Automakers are at their best when they are at their boldest. Building unconventional cars, entering into markets that are new to them, trying their hands at a different form of auto racing, creating some ridiculous niche vehicle — that's when they make the cars that people remember decades down the road, even if they fail miserably. As they like to say in the SAS, "Who dares, wins."
And back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Japanese economy seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut, no one was more daring than Mazda. At least, until it all came crashing down on them.
To understand why this happened, you need to know a bit about Japan from the mid-1980s to about 1991. During that time, Japanese real estate and stock prices were surging, leaving corporations loaded with cash, although only some of it was real. Both of these things ended up being overvalued, and when they crashed, they crashed hard.
Before that happened, these conditions made all of the Japanese automakers extremely ambitious. Honda, Toyota and Nissan launched their luxury brands in an attempt to duke it out with Mercedes, Audi and BMW; Honda decided to pick a fight with Ferrari by building the NSX and trying their hand supplying engines in Formula One; and all of them launched a slew of crazy new niche products. They had effectively kept the Americans and other foreign car companies out of their domestic market, so they had virtually no competition.
Australia's Drive had an article not too long ago that summed up the situation well:
The Autozam AZ-1 was a gullwing microcar. The Toyota Sera had butterfly doors. The Mitsubishi Emeraude had a 1.6-litre V6. Bizarre retro cars such as Nissan's Be-1 appeared with their own shops selling merchandise. Subaru built the SVX, a large and luxurious coupe that bore no relationship to any other model in its range. Mitsubishi had the 3000GT. There were supercars, too: that Yamaha, and Dome's equally ridiculous Jiotto Caspita.
But out of all the Japanese automakers who went a little crazy during the bubble era, I would argue that none went as insane as Mazda did. Mazda was literally throwing out new models all the time with little attention as to who was supposed to be buying them.
They launched a slew of sub-brands that have since been phased out, including Autozam, Eunos, Efini, and M2. And they tried to establish what could have been the biggest and baddest Japanese luxury brand of all time, Amati, which we'll get to in a bit.
Here's what the New York Times reported in 1993:
Like most of its domestic competitors, Mazda went on a spending spree. The Hiroshima-based company nearly tripled its capital investment to open an ultra-modern plant, design new sports and luxury models and double the number of domestic dealerships. The aim was to satisfy what appeared to be an emerging generation of wealthier, more confident consumers.
Keep in mind through all of this that Mazda is not Toyota or Nissan. They have always been one of the smaller Japanese car companies, a humble maker of rotary-powered vehicles who had fewer resources than their gigantic competitors. As we say down in Texas, they may have started to get a little too big for their britches.
To make matters worse, they noticed what was happening later than everyone else. Here's the Times again:
Yet for a company that nearly went bankrupt in the mid-1970s, when high energy prices braked demand for its gas-guzzling Wankel rotary engine, success was like a narcotic. It was slow to notice the impact of the bursting of Japan's bubble economy of stock and real-estate speculation. So even though the Japanese car market began contracting from 1991, Mazda was slow to hit the brakes on spending and product development.
Yes, it all fell apart when the bubble burst for the Japanese in the early 1990s. Japan had been so drunk on her own successes that the hangover was especially painful. All of the car companies had to scale back their ambitions. They trimmed their product lines, doubled down on beige econocars, and learned to play it safe. As for Mazda, they would end up being swallowed up by longtime partner Ford a few years later.
Oh yes, Mazda is still a daring company today. They still mostly succeed at imbuing even the humblest of cars with the enthusiast spirit, ensuring that something like a Mazda3 is fun to drive. But they're not as intense as they were 20 years ago, and for good reason, too.
I don't want you to think I'm being critical of Mazda. Quite the opposite. They were merely doing what all their competitors were doing, and what they thought a strong economy enabled them to do. Like I said, carmakers are at their best when they act boldly, and while some of these attempts ended in failure, they were amazing cars in their day — and today as well.
If you could own any of these, which one would you get? And what's your favorite car from Japan's bubble era?
Exhibit A of Mazda's clinical insanity has to be this gull-winged, mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive kei car that was a joint venture through Suzuki. They designed and built the tiny runabout, while Mazda sold it through their Autozam dealer chain. (Suzuki sold their own version.) The AZ-1 was a remarkable tiny sportscar that got its power from a turbocharged three-cylinder engine. Doesn't that sound fun to drive? There was even a Mazdaspeed version with a body kit and a host of handling goodies.
Unfortunately, the AZ-1 debuted in 1992, right as the effects of the bursting bubble were really starting to hit. It was also considered too expensive for a kei car, and had a tough time competing with Mazda's own MX-5. It was a very cool car, but you have to wonder who their target audience was supposed to be. It was kind of an answer to a question no one asked.
Photo credit Mazda
Many of us fondly remember the generation of Japanese sporty coupes that emerged in the early 1990s. But out of all of them, the third-generation RX-7 was the probably the most serious. It wasn't even a "sporty coupe" — it was a goddamned sportscar, and there was no wimpy non-turbo version available. It kept the weight down, the power up, and provided a visceral driving experience that required real skill to handle. Plus, it meant that Mazda had not one but two bespoke sports car platforms at the time.
The RX-7 had been a great sportscar since the 1970s, but the FD was the one that would come to your house, kick your ass, take your mom out on a nice seafood dinner, and never call her again. We're still pining for a modern version today, albeit one that's hopefully more reliable.
Photo credit Mazda
Mazda 787B Le Mans Racecar
The story of the 787B's win at Le Mans in 1991 is one of my all-time favorite motorsports stories. It's become legendary, and it's something Mazda takes great pride in today. They had been running rotary engined racears in Le Mans since 1970, but the 700-horsepower, four-rotor engine in the 787B would be the one that would not only win, but have all cars finish within the top 10.
Today, Mazda remains the only Japanese manufacturer to pull this off, as well as the only one who did so with a rotary engine.
Photo credit Dave Hamster
Oh, Amati. It's fascinating to think what would have happened if Mazda hadn't abandoned you. This was supposed to be Mazda's Lexus or Acura, a luxury brand that could run with the best Europe had to offer. Mazda even leased office space in California for the brand and hired some 50 people to staff it. And they brought their best kung-fu to the table: there were two cars planned, one of which was the Amati 1000, a sedan which packed a 4.0-liter W12 engine.
The Mazdaworld forums dug up some pretty fascinating information on this engine a few years ago, and I highly suggest you check it out. If this spec sheet is correct, the engine would have been mostly magnesium with an aluminum block and ceramic cylinders. Crazy town.
Anyway, Mazda officially scrapped their plans for Amati in 1992 amid their financial troubles. The 1000 never saw the light of the day, but the car that would have been the Amati 500 became the Mazda Millenia, which had a pretty interesting engine of its own.