Curbside Classic: 1972-77 Mazda RX-4 (Luce) Coupe – Rising, Falling and Lying in Wait

By the mid 70’s Japanese cartoons had paved their way into Latin America, with media-content-creation being another chapter in the notorious rise of the Asian nation. However, those Japanese shows brought themes and values that no Hannah Barbera or Disney cartoon ever attempted. In my childhood those differences appeared more often than not on Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers in the US); a futuristic space opera filled with an undercurrent of doom and sacrifice. In the show, humanity is on the verge of extinction by an alien species invasion; on the brink of defeat the Earth Defense Forces turn the sunken haul of Imperial Japanese Battleship Yamato into a galaxy travelling spaceship. After lying dormant for centuries, not only would the sunk in WWII Yamato complete its role as a warring machine, it would also save humanity in the process.

What kind of show was this? And what kind of people came up with it? Not only was the Yamato plot hard to follow and missed by my young self, but the show’s leads suffered painful fates and incidental ones croaked in relentless manner. While being a sci-fi adventure wrapped in colorful cartoon idioms, the show had a dark military undercurrent; individual desires were considered selfish as the larger mission, to be achieved by generations and not individuals, was the main goal. Whether your favorite character managed to see the fulfillment of said mission was beside the point.

(In the US broadcast of Star Blazers the Yamato’s real life background was edited down for obvious reasons; concentrating the plot around the main characters’ travails).

In due time I would get familiar with such Japanese storytelling trademarks; a main character was to die midway, for the ‘mission’ was to be achieved by the group, at some point in time. It was a ‘generational’ fight. Other traits differed from US ones as well; leaders were generally cool headed and silent (á la Clint Eastwood), while a younger hothead always placed the mission at peril. No Bruce Willis or Rambo would ever lead in a Japanese story. Years later, even in lighter fares from Miyazaki, main characters endured a certain amount of physical pain. Hardship and sacrifice were to be expected in Japanese storytelling.

Our post’s barely-hanging-in-there dormant RX-4 (2nd gen Luce), was an early chapter in Mazda’s quest to bring the Wankel’s rotary engine promise to the world. And the rotary made test of those Japanese proclivities for hardship and sacrifice, as its promises of efficiency against the standard 4-stroke engine came not without a few drawbacks. If it wasn’t for Mazda’s Japanese endurance, the whole Wankel episode would only be a curious entry in automotive history, as not even NSU -the engine’s promoters- could escape a tragic fate under its spell.

To western sensibilities Mazda’s persistence comes either as an example of indomitable spirit… or folly. While all other makes, from Germans to Americans, gave up on the whole effort, the persevering and weary souls of Toyo Kogyo Co. (nowadays Mazda, above in its early days) managed to succeed in bringing fairly efficient rotary power to the world. Not that their single minded efforts proved exempt of trouble; but Mazda’s rotary, through fails, falls, and bursts of success, remains around to this day. It may lay dormant from time to time, but its rotor soul is always in wait to spring back to life when least expected. To save humanity perhaps?

The rotary’s development has been previously partially covered at CC, and a great detailed take appears at Ate Up With Motor. In short, Mazda’s interest in the engine came from despair, partly due to political and diplomatic winds. The convoluted episode of Japan’s carmakers and their relationship with their Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) needs its own chapter; suffice to say MITI bureaucrats thought the nation’s interests would be better served by consolidating Japan’s automotive industries into three major conglomerates. Should the MITI intentions ever materialize, Mazda’s demise/absorption was almost certain. Company president Tsuneji Matsuda took a shine to the Wankel’s revolutionary potential after NSU announced it proudly to the world, and along other makes bought rights to access the technology. Matsuda’s thinking was that Mazda’s fate hinged on its capacity to develop technology so essential to Japan that no ministry would ever think of ‘consolidating’ Toyo Kogyo.

Talking about warriors and kamikaze missions, Matsuda laid the Wankel assignment on Chief of Engineering Kenichi Yamamoto, who distrusted the whole concept from the start. However, in perfect Ronin spirit he took to the task with resignation and zeal. If his body was to fall by the wayside in the effort, so be it. The Rotary Research Team was conformed in 1963 with 47 engineers, and as per usual in Japanese tradition, military thinking was summoned when the team took on the moniker “47 Ronin.” (In Japanese culture, the Ronins are a line of Samurais venerated for their selfless loyalty and courage). Yamamoto instructed the members: “From now on, I want you to think about the rotary engine whether you are sleep or awake.” Much as with Honda’s CVCC, the Wankel took heavy toil in all members; with endless hours of work producing hundreds of failing prototypes. Considering the daunting quest, we can be pretty certain those “47 Ronins” did indeed dream nightly about those ever failing rotors.

After a lot of trial and error the dual rotary engine was launched in ’67 on the Cosmos, Mazda’s showcase to the world. The Cosmos styling was Japanese at its most outré, resembling a would-be-prop from Speed Racer, had it ever been shot in live action. An exponent for Mazda’s ambitions, the Cosmos was a flagship for the rotary. Slowly but surely, the Wankel started to seep into all of Mazda’s offerings. The company had found a call in the gospel of the rotary and moved on to spread its attributes in all market segments, sometimes in rather puzzling ways.

After the Cosmos retirement, the second generation Luce, our RX-4, was to be the rotary’s flagship. Well, not quite; as Mazda decided to compete head to head with Toyota and Nissan on the upper market echelons with the Roadpacer, a Holden HJ fitted with a 13B Rotary. The thinking behind it deserves its own digging expedition, and shows Toyo Kogyo’s puzzling actions were about to get the company lost in a maze of its own making.

In Vintage Reviews, R&T declared the RX-4 coupe “the best Mazda yet.” The rotary provided the RX-4 with performance a notch or two above its class, bringing revs no normal car could compete with, and providing a sports-like ride with more than decent acceleration; 0-60mph was just below the 10 seconds mark. As the rotary was a daring enough proposition, and proving that Mazda wasn’t Citroen-mad, the remaining bits of engineering were rather traditional and proven; unibody with FR layout, and traditional Hotchkiss drive at the rear, though with rather acceptable axle response according to reviewers.

In summary, R&T placed the car under a glowing light and hoped great things for the brand. Indeed, sales in the US had risen from a mere 2,000 units in 1970, to almost 120,000 by 1973.

While the original Luce had Giugiaro lines, the RX-4 was an in house design that took on American cues, rather successfully so; the proportions were taut and the shape sporty and pleasing. Mazda’s styling team showed great prowess in spite of their ‘newcomer’ status. The vehicle looked just as accomplished in sedan and wagon form, a chapter that’s been previously covered at CC.

At the time, the front and back ends were criticized for being a bit fussy on detailing, which was true and showed not all of the Cosmos’ vices had been expunged. On my curbside find, most of those faults are not notable for obvious reasons; the original grille with its Kabuki theater detailing is, sadly, nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, in the back the car possessed a peculiar plastic cover with chintzy looking taillights. If I didn’t know better, I would argue the RX-4’s back provided later inspiration to Pontiac’s cladded phase.

I had driven past this RX-4’s grey lump a few times, not knowing what it was from the distance. “Some Datsun, probably…” I said to myself, and it took me a while to finally detour into the side street where it lays. Once up close, knowing it was no Datsun, it was time for closer inspection. I more or less remembered those tail lights, but couldn’t quite place the model in my head. It was their peculiar detailing that Google Lensed me onto its identity.

In period brochures the interior showed a driver oriented cabin, although this example’s is the furthest thing away from it. No driver would willingly sit on that control bay, as it stunk quite some. My picture taking was rather swift, as someone had been using this marooned Mazda flagship to attend more basic human necessities.

Here, this is what that cabin was supposed to look like. Not bad, huh? That steering looks French though, not American; but Japan’s stylist have always been quite the cherry pickers with their design cues. Before we get too depressed thinking ‘what could’ve been…’ let’s see what lies in the back.

Oh, there you are, forlorn Kabuki grille! Why you being so shy? Wouldn’t you prefer to be up front in full display? And what about those seats? Terrible choice. I suppose it was a matter of finances, for they seem more fitting in an Aspire than this RX-4. The seats do seem to suggest vehicle usage until a decade or so ago, which is not bad for a rotary powered vehicle.

Talking about which, was this sample powered by rotary or conventional means? Let’s say, for the sake of this column, that it WAS a rotary, with a later Nissan engine swap (the local’s common fix to keep rotary vehicles in some kind of running order). In the US the RX-4 was sold solely with rotaries, either with Mazda’s 12A or 13B under the hood. Elsewhere a 1,800 cc reciprocating engine was also offered. Any of those could have laid inside this sample, as it was sold locally with the full range of choices.

So Mazda is doing all rosy and nice by the early 70’s, too bad the Wankel’s gas guzzling performance came at a cost when the ’73 energy crisis hit. After which, in Japan the model fizzled, and a failed effort was made to boost sales with an anti-pollution version distributed amongst government agencies. Meanwhile, in the US sales went from a plump 120,000 in ’73, to a meager 41,000 in ’76.

This is not a bad point to add that Mazda’s rotary reliability wasn’t quite on par with Toyota’s or Nissan’s offerings. After a promising start, the Wankel gospel was about to make martyrs of those Mazda Ronins.

Mazda’s story is a rather crossed one, as the enthusiast oriented company has brought many vehicles cherished by car lovers; yet somehow, in spite of competitive offerings the brand never quite made it into the big time. The rotary’s botched launch is largely to blame of course, with Toyota, Nissan and Honda taking over the international market while the Ronins waited for the dust to settle and prepared for future battle.

Not that their daring spirit ever disappeared, with their peculiar inclines ever so often materializing. In recent news the rotary is about to be revived for the umpteenth time, this time as an auxiliary engine to extent the range of the company’s electric offerings. Mazda’s early rotaries may have died, with the later RX-7 and RX-8 going out in 2002 and 2012 respectively; but while I doubt this post’s RX-4 will ever rise in Yamato like manner, the soul of the rotary always lies there, in waiting, ready to rise again for the battle.

More on the RX-4:

Vintage R & T Review: 1974 Mazda RX-4 – “The Best Mazda Yet”

Curbside Classic: 1974 Mazda RX-4 Rotary Wagon – Still Spinning