The History of Mazda Rotary Powered Cars

by David Morris


      The most disarming feature of the R100 was its ordinariness. Twenty-four years ago the Australian public wasn't able to fathom the sort of performance this small car could offer. Initially, the potent and dainty Mazda was considered a technical adventure, and due to the uniqueness of its revolutionary rotary engine, the R100 enjoyed above average media attention which helped sales well enough to establish the R100's marketing success. Mazda first showed this car at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 1967 as the RX-85 (RX meaning Rotary Experimental). It was based on the 1200 coupe which had been on sale for over a year. However instead of the 73hp 1200 engine, the engine was a revised 10A similar to the of the 110 Cosmo and code named 0820. For Japan and Australia the 10A was rated at 110hp. The major differences of the 0820 engine over the previous 0813 10A was the change from aluminum to cast iron for the side housings and from chrommoly to chrome steel for the eccentric shaft. These alterations were done purely for economic reasons.

      In July of 1968 the Familia rotary (R100) was released in Japan. Mazda Australia imported a couple for evaluation purposes. Mazda Australia gave the R100 the thumbs up and released it to the unsuspecting public in June 1969. When Australian journalists got hold of the test models, they reported not wanting to return them, such was the fascination of the engine. A quarter mile best was reported of 17.8 at 74mph. It was probably slower than the factory time of 16.4 due to the lack of familiarity with the rotary's characteristics. Still this performance was enough to push nervously close to the BIG BOY league. Remember back to 1969 when a similarly size car was pushing to crack 21 seconds. So inevitably the diminutive R100 found itself being compared with performers like the Monaro, Capri and Pacer and winning.

      As for performance, Mazda raced its R100 with blind ambition. Mazda was, after all, very proud of its new rotary engine, and in July 1969 the factory entered two R100s in the famous SPA-Francorchamps 24-hour, a production-type race where many of the world's manufacturers entered to compare product against opposition product. The SPA R100s ran with their Cosmo type all-aluminum 10A engines. By this stage Mazda's 10A peripheral ported engines were capable of 200+hp, but the SPA engines were held to 187hp for endurance reasons. Still the small R100s put in a big performance to finish a very respectable 5th and 6th overall behind factory 911s Porsches. For the 1970 SPA an R100 again came 5th outright.

      Locally R100s were tried at Bathurst and a few touring car rounds but didn't do very well. At this time, unfortunately, only the factory mechanics knew how to make them go. All was not lost for the Aussies privateer though. In late 1970, a series of sport kits were offered in five different packages. Starting at a 10% power up from the A1 kit through to a 100% power up from the B2 kit. The A1, A2 & A3 kits contained various bolt-on goodies like carburetor, intake manifold, tightened suspension and better disc brake compound. The B1 and B2 kits included engine porting such as the newly developed BRIDGE PORT, a beefier master cylinder with power booster, a quicker steering ratio, limited slip differential, close ratio gearbox and heavier clutch.

      Potential buyers, at the time, were hit with the cost of high-performance. While the A1 kit was only around $290, the B2 kit almost doubled the car's showroom value at $2500. OUCH! many of these kits were sold in Japan, but we are unaware of any being sold in Australia as many dealers can't recall ever hearing about them. Within 12 months the car was off the new sales list and the sports kit faded into irrelevance.

      In April 1971 Mazda's competition division decided to scale down activity due to impending Japanese emission and safety laws. While the company's engineering resources were to concentrate on the new laws, technical assistance and support was lent but not in quantity. What this meant to the man in the Mazda showroom was no more over-the-counter go-fast goodies for future rotary models (at that time).

      When Mazda Australia started selling the R100, early stock was noted to be of 1968 vintage. Apparently this was due to LHD versions going down the line at the time thus reducing the numbers needed for initial sale requirements. Mixed among the first shipments were a few R100s fitted with the 1200's 8.8 gallon fuel tank. Mazda quickly recognized this fault and ensured that the R100 was fitted with it's proper 13.5 gallon (60 liter) tank. After all, with an average fuel economy of 23mpg, the 13.5 gallon reservoir was a definite part of its motoring life.

      During its 2.5 years on sale, the R100 went through more mechanical changes than any other rotary after it. The main factor behind this was the factory's uncertain direction with its rotary powered vehicles. The R100 was a prototype vehicle being mass produced; therefore, throughout its model run it was updated regularly as Mazda engineers improved upon the rotary engine. Many of these changes affected the R100 mid-model run. Today manufacturers generally wait for the next model change, for example: the Series I to Series II RX-7.

      The R100 can be divided into a Series I and II with the date separating them to be about mid 1970. The interesting thing about the R100 is that some Series I are fitted with Series II parts and vice versa. Production uniformity didn't really start until the RX-2. It is also generally considered Mazda produced the R100 only as an interim model before the RX series started, which was designed to fit a rotary.

      As for changes between early and late models, they can be grouped into sections. Most of the dissimilarities within the R100 are confined to mechanical differences. Aside from the not-always-true side indicator rule, the R100 was amazingly consistent in exterior styling. The major differences come with the 1200/1300 comparisons. When looking for a genuine R100, the chassis number must start with M10A. The 1200 will be STA, and the 1300 will be STB. Notable rotary/piston differences are: GRILL: the R100 has slightly different design and is painted black compared to being chromed. R100 also has small rotor in the center. BONNET: the R100 has a raised section with louvers cut into it. TAIL LIGHTS: The R100 has round lights compared to the 1200/1300 square type. SUSPENSION: the R100 had a different style compared to the 1200 but changed to be the same with the 1300. The spring pressures and rates were changed--R100 103lb-in and the 1200 71lb-in. R100 received an extra leaf in the rear springs. WHEELS: R100 received 14-inch wheels while piston models rolled on 13-inch wheels. BRAKES: R100 came with 9.6 inch Girlock disc and pad set under 14-inch rims.

      When Mazda first offered the car for sale, the starting price was $2790 and inflated by only $100 through its showroom life span. Today an original condition R100 will be well over the $6000 mark and rising steadily. With modified versions of the car $4500 and up being the present standard. Recently, an immaculately modified R100 sold for $11000.

      Back in its early days, Mazda didn't catalog records. As a lot of distribution was then handled through dealers/importers and they kept things to themselves. Thus the exact number of R100s sold in Australia can't be tallied. A figure of 1500 to 2000 is the general consensus. A respectable figure for Mazda Australia considering the R100 began as a technical adventure.

      December 1971, the R100 ceased importation but not production. The RX-2 had been on sale for over a year and was only $200 more expensive. The R100 theme kept going in Japan until late 1973. By then Mazda was selling the coupe and the (2 and 4 door) sedan with the rotary engine.


      "The R612 is an ideal car for the 70s, combining high performance, luxury, safety and economy. We introduce it onto the market in the belief that the rotary engined car will take over the main current of vehicles in 1970."

      Bold words for the little Japanese car maker, but not unreasonable considering the atmosphere at the time.

      The RX-2 was Mazda's first true rotary passenger car. Released in Japan on the 13th of May 1970 as the R612, a designation combining the rotary 12A and the piston 1600. Two weeks later Mazda strangely changed its direction from the R100, 110S and the R130 theme to rename its rotary version the RX-2. The Cappella name was taken from a star. This led to marketing slogans such as the "star of the Highways". Capella is also the name off an African Antelope, which is represented in the badges.

      Capella, as a name instead of RX-2, found itself on Australian-sold piston and rotary models for unknown reasons. In Japan the RX-2 was available in the Basic, Deluxe and Super Deluxe sedan plus the GS coupe. At this stage the 12A was only available with a manual 4-speed transmission.

      Mazda Australia released the Series I RX-2 in October 1970. Model specs were the Deluxe and Super Deluxe sedan plus the Super Deluxe Coupe. Prices were $2998 for SD sedan and $3298 for the SD coupe. During the Series I model life we managed to receive some Japanese styled models. Marketing still wasn't exactly sure of what the Australian market wanted. These Japanese styled models are easily identifiable by their grilles. The RX-2 had the top six bars of its 11-bar grille chromed. (The 616 had just the top and bottom grille bar chromed.) Also, the cooling cutouts between the grille and the bumper were smaller when compared to later versions.

      Interior differences were minor, limited to wording on the air controls and the omission of rear seat belts. The 12A had the smaller Japanese port and was thus a few hp down on the Aussie version. Australian grilles were blacked out for the Capella and the RX-2. Their only differences were in the central grille ornament. The RX-2 had its 'M' symbol surrounded by a rotor where the Capella had its 'M' symbol inside a circle. By mid 1971, the Japanese spec models where no longer imported. For Australia's hotter climate, the cooling cutouts were enlarged, inside door locks relocated forward and the coupe received a new central dash design.

      Performance: the RX-02 was in a class of its own. In Japan the 12A pumped out 120hp into 960kg (GS coupe) through the four-speed box to give a factory reported 15.8 second quarter-mile time. Due to larger porting and an extractor-type cast iron manifold, Aussie 12As made 130hp. Mixed with 950kg (SD coupe), realistic Australian Journal found RX-2s quick at 16.3 seconds. Still with this sort of performance the RX-2 was far beyond the opposition in its class. In order to find a comparable game, the little car had to go hunting for bigger fish like the GTR-XU1, Capri V6 or the Valiant Pacer 245.

      With comparisons like this it's no wonder that the RX-2 launched Mazda into bigger markets. In fact the RX-2 single handedly was responsible for making the rotary engine a solid foundation in this now rapidly rising company.

      The RX-2 opened the American market to Mazda. On introduction it won several motoring awards including Motor Trends 'Import Car of the Year'. Initially, demand for the RX-2 exceeded supply, and some Mazda dealers were selling RX-2s well above sticker price. This was primarily caused by an inadequate dealer/distribution network. It wasn't until mid 1972 that Mazda organized an efficient dealer network.

      From February 1972 the Series I became available with optional 3-speed auto transmission. The JATCO automatic slowed the RX-2 by only 1.2 seconds down the quarter mile. The auto option sold well. On its introduction the auto RX-2 cost only $3814; this was amazing value. A comparable car in size, equipment and almost similar performance was the Volvo Grand Luxe EFI auto, valued at nearly 50% more at $5660.

      Coinciding with the intro of the auto box Down Under was the release of the Series II in Japan. The Series II was instantly distinguishable by its twin headlight front. The interior received a few updates, plus the 12A got a 5hp boost. One notable addition to the RX-2 line up was the new GSII coupe. Mazda made a special 5-speed box for it, a 4.1 differential, 1.5inch lower stance, fat 165SR13 tires, racing stripes and a unique hexagonal taillight arrangement.

      Mazda Australia introduced the Series II in late 1972 with virtually none of the goodies the Japanese model received. Apart from the twin headlights the only other differences are to be found in the way of the chassis number stamped flush on the firewall for the Series I and raised for the Series II. The squared Series I seat belt buckle was rounded for the Series II. Lastly some Series II models have the dummy-vented bonnet instead of the vented. February 1973 marks the date of the bonnet change.

      Late 1973 the Series III arrived on the Japanese market. There were big changes for the RX-2 this time. Firstly, under the bonnet was the newly developed single dizzy 12A. Really known as the 12B; however, due to the millions spent on marketing, the 12A name stayed. An added feature was the Rotary Engine Anti Pollution System or REAPS. A five-speed manual gearbox became an option on RX-2s. The interior received considerable updating including an oversized RX-4 steering wheel. Suspension setting were altered and quite notably the taillights were changed to meet 1974 Japanese government regulations.

      The Series III arrived in early 1974. We found all the extra interior updates, and the 12A single dizzy plus its REAPS, wider 165SR13s and a 3.9 to 1 differential ratio, previously reserved for the auto. The rear end treatment followed the Japanese brake-indicator- brake-reverse taillight pattern. The major rework of the Series III packed an extra 75kg onto the curb weight. With 1025kg and still only 130 (official) hp, the RX-2 was slowed to 18.0 seconds down the quarter mile.

      To keep customers happy, who incidentally had been visiting the local garages with some regularity, Mazda was offering a 2-year/40,000km warranty on the rotary engine. Fortunately, the new 12B proved more reliable than the twin dizzy 12A. Price rose marginally to $3668 for the manual and $3958 for the auto. Mazda Australia's marketing people decided to drop the coupe from the line up. The reasoning was to give the RX-3 coupe the sporty two-door image and keep the RX-2 in the medium-sized family-car bracket.

      Mid 1974 saw release of the Series IV in Japan. There were new colors and trims to choose from as well as a few typical Japanese gimmicks. Mechanically the 12B received an update on the REAPS and porting to offset the power loss. Notable for the 616 was the (newly available) optional 1800c engine borrowed from the 929. This came about in an effort to give back the punch the 1600cc offered before emission control.

      Externally, the Series IV carried an updated front end. A smooth pointed bonnet and RX-4 style grille with RX-3 type headlights and surrounds gave the engine better cooling and great looks for the RX-2 to finish out the decade.

      We received the Series IV at the end of 1974. However, due to the slowed sales of the Series III (caused by delays in ordering of about 7-8 weeks, the OPEC oil crisis and the RX-3 plus RX-4 to choose from) we had to wait until mid '75 before the first of the '74 models appeared in showrooms. By this time the RX-3 was almost gone, RX-4 sales had slowed significantly and the RX-5 was only a matter of months away. All up, Aussie Mazda dealers would have been pushing it to shift any more than 300 Series IV sedans. They continued to take orders up until April '76.

      The latest Series IV I have seen is a mid '77 model. Whilst this would be a desirable car, the model of choice would have to be a '78 Series IV GSII coupe with five-speed transmission.

      On the racing front, the RX-2 did well but due to the RX-3 its racing glory didn't last. in July 1971 an RX-2 won its class finishing 3rd overall in the Fuji 1000, while it won its class at Bathurst in '71 and '73.

      A genuine RX-2 can be identified by the chassis number. It starts with the prefix S122A whilst the Capella starts with SNA. There's the well known taillight differences for the series I and II, but the only way to tell the Series III and IV from the real thing is by the ROTARY ENGINE badge on the grille and the rear beaver panel.

      All RX-2s will have different rear muffler exit points when compared to the Capella. RX-2s have a large 65 liter fuel tank, and the spare tire is located inside the boot on the floor. The Capella has a smaller 50 liter tank so it's spare wheel is mounted under the boot.

      Because of room for the RX-2 muffler it's exit point will be about 15cm toward the center. There will also be a very large cutout for the series III and IV models due to the REAPS rear muffler. The steering box on a series III and IV will be unique to all the Capella and the Series I and II. This is due to the REAPS thermal reactor requiring it to be modified and repositioned for better clearance.

      All up the RX-2 is Mazda's longest produced rotary-powered sedan lasting from 1970 until 1978.

Mazda RX-3

      "Practically every major automaker in the world including General Motors, Ford and Mercedes is trying to develop cars like the Mazda. Wards Automotive, the industry's leading weekly, predicts that by 1980, rotary engines will power 85 percent of all cars produced in the USA," - Mazda's introduction of the RX-3 to the American public in 1972.

      March of 1972, the RX-3 was released in Australia - seven months after Mazda Japan had launched the RX-3 and the Familia/808/818 (1600cc/1800cc) domestically.

      With the addition of three new body styles, the rotary line up now totalled nine choices internationally. Following the 'peoples rotary' theory, the first rotary station wagon was made available in Japan and in the US. In Japan the RX-3 was available in GR sedan and wagon plus the SX/GS/GSII coupes, all initially 10A powered. The higher spec GT was optioned up with a 12A and 5-speed. On the other side of the Pacific, the performance-hungry American market was offered the RX-3 with a 12A and 4-speed.

      The Australian market (And New Zealand) was less fortunate. Not only missing out on the wagon but the 130 bhp 12A. Our RX-3 came in two bodies - the Deluxe sedan and the Super Deluxe coupe.

      Equipment differences between the RX-3 Deluxe sedan and the Super Deluxe coupe were many. The coupe carried an optional body stripe, clock, rear defogger and the center console/high armrest and collapsible steering column. All Series 1 RXs came with the 982cc 10A. The manual sedan cost AUS$3299 (3-speed automatic transmission was a $341 option) and the coupe AUS$3479. Comparing the coupe in price, Mazda priced the RX-3 against cars like the 190-hp GTR XU-1 ($3455), the 144-hp Capri GT V6 ($3490), and the 218-hp RT Charger ($3395). Fortunately price didn't play an overwhelming role in RX-3 sales - the rotary engine was Mazda's main selling point.

      Performance-wise the 10A RX-3 wasn't able to match the preceding RX-2 with 12A. With a power-to-weight ratio of 10.9 kg per kW compared to the RX-2's 9.9 kg per kW, the RX-3 was slower. Aussie motoring journalists did well to push 17.6 second quarters at 76mph out of the lighter sedan (16.3 for the RX-2).

      In late 73, Mazda released the Series 2 in Japan. Externally the entire front end sheet metal was revamped and a different set of taillights with twin brake lights were included (commonly known as Savanna taillights in Australia). The Series 2 RX-3 hit Australia in March of '74 powered by the 12A single dizzy (12B). The Series 2 was slower than the 10A series 1 down the quarter mile even with the 1146cc 12A's greater capacity and 15 percent more power. The Rotary Engine Anti Pollution System (REAPS) hurt torque. As a result, the Series 2 was slow off the mark but had a better top speed. The loss of torque plus a 44-kilo weight increase slowed the series 2 to a 17.8 second quarter mile. Additional exterior colors for the Series 2 like Bottle Green and Alexandria gold added appeal.

      Interior changes were minor and included a change from the kph/mph speedometer to a 200 kph speedometer (180 kph for the 808), an exhaust overhead light, a 50 amp/our ammeter gauge (up from 30ah) plus design changes to the trims and seat belts. Notably the radio antenna was enhanced by a twin post (rather than single) design. The '74 model kept the three spoke plastic wood grain steering wheel; the '75 received a fake leather wheel with slots cut into its three spokes.

      Mazda Motors Party Ltd operated throughout Victoria, Tasmania and southern NSW - the rest of Australia was covered by independent distributors. Documented records show the height of the rotary-powered era was between 1972 and 1975. During the fiscal term of May '73 to April '74 Mazda Motors sold 2866 rotary powered vehicles (including RX-2, 3 and 4) a total of 40 percent of its overall vehicle sales. At the same time Mazda Japan was pumping out 5000 RX-3's per month, with more then half of these being coupes with the balance split between the sedan and the wagon.

      In march 1976 the RX-3 was officially removed from the Australian lineup. The price had crept up to AUS$4525 for the coupe, which was cheaper than the RX-4 coupe but still expensive by comparison with similar cars. Remaining RX-3's lingered on the dealer floors well after the March cut-off date.

      In 1976 the Series 3 RX-3 was released in America and Japan but not Australia (or New Zealand). There weren't as many changes this time around, but the few made were significant. The nose cone wore a new lower spoiler-type lip, the gimmick rotor badges were replaced with a simple Mazda badge on the grille, new colors and a few minor interior additions like a dash light dimmer were made. The 5-speed box became standard issue in most States and 3-speed automatic gearbox remained an option as did air conditioning. An interesting feature was the elimination of the rain channel from the A-pillar to aid aerodynamics.

      Mazda dropped the RX-3 in 1978 when the RX-7 came on line. Of all the pre-RX-7 rotary vehicles Mazda built (930,000 in total), the RX-3 was by far the most popular. Of all the RX-3's built, the coupe exceeded 50 percent of total sale - all facts which influenced the design profile of the RX-7.

      On race tracks, the RX-3 proved highly competitive from its introduction in 1971. In Japan the RX-3 won the touring car title in '72, '73, '75, '76 and '77. In May of 1976 the RX-3 won its 100th Japanese domestic race. To celebrate, Mazda produced commemorative specials (tricked up AP-GT). The RX-3 also won the Japanese Grand Prix in '72, '73, '75, '76 and '78.

      State-side the RX-3 has won numerous SCCA national championships and the IMSA RS series in '79 and '80 (using RX-3 SP's). It still continues this day to outclass newer machinery in the regional SCCA GT-3 competition. Down Under the RX-3 did reasonably well. CAMS' backward view towards the rotary barred any form of porting to the engine; however, the RX-3 knocked up a number of touring car class wins and regularly embarrassed V8-powered opposition. The RX-3 scored class wins at Bathurst in'74, '75 and '79, but few would remember in 1975 when Don Holland took his RX-3 coupe to 5th outright. In 1977 an RX-3 managed 7th outright.

      For the 1979 race, CAMS finally allowed bridge porting. With more power on tap from the 12Q, Sydney's Barry Jones (who now owns JoneSpeed rotary workshop) was whipping all but the big boys until engine problems put him out of the race well past half distance. Although significantly slower, the Lee and Gates RX-3 salvaged a class victory. It wasn't until the early-80s when clever lobbying towards CAMS allowed peripheral porting of the 12A RX-7.

      When checking out genuine RX-3, look carefully. Start with the chassis number: the Series 1 ID starts with S102A and the Series 2 with S124A. The 1300 808 ID number starts with STC and the 1600 model with SN3A. As mentioned, the RX-3 was dropped in '76 however the 808 continued in Series 3 form until 1978. There are quite a few RX-808's out there, some with number jobs. Fortunately there are a few ways to recognize a well-disguised RX-808.

      The Series 1 RX has a rear license plate frame - the 808 doesn't. The 1300cc 808's have a very small diff center compared to the standard RX diff center; however, the SN3A diff is RX-sized. All RX rear bumpers have square reflectors and the Series 2 front bumper has a cutout for oil cooler air flow. The 808 model bumpers don't have either. All RX fuel tanks are stamped with the letter L and carry 60 liters. The 808 has an S stamp and holds 45 liters.

      The Series 2 RX will have emission control relays in its 'computer box'. Engine bay wiring will have a choke control and an ignition relay or at least its correct unused plug and the harness will be generally thicker than the 808's.

      The best distinguishing trait of the bunch is the exhaust overheat thermosensor. Located in the right corner of the boot near the shock tower, this device would short out and illuminate the dash-mounted light when the REAPS rear muffler heated up 'beyond safe limits'. If the sensor isn't there, look for the mounting holes and/or the plug in the wiring loom.

      Used RX-3 pricing varies immensely. The average asking price is $3000 to $6000. If asking more than $7000, it should be a really clean example. Above $10,000 the RX should be in excellent condition.


      Savanna GT (Japanese model) During the Series 1 model life in Japan, Mazda made a special GT version of the coupe. Powered by a 12A and 5-speed, the GT retained the 3.7:1 diff and was fitted with lowered, harder suspension. A notable feature on the GT was the RE12 grille badge had the rotor shaped (instead of round) taillights.

      '77 - '78 RX-3 SP (American model) Specifically for the American market and in coupe form only was the RX-3 SP (Special Performance). Racing stripes on every panel, large RX-3 SP stickers on both doors and the front lower spoiler, louvers on both the rear quarter windows and the rear window plus different taillights ('77 - '78 Aus 808) completed the exterior package. Performance was improved with 175/70 x 13 RD 106 Bridgestones and a 'tuned' suspension set-up. A five-slot gearbox was standard and peak power (officially) stayed the same, but it was marginally better at different revs due to a revised intake manifold plus a few other minor tricks. Weight was also down, reduced to 1029 kg (from 1093 kilos) and performance was up slightly on the normal Series 3. Times given were 17.4 at 80 mph and 0-60 mph in 9.6 seconds.

      Savanna AP-GT (Japanese model) The Savanna AP-GT arrived on the Japanese market in 1975. This factory special was Mazda's flagship sports car. Equipped with a real leather steering wheel, high support bucket seats and optional air conditioning, whilst outside bonuses like a lower stiffer ride with 70 series tires gave the Savanna a meaner stance. Mechanically the 12A wasn't squeezed for extra power as 125 hp was deemed enough. A 5-speed gearbox with a 3.9 diff completed the mechanical package. Performance from 95kW in a 935 kg car with better-than-normal gearing and tires equalled factory quoted 15.7 quarter-mile runs. Apart from the Luce GT (RX-4 13B) there wasn't much on Japanese roads to match it.

Mazda RX-4

      Nineteen-seventy-two was a big year for Mazda and its rotary engine. Mazda was riding high on its wave of international success while other manufacturers such as GM, Nissan and Citroen showed envy by spending big on their own rotary research and development.

      Mazda released the Series 1 RX-4 (named the Luce in Japan) in October '72. The new arrival marked the sixth rotary powered car in as many years. This RX-4's marketing theme was 'low pollution' and 'luxury' and with the USA and Japan tightening emission laws, the RX-04 AP (anti pollution) was the world's first production car to pass the choking 1975 emission standards for both countries (equivalent to mid 80s Aus. standards.). As a reward, the Japanese government bought a large fleet of RX-4s and lowered Mazda's sales and excise tax.

      The Luce/RX-4 came in three body styles: sedan, coupe and wagon, each in a variety of specifications from the lowly Special to the SX, GS, GSII and the Grande for the coupe, with the GR and GRII for the sedan and wagon. The luxury theme was delivered with clout - the high spec GSII and the Grand Luce all came with air-conditioning, power steering, velour trim and AM/FM radio. Mechanically the 12A twin dizzy came in upper and lower spec versions - 120 bhp and 130 bhp, the latter for the GSII, GRII and the Grande Luce. A 4- or 5-speed manual or a 3-speed auto was offered with all body styles. The choice of diff ratios was limited to either 3.9 or 4.1 (lsd option) depending on the transmission ordered.

      The RX-4 was released to the Australian public in April '73. Like the RX-3, we missed out on the wagon. Our sedan and coupe versions, the 'Deluxe' and 'Super Deluxe', were roughly based on the middle range Japanese GR and GS specs: vinyl trimmed seats, AM radio, manual steering and 4-speed manual gearbox. For the Series I, the auto was only available in the Sedan. Mazda's marketing was insightful and delivered the up-spec 130 bhp twin dizzy 12A.

      The Series I RX-4 sedan has a flat nose and a (lower spec) flatter dash when compared to the coupe's pointed nose and cockpit styled dash. The cockpit dash was more in line with the upspec Japanese model and demonstrated a more personalized interior. Mazda learnt from the RX-3/808 how expensive it was to separate models with different parts so most changes were only cosmetic inside and out.

      Wheels and tires were 13x5.5 with 175-70 radials, the widest wheels of the RX cars to date. However some countries were blessed with even wider 195-70x13 tires. Acceleration was considered reasonable at the time with the manual sedan turning a 17.4 ET and the auto not far behind at 17.9. The Series I sedan was priced $3938 and the coupe at $4168.

      Mazda's best year for the rotary was 1973. Production was in full swing and by the year's end it had exceeded the 600,000th rotary vehicle, a major milestone for the small Japanese manufacturer. Three new engines were developed including the 13B, the 15A and the monster 21A. However the late '73 Arab oil crisis shocked the industry so badly that Mazda (and many other manufacturers) canned future development.

      Fortunately for the RX-4, the 13B was slated for the Series 2 which debuted in Japan in Dec '73. The big news was the new top-shelf GT sedan and coupe. With the upspec single dizzy 12A now reduced to 125hp, the 13B's horsepower increase to 135hp and torque increase to 132lb-ft gave the heavy RX-4 enough grunt to beat all but the best on Japanese roads. A factory quoted 15.8 ET with a top speed of 195 kph gave the Luce GT (RX-4 13B) a fearful reputation. Handling was improved with torque rods used to laterally locate the live rear axle which gave extra stability through corners as did wide 195-70x13 radials on 5.5 inch steel wheels (or the optional four-spoke alloy wheels). The Series 2 hit Australia in April '74. Notably the 13B was standard along with the four-speed manual. The box was totally reworked to handle the 13B's extra power. An additional bonus was the auto making its way into the coupe's option list. The sedan's flat nose was changed for a pointed nose and the dashboard changes followed. In fact the only external differences between the series 1 and 2 coupe can be found with the change from the RE12 to the 'Rotary Engine' badges and the REAPS rear muffler with exhaust cutout in the lower beaver panel.

      The oil crisis all but killed the RX-4 in Europe and the U.S. Taking a big financial nose dive, Mazda's financing bank appointed its own men to Mazda's board of directors to help steer the company away from bankruptcy. The public sees the legacy of this in the time span between the introduction of the RX-4 in '72 to the RX-5 in '75. Low pollution was no longer a priority. Better fuel consumption was.

      For the period of May '75 to April '76, Mazda Motors Pty Ltd (which covered Vic, Tas and southern NSW) sold only 999 rotary vehicles (including the RX-2,3 and 4). By 1976, pricing for the Series 2 sedan had crept up to $5014 and the coupe to $5195. Still very reasonable considering its competition like the 160-hp 6 cylinder Centura GL for $5162, the 155-hp 6 cylinder Cortina XLE for $5753, the 135-hp 6 cylinder 240K at $5156 which were all heavier and less equipped.

      Mazda released the Series 3 RX-4 in April '76 with some major exterior and minor interior changes. The nose was flatter with a completely redesigned grille, enhanced with a lower spoiler and the rear now had a flat plastic panel with recessed taillights. The interior received a new steering wheel (also RX-5) and minor console alterations. The 195-70 tires became an option but notably a new MacPherson strut front suspension and revised settings gave favorable improvements. The 13B didn't officially lose its 130 bhp but it did drop its fuel consumption rate even with a 280 lb weight increase (to 2580lb or 1170kg) over the Series I plus a price hike to boot. Performance was still quite adequate with the sedan holding down low 17 second ETs.

      Mazda had installed its lowest diff ratio yet, 3.636:1 compared to Series I's 3.9. Mazda Motors quotes selling 436 rotary vehicles between May '76 and March '77. Figures were very similar for the other state distributors. Due to these slow sales the decision was made to remove the coupe from Australian sales at the beginning of '77. By this time the sedan was priced at $6382 - still comparable with its competitors. The sedan lasted through June '79. By this time the RX-7 had been on sale for a number of months and the RX-4, with out-of-date styling, was crowding showrooms. Although the Series 3 sold here for over three years, sales would have been luck to reach 30 percent of the Series 2.

      Racing wise, the RX-4 has almost no history to speak of. A vain Bathurst attempt (against quicker 12A powered RX-3s) proved unsuccessful but overseas rallies showed the RX-4 could finish on the podium. Recently, under Group 2E Club Car racing regulations the 13B RX-4 has proved popular and formidable.

      Looking for a genuine RX-4 shouldn't be too hard. The Series 1 ID starts with LA22S (for the 12A) with the series 2 and 3 with LA23S (for the 13B). The Series 1 to 3 929 will be LA2VS. As mentioned the RX-4 wagon was never officially sold here but there are a few special imports about - LA22W or LA23W signifies RX where LA2VV is piston powered.

      The RX fuel tank will be larger than the 929 - 65 liters compared to 45. All RX-4s and 929 coupes scored a tacho, but the 929 sedans missed out - a 6500rpm redline identifies a rotary. The Series 2 and 3 (13B) axles and diff are larger and stronger than the Series 1 and 929. The Series 1 design means a better diff ratio can be sourced from only a 1977-79 E1600 van with 4.4 diff. All up the RX-4 was produced for seven years from October 1972 to June 1979.

Mazda RX-5

      Mazda's best year sure wasn't 1974. Thanks largely to the OPEC oil crisis, sales of rotary vehicles, which were quickly cementing the 'gas guzzler' title, took a sharp dive. As a result, Mazda canned all concept car development and future monster-sized engines such as the 15A and 21A. But Mazda was still committed to the rotary engine. Come 1975, two new rotary vehicles were introduced in an effort to lift ailing sales figures. The first, the RoadPacer AP, came in March - targeted at the of the Japanese passenger car market. October saw the second new rotary hit the Japanese streets - the RX-5 (known as the Cosmo in most markets other than Aus.) was aimed directly at the US market. It was the first of the rotary-engined Mazdas not to share its design with a four-door sedan variant, having been styled exclusively as a two-door coupe very much in the American 'personal car' tradition. The RX-5 was intended for American buyers with its bug fat chrome grille, long bonnet, elaborate glasshouse and hefty fascia - code-named the X208A. Toyo Kogyo's fat new coupe owed much to the RX-4, when it came to running gear. The most significant upgrades were fitting of a five-speed gearbox, rear disc brakes and a five-link (four plus panhard rod) coil sprung rear end. The interior message was supposed to be 'luxury' but the reality was less appealing. A fake wood trim steering wheel with imitation wire spokes was the most obvious turn off. [Note from Aaron - the steering wheels were real wood, and the spokes real wire, I've seen enough to prove it]

      The five-speed gearbox made a good selling point, particularly in the US where a new emphasis was being placed on fuel economy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the RX-5 was its runaway popularity on the domestic market. Japanese buyers, it seems, adored the supposedly American styling of the big Mazda coupe. It received the Japanese 1975 'Car of the Year' award by Motor Trend magazine as well as similar accolades from other leading magazines in '75 and '76. Mazda was onto a winner, or so it thought. Domestically, Japan showed its like for the RX-5 by snapping up 55,000 of them in their first year of production.

      But as an export the car was a big flop. Mazda introduced the RX-5 onto our Aussie market in July '76 to a very luke-warm reception. Sales of all rotary Mazdas were down drastically and Mazda was hoping Australia would take to the new car like the Japanese. The RX-5 was the heaviest rotary car we had seen to date. Tipping the 1200kg mark it was 100kg heavier than the RX-4 coupe - it was also longer and wider.

      Mazda was quoting a 40 percent improvement in practical fuel economy with an official 29mpg highway cycle for the manual. In realist testing, Road & Track USA magazine recorded an average 20.5mpg. The de-toxed 13B engine weezed out an official 101 kW (135hp) to give a power-to-weight figure not far off a Datsun 120Y.

      Varied performance figures were given ranging from mid-19 second quarter-mile times for the auto to high 17s for the manual. These figures together with a 0-100kph time of 15 seconds (auto) did nothing to impress the rotary's image of performance. Tall gearing meant the heavy RX-5 couldn't reach the 7000rpm redline in fourth gear. Top speed was 175 or so. The 12A version (Japan only) would have been even more embarrassing had it been exported.

      The RX-5 started its Aussie life at $7900, and was around $1500 more expensive than its conventionally piston powered sibling, the 1800cc 121. To try and justify its price, Mazda optioned up the RX-5 with the improved braking and a plush luxurious interior.

      Motoring journals reported it to be a 'fine' car, but said to stick to the 121 simply because it was better value for money.

      By 1978, the RX-5 was setting buyers back a hefty $8860 and it was with minor relief that the car was withdrawn from sale in June '79. Officially Mazda was unsure exactly how many RX-5s were sold on our shores but give a rough estimate at around 2000. For the rotary battler, 1976 through to '79 were bleak years. July '77 saw the introduction of the Landau variant in Japan. Also equipped with either a 12A or 13B, Mazda quickly defined its image.

      Where the Cosmo 'sports' was slated as a 'personal' car, the Landau was given a 'many people' image. The straight cut rear glass and sedan type boot wasn't new but it was the first for any Japanese manufacturer. The result was an even greater boost in its popularity. 'Car Owners' magazine gave it its 1978 Best Japanese Car award as did the 1978 Playboy. The Landau made it to our shores only in 2-liter 121 form and ran from April '78 till 1980. There has only been a handful of privately imported 13B powered Landaus to our shores.

      The Series II RX-5/Cosmo was released in Japan in 1979. Mazda made a well publicized campaign on how it made 120 major improvements. This was made easy by its new front and rear treatments. The single rectangular headlights and cross hatched grill are the easiest to spot. The interior stayed basically the same but the engine received bonuses like electronic ignition and higher compressed rotors.

      The Series II continued through till the end of 1981 when it was superseded by the P128/P144 Cosmo/Luce ('82-'87 929 in Aus) ending six very successful years in Japan. Unfortunately in the US, its primary export market, the RX-5 was a big flop. Plus by Mazda's own admission, overpriced to boot. This is why most countries only saw the Series I.

      Concluding its February 1976 test, Road & Track opined: "Summing up the new Mazda Cosmo is difficult. We like the new car very much for its driving and handling and ride. We are pleased with the improvements in fuel economy, even at the expense of a small loss in performance. However, for a car that was going to bring Mazda back into a strong position in US sales, the styling is undistinguished and the car my well go undetected except by other Mazda owners. The roll-down opera window is somehow more a gimmick than anything else, the interior is garish, and the overall impression is dull. We regret that."

      Racing wise saw no major success for the heaviest-to date Mazda. It was more often seen as a pace car on Japanese tracks. There was however a very interesting promotion in the US that turned out better than everyone expected. In 1976 the outlook for Mazda was very gloomy. Thousands of unsold cars sat at the docks - thousands of dead engines sat at the rebuild facility and Mazda's reputation for gas guzzling and unreliability was being trumpeted throughout the land. Mazda needed to go racing (officially). It all started with the release of the RX-5 to the US market in 1976.

      The owners of the Z&W Mazda dealership (Based in New York) developed a plan for some favorable publicity by racing a stock RX-5 at the Daytona 24 Hour. Brake pads, exhaust, harness, racing seat and a full roll cage were the only mods. They drove it to the race and ran faultlessly for the full 24 Hours! At the end of the day, they came up 1st in class and 18th overall from a field of 72.

      Today, the RX-5 is getting hard to find on the used car market. But don't expect its hard to find nature to command a high price. Around $6000 will buy a good example, with $2000 to $4000 being the norm.

      An interesting point of mention is the stud pattern. For some incomprehensible reason, Mazda made the 121/RX-5 different to any other RX Mazda on our roads. The pattern is even unique to other manufacturers so naturally aftermarket wheels are very hard to find without special-request drilling. Otherwise the standard 14x5.5 alloy wheels (the 121 received steel wheels) will stay.

      When looking for a genuine RX-5 look for the correct chassis number. The rotary with start with CD23c for the 13B and CD22c for the 12A (if you find one). The 121 chassis number will start with CD2VC. However the 2-liter 121 will have the CD23c as well but they were released in April '79 so there will be no chance of mixing it up with a '76 or '77 RX-5 for example. There are very few 'RX-121s', however, if you want positive proof, look for the exhaust heat shielding running down the underside of the car. Also only on the RX is there a fuel pump cover in the left rear corner of the underside. Apart from the alloy wheels and badges there are no external differences between piston and rotary.

      The RX-5 was and still is a luxury cruiser. Its failure as an export was a culmination of many factors - being released at the wrong time in automotive history was its primary reason. Arguably, it was a good thing for the future of rotary-powered cars that the Cosmo was such a flop in the USA. The pathetic sales figures prompted a total rethink in Hiroshima. Out of this rethink came the beautiful and purposeful RX-7.


      The initial shipment of 150 RX-7s sold out in weeks. People were trading in SLR Toranas and GT Falcons for rotary power. In the USA, Mazda limited supply until its dealership network was strong enough to support service and sales. Demand for the RX-7 was so great, buyers were paying almost double the list price to own one. Even with the supply shortage, US sales in the first eight months reached almost 29,000 units.

      Released in Australia in 1979, the Series I RX-7 came with the 12A engine producing 77kW at 6000rpm with 147Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Carburetion was a Nikki four barrel downdraft carburetor. Power was fed through a five-speed box with fifth an 0.825 overdrive.

      The slinky aerodynamic body had a claimed Cd of 0.36, with the use of pop-up headlights saving 6 percent in drag. The engine was sufficiently small to allow it to be mounted in a front/mid location behind the front axle giving the car an excellent weight distribution of 51/49 front/rear. Mazda claimed a top speed of 200kph for the coupe; tests showed a more realistic 180kph. Acceleration to 110kph took 11.4 seconds, and the standing quarter was dispatched in 17.6 seconds. The $14,850 RX-7's performance, when compared to its competitors, stood alone. Datsun's 280ZX at $19,000, Alfa Romeo's $15,800 GTV 2000 and the Porsche 924 at a hefty $27,000 were all slower.

      The RX-7's suspension used front struts and coil springs, with a tension rod and sway bar. Rear suspension was by a live axle on coils, located by four links with a Watts link and a sway bar. Sway bar stability gave flat cornering, with Mazda quoting 1.6 degrees of lean with a cornering force of 0.5G. Alloy 13x5 inch wheels were clad in Bridgestone 185-70 tires. How tire size has grown to a present Series VI RX-7 width of 16x8 with 225-50 rubber.

      Steering, of the recirculating ball type, had 3.7 turns lock-to-lock and was criticized for some vagueness at the dead center position. Handling was balanced with mild initial understeer ultimately moving into oversteer if the power was kept on.

      Instrumentation consisted of a speedometer (which often read optimistically), a very necessary tachometer incorporating a volts gauge, fuel and water temp gauges seen through a thick-rimmed leather steering wheel. Seats, trimmed in vinyl with velour inserts, were good with excellent lumbar and under-thigh support.

      On the road the rotary engine gave the car a smooth, silent and swift progress. The engine was likened by test drivers of the time to a super-smooth six cylinder of twice the rotary's capacity, so effortless was its performance.

      At the time of the introduction of the RX-7, Mazda was seen very much as the third Japanese car maker - behind Toyota and Nissan. The beauty of the RX-7's body shape and the well-sorted mechanicals complemented the engine, and set Japanese sports cars back on track.

      Best of all, the RX-7's huge success meant that many people discovered the rotary engine for the first time. Re-discovery of the earlier Mazda rotaries inevitably followed.

written by: David Morris
Originally Published in Fast Fours & Rotaries Magazine (SEP/OCT 1993)