Currently reading: History of the Mazda rotary engine - picture special
We take a nostalgic look back at the history of Mazda’s charismatic, high-revving rotary engines

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.

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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.

The Mazda Eunos Cosmo debuted in 1990, being the first and only production Mazda to use a triple-rotor engine. The triple rotor 20B-REW had a displacement of 2.0-litres, making it the largest capacity rotor for sale by the company, producing 300bhp and 300lb ft. Despite the Cosmo being reigned in by Japanese law to 112mph, de-restricted it could crack 158mph. Only 8,875 examples were sold, however.

In 1993, Mazda unveiled arguably its most sought-after RX-7 – the third-generation FD. Dubbed by enthusiasts as the ‘Batmobile’ for its striking looks, the 13B-REW engine was the first-ever mass-produced sequential twin-turbocharger system to be exported from Japan, with power ranging from 252bhp in 1993 to 276bhp by the time production ended in 2002.

The sequential twin-turbo system was a complex piece of kit. Developed with the aid of Hitachi, the system comprised two small turbochargers; one to provide boost at low rpm and the other to provide the upper-half of the rpm range during full throttle. Handling in the third-generation RX-7 was regarded as world-class and to this day is still recognised as one of the best balanced cars of all time. 

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In 2001, Mazda pulled the wraps off the RX-8 at the North American International Auto Show, the first-generation RX-8 rolling off the production line in 2003. Powered by the Renesis 13B-MSP 1.3-litre (654cc twin-rotor) naturally aspirated unit, it was available in two power forms – the standard 191bhp and 228bhp ‘high power’ versions.

The Renesis engine took home coveted titles of International Engine of the Year and Best New Engine in 2003. Production of the last rotary engine ceased on 21 June 2012.

Despite the rotary not currently being offered in any production models, Mazda is still continuing to develop the engine and new technologies to improve its efficiency.

With plans for a successor to the RX-7 to sit atop the Mazda range - possibly named RX-9 - don’t count out the return of the Japanese car maker's rotary engine just yet.

Aaron Smith

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Add a comment…
dgate 7 January 2014


If you like the RX8 so much you could always do a transplant or convert to electric.
I noticed the writer of this story failed to mention that in 1967 NSU also introduced a production rotary the NSU Ro80. The big difference it was a large aerodynamic ( cd 0.35) five passenger luxury car and capable of 112 mph.
It won European Car of the year award in 1968 but due to lack of funds from the financially stretched NSU company never received proper development.
Sadly fazed out within ten years due to a changing market and company buy outs.
I ran two of these and they were ahead of their time.
MikeSpencer 20 October 2013

Hybrid RX-9?

A rotary petrol-electric hybrid might work. The rotary engine providing top-end power coupled with an electric motor for low-down torque. Hybrid tech would surely be needed to meet emissions regs.

Or build a Mazda version of Audi's A1 E-Tron. Use a small rotary engine as a range extender in an EV. Probably at odds with Mazda's SKYACTIV tech, though. Still a shame Audi didn't take this idea further themselves.

But using a rotary engine as a range extender (petrol generator) does make perfect sense. Intrinsically light, compact and free of vibration it's more suitable than using a reciprocating engine sourced from a car or bike. Mazda should leverage their expertise in building rotary engines to make range extender modules for use in EVs. Find a partner or partners and share the development costs. It keeps rotary engines alive, but perhaps not in the way sports car fans would have hoped!

dgate 3 July 2014

Hybrid RX-9 ?

While the rotary might seem ideal due to light weight and smoothness coupled to a generator as a range extender it is basically a "dirty" engine and is the very reason it is no longer being used.
It would be sacrilege to use one in an eco friendly car.
Will86 19 October 2013


I've got to admire Mazda for their perseverance with the rotary engine, but in both emissions and reliability it still lags a long way behind convention piston engined cars. A quick scroll through Autotrader ads shows far too many RX8s in need of new engines with less than 100k on the clock and also how cheap they are to buy due to running costs. And to make it worse, I think the RX8 is a superb coupé but I would be too worried about the engine and resale to take the risk on one.