COLLECTIONS: Inside Mazda North America’s Basement

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Talk to Mazda employees about their cars, past and present, and it immediately becomes clear that the company is comprised of people passionate about what they’ve built. This is no small feat, and we have peeked behind the walls of enough automakers to know that many house a bunch of employees for whom it’s just another job. But, if you don’t believe us just look to their collection of “toys” as evidence. The basement of Mazda’s research and development center in Irvine, California is where some of them reside, a collection of street, track and historically significant Mazdas. After our recent drive of the Eunos Cosmo, we were treated to a tour of this collection.

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To fans of JNC, especially the Mazdafarians among us, this place is a mecca of awesome. For one, it’s a real basement, a true rarity in Southern California. These days, it’s not so secret anymore. JNC profiled it back in 2008 and many of its cars make regular appearances at historic racing events. However, Mazda does continue to add to the collection and restores on average one vintage racing car a year so there’s always something new an interesting to see.

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Waiting for the metal doors to roll up and reveal rows of cars lining the sides of a dimly lit concrete sanctum was like entering a Rebel Alliance hangar. In this case, the Millennium Falcon was a very real 4-rotor-powered 787, the X-Wings a fleet of FD RX-7s. Rest assured that the symphony emitted by the 787 is even more ear-piercingly sonorous than that of the fictional spaceship. If you need proof, catch it on a racetrack. Like most cars here, not only does the 787 run, but it gets run. These racers aren’t garage queens but active participants in vintage racing, historical significance be damned.

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We were lucky to have Mazda North America’s Director of Public Relations Jeremy Barnes narrate our walk through Mazda’s rich motorsport and automotive heritage. The first car to greet us was the 1973 RX-2 raced by Car and Driver’s Pat Bedard. Its 12A carried modifications by Jim Mederer from Racing Beat and put out 218hp (more than double the stock figure) at 8400rpm.

With two wins in the IMSA-sanctioned BFGoodrich Radial Challenge, this car gave Mazda its first professional racing victory in North America. In many ways, that makes this car the most important Mazda racer, the sine qua non of Mazda’s racing heritage. With a stainless steel racing exhaust developed by Mazda back in the day and available only in Japan, it is reportedly as loud as fire truck.

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Next to the RX-2 was the famous IMSA-spec SA22C RX-7. From 1979 to 1994, RX-7s took home 106 wins in the GTU and GTO classes of the IMSA Championships. This included consecutive manufacturer’s championships from 1980 to 1987, plus two more making 12 in total, as well as 12 consecutive class wins at 24 Hours of Daytona. This dynasty, crushing the then dominance of Porsche, was all started by an SA22C like this one.

Commonly referred to as the “Daytona car,” the #7 green and white RX-7 debuted at — and won — the 1979 24 Hours of Daytona. This particular car is a replica of the original #7 based on a development prototype for the IMSA racers. Of note, it’s right-hand-drive (the actual IMSA racers were left-hand-drive) and it’s also the 7th production SA22C. Its original racing seats were clad in 70s-tastic plaid, which Mazda thankfully saved.

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Moving down the line were the Racing Beat FC3S and FD3S RX-7 Land Speed Record cars that ran the Bonneville Salt Flats. The FC set a record in 1986 at 238.442mph, while the FD famously became an airplane in 1993 but went back in 1995 to set a new record (which apparently still stands!) at 242.005mph. Missing were Racing Beat’s SA22C Land Speed Record Car from 1978 and Car and Driver’s RX-3 from 1974. Wink wink, Mazda?

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Other famous race cars of note huddled at the front of the basement included the #56 787 that ran at the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans along with the winning 787B; the #202 757, powered by the 3-rotor 13G, awaiting restoration; the RX-792P GTP car, undergoing some work; and an MX-R01, powered by a Judd V10 on a TWR chassis, serving as the de facto replacement for the 787B after the FIA banned the rotary following Mazda’s 1991 Le Mans victory.

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A 1989 MX-6 GTU racer, rear-wheel-drive and 13B-powered lurked in the corner, while a 1991 RX-7 GTO racer (Mazda also won the GTO manufacturer’s championship that year) underwent some work before being sent off to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The ArtNature FC3S, which ran at the Suzuka 1000 and at Le Mans and wears a nose reminiscent of an RE-Amemiya body kit, is sadly merely a parts car for the IMSA racer.

09_Mazda Basement R130 Luce Rotary Coupe & Cosmo Sport_MakeModel

Further down in the depths was Mazda’s collection of pristine street cars, prototypes, and concept cars. There was one of two rare Luce Rotary Coupes known to exist in the US (the other recently ran the JNC Touge California). The only front-wheel-drive rotary Mazda built, of which fewer than a thousand were produced. Powered by the 13A, it wore a pillar-less coupe body with design influence from Giorgetto Giugiaro. There was the 1967 Cosmo Sport as well as the Eunos Cosmo, both of which we spent ample quality time with in Mazda R&D’s courtyard. (The Cosmo Sport is as charming up close as the Eunos Cosmo is magnificent).

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For something a bit different, there was a Suzuki RE5 motorcycle. Those who frequent SevenStock may be familiar with the model, but this particular example had the “tin can” instrument panel which rotates to conceal and reveal the gauges, an 007-grade gadget in the 70s. Powered by a single-rotor 497cc engine, its presence completes the basement’s spectrum of rotary engines from one to four rotors.

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The next few cars may make some JNCers foam at the mouth. First up is an absolutely pristine 1978 GLC (Familia) in glorious yellow and even more glorious yellow plaid seat inserts and floor mats. It had perfectly preserved period body decals and fewer than 10,000 miles on the odometer. Likely the most beautiful example in North America — or anywhere — we’re glad that it resides safely original with the Mazda mothership.

Sitting beside it was a mint 323 GTX in a rare purplish-silver color. With full-time 4WD and turbocharged engine, this little rally car was ahead of its time and is finally seeing more of the recognition it deserves in recent years.

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Two other cars of similar condition were an RX-7 GSL-SE and a Rotary Engine Pickup. The newly acquired REPU, notably, was in the rare Sealike Blue color, complete with the original window sticker (sold in 1976 with a list price of $4011, a bargain).

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The contingent of original Chicago Auto Show Miatas is part of this collection as well. We’ve previously covered the array of historically important Miata prototype, concept and show cars, but seeing them in person always puts smiles on our faces (and makes us want to jump in and disappear into the canyons).

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Along with the Miata, the RX-7 is an important part of Mazda’s sports car heritage. As such, there were no fewer than five FDs (not counting the Bonneville car) in the back of the basement. An eye-catching car is the Titanium Gray Spirit R Type A replica (just one more year until the FD becomes a bona fide nostalgic!). The FC was represented by a 1988 10th Anniversary Edition, while an early-production Spark Yellow SA22C joins the pristine GSL-SE mentioned earlier.

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As you might notice by now, this is no moon, it’s a space station. I mean, this isn’t some small, token collection of cars. Among others in the basement are the prototype for what became the Mazdaspeed3, a high-performance Mazdaspeed RX-8 development mule, the first Mazda2 B-Spec racer, and two of the Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D racers that competed at 25 Hours of Thunderhill, not to mention a gang of NC Miata show cars. There was even an auto show support vehicle, fabricated in-house to the maximum dimensions of a CX-9 that’s essentially a rolling toolshed.

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Mazda also maintains the last examples of the RX-8 and HD 929 imported into the US as well as one of our favorites, a 1974 RX-4 coupe, a new member to the collection waiting for restoration.

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Taken as a whole, the breadth of the collection really demonstrates Mazda’s passion for their products, while the proportion of cars that appeal to the visceral personifies the company’s “Driving Matters” tagline. The significant race cars are awe-inspiring, put perhaps even more impressive to us is the curation of past models in rare, period, or heritage colors and trim. These cars deserve preservation, and there’s perhaps no better home than in the belly of Mazda’s magical basement.

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