The Mazda RX-7 sports car was the result of a remarkable confluence of disparate antecedents that somehow fell together to create something great. The characters involved in the story are so different, and the twists and turns in the narrative so strange, that you might be tempted not to believe a word of it. Yet, the car with an engine that many proclaimed would never work, built by a company founded to process cork, suddenly became one of the most successful sports models the United States has ever seen. Go figure.
As you no doubt know, Ahura Mazda is the Zoroastran lord of light and creator of the universe. Now to determine how that name related to a failing Japanese company that switched from manufacturing cork flooring products to three-wheeled trucks, you would have to ask Jujiro Matsuda, quite a difficult task, since the son of a Japanese fisherman is long since dead.
Matsuda was born on August 6, 1875, in Hiroshima Prefecture and by the age of 13 with his sea-faring father passed away, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. Ambitious, he started his own blacksmithy's operation and at one time employed 50 workers, but the vagaries of the turn of the century Japanese economy drove him out of business. Undaunted, he tried to establish more businesses, and finally he invented and patented a newfangled pump, which resulted in the establishment of the successful Matsuda Pump Partnership. His partners in the venture didn't prove too trustworthy, however, and soon he was forced out of his own company.
By this time entrepreneurship was in his blood, and in 1912 he formed Matsuda Works, an armament manufacturer whose major client was the Russian Czar. Ecumenical in his business, he formed another company to build weaponry for the Japanese Army, then he sold out the whole shootin' match to Nihon Steel. Barely 40 years old, he was rich and retired.
When World War I reared its ugly head, one oddball fallout of the hostilities was the impossibility to get good cork in Japan. To remedy this heinous situation, several Japanese investors formed Toyo Cork Kogyo, which processed a Japanese knock-off of cork harvested from Abemaki trees. During the War to End All Wars, this substitute cork seemed acceptable, but when the war ended and Japanese could get real cork again, Toyo Cork Kogyo fell on hard times and the bank that had lent it capital reorganized it-something that would happen at least twice more in its checkered history.
What about Mazda? What about cars? What about the gosh-darn RX-7? Well, who should be brought in to rebuild the desperate Toyo Cork Kogyo? None other than the fisherman's son, Jujiro Matsuda. After becoming president, he quickly pulled the company out of the fake cork business and into industrial manufacturing. In the process, he changed the name of the company to Toyo Kogyo Kaisha Ltd, which is about as generic a name as you can imagine since it means Orient Industry Company, Incorporated. A name like that could make practically anything, and soon it was involved in the manufacture of three-wheeled trucks, its entry into the car business.
To call these vehicles "trucks," though, might be a bit misleading. They were essentially three-wheeled motorcycles with a small cargo area, perfect for hauling goods in the unbelievably narrow Japanese. Equipped with 500 cubic centimeter engines, the Mazda Type DA Tricycle Trucks proved to be popular in both Japan and China in those years between the two great wars.
Today Japan is a hugely successful automotive exporter, but in those days the Japanese motor industry was just this side of a farce. Most motor vehicles were imported, and the relative few that were not were built under license copying American or European designs. So Toyo Kogyo, manufacturing three-wheelers of its own design, was a leader. And with World War II about to explode around it, in 1940 the company even introduced a car prototype, a tiny sedan that bears some resemblance to the current Chrysler PT Cruiser.
World War II destroyed any chance that vehicle might have had for series production. Instead, Toyo Kogyo was pulled into the manufacture of war materiel, and then, ironically, on Matsuda's 70th birthday, it somehow escaped total destruction when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
At the same time, more than halfway around the world, a man whose ups-and-downs roughly paralleled Matsuda's was having a very hard time of his own. Felix Wankel was born on August 13, 1902 in Germany's Black Forest. By the age of 12 he, like Matsuda, lost his father, who was struck down by shrapnel in an early battle in World War I.
Poverty dogged his family through his teens, and though he was obviously bright, he was unable to continue he education much beyond those high school years. His first real job was, oddly enough, in the publishing business, though he had always been interested in things mechanical. In1924, when his job was swept away by a recession he decided to open his own workshop. There he began his lifelong quest to develop and perfect an internal combustion engine that didn't use pistons, but instead a rotor.
His shop provided him with a decent living, but he continued to pursue his dream of building a successful rotary engine. By his calculations, as well as a wide variety of other inventors who were pursuing parallel paths, such an engine should have many advantages over the conventional piston engine, like the smaller size, lighter weight and significantly less complexity. Wankel drew up plans, sought patents and fiddled with prototypes throughout the Thirties. At the same time, he dabbled in German politics, which was a dangerous thing to do in the Nazi regime. About 1935, he was thrown into prison by the Nazis, but after his release, he participated in the German war effort, and at the conclusion of World War II he was imprisoned by the French.
After his second release, he persuaded the German firm NSU to look at his rotary engine research. Teaming with NSU's Walter Froede, he was finally able to build an acceptable rotary engine in 1957, conquering, at least partially, a wide variety of technical challenges that included combustion chamber sealing and lubrication.
Wankel quickly established a consultancy business, and he began to thump the tub for his remarkable new engine. Manufacturers from around the world stopped in for a look-see, one of them was Tsuneji Matsuda, son of Jujiro, who had taken the reins when his father died in 1951. Matsuda feared that the Japanese government was set on a course that would eliminate Toyo Kogyo from automotive manufacturing in the post-war reorganization of the nation's industries, and he thought that building vehicles with the breakthrough engine would buy his company continued independence.
He struck a deal with a reluctant NSU and then waited while the German company failed to provide the promised engines and the promised technology. When the NSU engines finally arrived in Hiroshima, the Mazda engineers were shocked. Instead of a breakthrough, the engine was a nightmare of vibration and combustion chamber leaks that resulted in dismal fuel and oil consumption.
But Mazda committed itself to the new technology. To turn back would have been a profound loss of face that could threaten the existence of the company. In an attempt to salvage the situation, Matsuda turned to stalwart Toyo Kogyo engineer Kenichi Yamamoto to lead the rotary engine project.
Though not thrilled with the assignment, Yamamoto bit the bullet and eventually succeeded where all others, including NSU and Wankel himself, had failed. He and his team built a reliable rotary engine. A key difference from the NSU Wankel designs was the rotor seals, which had always been the bugaboo of the rotary.
Satisfied they were on the right track, Toyo Kogyo engineers dropped their brainchild into a stunning two-seat sports coupe called the Cosmo, which debuted at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show. It was quickly followed by a production version, but the rotary engine got its biggest boost when Toyo Kogyo decided to install the new power plant in a wide variety of its more mundane vehicles, including the popular Familia. By 1971 Mazda had built 200,000 rotary-powered vehicles, but the bottom fell out when the Gas Crisis hit in 1973-74. Rotary-engine vehicles were maligned for poor fuel economy, and Toyo Kogyo was sent reeling into reorganization. It turned out that it was a piston-engine car, the GLC (Great Little Car), which would revive its fortunes.
Still, Mazda engineers were sold on the rotary engine concept. As the company got back on a reasonably even keel, they launched a new development program that would continue in the footsteps of the Cosmo. Code-named Project X605, the effort would eventually result in the Mazda RX-7. The first prototype was completed in 1977, and in April 1978 the production RX-7 was introduced as a 1979 model.
Led by project head Moriyuki Watanabe, who would eventually ascend to chairman of the board, the Mazda engineers and stylists avoided the trap of the Cosmo. Instead of a complex, extremely expensive car, the RX-7 was designed from the outset to be light, simple and "international." Because of this, Toyo Kogyo was able to price the new vehicle significantly lower than its obvious competition, the Porsche 924 and the Datsun 280Z, and the public on three continents immediately responded to the value.
The car offered a very straightforward hatchback design, bereft of the usual Japanese "surface excitement." Many thought the tapered front end and wide, body-long rubstrip gave it a Teutonic feel. Inside the car was equally no-nonsense with a pair of bucket seats, three-spoke steering wheel and "proper" round gauges. The cargo bay, big for a sports model, was accessible through a large, strut-supported rear hatch.
What the RX-7 didn't offer was just as important to its success as what it did. In the interest of cost savings, Toyo Kogyo engineers specified re-circulating-ball steering, instead of a more-expensive-to-develop rack-and-pinion setup, and they contented themselves with drum brakes on the rear wheels, instead of discs. The same pragmatic approach extended to the suspension. Up front it used MacPerson struts located by lower lateral arms and trailing links plus an anti-roll bar. At the rear, instead of an independent suspension, the RX-7 made do with a live-axle located by four trailing links and a Watt linkage. The rear was sprung with coils, damped by gas-filled tube shocks and fitted with an anti-roll bar.
Of course, the RX-7's key differentiator was under its sleek hood. The engine of choice was a 12A two-rotor displacing a mere 1146 cubic centimeters. In original trim it produced just 100 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, though eventually modifications would bump it up to 135 horsepower. While the power figures aren't impressive, the engine weighed just 312 pounds and the car itself weighed just 2,350 pounds, so its performance was more than adequate.
Though the RX-7 was a hit in Europe, Asia and America, it really struck a chord in the United States where more than 375,000 first-generation cars were sold before it went out of production in 1985. In all, some 500,000 original RX-7's were built, making it, by a huge margin, the best-selling rotary-engine car of all time. And its success fulfilled the wildest dreams of the son of the Japanese fisherman and the son of the German oberlieutenant, whose fates collided nearly a century after their births.