I Went Into Mazda’s Secret Basement And Entered Rotary Heaven

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Underneath a quiet office building in even-quieter Irvine, California, there rests some of the loudest, strangest, most glorious race cars and historic cars ever made. This is Mazda’s hidden basement in Southern California, something few people even inside the company ever see. What’s funny is it didn’t start out as anything like it.

The basement itself is a product of the Bubble Era, the 1980s boom that pressured Japanese carmakers to build more profitable cars, therefore more expensive cars, therefore more desirable cars, as well as to rely less on exporting them and instead build them in the markets they were intended for.

Import restrictions and a wildly fluctuating value of the yen meant that even little Mazda had to not only build more cars in the important American market (Mazda started construction on a production facility in Flat Rock, Michigan in 1985) but also to do design work on them in America, too. In 1986, it finished work on a technical research and development center in nearby Ann Arbor and broke ground on this $23 million facility in Irvine, focusing more directly on styling and design, as the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

And styling and design is what the basement was for, at least early on. When the Irvine R&D center opened up in 1988, Mazda used the basement to store the exotic cars and sports cars of local owners, as Mazda’s Jacob Brown told me on a recent tour. The idea was that designers could come down and get inspired by staring at a Ferrari or something. I can’t say for sure if it worked or if it was just a way to get some friends a good parking spot, but the cars that Mazda started selling not long after Irvine opened up are some of the prettiest ever put into production. The FD RX-7, for instance, may be the definition of a modern classic. A handful of them now hang out down here, recognized as historics themselves.

Now, though, the basement no longer holds other people’s cars but Mazda’s own. It serves as a repository for Mazda’s old clay models of cars, including alternate proposals from when they were in development (no pictures, please!), new clay models of upcoming parts and vehicles (very much no pictures allowed) and old cars that Mazda keeps and restores for its historic collection.

The first steps in and my coworker Jason Torchinsky and I see a R26B quad-rotor on a work table, the ultimate rotary engine, the one that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Mazda 787B.

These are wild engines, running up to 700 horsepower at a wailing 9,000 RPM for a day straight, a real pinnacle for a now-dormant technology. It’s amazing to see one ever, let alone casually bump into it getting rebuilt.

The whole section was unreal. A white and blue 787B sat disassembled on one side while an earlier 767 and 757 watched it from across the way. Jason and I sat in the 767, in the famous orange and green Renown colors.

The view through the windshield is bizarre. Everything is closer and lower than you’d think it’d be.

Beside the 787B is Mazda’s failed 792P prototype for IMSA, a venture that was too expensive to succeed, that famously caught fire more than anything else.

And next to that, with crackling tape over the headlights, almost in the corner, is arguably most successful Le Mans car of all time, or at least part of its history.

It’s a 1991 Mazda MX-01, a rebranded TWR Jaguar with a Judd F1-grade V10 behind the driver and a biplane wing behind that.

Mazda pulled funding for this thing when the Bubble burst, but TWR took it back, cut the roof and stuck a Porsche engine in it and won Le Mans twice in a row in 1995 and 1996.

Look at this thing! Dust and cracks over its wide front wing. Downforce levels were extremely high at the rear thanks to those huge rear wings, so it was always a fight to get enough downforce at the front to make everything stick.

And again, it’s just hanging out. F1 engines, as it turns out, are not the most affordable things to keep running, so the car rests on its Speedlines for the foreseeable future.

After that you hit the historic road cars. Well, we did. Only a few Mazda employees are allowed in here, and members of the public very much are not. These are ultra rare and irreplaceable cars, more than that they’re valuable.

A 1969-1972 Mazda Luce, one of the first Japanese cars to look as refined and as good as anything that Europe or America could produce (in no small part thanks to design work from Giugiaro), sat without an engine. This was the only front-wheel drive rotary car that Mazda ever made, an advanced car for the time.

Next to it was the first rotary Mazda to come over to America, a Mazda Cosmo, brought here three years before Mazda as a corporation started selling cars here. Mazda finds this extremely interesting, as it would be one of the most historic vehicles in the history of Mazda in North America. I, however, am more entranced by the Mazda Cosmo’s brochure, which was probably the wildest one ever produced.

Mazda hired a pop artist to do the brochure and man is it good. Whammoo!

I’ll get into this more at a later date but look at the next two vehicles parked down the line. Again, this isn’t set up as a museum exhibit; there’s no one to exhibit this stuff to. It’s just how everything is parked up.

But here’s a Mazda Cosmo from the height of the Bubble Era, the world’s only three-rotor production car, the world’s first production car with GPS, the world’s first car with sequential turbos, even.

Inside it looks like the set from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It feels roughly Enterprise-esque.

And beside it is a Mazda GLC, a simple little piston-powered economy car from the late 1970s, with rear-drive and a live axle.

You couldn’t have the Cosmo without the GLC, the car that helped get Mazda out of its slump after hitting the first oil crisis with little but gas-sucking rotaries.

They’re kind of the opposite ends of Mazda. And it’s funny that it was the GLC (Great Little Car) that was the big success while the Cosmo was, I think it’s best described as “too ambitious to live.” The bottom fell out when the bubble burst in 1991, a bit of a trope for Mazda.

Look at these tape stripes!

Plaid seats!

Bring it back. Bring it all back.

Also neat, this rotary plastic cover on this rotary-powered Suzuki motorcycle that Mazda worked on.

And here’s a triple-rotary engine disassembled with a coffee cup on it, sitting in front of the prototype for the Mazdaspeed3. This is very much not a museum.

There are a few oddball prototypes down here, including this Mazdaspeed RX-8, which is interesting because there never was a Mazdaspeed RX-8. This prototype was turbocharged, and in turbocharging it Mazda had to move where the intake was, and moving where the intake was screwed up the engine somehow, so it never made it into production.

More 792P body parts hung out behind a perfect, recently restored Mazda 929, the last big, rear-drive Mazda luxury car we got here in America. I sat in this one. It was comfy. I keep thinking about buying one for a life I do not live.

The loudest street car in the place was this REPU, rotary engine pick up, a high-horsepower truck for the mid 1970s. Not that trucks need high horsepower so much as high torque, but Mazda made the thing anyway. Take it out of its context as a business proposition for Mazda and appreciate it as a machine and it’s an absolute joy. I got to start it up and the brap this little thing made was infectious.

There was too much to take in. I sat in an FC RX-7 Turbo II, the most desirable of these middle-child RX-7s. These were the first ones to get a bespoke chassis and are increasingly desirable. Sitting in one, I understand why.

There were a handful of FDs as well, as gorgeous as ever. A fun one that Mazda keeps is an American Spirit R, another car that does not exist.

We only got the FD through the 1990s, but Japan kept making them into the early 2000s, with a facelift we never saw and a top rung Spirit R performance version.

Mazda North America got a regular RX-7 and converted it to Spirit R spec, with a unique dashboard, even. It’s a glimmer of what we never got.

The FD was supposed to be much more affordable than it was, screwed over by the value of the yen and never granted a non-turbo base model. As it was, the FD always sort of existed slightly out of reach of those who could appreciate it.

Now I could stare at all of the FDs I wanted to, like an alternate reality.

At some point in the middle of a discussion about I can’t remember what, Jason and I both spotted this forlorn-looking Mazda RX-4 rotary coupe from the 1970s and immediately started gushing about its odd baroque details.

It might have been our favorite-looking car in the collection, even if it was sitting on a flat. Jacob noted that not all the cars they buy are in as good condition as sellers claim, and he feared that this RX-4 might not be long for Mazda’s care.

That’d be a bummer. It’s like a more handsome version of a ‘67 Cuda, only with more strange design blorps. Rotary trunk lid latch!

I can’t help but love this stuff, even if I know that this car probably is slightly less easy to own than a pet giraffe.

There was so much more down there in the basement that I will get to later on, from a particularly interesting concept car to a really large number of Miatas, but it was this sort of Shrine To The Rotary vibe that really got me. It was very alternate history down there, cool under the hot spring air of SoCal. I had seen the Rotary Truth. Yes, yes, I nodded. They are as reliable as piston engines if you maintain them properly. Look, this one won Le Mans. Look, this one is the prettiest sports car of a generation.

The rotary is Good. The rotary is Right. Pistons must die. End the Piston. Praise Ahura Mazda. Let the rotaries sing in an endless chorus, proud and valiant as it always has been.