Today should be an international holiday. We should gather round (virtually), toast champagne, and celebrate, because today is the Mazda car company’s birthday.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
The history of Mazda as a company is a fascinating one, because when the company was founded on January 30, 1920, it had no intention of selling cars. In fact, it was named the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. and its purpose was just that: making cork. That didn’t turn out to be a profitable endeavor, and the company had to be bailed out of bankruptcy in 1927. It changed its name to Toyo Kogyo Co. and started making machine tools instead.
That one ended up working. By the end of the decade, Mazda had manufactured a 250 cc two-stroke engine, built a new factory in Hiroshima, and won a race honoring Japan’s war heroes with motorcycles manufactured in-house.
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Then, in 1931, the world heard the name “Mazda” for the first time with the production of a three-wheeled truck called the Mazda-go. It spent much of the decade refining the machine, giving it bigger engines and load capabilities, before finally arriving at a passenger car prototype in 1940. World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima where the plant was located put an end to production for a while. After the war, it stuck to its three-wheeled cargo model.
But in 1960, Mazda launched its first proper passenger car, the R360 Coupe, followed by its first rotary-engined car in 1967. That was when things started changing. Mazda was suddenly a player in the passenger car game.
Well, until the 1973 oil crisis. Rotary engines are thirsty boys, so they fell out of favor very quickly—so quickly, in fact, that Toyo Kogyo had to be bailed out of bankruptcy again. It floundered for a while, partnering up with Ford, which had bought a significant stake in the company—and who had to come to the rescue again during Japan’s economic downturn in the mid-1990s.
Then, in 1989, Mazda unveiled the MX-5 Miata at the Chicago Auto Show. It was cheap (at least, as far as a sports car is concerned), lightweight, beautiful, and a hell of a lot of fun. In 2000, the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed the Miata the best-selling two-seat convertible in history.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Mazda. The 2013 Mazda 2 was the first car I actually properly owned, a car that gave me the freedom of mobility. I love the thing so much that I even rented one when I took a trip to Iceland in 2019. We may not have as many cars to show for Mazda’s centenary as we did with, say, Ford—but we got there in the end, and that’s what matters.