The Tokyo Motor Show has always been a place full of zany surprises. But 50 years ago this week, the company that would become Mazda dropped a zany surprise on the whole world that remains beloved by speed fans all over the world: the rotary engine.
Of course, Mazda didn't invent the rotary engine. Felix Wankel did, and scores of other automakers spent decades experimenting with how to implement it in passenger cars, including Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Rolls-Royce. Some, like NSU, even pulled it off for a while.
But nobody took the rotary concept and ran with it the way Mazda did. For decades, Wankel's pistonless engine saw duty in sedans, coupes, trucks, and sports cars, to say nothing of race cars like the famous 787B that won Le Mans in 1991.
And it all started with the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show. Back then, Mazda wasn't even Mazda — it was Toyo Kogyo, a Japanese corporation that started in tool manufacturing and gradually moved to producing cars they sold under the Mazda name.
Like most Japanese automakers after World War II, Mazda could best be described as "fledgling" in the early 1960s. The first Tokyo show took place in 1954 and showcased just 17 automobiles. The 1963 show, only the 10th of its kind, came just three years after Mazda unveiled their first true car, the R360 kei car.
So what Mazda had in store for the crowds that year could legitimately be described as a shock to the whole world. At the show, they debuted their first rotary engine, a 798 cc two-rotor prototype unit called the L8A that produced just 70 horsepower.
But arguably the real shock came when Toyo Kogyo president Tsuneji Matsuda drove up in a "mystery car" that no one had ever seen before: a stylish coupe called the Mazda Cosmo Sport.
Then as now, the Cosmo was a stunner. It was low and sleek, looking like something culled from a 1960s science fiction vision of the future. Like early Japanese cars did for years, it had some styling cues that aped American cars; in particular, the Cosmo bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Ford Thunderbird, although quite a but smaller and with a more streamlined front end.
Right away, the Cosmo showed the world what kind of company Mazda was going to be, even if its nationality wasn't yet top-tier in the eyes of the rest of the world. From Ben Hsu's book Classic Japanese Performance Cars:
Similar to the 2000GT, it demonstrated the optimism and forward-looking spirit of a country entering first-world status. However, as the 2000GT, the fact that it carried a "Made in Japan" label relegated it to outsider status in the rest of the automotive world.
That would change with time, of course. The Cosmo and rotary motor shown off at the 1963 show was merely a prototype. A more advanced version would appear at the 1964 show along with even more sports and performance cars made by Mazda's Japanese rivals. In 1967, full Cosmo production began at last, and the car packed the 10A rotary engine rated at an optimistic 110 horsepower.
They were just getting started. Even as other automakers abandoned the rotary over its poor fuel economy, emissions and reliability, Mazda kept the torch burning, inserting Wankel's tiny rotary into just about everything under the sun.
Its biggest hits include the original Cosmo, which was produced in 1972, as well as the RX-3, the RX-7 line of sports cars, the aforementioned 787B racer, and the three-rotary Eunos Cosmo luxocoupe from the early 90s.
Sadly, Mazda doesn't even make their most famous engine anymore. The last Mazda to have a Wankel was the RX-8, which despite being one of the best handling and most fun to drive sports cars on the market, never really set the world on fire the way its 1990s twin-turbo predecessor did. Mazda for years has been working on a next-generation rotary called the 16X, but the rotary's inherent disadvantages make it a tough sell in today's world of ever-tightening fuel economy and emissions standards.
But Mazda knows that the rotary is an important part of their heritage and history, and we're always hearing rumblings that they refuse to write it off completely and are always looking for new ways to apply it to modern engines.
Can we hope for Mazda to bring us some kind of 50th anniversary rotary surprise at next month's Tokyo Motor Show? I certainly hope so.
After all, when it comes to the rotary, nobody does it better.
Photos credit Mazda