Curbside Classic: 1968 Mazda Cosmo Sports – The Rotary That Makes Heads Turn

The first-gen Mazda Cosmo has had pride of place in my fantasy garage for quite a while now, but thus far, I had only seen a couple as museum exhibits. Encountering one in the wild seemed highly unlikely, though not impossible. Well, it took a few years, but last April, eyes focused and mouth agape, it finally happened. It’s a little daunting to meet your heroes – and even more to write them up. Here goes!

Yes, the Cosmo is a bit of a legend. It was the first Mazda to feature a rotary engine, heralding the marque’s decades-long love affair with the Wankel. It was also the first exclusive luxury coupé to come out of Hiroshima, the first twin-rotor car ever marketed and, aptly enough, one of the coolest-looking shapes of the ‘60s. But every legend needs a back story.

Mazda was created as the carmaking arm of Toyo Kogyo Co. Ltd. back in the early ‘30s by Jujiro Matsuda (“Matsuda” is how Mazda is pronounced in Japanese), initially focusing on trikes. The company survived the war and the A-bomb only to find itself, circa 1960, in danger of being amalgamated into one of the major automotive groups – i.e. Nissan, Mitsubishi and Toyota – as per governmental policy. Not unlike Honda, Mazda rebelled against the meddling MITI bureaucrats and decided to push for growth and escape this fate. They launched a range of kei cars and trucks, then swiftly entered the family car market. This was an ambitious strategy, but the rising wealth of Japan at the time allowed for success stories.

There was one concern, however: trikes and keis would not be enough to keep the company’s momentum going. Some sort of technological edge was needed to bring Mazda the prestige required to remain independent. In 1960, one of the most alluring opportunities out there was the Wankel rotary engine. It was extremely cutting-edge (by which I mean it was still in development) and rights holder NSU were keen to sell licensing rights to other manufacturers. Tsuneji Matsuda, who had taken over as CEO eight years earlier, led a select party of Mazda engineers to Neckarsulm in November 1960 to see whether the rotary was worth the risk. A deal was struck, giving Mazda the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute Wankels for cars and trucks in Japan and Asia; a handful of prototype NSU engines were shipped over to Hiroshima a year later, once the Japanese government gave the all-clear.

During 1961, the Mazda design team was tasked to imagine a suitably striking two-door body befitting the engine’s nature, this being conceived from the get-go as a pure halo car. Spearheaded by Heiji Kobayashi, the concept was deliberately set to evoke personal luxury coupes of the period, with overtones of Jaguar and Ferrari mixed into a shape that had a more than a hint of Thunderbird. An initial prototype named Mazda 802 was made in 1963, along with the first domestically-made Wankels – a single (399cc) and a twin (798cc) rotor with dual spark plugs and twin ignition systems. Only the engines were seen on Mazda’s stand at the motor show, though.

A couple of subsequent prototypes with a revamped tail were finally presented at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show (above). The car and its engine were still far from ready at that point, but Mazda needed to display their ambitions to ensure that any threat of merger would be kept at bay. Meanwhile, work continued zealously behind the scenes to iron out the Wankel’s many kinks.

By this time, of course, NSU had started producing their Prinz Spider, the world’s first rotary-engined car. But aside from that novel but trouble-prone single-rotor engine and the soft-top, it did not have a lot to attract customers with that dated look, Bertone-penned though it was. It was more of a real-world trial than anything else – NSU were keeping their powder dry for their big release, a twin-rotor FWD saloon with highly advanced styling.

Over in Hiroshima, a small section of the Toyo Kogyo works was cleared in 1965 to hand-manufacture a batch of 80 pre-production Cosmos, 20 of which were to be used by the factory and engineers. The rest were distributed throughout Japan to Mazda dealers as demonstrators – sales were not accepted as yet.

Mazda engineers dedicated a lot of attention to the engine, coming up with more durable solutions to nagging problems such as apex seals, lubrication, fuel consumption and vibrations than NSU ever did. The rest of the car was also bespoke – nothing in Mazda’s range even compared to the Cosmo in terms of power and size, but it was relatively straightforward to operationalize: a steel unit body, double wishbone and coils up front and a leaf-sprung De Dion tube axle at the rear, disc brakes on the front wheels and very little in the way of fancy toys – no power steering or brakes, no automatic transmission, no A/C – to keep things simple and costs down.

By 1967, the men from Hiroshima were confident that their project had reached maturity. At the end of May, the Cosmo Sports was officially launched, with its 110hp 982cc twin-rotor engine, five months before the NSU Ro80. This being 1967 and an exclusive halo car, the brochure was quite a sight to behold.

And it was issued in English as well as Japanese, because Mazda did sell a few of these outlandish machines abroad. Not many though – exact numbers are not easily found, but out of the 1550 or so Cosmos made between 1967 and 1972, fewer than 10% would have been exported as the Cosmo 100S. So it was mainly a JDM car, but the world was made aware of its existence – in more ways than one.

Besides pop-art brochures, the Mazda Cosmo needed to prove its worth in some sort of trial to really have an impact. Mazda therefore entered two cars at the Marathon de la Route held in August 1968, which consisted in going around the Nürburgring for 84 hours non-stop. One Cosmo retired with a broken rear axle, but the other one finished fourth, behind a pair of Porsche 911Es and a Lancia Fulvia HF, but well ahead of such luminaries as the BMW 2002, the MG C GT, the Saab Sonnett V4, the Renault R8 Gordini, the Datsun Bluebird 1600 or the NSU 1000 TTS. And those were the ones that finished – about half of the cars entered in the race had not even managed that.

But the summer of 1968 was also the occasion, after a year of production, to introduce a few changes to the Cosmo. Some were visible, such as the larger air intake under the front bumper, or the extra 15cm added wheelbase, pushing the rear wheels away from the edge of the doors.

Others, like the brake servo or the 5-speed gearbox, were not visible, but requested pretty unanimously by the clients of the Series 1 cars. In addition, Mazda tinkered with their Wankel, teasing out 128hp (@ 7000rpm) from it. This L10B engine is easily recognizable by its blue twin-intake air filter – earlier cars’ single intake filter being painted yellow.

The Japanese taxman considered the Mazda 982cc Wankel to be in the 1.5 litre class – a pretty generous understatement, given its output. The FIA, for its part, calculated it to be the equivalent of a 2-litre engine, which still made it pretty competitive. But despite having the word “Sports” in its JDM name and being able to reach speeds in excess of 195kph (120mph), the Cosmo was more of a 2-seater GT than a true sports car.

And as such, the Mazda competed with Japan’s budding domestic GT class. The Cosmo Sports cost ¥1.58m when new in mid-1968, making it slightly more affordable than the new Isuzu 117 Coupé (top right, ¥1.72m) and much cheaper than the aristocratic Toyota 2000GT (top left, ¥2.38m). On the other hand, the last Prince Skyline 2000GT-B sedans (bottom right) were up for grabs at ¥940k a pop and the Nissan Fairlady 2000 roadster (bottom left) was even more affordable at ¥880k – both very capable machines.

The small fly in the ointment, compared to most imports or the likes of the Toyota 2000GT and the Isuzu 117 Coupé – both remarkable from an esthetic point of view – was that the Cosmo still rocked 1962-era afterburner taillamps, E-Type nose and wraparound rear windshield when it debuted in mid-1967.

I personally love the Cosmo’s styling, but it’s true that, as some commentators noted at the time, it felt a bit out of step with the times. Well, at least the engine was as new as could be!

The interior is the one aspect that might be considered a touch conservative, by comparison to the rest. That’s probably to the Cosmo’s credit, as it’s very tastefully done and this less gimmicky approach tends to age better. By the time the Cosmo was out of production in late 1972, this would have still seemed completely acceptable.

Mazda continued using the Cosmo name for another three generations after this car, but with the possible exception of the final one of these (with the famous triple-rotor engine), they lacked this first generation’s sense of occasion and were not really halo cars. I mean, the third gen (1981-90) even came as a 4-door saloon with a piston engine. Blasphemy!

None of the subsequent Cosmos had anything approaching this one’s unique mix of cool and mad styling. To be fair, the same could be said about almost any Mazda product ever since: the folks from Hiroshima usually played it safe, once this major gamble on the Wankel sort of paid off. The only time they called again on the asylum wing of the designers’ building was for the Autozam AZ-1 in the early ‘90s – and that didn’t end too well.

The 1967-72 Cosmo Sports is a fantastic display of a relatively small carmaker pulling out all the stops in order to attract more people into their showrooms, get lots of positive PR and find a technical edge that could serve as their calling card for the foreseeable future. It’s one of the most ambitious cars of its time and, like the Toyota 2000GT, it represents a major milestone in Japanese automotive history – this from a company that hadn’t manufactured a four-wheeled vehicle before 1960. This is one Mazda that really puts the hero back in Hiroshima.


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