Currently reading: Mazda's rotary engine history
Mazda has confirmed its sports car concept will come with a rotary engine; we take a look back at the company's history of the technology

Mazda has revealed its intention to launch a new rotary-powered sports car, confirming that its concept car at the Tokyo motor show will be powered by an engine called Skyactiv-R, some three years after the RX-8 exited production.

Rotary engine technology is something that has come to define Mazda, and its significance to the company can be traced right back to its roots. To accompany the launch of the RX-Vision, Mazda has recalled its history with rotary technology.

Mazda’s first rotary engine prototype was developed in 1961 and was born out of a technical co-operation between Toyo Kogyo, as Mazda was then known, and Wankel engine developer NSU Motorenwerke.

Mazda describes that period in time as one when “motorisation in Japan was finally emerging from the confusion of the post-war period and starting on an upward climb. There were clear signs that competition was intensifying among car makers, and the pace of the industry’s reorganisation and capital tie-ups was gaining pace.

“Within this environment, a late starter such as Mazda faced having to make tough decisions on how best to display its distinctive character if it were to maintain its independence. This is when talk of the rotary engine first appeared on the scene as a dream technology for the future.”

Toyo Koygo president Tsuneji Matsuda did a deal with NSU to commercialise the Wankel technology, the goal being to position Mazda as a new company at the cutting edge of technology.

In the company’s own words, “Mazda felt that by taking on the challenge to create new value with the rotary engine, it could make a giant leap forward in establishing its identity as a unique, independent car maker”.

In total, 47 engineers spent the next six years working on making a rotary-powered production car a reality. “Actual development of the engine proved extremely difficult,” says Mazda. “The research department faced a number of tall hurdles, not least of which was how to tackle the chatter marks, also known as the ‘devil’s nail marks’, left on the inside walls of the rotor housing as the result of friction caused by the rotor turning at high speed.”

The fruits of the research were shown to the world on 30 May 1967 when the Cosmo Sport received its world debut, a model powered by a two-rotor rotary engine. A year later the car took fourth place in an 84-hour non-stop race at the Nurburgring, something Mazda says “proved that the rotary engine delivered excellent performance and was highly durable”.

The rotary engine really came of age with the launch of the Savanna RX-7 in 1978. Notable for more than its looks and motorsport prowess, the RX-7 made a big leap forward in fuel economy, coming in a decade plagued by fuel crises and increasingly stringent environmental targets, particularly in North America.

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It was known as the ‘Phoenix Project’. “The launch of the RX-7 gave new life to the rotary engine, and it took its first step towards a new era,” says Mazda.

Further developments to the rotary engine were made throughout the 1980s to improve performance and fuel economy, including the launch of the turbocharged second-generation RX-7 in 1985. Many of the developments and improvements were the result of proving the technology in motorsport.

Never was this more evident than in 1991, when the four-rotor Mazda 787B won the Le Mans 24Hrs, the first time a Japanese manufacturer had ever taken an outright victory in the endurance race.

Mazda’s next big step came in 2003 with the launch of the Renesis rotary engine in the RX-8 in 2003, a time when Mazda was under Ford ownership. During this period, Mazda says rotary was “of immense symbolic value to the brand”.

The RX-8 went out of production in 2012, with no direct replacement lined up, the engine falling behind more conventional rival powerplants in economy and torque. However, Mazda has kept a core engineering team alive on developing the technology, the return for which has come in the RX-Vision concept.

This next-generation rotary engine has been named Skyactiv-R, a nod to its place in Mazda’s future line-up under its suite of Skyactiv technologies that underpin the brand’s models. The new engine is said to answer the “fuel economy, emissions performance and reliability” problems that have plagued rotary engines in the modern era.

Rotary, then, is here to stay and is a key part of Mazda’s future. Watch this space.

Timeline – Mazda’s rotary highlights

1961 – first rotary engine prototype

1967 – first production rotary engine (10A) in Cosmo Sport

1968 – Familia Rotary Coupe launched

1968 – fourth place for Cosmo Sport in 84-hour Nurburgring endurance race

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1969 – Luce Rotary Coupe launched with 13A engine

1970 – Capella Rotary (RX-2) launched with 12A engine

1973 – Savanna (RX-3) launched

1975 – Cosmo AP (RX-5) launched with cleaner ‘Anti-Pollution’ 13B engine

1978 – Savanna RX-7 launched

1985 – Second-gen RX-7 launched with turbocharged 13B engine

1991 – Mazda 787B wins Le Mans

1991 – Third-gen RX-7 launched with 13B-REW engine

2003 – RX-8 launched with Renesis engine

2015 – Concept launched with Skyactiv-R engine

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Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

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Norma Smellons 28 October 2015

Aptly Named Engines

Mazda said they had sorted it all out last time, too. How we hoped. But what we got was Oliver Reed-levels of thirst and dependability. The damn things guzzled oil, too, and produced barely any torque. There has never been a more aptly-named motor.