Fifty-two years ago today, a Japanese firm by the name of Toyo Kogyo procured a license from a German company for a novel engine design. In those terms, it sounds relatively innocuous, but that move is precisely how Mazda first gained access to the legendary Wankel rotary engine.
The Wankel rotary is the handicraft of Dr. Felix Wankel, an engineer who worked in partnership with Germany’s NSU (which was later absorbed into Audi) to bring his piston-free engine to fruition. Wankel’s finalized design emerged in 1954, and passed durability tests in 1959. NSU not only began planning Wankel-powered cars and motorcycles of its own, but also licensed the technology to interested parties. Toyo Kogyo/ Mazda was the fourth firm to do so, but the first that intended on using the Wankel to propel a passenger vehicle.
Mazda’s first car to utilize the Wankel was the vaunted Cosmo Sport. Development of the jet-inspired two-seat coupe began in early 1963, despite the fact Mazda’s second-generation Wankel design – a 798-cc, two-rotor engine dubbed the L8A -- wasn’t fully ready until July of 1963. Mazda showed the car at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show along with both the L8A and a single-rotor variant with half the displacement.
Series production of the Cosmo Sport 110S didn’t start for another four years. In the interim, Mazda continued to build and showcase a number of Wankel-powered Cosmo Sport models as it perfected the design. In 1966, the L10 two-rotor, which displaced 982cc and offered 110 hp, was locked in for the production car. Mazda built another 60-80 development cars before series production finally commenced on May 30, 1967. Cosmo Sport production ran all of five years, resulting in roughly 1500 production vehicles.
Over the past 45 years, Mazda stuck the Wankel in a number of different vehicles, including small family sedans, luxury coupes, LeMans racers, and even compact pickup trucks. Still, Mazda’s rotary is perhaps best known as the hallmark of its RX-7 and RX-8 sports coupes. The RX-7 debuted in 1978, ran three generations, and was phased out in 2002. The larger RX-8 debuted in 2004, and was on sale until production – along with that of the RX-8's Renesis rotary engine – ended in late 2012. Although many automakers licensed Wankel’s design at one time or another, it’s safe to say Mazda stuck with the technology the longest.
Will the Wankel continue to live on at Mazda? The termination of the RX-8 and the Renesis are largely blamed on the engine’s inability to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy and emission standards around the globe. Mazda officials continue to say they’d like to reintroduce the Wankel -- complete with new tricks and technologies to boost its efficiency – as it’s a key part of Mazda’s identity, but we keep hearing that possibility is still five years away at the very least.