Exactly 100 years ago today, on January 30, 1920, Toyo Cork Kogyo was founded. This company, whose name translates to Oriental Cork Industries, would go on to build cars under the name Mazda. Thus, today marks the 100th anniversary of Mazda, a storied and charismatic firm that has brought us some of history’s most memorable and beloved enthusiasts’ cars.
Mazda’s cars tend to be unlike those of other companies. The best examples are marked by engineering excellence, innovation, creativity, a deep passion for the automobile, and a spirit of independence, defiance, and downright awesomeness. A comprehensive account of Mazda’s history could fill volumes, so on this centenary we will examine several milestones in Mazda’s history. This is not a “best of” or “greatest hits” list. Instead, it’s a search of what makes the Hiroshima company and its products so unique and special.
Toyo Cork Kogyo was founded in 1920 in Hiroshima, Japan. However, it was not founded by Mazda’s eventual namesake. That individual, Jujiro Matsuda (Mazda is a variation on that surname), did not join the company until shortly after. Matsuda did hail from Hiroshima, though at a young age he went to apprentice with a blacksmith in Osaka. That experience sparked an interest in the machine industry and a life-long dedication to engineering. In 1906, the 31-year-old Matsuda founded his own company, Osaka Matsuda Manufacturing, eventually developing and producing water pumps of his own patented design. By the time he moved back to Hiroshima in 1918, he was a successful businessman.
By 1920, Toyo Cork Kogyo was facing business trouble. Matsuda was brought in and eventually appointed president. Under his leadership, the company produced novel cork products that turned its fortunes around, only to have it all burn down, literally, five years later. Rebuilding from the ashes, Matsuda decided to focus the company on his passion, machines.
“Cork” soon disappeared from the company’s name, with a new Toyo Kogyo logo symbolizing this focus on machines and engineering. The trademark was a stylized kanji character “工,” the first character in the terms engineering and industry, within a circle representing the Earth. The mark could be found on many parts in Mazda cars for years to come. Its message: giving back to society through engineering.
The newly relaunched Toyo Kogyo, with its focus on machines and engineering, set forth towards its eventual place in the automotive industry by way of motorcycle. But, perhaps not the exact motorcycle you are thinking of. There was racing involved, and a dark horse victory.
In the mid-1920s, the automobile was becoming a focus of attention as a means of transportation in Japan. This was helped in part by the country-wide road-building following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Motorcycles were growing in popularity, as was motorcycle racing, though many of these bikes were imported or locally assembled from imported parts. Seeing an opportunity and true to Matsuda’s philosophy, Toyo Kogyo set out to develop and build its own motorcycle from the ground up. Work began in 1929, and by the following October the Toyo Kogyo motorcycle, powered by a 250cc 2-stroke engine, debuted at the races in Hiroshima.
To the surprise of the spectators, at its first race the Toyo Kogyo bike beat the odds-on favorite, the British Ariel. Thirty more motorcycles of this type were produced that year and sold. The following year, Toyo Kogyo would produce the three-wheeled motorcycle-truck known as the Mazda-go, widely considered Mazda’s first “car.” It fared better as a more mass-market product, putting the company on track as a purveyor of affordable vehicles that mobilized the developing Japan.
As one of the first fully domestically developed and produced motorcycles in Japan and Mazda’s first motorized vehicle, the original Toyo Kogyo bike is a true treasure of history. That it beat the European establishment at its racing debut put the company on the path to eventually creating cars like the Miata and RX-7.
In 1945, Hiroshima was largely destroyed by the atomic bomb. One of Toyo Kogyo’s facilities in nearby Fuchu — where the current Mazda headquarters and the Hiroshima factory sit today — survived the blast and became instrumental to the city’s recovery. It even served as the prefectural government’s headquarters as the city healed.
Four months following the end of World War II, Toyo Kogyo was able to restart production of its three-wheeled trucks. Providing people with these affordable vehicles was viewed by Matsuda as an important contribution to the ongoing reconstruction of Hiroshima — giving back to society through engineering of machines, as told by Toyo Kogyo’s logo.
Indeed, the Toyo Kogyo trucks became instrumental in the area’s post-war mobilization and economic development. They were a common sight in Hiroshima through the early 1950s, with many iterations and evolutions to suit different needs, from larger trucks to even a six-seater passenger car.
Four-wheeled cars were becoming more common in Japan in the 1950s, though they were still expensive for most Japanese people. In response, the Japanese government created the kei jidosha program to create cost-effective people’s cars in order to help the citizenry mobilize.
This budding automotive landscape was transformed by Toyo Kogyo’s first four-wheeled passenger car in 1960, the Mazda R360. Powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled V-twin, the four-seat kei car was the perfect family vehicle, and also happened to be incredibly affordable at the time. It quickly became Japan’s best-selling car.
Two years after the R360’s debut, it was joined by the Carol. Though measuring the same length as the R360 as dictated by kei jidosha rules, the Carol was a more comfortable four-passenger car. With a four-cylinder water-cooled 360cc engine, monocoque body, and independent suspension all around, the Carol was extremely well-engineered. As a result, it dominated the market like the R360 before it. Both cars also saw racing action at the Japan Grand Prix.
Lest Mazda neglect the market for three-wheeled commercial vehicles, the Mazda-go was succeeded by the K360 in 1959. Unlike the earlier motorcycle-based trucks, the K360 had a fully-enclosed two-passenger cabin with safety glass windshield, roll-down side windows, and a steering wheel instead of handle bars. All three vehicles enjoyed long production lives and are now iconic of the era. The engineering and design caliber of Mazda automobiles were maturing and coming into focus through these cars.
The Rotary Engine and the Cosmo Sport
Going into the 1960s, Toyo Kogyo was on its way to produce a fuller range of vehicles from various trucks (unmentioned above is the massive T2000 three-wheeler) to compacts to passenger cars like the original Familia. Compared to the likes of Toyota or Nissan, however, it was still a very small company. Tsuneji Matsuda, like his adoptive father Jujiro, believed that engineering innovation could set his company apart and ensure its survival in the market. The rest, as they say, is history, as Toyo Kogyo acquired a license to develop the novel rotary engine in 1961, succeeding and showing it off in the Cosmo Sport at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show.
The Cosmo Sport was among the most futuristic cars ever made. Even if you knew nothing of its powertrain, its design is among the most well-executed automotive impressions of a spacecraft straight out of science fiction. During its development, Toyo Kogyo famously unleashed a fleet of 60 Cosmo Sports across Japan’s roads for real-world testing covering approximately 375,000 miles. Imagine humming along a Japanese highway at the time in your Familia or Bluebird as a Cosmo Sport shows up in your rear view mirror, then hearing the strange sound as it passes you by, knowing that the car is powered without pistons, and watching those haunting rectangular afterburner taillights as the car pulls away.
Much has been written about the Cosmo Sport. Heaping further praise on it is akin to writing yet another article on the Beatles. Yet the reality is that the car is special. Few other companies, if any, would — or could — build something like the Cosmo Sport. The rotary engine license was issued to several companies, Mercedes-Benz in Germany, Citroen in France, and General Motors in the US. None of those giants could make it happen.
It was a dedicated team of 47 engineers from Hiroshima, dubbing themselves the 47 Ronin of the Rotary Engine, that ultimately turned it into reality. Led by Kenichi Yamamoto, once a line worker at Mazda’s transmission plant and who through his talents eventually ascended to the role of president of the entire company, the effort was a triumph against naysayers and an unlocking of laws of physics themselves.
Not only did they make use of it in a sports car application, they sent it into battle in some of the most grueling motorsports competitions in the world. There, Mazda’s rotary engine proved itself as a viable innovation, one that powered the marque’s leading sports cars for nearly half a century.
The technical story of how Yamamoto and the 47 Ronin succeeded where others had failed is an oft-told one, but no so often mentioned is how there was a romance surrounding the pursuit. Mazda’s rebirth from the embers of Hiroshima gave the engineers and enthusiasts in the firm a spirit of tremendous determination. Coupled with Japan’s post-war economic miracle, there was a courage to try everything and an optimism that anything was possible. To prove that the company, the town, and the nation would not succumb to Hiroshima’s destruction, the Cosmo Sport prototypes wore a literal symbol nodding to the devastation — an atomic symbol logo.
While that nod to the nuclear past didn’t make it into production, another one did, and that will be the subject of Part 02’s opening.
To be continued…
Some images courtesy of Mazda.