Mazda's rotary engine, hated and loved in equal measure, is celebrating its 50th birthday.
There won't be a '50 Years Edition' of any Mazda model, given the engine is currently on hiatus, but that doesn't mean the Japanese carmaker can't look back at some of its more memorable models which featured the 'chook cooker' engine.
It all began when Mazda attempted something that the majority said 'couldn't be done', in order to stand out from the crowd in an increasingly competitive Japanese market.
Mazda was also looking for an edge in the export market, and so the rotary was born in 1961 when the company licensed NSU Motorenwerke and Wankel's engine technology for use in cars.
Six years later, the 1967 Cosmo Sport 110S kicked off the rotary legacy for Mazda.
Why the delay? An initial test engine lasted less than 60 minutes before it seized, and Mazda realised it was facing an uphill battle.
In response, Mazda's Chief Engineer at the time, Kenichi Yamamoto, assembled a team of the company's best engineering minds known as the '47 Samurai' to ensure the rotary engine was a success - especially given others had already tried and failed.. After all, the company's future was riding on it...
Just 1176 Cosmo Sport 110Ss were built, but the rotary bug had bitten and Mazda looked for new challenges to continue development for the powerplant.
Such challenges included the 84-hour Marathon de la Route in 1968, sports car racing, touring car racing (including Australia), and the 1991 Le Mans 24-hour. It was the latter where the rotary made its motorsport mark, with the 787B becoming the first car to win the event as a car 'without pistons'.
Australia also played a part in the Mazda rotary story, when the Roadpacer sedan was born resulting from a partnership between Mazda and Holden.
Mazda was looking for a large, 'luxury' model to join its ranks, and Holden had the answer for a rare, right-hand-drive market that operated in the metric system - like Japan.
In reality, the Roadpacer was a heavy HJ Holden with a drastically underpowered 13B rotary engine under the bonnet which made for a slow and comically thirsty large car. Just 800 were sold.
Mazda has sold 1.99 million rotary-powered vehicles to date, but that figure could remain for a while yet.
Mazda has previously said it has a ‘responsibility’ to keep the rotary flame burning, but ever-tightening emissions laws are proving a tough hurdle to overcome.
To that end, Mazda’s Mazda2 RE range-extended hybrid version of the Mazda2 uses a rotary engine as its recharging source rather than a conventional combustion engine. And recent reports suggest development for this technology is still underway.
Mazda also previewed a potential future sports car in the RX Vision concept of 2015, powered by the SkyActiv-R rotary powerplant.
While it’s a long shot, a road-going version of the RX Vision has been mooted to join Mazda’s global range as early as 2020, and a racing version could see the carmaker fulfil the wishes of Nobuhiro Yamamoto (the key engineer behind Mazda’s success at the Le Mans 24-Hour in 1991) by returning to Le Mans - with rotary power.
Time will tell.
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