Words by Giles Chapman
Mazda is 100 years old this month. Or, at least, the Hiroshima-based Japanese company that’s built Mazda-branded vehicles since 1931 now joins the select band of centenarian car companies. Toyo Kogyo was founded to make corks – yes, really – and in becoming a conglomerate and trading house first joined the automotive goldrush with a basic three-wheeled pick-up.
The ‘Mazda’ trademark saluted Ahura Mazda, an ancient god of harmony, but it was sufficiently close to the name of Jujiro Matsuda, the company’s boss, to signal industrial ambition.
If you’ve ever owned a mainstream Mazda, from the 626 to the latest Mazda6, then you’ll probably testify to the facts that they typify excellent Japanese cars in terms of quality and reliability. But this marque stands slightly apart from its considerably larger compatriots Toyota, Nissan and Honda. A bit of a maverick.
For one thing, in 1990 Mazda made the seemingly reckless move of reinventing the affordable sports car with its MX-5. Everyone lamented the passing of the Lotus Elan, but Mazda brought such a rear-wheel drive two-seater back to life in 1990, only this time made from steel not plastic, and fastidiously engineered. Over a million have been sold.
This was an exciting period for Mazda. In 1991 its 787B won the Le Mans 24-hour race. Its faultless running in the endurance classic made history on two counts, simultaneously being the first Japanese car to beat all comers, and also the first car with a rotary engine.
Mazda took out a licence to make Dr Felix Wankel’s super-smooth and uncommonly powerful rotaries in 1961, and in 1967 launched a startling coupé supercar, the 110S Cosmo, which was the first of its kind in Japan. Within five years there was a rotary version of all its models – amazing go-ahead for a firm that made its first actual passenger car, a tiny city runabaout called the Carol, in 1958.
In fact, it proved a technical gamble too far. The global oil crisis of 1973 cruelly exposed the rotary engine’s weakness – for all its mechanical refinement, its comparative fuel economy was awfully thirsty. Mazda’s focus on products no-one wanted in a petrol squeeze almost drove it to the wall. Ford took a supportive share and the firm went back to basics, building conventional family cars throughout the 1980s… while producing the rotary-powered RX-7 coupé as a niche indulgence, to save face and keep winning the occasional race.
Mazda long ago attuned its output to US tastes, doing well with its B1800 pick-ups and trusty Familia family cars. Its compact 121 hatchback was sold in the USA as the Ford Festiva, and this single car – when licence-made in South Korea – turned into the cornerstone for the growth of Kia.
Pressure to keep up with competitors almost tempted Mazda to launch a premium brand, Amati, to go head-to-head with Lexus in the 1990s.
Instead – and with an instinct for survival – Mazda concentrated on conventional family cars and SUVs, channelling any excess enthusiasm into the fourth generation of MX-5 – a sports car so accomplished that even Fiat asked for a version it could call its own. So happy birthday, Mazda, and astonishing that you’ve made it…