Japanese car maker Mazda Motors has made a name for itself when it launched the first mass-marketed sports car and world's first-ever rotary-powered vehicle—the Mazda RX-7.
Launched in 1978, it cemented the company's rotary-engined sports car in the minds of driving enthusiasts around the world.
Unlike the common reciprocating piston engine, which has pistons instantly and rapidly changing direction 180 degrees, the rotary engine—also known as Wankel engine—uses rotary design to convert pressure into rotating motion. When compared to the common piston engine, rotary engines deliver a smoother, more compact, engine, with high revolutions per minute and high power-to-weight ratio.
This type of engine has taken the RX-7 to race tracks across the globe, and has won numerous awards, such as the British Saloon Car Championship for two consecutive years (1980 and 1981). It also won an outstanding victory at the 1981 24 Hours of Spa, making it the first Japanese car to achieve this distinction. The RX-7 has also won over 100 IMSA races in the US, more than any other model of any brand.
These impressive feats were all the more astounding because during that time, the rotary engine was facing an uncertain future. When the oil crisis hit the world in 1973 to 1974, Mazda thought of dropping the rotary engines it offered in its models. However, Kenichi Yamamoto, its then-head of Research and Development, opposed the idea and fought for its survival.
Evolution and Legacy
Kenichi Yamamoto, together with his team of engineers, developed Mazda’s first rotary engines in the 1960s. They overhauled the 12A engine and made significant changes in its fuel economy.
His team came up with durable apex seals, which improved the rotary engine's lubrication. They helped in designing the ideal vehicle for the rotary engine, which was "small and light yet smooth running, powerful and rev-happy".
According to them, this type of engine is "perfect for a sports car", and the RX 7 was closest to this description. With its "sleek, low-slung coupe, wedge shaped nose and wraparound window on the rear hatch", it "was built specifically for this engine".
The first generation of the RX-7 was a two-seater coupe. The second generation was offered as a 2-seater coupé with a 2+2 option available in some markets, as well as in a convertible body style. The third and final generation was a 2-seater coupe.
Mazda stopped globally producing the vehicle in 1996, due to emissions regulations. However, the company continued to produce small batches for some markets, such as Japan.
It was in 2002 when the "most exceptional sports car in history" ended production. There were around 811,634 of them produced between 1978 and 2002, by far the most of any rotary model.
Today, the RX-7 remains the icon of rotary-powered sports cars and production cars. Its "lightweight engineering, sporty design, and fun-driving" DNA can now be recognized in every Mazda model today. Meanwhile, its spirit continues to live on with the Mazda RX-8. Making its debut in 2003, the RX-8 has laid the foundation for many engineering innovations of the future.