The year 1920 was roaring in a few places. Everyone celebrated the end of World War I but crawled out into the new decade with a world trying to figure itself out. Maybe the League of Nations would help…
Another place where the new decade would start to take hold was Japan. It was the beginning of new industrial zaibatsu under the Taisho democracy. Japan participated in World War I with the allies, repelling the Germans out of Asia and moving into China. As the war ended, the emergence of the industrial zaibatsu would produce everything a modern Japanese society would need – automobiles included.
One of the new zaibatsus began in Hiroshima on January 30, 1920. The Toyo Cork Kogyo Company opened up for business. It began as a manufacturer of cork items and machine tools to help prop up the growing industrial might of Japan. The fledgling company had its struggles through the 1920s, renaming itself as Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd. in 1927 while being bailed out by a local bank and other local businessmen after dipping into bankruptcy.
Toyo Kogyo would begin producing motor vehicles in 1931. The name Mazda had been used as a brand name by the company from the beginning. The name stems from the term Ahura Mazda, or God of Light. It was applied to the first vehicle, the Mazda-Go. This vehicle was an auto rickshaw, essentially half-motorcycle, half-rickshaw or fully enclosed truck bed. The vehicle was used as a local taxi service or a delivery vehicle, depending on what was built at the back of the three-wheeled vehicle.
Little is known about Toyo Kogyo’s vehicle history prior to 1960. However, the company did produce arms for World War II to support the Japanese Imperial Army. That all ended when the American forces dropped a nuclear bomb onto the city of Hiroshima.
From the ashes of nuclear destruction, Toyo Kogyo crawled back into business a few years after the end of the war. The company went back to work on producing Mazda-Gos until they developed a more modern version of the vehicle – the K360 in 1959. This three-wheeled truck was powered by a 356cc V-twin engine that produced around 10-15 horsepower. It was perfect for businesses in the city to get goods across town.
From three-wheeled vehicles, Toyo Kogyo tried their hand at four-wheeled cars. In post-World War II Japan, the want of the automobile was strong. Yet, a vast majority of Japanese citizens lived in cities with narrow roads and limited living space. In the wake of the demand for the automobile, the Japanese government placed restrictions on automobiles, allowing very small ones to the owned at lower tax rates than larger vehicles. The Kei car regulation restricted engine sizes to 360cc to comply with the tax breaks offered by the government.
In 1960, they introduced the R360. This was Mazda’s first car. It would set everything in motion for the next 60 years. The R360 started off as a stylish two-door four-seat coupe, just what the Japanese public asked for. You had the choice of rowing your own gears – all four of them – or drive without a clutch with just two ratios.
Mazda was off to a good start in the automotive world. The R360 would be joined by Carol, which would eventually supersede the R360 as the lone Kei car offering by the late 1960s. In fact, the Carol would have a larger engine by the mid-1960s – only a 586 cc overhead valve in-line engine powered the Carol 600. The same Kei platform would also be the basis of the Porter truck line, which would sustain Mazda in the Kei vehicle market into the 1970s.
Considering the positive reception of the R360 and Carol, it was time for Toyo Kogyo to build a larger vehicle. In 1963, the Familia series was introduced. First, it was a van – a two-door wagon – followed by a sedan and a proper wagon. The Familia was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone, something that was quite rare for a Japanese automaker to hire an Italian carrozzeria to pen a vehicle, even for a domestic market.
The first Familia was powered by a 782cc in-line four-cylinder engine, small enough to run on Japanese streets. It was Toyo Kogyo’s first efforts to get a foothold in the larger privately owned vehicle market in Japan. By 1965, a larger 985cc engine would join the lineup in a coupe model. Unlike the Kei cars, the Familia had its engine mounted up front.
Giugiaro was brought in to design the next Mazda car for Toyo Kogyo – the midsized Luce series. Everything was larger in the Luce, including its 1.5-liter engine. It was sleek and attractive, wearing a bit more panache than its European counterparts riding the new wave of late 1960s design.
Toyo Kogyo was starting to export its vehicles around the world. They finally made landfall in the USA by 1970 with the second-generation Familia. It arrived with the first application of Felix Wankel’s rotary engine outside of Europe. NSU was the first to market with the rotary engine, but Mazda was ready to popularize it – and created a legend.
Before the Familia Rotary reached USA shores, they dropped the new engine in the most captivating car ever created of the time – the 1967 Cosmo Sport. This space-age-looking coupe caught the eye of everyone who fantasized about driving a concept car on the roads. The 982cc single-rotor engine was powerful – starting off at 110 horsepower. Because of its performance, it went racing in Europe and in Japan. The Cosmo would find its way to the USA with just six examples in 1970. They were quite expensive – around $4,350 at the time – and not really marketed for greater consumption stateside.
When the Familia Rotary finally arrived in the USA, Toyo Kogyo called it the Mazda R100. While the single-rotor engine was powerful, it was not all that fuel efficient. This aspect would help and hinder Mazda’s presence in this country. They marketed the rotary as an alternative to the piston engine. Truth be told, Mazda also sold piston engine variants of their lineup, alongside the rotary ones.
Meanwhile, a new mid-sized car was introduced in Japan that would help Mazda’s cause in the USA – the Capella. It arrived in 1971 as a model above the R100 with a choice of piston (616) and rotary (RX-2) models. They were as modern as its Japanese counterparts offering a bit more style than the Datsun 510 or Toyota Corona.
Mazda had always had an edge on design over its Japanese rivals. From Giugiaro's designs from Bertone to more contemporary models, Mazda felt their cars – and trucks – needed to stand out above the rest.
This was true for the next model to come to the USA – the RX-3 and 808. Known as the Grand Familia or Savanna, the new compact Mazda arrived stateside in 1972 as a competitor to the Toyota Corolla and Datsun 1200. The RX-3 had the edge by its rotary engine, while both models offered a high style that helped attract new customers to this relatively new brand.
Dating back to the Mazda-Go, Toyo Kogyo always had trucks to sell to its customers. The Mazda B-Series arrived alongside the RX-2/616 by 1972. The piston engine version came first, along with a captive import version for Toyo Kogyo’s partner Ford – the Courier. By 1974 Mazda dropped the rotary engine under the hood of the B-Series pickup truck. With Ford’s help and the curiosity of the Rotary Engine Pickup, Mazda finally became a global success story. The compact pickup trucks helped Toyo Kogyo in terms of cash flow and profitability.
The rotary engine continued to be a staple of Mazda’s USA lineup through the 1970s. The new Luce arrived in 1974 as the RX-4, along with a new generation Cosmo by 1976. By the end of the 1976 model, most offerings on Mazda’s USA dealerships had rotary engines.
It all changed by the 1977 model year. The new Familia arrived as a subcompact hatchback, rebadged as the GLC – or, Great Little Car. The GLC was the first Mazda to not offer a rotary engine in its lineup. It would be a sign that Toyo Kogyo was listening to its global distributor network regarding the fuel efficiency of its rotary engines in comparison to its rivals with piston ones. The OPEC Oil Crisis was a huge factor in shelving the rotary for more specialized automobiles.
The rotary engine was dusted off and dropped into what would become an icon. The RX-7 arrived in 1978 as a two-door hatchback sports coupe that emphasized the rotary’s high performance over efficiency. This became an enthusiast’s favorite right off the dealer lots.
The RX-7 saved the rotary engine. It also charted the future direction of Mazda as a brand where you expect something sporty and engaging on every drive. While the RX-7 exemplifies this strategy, there has been some other models that danced around this brand philosophy, while others celebrate it.
For example, the first generation 1979 626 coupe looked the part even with a carbureted four-cylinder engine underneath its hood. It had plenty of RX-7 influence to bring new customers to its mid-sized coupe. The 1981 GLC went to a new front-drive platform and a sharper body. It also had a certain swagger found on its higher trim levels that winked back at the RX-7.
Eventually, this brand philosophy would be summed up with a marketing catchphrase: "zoom-zoom." This would be the driving force for Mazda in North America to sell some cars, trucks, and minivans that instilled a sense of fun through superb engineering and design.
Well…maybe. There had been some offerings that flirted with the brand’s philosophy but never fully executed it. The late 1980s saw the introduction of a handsome new 626 sedan, coupe, and five-door hatchback lineup. While the coupe and hatchback captured the enthusiast’s hearts., the sedan was just simply OK. Maybe a bit plain for enthusiast’s tastes.
Mazda also went back upmarket in the late 1980s, with the introduction of the 929 sedan. The larger sedan was part of a movement that demonstrated our taste in luxury automobiles in an age where they seem to be the hot commodity in the marketplace.
The company even flirted with creating a new premium brand – called Amanti. With Honda’s successful debut of their Acura brand, and the subsequent arrival of new luxury brands from Toyota and Nissan, Mazda felt they had an edge on creating their ow luxury brand with some of their upmarket models. By 1992, that dream ended. Mazda simply marketed the 929’s successor – the Millennia – as a part of its main lineup.
On the other side of the company’s coin is a model that would help define the brand for the next 30-plus years. In February of 1989, Mazda introduced their MX-5 Miata roadster to the world at the Chicago Auto Show. It would be the return of the classic two-seat sports cars built with high quality at an attainable price. While it was a nod to the great affordable roadsters of the 1950s and 1960s, the MX-5 Miata was a thoroughly modern machine.
While the MX-5 Miata was the focus of the brand, Mazda still offered a rotary engine sports car. The RX-7 was on its third iteration in 1992. It remained true to its mission, as a two-seat rotary engine sports car with an emphasis on performance. Now, there were two turbocharged attached to this sleek and curvy coupe, putting out 276 horsepower. By 2002, the RX-7 would give way to the RX-8, featuring rear access doors to a set of rear seats. By removing the turbocharger, the rotary engine’s output was decreased to 232 horsepower. Global emissions standards would do the RENESIS rotary in. By 2012, the RX-8 was done, leaving the MX-5 Miata as the sole sporty car in the Mazda lineup.
The shelving of the rotary engine would segue into a new era for Mazda. We would soon see new names for a generation of Mazdas – Skyactiv and KODO – Soul of Motion. KODO would be the overarching design language that would shape every Mazda from 2013 onward. It was designed to not only distinguish Mazda from everyone else but to show ambition as to the future direction of the brand.
Skyactiv would form the basis of a series of new engines, transmissions, suspension and drive systems. It would also frame a family of new platforms designed to marry efficiency with driving dynamics. The 2013 Mazda6 was just the beginning of this movement.
While a few of us remember Mazda’s attempted move upmarket with the Amanti brand, another new strategy has taken place. Mazda wants to become a more premium brand. That is why you are seeing more luxurious trim levels, such as the Signature models, being added to the CX-5, CX-9, and the Mazda6. The Mazda3 was developed to become a premium offering among small cars. Even the new CX-30 was developed to fit into this upmarket strategy.
The thing about this former cork and toolmaker is the journey it took over the past 100 years to get to where they are at. In creating vehicles that were necessary to boost the country’s economy, by being creative and finding different ways to power their vehicles, and to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
The latter statement was proof of how my relationship with Mazda began. After being awed by rotary-powered RX-2s and such, I was happy when my brother replaced his 1974 Ford Mustang II Ghia with a 1979 Mazda 626 coupe. For the record, he never liked the car completely. Part of it was a trunk mechanism that was simply non-existent (he bought the car used from a Ford dealer in North Hollywood, California for starters). Others…well, as the chips may fall. I ended up with the 626 in the mid-1980s. I thought it was a cool car.
Whenever I rented a Mazda in subsequent years, I always found them to have a bit of swagger to them. Some more than others. You can tell which ones embodied the "Zoom-Zoom" spirit and which ones did not. Including the ones developed while Ford "owned" them.
Then, I started working with them for editorial purposes. From that Skyactiv-powered 2012 Mazda3 to today’s Mazda6, I saw the change Mazda was undertaking towards a space where they can back that swagger up with upmarket aspirations. Today, the current generation Mazda6 is considered one of the best vehicles I have worked with in the past nine years of full-on automotive content creation.
The story continues at Mazda. The inclusion of diesel engines worldwide, new engine technologies, exciting future products, and further exploration of how to make exciting, fun-to-drive, upmarket vehicles meet the future are the next storylines from the 100-year-old company. In all, to fulfill their current USA slogan – "Feel Alive."
We cannot wait to see what will come from Hiroshima in the years to come. For moments that will make us "feel alive."
All photos by Randy Stern