Mazda turned 100 years old earlier this year, and to mark this very special occasion we went in search of what makes this small Hiroshima carmaker so unique. In the previous installment of our retrospective, we examined Mazda’s origin story and early milestones. We arrived at the dawn of the Rotary Era and the development and Cosmo Sport, arguably one of the most futuristic and innovative cars ever created. In Part 02, we pick up where we left off with the Savanna, better known to the rest of the world as the Mazda RX-3.
As important and desirable as the Cosmo Sport was, it was a halo car. Priced at ¥1.48 million, or roughly the cost of three Toyota Corollas, it was never meant for volume or mass consumption. Mazda’s rotary technology would become much more accessible to the masses through its more conventional offerings, beginning with the Familia Rotary and followed by the Capella Rotary. In what was quickly established as a tradition for Mazda, each successive rotary-powered fighter was sent into the arena of motorsports. Their newest sibling, the Savanna, raised the bar even further.
The car was named after the NS Savannah, the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship. Part of the Atoms for Peace initiative in the 1950s to demonstrate peaceful applications of nuclear power, the Savannah embodied a belief very dear to the people of Mazda’s hometown, Hiroshima. The Savanna car, then, embodied a persevering spirit that would become an indelible part of Mazda’s history.
Originally intended to succeed the Familia, the Savanna was smaller and less sophisticated than the Capella. It would, however, be remembered as a racing legend thanks to the David versus Goliath story — the Goliath here being the legendary Nissan Skyline 2000GT-R. The original GT-R, armed with a sophisticated multi-valve twin-cam S20, had dominated Japan’s touring car series since its debut in 1969, often sweeping the all three podium spots. Only Mazda, the comparatively tiny carmaker from Hiroshima, could muster a challenge to the unstoppable Hakosuka with the Capella RX-2, but it never beat it outright.
In 1971, Mazda introduced the Savanna as its latest contender. Mazda, smaller and poorer than Nissan, often fielded several Capellas alongside the new rotary warrior. Throughout the year they pressed the mighty GT-Rs until one of the last events of the year, amidst a torrential December rainstorm, that the Skyline GT-R’s dominance was finally ended. As it happens, the win would have been the Hakosuka’s 50th, a fact heavily publicized by Nissan leading up to the race. That Mazda not only felled the strongest touring car of the era, but did it while snatching the spotlight from under its nose, immortalized the Savanna RX-3 in Japanese motor racing history.
Much of Mazda’s first wave of rotary and enthusiast vehicles, including the Savanna, Capella, and even the Familia, soldiered on through much of the the 1970s. During this time, the world lived through the first oil crisis and its widespread effects. Facing a sudden market focus on fuel efficiency, no one would have blamed Mazda it it had abandoned the rotary engine. Instead, with an ingenious pivot it pulled the next rabbit out of its hat: the RX-7.
The venerated RX-7 needs little introduction. In its home market, it retained the Savanna name as a nod to the line’s sporty image and racing lore. Its design, penned by Matasaburo Maeda, was as futuristic as the Cosmo Sport’s was in 1967. Its compact size, light weight, and simplicity delivered an authentic sports driving experience that was rare in an automotive era described as anemic at best. In short, it was a brilliant move on Mazda’s part that stayed true to its conviction in the rotary engine and paid off not only on the business case but also in enthusiasts’ books.
It paid off on the track as well. Like its predecessors, the RX-7 saw plenty of action and even more victories. It enjoyed incredible success in IMSA racing, where it won, upon its racing debut, the 24 Hours of Daytona and that year’s GTU Championship, going on to become the single winningest model in IMSA history. The RX-7 didn’t stop there, also conquering the 24 Hours of Spa in Europe and taking on rallying, even dabbling in the famed Group B. Last but not least, it served as a starting point for Mazda’s Le Mans challenge.
717C and Mazdaspeed
Endurance racing was clearly on Mazda’s radar from early on, with the 84-hour Marathon de la Route seen as a proving ground for the Cosmo Sport and the rotary engine. The company had also been involved with Le Mans as early as 1970. The RX-7-based 252i raced in 1979, but it was not until 1983 when Mazda stepped up its Le Mans challenge to the next level with the 717C prototype operated by the new team, Mazdaspeed.
Mazdaspeed was established in 1982 from Mazda Sports Corner, the historic racing outfit that grew out of the largest Mazda dealer in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Mazda was the majority stakeholder fueling Mazdaspeed’s full commitment to conquering Le Mans. To do so with an outright victory, it knew that, ultimately, it needed a dedicated prototype racer. A 1982 rule change paved a way in, and the 717C was born.
The 717C was designed and constructed by Mooncraft, who built the previous RX-7-based Le Mans racers. A peripheral ported 13B along with a body meticulously optimized for aerodynamics gave the 717C an excellent top speed. The two cars entered finished 12th and 18th overall in 1983, including a class win, a first for a Japanese manufacturer. With this auspicious start, the 717C marked the beginning of what would become an arduous but glorious journey at Le Mans.
The FWD era
The first RX-7 may have saved the rotary, but what saved Mazda’s business through the 1970s and 1980s were bread-and-butter cars that nevertheless became iconic machines. Beginning with the third-generation Familia, sold in the US as the GLC, Mazda established a tradition of making affordable and often innovative cars that mobilized the masses while keeping its business going. This was especially true for the front-wheel drive Familias and Capellas.
Japan’s first full-time all-wheel drive system was seen on the fifth-generation Familia Turbo, which formed the basis for Mazda’s Group A rally efforts. The mechanical layout and technology of the Familia 4WD Turbo foreshadowed the likes of the WRX and Lancer Evolution and, before Subaru or Mitsubishi, became the first Japanese car to win a WRC race.
It was truly ahead of its time and, delightfully, a version of this car was sold in the US as the 323 GTX, complete with selectable locking center differential. The concept was furthered developed into the subsequent generation Familia GT-R. More accessible hot hatch variants of the Familia were also available as part of a fully developed lineup that included a very period basket-handled convertible.
Not to be left out, the mid-sized Capella received its share of innovative technology as well. And like the Familia, the lineup encompassed a diverse range of models from utilitarian to sporty, including liftbacks, diesel stepped-roof wagons, and festive canvas-roof’d sedans.
The world’s first speed-sensing four-wheel steering system arrived on the fourth-generation Capella. The system was more advanced than that of the Honda Prelude, coupling both electronic and hydraulic mechanisms. When equipped with both 4WS and the intercooled turbo engine, the Capella was a sports sedan like no other on the market.
Both the Familia and Capella also formed the basis of the badge-engineered Ford Laser and Telstar, both ubiquitous throughout Asia Pacific and Oceania in the same way that the Civic and Accord have been in North America. Though they were mass-market cars, these FWD-based Mazdas were certainly iconic of the era and carried their share of the Mazda ethos.
Though sometimes overshadowed by other Japanese rivals in markets like North America, that Mazda ethos would come into full view as the the Bubble Era reached its peak. Mazda was just getting started, and soon some of the most iconic cars to wear its name would soon revolutionize the sports car market.
To be continued…
Some images courtesy of Mazda.