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.
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
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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