A friend had waxed all of us at the midnight back country grudge races with his sister’s borrowed RX-2. In our little automotive world of highly abused four-cylinder engines working their little hearts out, to satisfy our need for acceleration and general zooming around at full-throttle, the Mazda was a revelation. The engine actually increased power as the rpm’s rose, which engines were supposed to do, but none of ours ever did so. There was a sort of turbine sound and feel to the thing. The car launched especially well, burning lots of rubber from the skinny right rear tire. Most importantly, the “feel” of the thing was that it simply scooted along.
It was roughly the equal of the V-6 Capri in 0-60 acceleration on paper, but it felt twice as quick as the European Ford in actually doing so. People tend to recall the early RX’s being extraordinarily fast cars. They weren’t, but they felt like it, so the rosy memories of the engine’s capabilities have grown with age.
This was the answer to my dreams, as I had found that great looking cars are just fine, and the controls and specs don’t really need to work “well”, as long as they work “nicely”, but engine power and “feel” are categories all their own, and a car that has them will make the rest of it less consequential, making adequate more than acceptable. I wanted more power. The other draws to this car were that it shared the typical small Japanese car tendency towards nimble handling and communicative controls, if not high handling and braking capabilities. It was also truly a “sleeper”, and you could be left alone driving around, rather than being challenged at stoplights and in parking lots by other young guys who were all fired up.
The car itself was a bit odd looking, as if it had been out in the rain and sun, and all the curves and edges had melted a bit, like a bar of soap in the wet, leaving one with something a bit misshapen and slightly “off”. The RX-2 also shared the typical Japanese fragile and plasticky interior materials, thin sheet metal, and propensity to rust.
I found my car, a 40k mile example which was owned by a growing young family, who needed something bigger (how long do these rotary engines last, anyway?). $1,200 to buy, $1,700 to sell the Celica, and I came out ahead on the swap. As an odd by-product of the purchase, the midnight grudge matches quickly dried up, as who wanted to go out and get his clock cleaned, every time? The end of it was likely all for the best, in the long run, in any case.
This was a nice and comfortable car for long drives, and it got 20 mpg on the freeway, which was not bad at all. As I was getting ready for college, the extra interior and trunk space would come in handy. In the meantime, I could gun it on freeway entrances and at right-turns-on-red-after-stopping, the two somewhat acceptable situations in which one could wind out the engine. I was going to school, working, hanging out with friends, and had no time or inclination to do anything with the car, other than to drive it. It was perfect for the task, and blended into anonymity at college up in the L.A. area, which would prove to be an important feature later on, in hindsight.
I was one of those people who knew little about the rotary, other than how it worked and how to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. I had no issues with the car, or later rotaries (there are more…), simply by following the basic rules. Don’t rev it over 7k, don’t rev it cold (let temps stabilize first), let it idle a bit before shutting down (let temps stabilize first), don’t overheat it, change the oil every 3k miles, add a quart of oil every 1k mikes, never let the oil get low. That’s it, then drive the heck out of it.
The car had full instrumentation and a busy dashboard, in the Japanese black-plastic style. The front seat bottoms were high off the floor, the seat backs were fully sprung, and there was quite a bit of leg room and head room. This was the first and only Japanese car, for a long time, in which I did not adjust the driver’s seat fully rearward, given my long legs.
The car had a big back seat, with leg and foot room, and a large trunk, that was unfortunately partly taken up by the spare tire that had no good place in which to be stowed. The live rear axle was sprung with coils, not leaves, so the ride was very nice on long trips.
All in all, the car was about 90% of what one would want. The thin sheet metal and fragile interior, over time, are difficult to work around. The styling is “meh”. But the rest of it is quite nice, and a great engine makes up for a multitude of smaller sins. These RX-2s became very hard to find used, in decent condition, because people loved them until the point at which the engine started giving trouble, which would always happen, sooner or later. Many major engine parts were wear parts, by design, so the thing would wear out and go to pot over time, even if there were no unexpected, catastrophic issues.
I ended up selling this car, at 65k miles, to my sister, in a three-way family car trade. She got the RX-2, which lasted for another 20k miles and a few years, until the engine wore out and gave it up at 85k miles. The car was scrapped, as that is what you did with them when the engine went down. That is why you never see one parked at the curb today.
My part of the three-way trade was the longed-for family Mustang Fastback. Time for me to DD the thing, and find out all the goods and bads of actually owning and driving a bright red Mustang.
I test drove an RX-2 in 1972. The salesman who was with me said to put it in 2nd gear and hold the RPMs at 5000 then floor it. The tach imediately buried itself in the dash and the thing just took off. So much for the 7000 RPM thing.
What the dealer salespeople used to do with cars, by starting them up and making them scream while the engine was still cold, was criminal. Especially with the rotaries, because it showed off the engines so well, so they always did it, and for what it did internally to those engines. If it didn’t introduce a high potential for premature catastrophic breakdown, it at least initiated and accelerated the wear process many times over.
There was an overev alarm in these often disconnected but Ive heard it come on in top gear in one owned by a friend that thing wound up pretty well but didnt last long he wrote it off which seems to be the other fate they suffered from
I’ve only driven a few rotaries in RX-7s so my rotary engine experiences are limited and the oldest being perhaps 1983 or so vintage, but boy did they make an impression. Such smoothness and the sound so different, they are experiences I won’t forget.
Can we consider Mazda the Saab of Japan? Different, often a bit quirky, but generally desirable even in their more mundane offerings without huge success though?
My first car was a ’79 626 Coupe, powered by a 2.0 I4, much more agricultural in nature as far as the engine goes but I suppose the successor to this one. The back seat though had nowhere near the room that yours did.
Can we consider Mazda the Saab of Japan?
Yes, especially since the engine sound of the two stroke Saabs and the Mazda rotaries had certain similarities, or at least were both distinctly different than all the four stroke engines. You could hear them coming and know right away what they were. And they both tended to splutter a bit on overrun, when the throttle was suddenly closed while shifting.
The four in your 626 wasn’t really a successor to the rotary; if anything the predecessor, as it dates back to the 1966 Mazda Luce (not sold in the US). It was later expanded to 1.6, 1.8 and finally 2.0 L size, as used in your 626. Its output may have been “on the agricultural side”, but it was comperable to similar sized engines from Toyota and Nissan. It was a modern hemi-head SOHC design, not unlike the BMW engine of the times.
Thanks, I had meant the car itself was sort of a successor, not the engine. I didn’t realize that dated all the way back to the Luce (conceptually at least). At the time of my ownership (’85-’87), my biggest “competition” (and yardstick) was one of my best friends and his 1980 Datsun 200SX, also with a 2.0 I4 but an output of 100hp, 25% more. In real terms they were decently well matched although he had a slight edge on acceleration but not 25% worth!
Now that I think of it, it’s true; the Mazda 2 L four by then had become pretty modest in its willingness to rev, thus only modest hp. Its torque was pretty stout, as it had a very long stroke, necessary to get it to 2 liters.
As you know, Ted had one for his first car, and I drove it a few times. Def not a hot rod.
It was perfect for use in the pickups. 🙂
Yeah it was plenty stout. The magic formula was lots of revs, a little standing water, the cheapest and hardest tires sold at Montgomery Ward, a club foot on the clutch, and then at least one rear tire would spin for days. Oh, the fun we had! 🙂 The very late 70s and early 80s were a good time for RWD Japanese car choices, pretty much the last generation of them available in general use cars.
Apparently there will be one at that Malaise show in Eugene, I’d love to come across an early 626 again…
Most of Mazda’s piston engine offerings were on the agricultural performance side of things, until such time as the rotary was not the center of Mazda’s existence. The four cylinder in the first Miata, rolled out in the late ‘80s, was a nice little engine, in the idiom of the four-valve OHC that Toyota and Honda had already come to do so well.
Mazda’s old 4 cylinder could be literally agricultural, Komatsu was using them in small tractors in the 70s, which were sold in the US by International. The diesel versions of these tractors used Nissan engines because Komatsu didn’t have anything small enough.
The Mazda M4-71G engine used in tractors had no relationship to the new SOHC four that came out in 1966. It was an older 1.2 L pushrod engine related to ones used in older Mazda trucks and trikes and such.
Ughh! That OHC engine was dog! Slow-revving, groany-sounding, weak, and, worst of all, they all took up smoking young. Say, try one in an automatic 929 wagon one day – it’ll be a long one. For total braking, turn on the aircon.
Dutch is right. Later on, Mazda made really sweet motors, ones that made contemporary Mercedes fours look like the gutless jackhammers they were.
I disagree. My brothers first car was a 1976 Mazda 929 wagon (1.8 litre) and with automatic. Being the Oz spec facelifted 1976 model I’m sure it had some emission controls. However it went quite well despite the auto and extra weight of the wagon body.
Unlike the boat anchors in the Datsun 180B and Toyota Corona 2000, the Mazda, was a cross flow design. It might have been vocal when revved, but it wasn’t harsh in the way the Nissan and, Toyota engines could be, it and was more eager to rev.
Before he bought the car a real estate agent had taken our entire family (5 including himself) to view come properties in his circa 1975 929 sedan manual. He was gunningt up and down the hills and I was surprised at how responsive and eager the car was.
I think the Mazda piston engines of the era were a bit underrated as they were overshadowed by the rotaries. It world be interesting to see how such an engine with some tuning etc works perform.
I think the later 2 litre version were not as willing to rev and with increasing emission controls would have really retarded their output.
Back to the RX2 I love the look of the 2 door. I think one of the Italian designers may have helped out as most of the other Mazdas with the exception of the 1500/1800/Luce had fussier styling
Sadly I have never driven a RX2 or any other rotary for that matter. Always wonder why they made the RX4 a true hardtop but not the RX2.
20 mph of the freeway is terrible mileage for this small car. No wonder they didn’t make it
Once they gained smog controls, many Pintos couldn’t do that. Car and Driver tested a Pinto Squire wagon that only got 10 mpg in the city and 16 mpg on the highway. It was nowhere near as quick as an RX2 either. Engine durability was a bigger issue for the early Mazda rotaries than fuel economy.
I appreciated reading this COAL, as I’ve always been curious about RX2 ownership. Personally, I hold their styling in higher esteem than the author does though.
These were popular even in the Midwest for a short time, where they gained the reputation for having the performance of a V8, along with the gas mileage of a V8.
Looking for a cheap-ish used car to buy in the early ’80s, I test-drove an RX2 that was for sale in my hometown. Wow. As noted in the article, I’m sure it wasn’t the fastest car around by any objective measure—but it sure as heck felt like it. Zoom-zoom, indeed—it was just pure driving fun. I passed on the car for whatever reason, but 35+ years later, I still remember that short little ride in the RX2. What a joy it would be to find and own one of these today.
The Mazda rotaries always seemed like such fascinating ideas, but I was never willing to take the plunge on such a mechanical oddball. But you note that putting up with its bad traits (short engine life, poor gas mileage) provided some exhilarating highs. Nobody gave the rotary engine more of a chance than Mazda, but not even Mazda could tame its problems.
I prefer to explain Mazda’s rotary experience slightly differently. Not so much as “not solving problems”, what they did was to extend, as far as they could, the reliability, power, and adaptability of the rotary engine for use as a motor vehicle power plant. They were “at the right place at the right time”, when the rotary engine was first seen by many as some sort of savior of the auto industry, and then choked on it when the predictable shortcomings of the engine were exposed in the real world (most basically that people would drive without strict maintenance schedules, or without reasonable limits on the actual operation of the car—that the car can do something, doesn’t mean that one should be doing it).
A more sober and thoughtful evaluation of the virtues and limitations of the rotary yielded the first generation RX-7, which was likely the highest, best application of the engine, as installed in a light, simple, two-seat sports car. And that was essentially the end of the rotary story, in the real world, no matter what rotary aficionados would like to see.
Back in the early ‘70s, Mazda anticipated the rotary becoming ubiquitous, and that it would likely used by all the manufacturers. Unfortunately for Mazda, that didn’t come to pass, and the typical mechanic didn’t even know where to start, in order to maintain or repair the engine. The Mazda dealer service departments didn’t mind, as they had the repair field to themselves, but the car owners felt a bit stranded, out there in the real world. There was no good way to navigate that conundrum.
Initially, Mazda anticipated that the occasional comprehensive rebuild, to replace all the wear parts, would be par for the course, and they carefully labeled the earliest parts for proper reassembly and orientation. They also anticipated that these rebuilds would be done anywhere, as the rotary became universal. To that end, Mazda issued and sold “seal cases”, so mechanics could keep the small parts, that would need to be returned back exactly to the same places they were pulled from, in order and organized. In the end, even the dealers quickly stopped rebuilding engines, and only a centralized factory engine rebuilding and exchange program saw any rebuilding activity, other than the occasional specialty shop or home project. Below is a seal case (with first-gen 12-A seals in it), something not often seen any more.
The rotary came, and it went, but it was, in my opinion, a product of a certain moment in time when the automotive malaise was descending, and motordom was looking for a way out. That those of us, who thoroughly enjoyed the car, got to do so for a few years, well, that was a gift of sorts. The onset of the malaise wasn’t all bad.
Would you also think it would be fair to say that Mazda didn’t properly anticipate that in export markets, Americans in particular, took scheduled servicing and maintenance much more as a suggestion than what was taken quite literally in Japan? My understanding of ownership during that period of Japan was you service the vehicle at the dealership, period. How true that is today, I’m not sure, but I do know the annual Shaken roadworthy inspection was as much a thing then as it is now.
I realized I worded that poorly only after the edit function timed out. More specifically, an understanding that there would be a subset of customers where the idea of going to a dealer was utilized only when something explicitly goes wrong; that giving them your money to do anything was good money after bad, only to be used as a last resort. I don’t think Japan had the remotest of outlooks similar to this, so it’s hard to know if naive would be the right word, or if they really could be faulted to the extent we see that as a pretty glaring error in judgement.
I think you hit it right. Many American vehicle owners, back in the day, didn’t do much maintenance at all, other than having a gas station mechanic occasionally change the oil, or do a brake job or plugs and points now and again.
Even popular imports, such as the early Toyotas or the VW Beetles, typically just kept running, even with little to no maintenance.
With the rotary, once you detect a problem, which would typically manifest itself as being hard to start, it was all over. Lack of compression. Either the seals and housings were scored for lack of oil, or the housings would be warped from overheating. People were used to cars that could be easily patched back together when things went wrong, not a full rebuild.
My guess is that Mazda was earnest in trying to sell rotaries to Americans. Early on (‘72 and ‘73), many considered the rotary the wave of the future, and likely a universal powerplant (sort of like EVs today). Mazda was happy to get the jump on everyone, and likely figured that a more disciplined maintenance approach, which would be necessary for every rotary vehicle, would quickly become American car owner Standard Operating Procedure.
I can’t imagine Mazda, having the jump on a possibly inevitable migration to rotaries, wouldn’t go all out with their lead. One sees it in the RX-4, RE Pick-up, and second gen Cosmo, none of which sold well, and certainly should be assumed to have never come close to any pre-production sales estimates. But Mazda was all in. It broke them, starting in 1974, when Mazda rotary sales dropped from 10,000 plus, worldwide, per month, to 2,500 per month, and quickly to 1,000 or less, worldwide. Only the Japanese banking-industrial mutual-aid system of supporting businesses through hard times (we did it, too, with Chrysler and, later, GM, in a more ad-hoc manner) saved Mazda’s bacon in the ‘70s, though it almost took out their big banking partner Sumitomo Bank, who had their own issues.
Perhaps that’s why Japan has more major auto manufacturers than anyone else these days. The mutual-aid and business-financial partnerships, wired into the Japanese way of doing things, keeps the car makers going.
Back to the original question, given Mazda’s situation and the appearance of incredible luck of timing and good fortune, in being first to market with a viable rotary auto offering, how could they not pursue sales as hard as they could? I don’t know if you are old enough to recall, but for a year or two, the rotary was considered the answer to everything automotive, and only Mazda had product to offer, in hand and ready to roll.
I would hardly call them problematic. Owning one is much like owning a 2 stroke dirt bike. You know it’s going need freshened up on a regular basis. I have driven several, from RX-2 to RX-7, and all were a hoot to drive. And did I mention the stock 4 barrel carburetor is more complex than the actual engine?
These were all over the place in So Cal when I arrived there in 1975. But they thinned out quite quickly.
A good friend had an early RX-7, and replaced the engine once, but otherwise it gave him quite good service for some years.
In the early ’70’s Mazda was a distant third in Japanese car sales in North America, behind Toyota and Datsun(Nissan), and Honda was gaining fast. The rotary was not enough to steer sales away from Toyota and Datsun, so Mazda offered unusual touches, including rear windows that rolled down fully on the two-doors, which the RX-2, and RX-3, (as well as its piston-engine derivatives) and the Cosmo all had.
I remember these when new, they felt like rockets .
The front seats were very comfy and so got stolen often .
At that time Mazda interiors were only good for 5 years at most, they’d fry and get crispy like potato chips so many granny’s Mazdas were scrapped because the dash, door cards and seats were dead .
I recall quite a few rotaries still running long after they began to smoke like a mosquito fogger .
? wasn’t the 626 piston engine the same series as Ford used in the first generation Courrier trucklets ? .
Another great read – thank you. I like how you wrote about the net effect of a vehicle’s positive and negative qualities, and how some features weigh more heavily in the overall subjective rating. I don’t know anything about the RX-2, outside of that fact that its rotary performance was way better than most small cars.
I also like that you pointed out the care that needs to go into optimal operation. I’ll bet those owned by individuals like you who knew how to let the engine warm up properly and maintained it with regular oil changes at the recommended intervals lasted much longer (which, I guess, would be expected).
As far as the styling, one thing I can appreciate about Mazda’s of the early-to-mid ’70s is that they seemed to have a strong brand identity at a time when this was not the case across many brands. The styling of this RX-2 may not be immediately beautiful or memorable as some cars, but there are Mazda hallmarks present here. There’s the shape of the grille, and also a feature I identify even most strongly with Mazdas of this period – the twin-pod taillamp clusters. Those on the RX-4 were squared off, but the idea was the same.
Looking forward to your next article.
Jumping the COAL gun a bit here, but I owned many rotary Mazdas (and I will skip some of them, as its roughly the same story over and over again), and ran them very hard. By respecting the maintenance and operating boundaries, the engines were extremely reliable, and I almost never had any issues, ever.
As a bonus, knowledgeable owners and scroungers, such as myself, could sometimes locate perfect engines with bad points, condensers, or burnt-out electric fuel pumps. The owners would equate such things with catastrophic failure, and mechanics were unwilling or unable to troubleshoot. My guilt for “stealing” the car at a nominal cost, was assuaged by the typical seller’s attitude of just wanting to get out from under the thing. I didn’t see too much of that in the RX-7 days, but the owners of the earlier ones certainly had no patience with them.
I had a RX2 Coupe in the late ’70s, it was fun when it ran, I expect the apex seals were suspect, if you missed starting it first time the thing would spin and spin and not fire. Think I sold it for $2800. Now worth around $75000. Broke my crystal ball many times. About the same time I sold my genuine twin cam Escort for $3600.
When compression on a rotary is on the way out, your sort of hard starting can be the result. Hard starting when warm was a similar clue. But they had a very complex four barrel carburetor, as noted above, and miscalibration of the carb could lead to the same thing, and could be very difficult to diagnose. Most of the good rotary factory dealer mechanics are retired now, but they saw a lot of rotaries come through the shops. They could recognize a ton of odd combinations of symptoms and weird rotary engine behaviors, and quickly diagnose the real problems on the spot, using their unpublished “street” knowledge. All good mechanics have this sort of knowledge on the vehicles they frequently work on, but the rotary “street” smarts were especially valuable—and now mostly gone.
Aha, the old balls of crystal. Mine has never worked.
But good lord, who ever would have thought RX-2’s would be worth money like that? R-100’s are even more expensive again. Let’s face it, they’re both pretty crude devices apart from the engine, with quite typically bog-ordinary Japanese steering and handling of the time.
An RX2! These were the ‘in’ car for teenagers in New Zealand in the early 1990s when I was finishing high school and starting university. I drove an acquaintance’s ’70 sedan, fitted with a later 13B, in 1992 and was amazed how smooth it was at high revs! Very characterful engine – when driving an RX8 in 2010 I was surprised how characterless the 13B had become. Of course most of the RX2/3/4/5 are long gone from our roads, having being written off in crashes quite regularly, and it’s over a decade since I last saw one on the road. The few that are still around command enormous money on the online auction sites; I personally can’t see the value in what they go for now, but each to their own.
Maybe I missed it in a comment, but one of the most memorable aspects of the early Mazda rotaries, RX2 and RX3, was the ability to generate a deafening backfire if one timed a shift just right. Pump the throttle to inject fuel, then back off and that fuel would explode in the thermal reactor – kaabooom!! For a few months I carpooled with a guy who had anRX2, when I had my Vega. Two very different ideas of what a small “sporty” (mine was a Vega GT) car should be.
Yup. Personal story, some random Capri driver and I were goofing around a bit on the freeway one afternoon, slow down, square up, give it a bit of a go, friendly style. I got off the freeway to go to the gas station and, as I exited, at a fair pace, there was a cop parked alongside the exit ramp, so I got out of the throttle. Driving by his parked car, the backfire went off. He quickly flagged me down, and ordered me out of the car, face down, spread eagled on the ground. He accused me of shooting at him while driving by. Probably had his gun out, pointed at me, but I was already down on the ground, so I didn’t see anything. I patiently explained how Mazdas work, and, after he spent some time on his two way radio, he let me go.
The Capri guy had followed me off the freeway, probably to chat at the gas station. He just kept driving.
Yikes! Good thing this doesn’t happen anymore. You might not have survived.
Most interesting piece, Mr 1960.
I have a slightly higher opinion of the styling than you, perhaps because I have some memory of them being considered hot stuff when I was little. But as for the rest of the car surrounding that engine, Mazdas were just Japanese-standard of then: a bit woofly in the steering, undamped in the ride (which hadn’t enough travel), knees-up in the seating, and pretty oopsy-daisy in the handling.
I’ve only driven RX-7’s, and that engine was huge fun. One was first-gen automatic. That was hilarious: you stomped on the throttle and got NOTHING, then minor progress, then wheeee, past all the cars who’d just had to overtake you! And then a stop for fuel…
Actually, the comment above about bad economy misses the point. The great fun of the early rotaries was exactly that they WERE small, but had V8-levels of performance. Sure, one paid V8 fuel bills as a penalty, but got something far more nimble, Japanese dynamics notwithstanding.
In relation to your comment above, is it the case that Mazda was planning for those rebuilds as warranty items, or just as likely future service needs? And also, is a rotary easy or quick to rebuild, if equipped with the sort of kit shown?
Future service needs. The seals and housing compression surfaces had a given and predictable wear rate, so it was simply a matter of time and engine hours before significant parts of the engine would need to be replaced. The idea was to disassemble, check the specs, and replace parts as necessary. If one did so, the process was methodical but not difficult. I think the plan was that it would become SOP to disassemble and refit the engine every few years. As long as the engine wasn’t abused, the idea was sound, given the limitations of the rotary technology. There was no other way to go. Apex seals were critical, and wore quickly, but later engines had smaller apex seals made of harder, longer wearing material.
Easy but not quick, if you have a handle on what to do. I had an advantage, having no experience dealing with the internals of a piston engine. Rotaries seemed to often vex experienced mechanics versed in piston engine workings. The problem today is not skills and techniques, but parts availability.
A co-worker had one of these in the early eighties. We used to race home at night after working the late shift. It was an easy match for my MGB at the time.
The design seems a wrong copy of the Hillman – Sunbeam Avenger