Born in the Japanese town of Hiroshima in August of 1875, Jujiro Matsuda started his career apprenticed to a blacksmith in Osaka at the age of 14. While working there, he invented a new kind of pump, called the “Matsuda-type pump”. Eventually Matsuda took over operation of the foundry at which he learned his craft and named the enterprise the “Matsuda Pump Partnership”. Things went well for a while, but Matsuda was eventually forced out of his company.
His next venture was as an armament manufacturer just in time for the First World War.
That one worked—very well.
By 1921, Matsuda was a wealthy man.
Consulted for his business expertise to help revive the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd. Matsuda refocused the company away from manufacturing artificial corks and into producing machine parts. This is generally agreed to be the launching of the company known today as Mazda, although that name wasn’t formally adopted until 1984. In 1931, the company did a motorized tricycle and called it the Mazdago—marking the first recorded usage of the word “Mazda” on a motor vehicle. This was developed into a three-wheeled truck, which the company marketed until 1969.
The origins of the name are attributed to a number of circumstances. Some say it’s because it sounds so close to Matsuda, the company’s founder. It is also attributed to the name of the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda—the god of wisdom, intelligence and harmony.
With the onset of the Second World War, Matsuda once again turned to producing arms for the Japanese military. Work on a small car had begun before the war, but was shelved when the war effort became Toyo Kogyo’s priority. After the war, those plans were dusted off and Toyo Kogyo refocused its energies into the development and manufacturing of automobiles.
The company’s first car was offered in 1960, and it was rather prolific in the development of both cars and trucks throughout that decade and moving forward. The first Mazda model to come the United States was the rotary-powered 1970 Mazda RX-2. In 1963, Mazda had started experimenting with the rotary engine designed by Felix Wankel. A relatively simple design, the basic rotary engine has but three principle moving parts and two valves.
The rounded triangular-shaped rotor is mounted on a single crankshaft and uses two sparkplugs to instigate ignition. Fitted to a rounded triangular rotor housing, three separate chambers are created between the rotor and the inner walls of the rotor housing. The rotor moves inside the housing when one of the two sparkplugs ignites the air/fuel mixtures and rotates the rotor. Additional rotors can be added to increase power—as well as turbocharging. A number of car companies tried to get the rotary engine to work, but Mazda was the only concern to successfully put the engine into series production.
Thus, when the first Mazda cars came to the United States in 1970, they were fitted with rotary engines. Smooth-running, exceptionally powerful for their size, reliable, and very easy to work on, Mazda’s RX cars were highly prized by the cognoscenti. The company even did a rotary-powered pickup truck and a rotary powered station wagon—the only applications of this powerplant to those two platforms. Further, the eclectic engine had the added benefit of making the lightweight automobiles Mazda used it to power a lot of fun to drive.
Things were going pretty well for Mazda’s rotary-powered lineup until the fuel crisis of the 1970s made motorists start counting miles per gallon. When they did so they discovered the primary drawback to the rotary engine. While small in size, the rotaries were hugely thirsty. The resulting drop in sales nearly drove Mazda into bankruptcy. However, Sumitomo Bank stepped in with a fresh injection of capital and Mazda refocused its product lineup around piston-engined cars and trucks.
Still though, the company hadn’t completely abandoned the rotary engine. Mazda’s product team realized if the powerplant was fitted to a sports car, fuel economy wouldn’t matter so much and they’d have something altogether unique in the marketplace. The 1978 Mazda RX-7 was born of this realization and went on to become one of the best selling sports cars of all time.
Configured with rear-wheel drive, and the engine mounted behind the centerline of the front wheels, the RX-7 was essentially a lightweight mid-engine, rear drive sports car. Blessed with exceptional handling, it went on to become a major success in motorsports, bringing a lot of attention to the Mazda brand. A rotary-powered Mazda prototype even won LeMans—outright. Sales of the RX-7 ran through three generations from 1978 to 2002.
But Mazda wasn’t done with the rotary engine.
For the 2004 model year, a new Wankel-engined Mazda sports car was offered in North America—the RX-8. A so-called two-door quad coupe, the RX-8 featured a pair of half rear doors to aid access to its rear passenger compartment. Some felt this compromised the design despite Mazda’s claims of added convenience. In any event, the RX-7 failed to catch on the way the RX-8 did and was discontinued after the 2011 model year.
With the RX-7 steadily creeping up in price over its lifetime as the model skewed more and more towards Grand Touring, a hole opened in the Mazda lineup for a small two-seat rear-drive roadster. Fitted with a twin-cam four-cylinder engine, the 1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata took the world by storm.
Virtually reinventing the small roadster category, the Miata embraced everything driving enthusiasts loved about a small open lightweight sports car, without the vagaries of poor reliability plaguing the British sports cars from MG and Triumph that had introduced the concept back in the 1950s and 1960s. The Miata was such a hot-seller; some exceedingly greedy dealers were marking them up as much as $10,000 over MSRP—and getting it! Automotive salespeople joked there were people still upside down in loans on those first-generation Miatas some 20 years later. The Mazda MX-5 Miata went on to easily become the best-selling two-seat roadster of all time.
Sadly though, the Miata was the only real bright spot in the Mazda lineup for much of that period. The company started having money problems again, going into the 21st Century. Fortunately, Mazda had entered a partnership with Ford in 1979. By 1996, Ford was in control of a 33% stake in the company. This lasted until 2010, when Ford divested all but three percent of its Mazda holdings. However, that period of investment helped Mazda revamp its lineup into today’s fuel-efficient, fun to drive, well-crafted range of products.
But, with no rotary in sight…