Mazda wasn’t the first carmaker to put one of Felix Wankel’s remarkable rotary engines into its cars, but it has stuck with the technology the longest. Right now, in 2017, we’re in one of the semi-regular hiatuses that afflicts the rotary engine. First threatened by oil crises and reliability worries, latterly by concerns over excessive fuel consumption and emissions, Mazda has never entirely given up on engines that spin around, rather than pump up and down.
It was actually Skoda (not the presumed NSU) that first fitted a rotary engine to its cars, although the rotary versions of the 1000 MB saloon made in the early Sixties were never sold, and only made for experimental purposes. NSU was the first to put one on sale, the 1964 NSU Wankel Spider, and it was to NSU that Mazda came, looking for a licence to use the technology. Having worked (literally day and night, according to legends) to make the troublesome technology work properly (then as now, getting the tips of the rotors to reliably seal was the issue) Mazda put its first rotary car on the road in 1967 — the 110S Cosmo Coupé.
And I’m driving one. Around Goodwood Race Circuit in the UK. To be honest, it’s a bit daunting. I’ve taken on Goodwood’s unchanged-from-the-sixties corners and lack of run-off before, but the Cosmo, this one still owned by Mazda, just doesn’t feel happy. It feels as delicate as it looks, and the gearbox is making ominous noises in third. The engine, a tiny 1,100cc twin-chamber rotary, is fabulous though. It pulls strongly, even from low revs (not normally a rotary trait but helped here by the Cosmo’s low weight) and howls like a jet turbine as you approach the 7,000rpm redline. Let me repeat that: a 7,000rpm redline. In a road-going car from the Sixties. From an engine the same size as that of a Morris Minor. No wonder Mazda picked a space-age name for the Cosmo.
As those first cars went on sale in 1967, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Mazda’s rotary endeavours, hence the visit to Goodwood and hence the chance to drive the eggshell-like Cosmo. It’s a gorgeous little thing, all Italianate lines and fabulous Nardi wood-rimmed steering wheel, but at eight years older than myself, it’s feeling its years.
Its slightly younger brother, lurking in the background, does not… This is the RX-3, not Mazda’s second-generation rotary car (that would be the ultra-rare Luce coupé), but the first one to start spreading the legend beyond Japanese shores. Never sold in Europe, the RX-3 did pick up quite the cult following in the US and especially in Australia. The pugnacious little coupé’s, using the latest 12A rotary engine, took on the might of Nissan’s nascent Skyline on racetracks in Japan and Oz, and often beat the bigger cars. This one is far from stock, however, running on modified wheels and suspension, and using the later 13B engine and five-speed gearbox from an RX-7. It is an unalloyed hoot, though, revving with cacophonous delight, almost exceeding Goodwood’s strict on-track noise limits. It’s not really quick, but feels as if it might be, and the massively wayward steering and terrible brakes just add to the fun. Plus, it looks like an American muscle car re-imagined at 6/8ths scale, which is more than a little charming.
What came next, both for us and in Mazda’s own history, was far more significant. The original RX-7. Shark-nosed, with that distinctive glassy back end, the first RX-7 did a convincing Porsche 924 impression, and used its 1.3-litre engine to great effect, even winning the Spa 24-hour race in the hands of none other than Tom Walkinshaw. The one we’re driving has some pretty interesting history in itself. Originally on display at a Mazda dealer in Scotland in the Eighties, when that showroom closed down, the owner decided to keep the car, and instead of driving it, simply kept it, unused, in a shed. It was driven but once a year, for a short hop, to make sure everything still worked and when Mazda bought it back earlier this year, it had but 50 miles (80 kilometres) on the odometer. This 1985 car even has proper new-car smell when you stick your head inside. To call it a time warp doesn’t even begin to describe it.
It doesn’t drive in the manner you’d expect of a car from the Eighties, either. In fact, it feels surprisingly light on its toes, and rather modern, helped no end by the fact that the rotary engine is very light and compact. It does require a few more rpm on the clock to wake up properly than did the Cosmo or RX-3, but with the lively action of the five-speed gearbox, that’s not much of a hardship. Pressing on hard in a car with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control and no stability control is perhaps not best advised, but the RX-7 just glides across country with effortless speed. It is a disarmingly lovely thing to drive, and really does make you wonder why it never sold better in its day. A legacy of all those troublesome rotary engines of the sort that sank poor NSU under warranty claims, perhaps?
By the time we come to the next RX-7, represented here by a brace of MkIII versions (sadly, Mazda wasn’t able to source a rear-steer MkII variant) things had become rather more serious. In order to compete with the likes of the Mitsubishi 3000GT and Toyota Supra, Mazda had given the early Nineties RX-7 rather more in the way of teeth. A turbocharger boosted low-rpm response and overall power, to a very healthy 230hp, while a light chassis and a body wrapped tightly around compact mechanicals completed the junior supercar effect. This red one, from 1994, has just about 160,000km on the clock, but feels absurdly youthful, a testament to Mazda’s build quality. It still feels quick, quick enough to take on a basic Porsche Boxster for instance, and it has truly phenomenal steering — power assisted by this stage, but bursting with feel and perfectly weighted. Considering it’s a 23-year-old car, it takes to modern roads (and track) like a machine fresh from the factory. If you want to know which was the outright best of the rotary Mazdas to drive on this day, you’re looking at it.
Not the quickest, though. That accolade surely has to go to the blue MkIII RX-7. It looks a bit tacky, next to the purity of the standard MkIII, let alone the lovely styling of the MkI, but there is purpose to the big spoiler, silly exhaust, and over-specced split-rim wheels. This is not the product of some Sunday afternoon spent in the motor accessories shop; it’s actually a 2002 Bathurst special edition, one of only 500 built to mark Mazda’s successes at the famed Australian Mount Panorama circuit. That wing and those wheels are there as backup to a now twin-turbo rotary, with a very healthy 280hp (as quoted, though probably more in reality if Nineties Japanese power figures are anything to go by). Get the revs up high enough to awaken the second, larger, turbocharger and this car can still really fly. If the red RX-7 felt Boxster-quick, then this one feels as if it could take on a 911. And win. It’s not as good to drive as the red car (it has a harsh ride and the steering feels a bit odd thanks to the aftermarket tyres), but it’s bloody quick. And massive fun, too.
That’s not really something you can say of the last car we drove, and the last rotary model Mazda made. The 2007 RX-8 40th Anniversary edition is still rather special, though. With no turbo, you have to be more patient and let the revs build up if you want performance (and you have 9,000rpm to play with) so it’s not as fast as its predecessor, but it strikes a lovely balance between performance and comfort, and it’s the only car here with useable back seats (aided by those extra rear-hinged doors). It’s a shame that Mazda stopped making it.
Will there be a replacement? Possibly. Rotary engines, having always struggled with their consumption (both of oil as well as petrol) and their emissions, seem dead in the water as a standalone engine, but Mazda is still innovating and building on the legacy of that love of iconoclastic engineering. Its new HCCI engine (runs on petrol but burns like a diesel) could dramatically improve economy and cut emissions, and while it’s no rotary in character terms, it is certainly clever. And there are still rumours coming from Mazda’s Hiroshima HQ surrounding rotaries that run on hydrogen (developed but never put into production), or a tiny rotary, sitting in the boot that acts as the range-extender for a battery electric car.
Mazda has come a long way in 50 rotary years, and something tells me it’s not quite done yet.