Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series here at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
Although it might’ve seemed inevitable in hindsight, the Mazda RX-8's existence wasn’t guaranteed from the outset. The FD RX-7 disappeared from our shores after the 1995 model year and, although it continued on all the way until 2002 in Japan, the Hiroshima-based automaker canceled any plans for a successor once it fell under Ford’s control in 1996.
Or, I should say, officially canceled. Because while Ford imposed a business plan on Mazda aimed squarely at profitability, a group of engineers within the company kept the dream of rotary-powered sports cars alive with a secret project right before the turn of the century. Those efforts eventually produced the RX-8, but before that, their vision went by a different name: RX-Evolv.
The RX-Evolv first appeared in October 1999 at the Tokyo Motor Show in a pearl shade of blue. The next time it was seen in public, three months later in Detroit, it was sporting a fire red finish like you see above.
The RX-Evolv looks unusual even today — especially from the front — so you could figure it looked even more peculiar back then. I have vivid memories of holding a New York Auto Show program with the RX-Evolv on the cover, kid me mystified at the bubbly, swoopy bodywork and slender “micro-HID” strips for headlights. There was even another set of lights hiding in the upper grille, though they’re switched off here.
The heyday of weird Mazda — and Japan’s “Bubble Era” of peak automotive ambition as a whole — transpired between the mid-’80s and early ’90s. The RX-Evolv may have missed that window by a handful of years, though I assure you, almost everything about this concept was strange in that old-school Mazda way. It was powered by a pair of rotors of course, which was central to this car’s ethos — it was to be a celebration of the engine technology only Mazda cared enough to commercialize, in a new sports car for a new era.
But even besides the spinning corn-chip propulsion system, the RX-Evolv was confounding in profile. The RX-7 had always been a two-door sports car, but here was a two-plus-two with weird half doors. These days we’re less surprised by the random, funky, rear-hinged back door, thanks to vehicles like the Hyundai Veloster, Mini Clubman and even Mazda’s brand-new MX-30 crossover. The landscape was quite different two decades ago, though, and this trait would have seemed like one of the RX-Evolv’s less production-suitable touches. Funny, that.
The RX-Evolv takes on a more familiar appearance from the back, spare some notable differences to its eventual production form. The concept’s rear window was squatter, the roof sported prominent contours to maximize headroom and the upright rear deck and sharply flared arches didn’t do well to conceal the car’s narrow and tall stature.
Another unique design trait — albeit one not easily seen in most of these images — pertains to the RX-Evolv’s clamshell hood. It was actually two components. The body-colored section opened forward, toward the front of the car, and allowed access to everything but the engine. To get to those bits, you’d have to lift the upper panel, hovering between the front axle and windshield and hinting at the car’s front mid-engine layout. In keeping with the spirit of the RX-Evolv, both these body elements were also hinged in opposing fashion. You have to appreciate Mazda’s commitment to the bit.
Regardless of what you think of its looks, the RX-Evolv — and, by extension, the entire RX-8 development effort — was clearly a labor of love for those who worked on it. And I’m not inferring that based on how the car makes me feel; I’m repeating it from Mazda’s own history on the project, which is thankfully well documented on the company’s website.
I implore you to read the whole tale. I won’t spoil it, but the background is that a skunkworks operation within Mazda repurposed a dormant MX-5 chassis into a test mule for a next-generation sports car, ignoring a directive from the higher-ups to not waste time on enthusiast cars. I mean, this sounds like reasonably good fodder for a Hollywood dramatization:
The whole project was being carried out outside of working hours and only a limited number of members were involved. The team made use of an inconspicuous area used for maintenance of vehicles and only performed test runs of their vehicle late at night. Since they were unable to call on manufacturers for auto parts, they hammered away at manufacturing the bare minimum components themselves.
The engineers were clever: They knew they’d be able to make their most compelling case with a working prototype. When they were done, they decided to present their test mule to a Ford exec they suspected would be receptive to the idea, based on his love of motorsport. As you’d figure, the team got the vote of confidence it so desperately needed — though how it got the green light is a charming tale in and of itself. For that, you’ll need to check out the full story. (I’ll have you know I searched for photos of this mythical mule, but regrettably came up empty.)
The RX-Evolv arrived quite a few years after those initial efforts. Like all the best concepts, it was more a statement of intent than a fanciful, ephemeral idea. This was the first fully-formed visualization of what a 21st-century Mazda sports car could be, though of course it’d undergo many subtle refinements on the way to the assembly line.
Obviously! But before the production RX-8, which debuted for the 2003 model year, Mazda trotted out another prototype in Detroit in 2001. This concept — now officially called RX-8 for the first time — emerged a year after the RX-Evolv. It certainly drew closer to the car’s final form, though it was far from identical.
Gone was the RX-Evolv’s polarizing fascia, in its place an early version of that stretched shield-looking grille that would become Mazda’s corporate mug for the better part of the following decade. All the elements are about in the same place as they’d be in the final RX-8, but the gaps between them, the shapes of the headlights and the three-dimensional surfacing of the bumper were all nipped and tucked in the transition to production. Personally, I prefer the cleaner look of this concept — I think it’s aged more gracefully than the RX-8 we got.
At this point, the RX-8's interior was also mostly realized. The general shape is there, the outlying differences coming down to the materials used, design of the central climate vents and the lack of the odd ring trim encircling the stereo. Interestingly, the RX-Evolv, this RX-8 concept and the eventual production car all shared a raised center column splitting both rows of seats; of course, they also shared their trademark rear-hinged half doors.
While the production Mazda RX-8 has appeared in countless racing games, the RX-Evolv was never as lucky. However, the original RX-8 concept was included in Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec on the PlayStation 2 and Project Gotham Racing on the Xbox, both released in 2001.
The same RX-8 concept model in GT3 and GT4 wound up in GT5 and GT6. Unfortunately, it was relegated to the status of a low-resolution “standard car” in those PS3 entries, meaning it looked extremely poor overall and lacked a rendered interior.
Those later Gran Turismo titles actually feature a second RX-8 concept, based on a yellow car that Mazda displayed at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show. That last concept looked functionally identical to the RX-8 that arrived in dealers the following year.