. NSU would later bring out the Ro80, which featured a two-rotor Wankel, but this was actually beaten to the market by a few months by the Mazda Cosmo in 1967. This actually means that the Cosmo was the world’s first production car to be powered by a two-rotor engine. Not only that, but the Cosmo was an all-around better car than the Spyder, and it represented a big leap forward for rotary cars in general.
The reason why Mazda was able to bring out such a great first rotary car was that it had been developing the technology ever since first acquiring the license for it from NSU in 1961. The engine found in the first units of the Cosmo was already the fifth Wankel built by Mazda, and the fourth to be used with the Cosmo platform (pre-production versions of the engine were used in Cosmo prototypes). The 982cc engine produced 110 horsepower, and by 1968 Mazda had bumped this up to 130 by adding a bigger carburetor. Only about 1,500 units of the first-gen Cosmo were built, and just a handful were exported.
Non-JDM versions were dubbed R110, named for their horsepower figure rather than engine displacement, as tended to be the norm with export-market Japanese cars. These first-gen cars are now quite valuable to collectors (Jay Leno has one), prized for their rarity, their historical significance and their striking good looks. Mazda would use a slightly less powerful version of the Cosmo’s engine to power the Familia Presto Rotary, a small 2+2 which was vaguely sporty and would be the first car officially sold by the new Mazda Motors of America in the US market.
Here, this car was known as the R100, and its relative success led Mazda to give the second-gen Cosmo a proper US launch when it debuted in 1975. This car was also offered in a number of markets as was the RX-5, with the Cosmo name being used only for Japan and the US. The car did very well in Japan, with 55,000 units sold in just the first year. But it failed miserably in every other market, and was thereafter withdrawn from the US. The third generation was slightly different. The Cosmo here became a sort of sub-model of the Luce, with the Cosmo name used for rotary-powered coupe versions of the car.
The Luce was the only car in history to be offered with a choice of gasoline piston, diesel piston and rotary engines. But the only version exported to make it to the US was the gasoline piston sedan, badged here as the 929. Though related, this car was not a Cosmo. In Cosmo form, this was briefly the fastest production car in Japan, before being dethroned by the R30 Nissan Skyline. The final generation of the Cosmo ran from 1990 to 1995, and was no longer badged as a Mazda, but rather sold under Mazda’s luxury brand of Eunos. The technology and creature comforts of this generation are impressive (first production car to offer GPS), but no less impressive is the engine.
Available as an option was the 20B-REW, the biggest rotary engine ever made by Mazda, as well as the only triple-rotor. Thanks to the world’s first twin sequential turbo system to be fitted to a rotary (two years before it was first used in the RX-7), this 2.0-liter engine produced 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. The 13B-REW which was later used in the third-gen RX-7 was also offered in this car, but no matter which engine you selected, the Cosmo was terrifyingly expensive. Nothing sold by Mazda since has cost as much, and being a Japan-only model, fewer than 9,000 units were built. But no matter what the sales figures or availability of the Cosmo might have been, it was an incredibly cool car.