In the summer of 1919 a young, impressionable German called Felix Wankel had a dream; he drove to a concert in his own handmade car while boasting to friends “My car has a new type of engine: a half-turbine, half-reciprocated engine. I invented it!”
Upon awakening, Wankel was convinced the dream was a premonition and despite having no fundamental knowledge of internal combustion engines, he believed the engine could achieve four strokes – intake, compression, combustion and exhaust – while rotating.
Dream was fast becoming reality. After his first patent in 1929, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that development started, thanks to a deal struck with German motorcycle manufacturer NSU in 1951.
In 1957, Felix Wankel and NSU completed a prototype called the DKM. Fast-forward to July 1961 and Mazda’s President Tsuneji Matsuda instantly recognised the potential of the rotary engine - putting pen-to-paper on a technical cooperation deal with NSU.
In May 1967, Mazda launched the world’s first dual-rotor rotary-engined car – the Cosmo Sport. With each rotor displacing 491cc for a total of 982cc, the Type 10A motor produced 110bhp at 7000rpm and 96lb ft of torque at 3500rpm, enabling the Cosmo Sport to dispatch the quarter-mile in 16.4sec and romp on to a top speed of 115mph.
After starting mass production of the Type 10A dual-rotor motor with the Cosmo Sport, Mazda began to expand beyond the limited sports car market in 1968. That year, the Model R100 two-door coupé was launched in Japan. The first Mazda model to be exported to the United States in 1971, it proved to be a surprising hit with the American public.
In 1969, Mazda was seemingly growing in confidence and took a punt, launching its first Luce model with a rotary unit – the Luce R130 coupé Penned by legendary designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, it was equipped with a 1.3-litre 13A engine producing 126bhp and 127lb ft of torque. With this model being Mazda’s only front-wheel-drive rotary, the Luce R130 is now seen as an ultra-rare collector’s car.
In 1971, the Mazda RX-3 arrived. Available in coupé or four-door saloon form and following in the footsteps of the Cosmo Sport, the RX-3 proved to be a precocious performer, with power still supplied by the 982cc (2x 491cc) 10A motor. Zero to 60mph was dispatched in 10.8sec and the quarter-mile mark passed in 17.6sec. Of all the pre-RX-7 rotary cars Mazda built, the RX-3 was comfortably the most popular and was a success right up to its demise in 1978.
The sporty-looking Mazda RX-7 arrived shortly after. The Series 1 RX-7 featured a two-rotor 573cc (total 1146cc) 12A engine, putting out 105bhp at a lowly 4000rpm and 105lb ft at 4000rpm. Come 1984, the RX-7 was upgraded to a more potent 13B 1.3-litre rotary lump – with power up to 135bhp and torque increasing to 135lb ft.
During the 1980s, Mazda brought the might of forced induction to the Wankel forefront. The second-generation (FC) Mazda RX-7 was unleashed with the Type 13B engine mated to a twin-scroll turbocharger.
Power was now up to a stout 200bhp and the RX-7s acceleration improved to 0-60mph in 6.5sec. Despite being 363kg heavier than its predecessor, the second generation RX-7 continued to win accolades from the press.
In 1988, Mazda tried its hand with a four-rotor engine for the first time at Le Mans, with the 767 prototype racing car. Kicking out nearly 600bhp, the two 767s that year finished 17th and 19th overall.
However, the most prominent four-rotor engine from Mazda, the 2622cc 700bhp 26B, fired their 787B to victory at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, becoming the first Japanese car and the first car with anything other than a reciprocating piston engine to win the prestigious race outright. It is still the only car to hold these distinctions to this day.