It appears that Mazda is continuing its streak of restoring works from its 100-plus years of history. The latest car to be restored is the Mazda MX-81, a 40-year-old concept car that also happens to be the first Mazda to wear the MX designation. First shown at the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show, the MX-81 Aria was a 323 wearing a very period-futuristic body designed by Bertone. It’s a beautiful restoration job that also provides Mazda, and us, an excuse to delve into some curious corners of Mazda’s design heritage.
The company line for how this restoration came to be originates from the newfangled MX-30, which launched in Europe last fall. To assist with the launch, Mazda Italy was interested in showing off the MX-81 and telegrammed the mothership in Hiroshima in late 2019. After all, it was an Italian design and a pioneer of the MX prefix and with a bit of imagination, one might even see the MX-30 as an evolutionary descendant of the Aria’s form.
The request was received at HQ and somehow the famed Nobuhiro Yamamoto, veteran Mazda engineer and program manager for the ND Roadster, got involved. As the story goes, by February 2020 Yamamoto had found the MX-81 in storage at one of Mazda’s warehouses in Hiroshima. Safely stored away with it were MX-02, MX-03, and RX-EVOLV concepts (maybe someday those will get their own spotlights as well).
The 39-year-old concept car was in surprisingly good shape. It was promptly moved to a workshop at Mazda headquarters to undergo a mechanical restoration. Its turbo 1.5-liter four-cylinder was taken apart to restore key components, as were the brake, steering, and electrical systems. Following a track shakedown in Japan, the MX-81 was sent to Italy to have its body and interior restored next.
The cosmetic restoration was undertaken by SuperStile of Turin, who specializes in building and restoring show cars and prototypes. The Torino craftsmen painstakingly restored the hand-formed body to its original paint scheme, and even the glass of the pop-up headlights were recreated, as no details were spared.
The interior was fully restored to its original early-80s glory as well, steam cleaning its swivel front bucket seats and re-sculpting the dashboard around the button-filled consoles. Most trippy was the steering “wheel” — a plastic track belt surrounding a cathode ray tube instrument panel — was rebuilt to functional order (though how it operates is still confounding).
Without a doubt, the MX-81 is a beautiful restoration. It’s a car some of us probably remember seeing photos of once or twice, while Mazda’s many other concept cars may linger larger in our hearts. Yet the restored MX-81 somehow pops out more to our eyes today.
Perhaps it reminds us a bit of the aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars sprinkled with bits of kyusha flavor (those wheels) while also vaguely resembling some of later production Mazdas (headlights on the Astina, rear design of the Familia Neo).
Following the complete restoration, the MX-81 played a role in Mazda’s centenary celebration in Italy by posing with the MX-30 in front of the Milan Cathedral, recreating a forty-year-old press photo of the MX-81.
Not too many companies go through the trouble of restoring old concept cars. In fact, most are destroyed. We applaud what Mazda did here and hope to see even more of its heritage come back to life.
Photos courtesy of Mazda