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Mazda and the rotary engine - 45 years on

2015-02-26 08:41


ROTARY COSMO MAZDA: From 1981 to 1985 if you really wanted a unique sports car then Mazda’s Cosmo would certainly have been right at the top of your shopping list. Image: DAVE FALL

Mazda, through 2015, is celebrating 45 years of assembling rotary-engined vehicles so let's takes a closer look at the history of the rotary engine...

Amazingly, only one Japanese manufacturer has ever claimed victory at Le Mans – and that was Mazda. The company achieved that pinnacle of back in 1991 when its rotary-powered 787B sports car proved once again the nation’s obsession with copying an idea and developing it, commercially and financially, for all it's worth.

The words 'learn' and 'copy' are the same in the Japanese language - which perhaps has something to do with that nation's incredible ability to “pick up the ball and run with it". The rotary engine is such a case...


It was Dr Felix Wankel who first mooted the idea of a rotary engine as far back as the 1920's but serious development started only in 1954 when he persuaded German motorcycle/car manufacturer NSU to fund the project.

Imagine an engine that could run without valves, valve gear or a camshaft. No crankshaft or any connecting rods to cause irritating vibration — an inherent problem even today.

Instead, at the heart of the rotary engine were heart-shaped rotor(s) that spun in just one direction — unlike a piston engine that fires in a two-up, two-down configuration (the four-cylinder, that is.)

Wankel’s engine was considerably smaller and lighter, too.


NSU was quite an innovative company. Perhaps you thought Audi was the first automaker to produce an aluminium-bodied car. Nope, NSU did it in 1923.

The company also built and sold in fair numbers a 1000cc V-twin motorcycle in 1905 – some years before Harley-Davidson got its ‘rolling thunder’ act together!

Like most car companies, somewhere along the way things didn’t always go according to plan. In 1928 NSU sold out the car side of the business to Fia but was back churning out cars again less than five years later – the most famous of which was a Beetle prototype for Dr Ferdinand Porsche who was under strict orders from one Adolf Hitler.

The first Wankel motor saw the light of day in 1963 at the Frankfurt auto show under the bonnet of a NSU Prinz Spider. Almost 2500 customers snapped up the entire production run but the single-rotor rotary engine, rated at 600cc didn't prove particularly reliable.

It did, however, turn at up to 9000rpm to propel the car along at 155km/h on a good day – when it all held together.

In 1967 NSU revealed the Ro80, a radical but good-looking car powered by a one-litre, twin-rotor, rotary engine. This car – as if to prove rotary technology was all so worthwhile - took the coveted European Car of the Year title that year.


Then things went from bad to worse for NSU. Three bad decisions were made through the next 18 months: the German company decided to grant licences to GM and Ford in the US - each of which had expressed an interest in ‘this engine of the future".

Secondly, NSU was almost bankrupt – would a potential buyer be interested in carrying rotary development forward, and thirdly – the most worrying factor was that the licences were granted with a proviso that licensees wouldn’t have to pay a cent until NSU could offer a car that could reliably run for 50 000km!

Well, in a nutshell, GM and Ford put the rotary engine idea on the back burner and NSU was indeed sold – to the Volkswagen/Audi group which also abandoned the engine – but a little known Japanese company called Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) liked what it was getting – and it was available at the right price!

Fast-forward 45 years to the Mazda birthday celebrations.

Not only did Mazda manage to sell the idea in reasonable numbers with the now successfully marketed engine fitted into various models such as the Cosmo Sport, RX2 (a model that sold in decent numbers in South Africa), RE7 and RE8 after fixing in next to no time the rotor-tip seal problem with which NSU had struggled for so long and so valiantly .

Today Mazda is arguably the leader in developing hydrogen-powered cars that emit no carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas blamed for "global warming".

Right now the company has a handful of these cars on the road in Japan and they’ll soon be available for leasing globally.

Happy 45th rotary birthday, Mazda!

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