Being unorthodox requires more than creativity. Equally important are courage, perseverance and a relentless commitment to challenging accepted norms. At Mazda, unconventional is a tradition –arguably an obligation – that dates back to its first vehicles. And as history shows, this attitude is the cornerstone of the company’s greatest achievements.

Some 90 years ago, rather than copying existing concepts – a common strategy among manufacturers trying to gain a foothold in the automobile industry – Mazda equipped its first motor vehicle with progressive technology developed in-house. The Mazda-Go Type-DA, a three-wheeled pick-up unveiled in 1930, featured a transmission with a reverse gear and was constructed using lightweight materials, enhancing efficiency and agility as well as payload.

Driving fun and eye-catching looks, afterthoughts at best for utility vehicles of the era, were important to Mazda even then. Take the sprightly Mazda-Go Type GA, which went on sale in 1938. Known as the “Green Panel” because of its exterior finish, the three-wheeler’s 669cm engine and unrivalled four-speed gearbox made it surprisingly sporty while at the same time improving mileage by 20%. This pioneering, driver-oriented spirit has gone into every Mazda model since.

The rugged beauty and history of Hiroshima, its home, has shaped the company’s resilient and fiercely independent character. After the atomic bomb destroyed much of the city in 1945, Mazda played a central role in the city’s reconstruction. Its headquarters, which survived the blast largely intact, would house a hospital as well as the local government, and production of the trucks vital for rebuilding resumed after only four months.

Cementing a tradition

When developing its first mass-production passenger car, Mazda set out again to differentiate itself from the competition. The Mazda R360, a four-seater microcar coupé, did just that. With an adorable exterior alongside an innovative lightweight design, engaging road behaviour and affordable price, it was an immediate sensation. Distinguished by an efficient and durable four-stroke engine, available semi-automatic torque converter transmission – a first in Japan – and wraparound plexiglass rear window, the R360 captured 65% of Japan’s microcar market in 1960 despite its late-May launch.

Lightweight engineering, driving fun and stylish looks became hallmarks of the Mazda brand. The stylish R360 paved the way for striking models to come, including 1960s beauties like the first generation Mazda Luce (1966-73), also known as the 1500/1800/R130, and Mazda Cosmo Sport/110S (1967-72). The tradition lives on today with Kodo design language, which aims to capture the beauty of motion and has garnered the carmaker numerous awards. The latest Kodo designs combine minimalistic forms and simple yet elegant expressions, as exemplified by the Mazda CX-30 compact SUV and 2020 World Car Design of the Year-winning Mazda3.

Back to the 1960s, circumstances would again impel Mazda to explore new territory. Around the time of the R360 launch, a government-initiated industry consolidation threatened to force smaller carmakers like Mazda to merge with larger domestic competitors. Looking to maintain its independence by setting itself apart, Mazda turned its eye to a new technology, signing a licensing deal with NSU to develop the German manufacturer’s Wankel rotary engine.

Technology, painstakingly engineered

The NSU powerplant, as Mazda would soon discover, was plagued with problems. A tenacious attitude served the company well during the years of development to follow. Its experience dating back to the 1920s as a maker of machine tools and other precision industrial equipment also proved invaluable during the painstaking process of redesigning the rotary engine. Dozens of other companies – including some of the world’s largest carmakers – followed Mazda in closing development deals with NSU in the 1960s, but Mazda would be the only one to succeed on the market with rotary-powered vehicles. Everyone else gave up.

Mazda launched its first rotary car, the aforementioned Cosmo Sport/110S, in 1967. The stunning 940kg two-seater sports coupé featured a space-age design and a distinctive sounding twin-rotor engine – the first in a production model – producing 110PS (and later 128PS) from only 982cm3.

Compact yet powerful, the rotary reinforced Mazda’s obsession with lightweight engineering – and pushing the limits with unusual technology and designs. With its low-slung bonnet, the legendary Mazda RX-7 (1978-2002) was designed exclusively for the rotary engine. Mazda would eventually sell almost 2 million rotary vehicles including more than 800,000 RX-7s, making it the top-selling rotary model in history. And in 1991, the rotary-powered Mazda 787B was the first and only car to date without a piston engine to win the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Redefining a classic

This was a mammoth achievement for the carmaker with an engine technology the competition had long written off. Another was certainly the Mazda MX-5. Launched in 1989, it condensed the carmaker’s cumulative experience with efficient lightweight sports car design into less than 4 metres of rear-wheel drive automotive ecstasy. Singlehandedly reviving the market for affordable two-seaters, a segment that was virtually extinct, Mazda went on to make a roaring success of it. Three decades later, the MX-5 continues to redefine driving joy and is deservingly the top-selling roadster in history.

Several competitors have come up with models of their own to compete with the MX-5 over the years, but none have achieved more than a fraction of its popularity. It’s one example among many of Mazda entering technologically uncharted (or neglected) waters in areas that would later grab the attention of the industry. Low-emission vehicles, for example. The Mazda EX005 hybrid concept presented in 1970 used a rotary engine to recharge the batteries powering its electric motors. Three years later, the company unveiled the Mazda CVS Personal Car, an electric people-carrier prototype with autonomous driving technology. And the Mazda Bongo Sky Lounge microbus had solar-powered air conditioning back in 1983.

Mazda saw early potential in hydrogen, too. The Mazda Demio FCEV presented in Kyoto in 1997 is considered one of the world’s first viable fuel-cell passenger car concepts. The HR-X concept (1991), meanwhile, used a hydrogen-fuelled rotary engine¹, as did the Capella Cargo (1995), a publicly tested Mazda 626 wagon. Other hydrogen rotary models would follow, including bi-fuel Mazda RX-8s and Mazda5/Premacy vans leased to customers in Japan. The company also built plug-in battery-electric versions of the Premacy with a hydrogen rotary range extender. The system found its way in 2013 on to a limited-production version of the Mazda2/Demio EV, whose small single-rotor engine doubled the battery-electric subcompact’s range while running on petrol, propane or butane. Today it’s the Mazda MX-30², the company’s first dedicated electric model, which could in future get a similar rotary system.

The future, now

The products of Mazda’s inventive genes are diverse. Its MX-02 concept shown at the 1983 Tokyo Motor Show featured a head-up display and four-wheel steering, and the Mazda 626 4WS (1987) would be one of the first two production cars equipped with the latter. The Eunos Cosmo, a Japan-only luxury sports coupé (1990-95), had the very first touchscreen GPS navigation system. The Mazda MX-3 coupé (1991-98) was available with the world’s smallest V6, a free-revving 1.8-litre that presaged the downsizing trend of the past decade. And in 1993, the Mazda Xedos 9 was the first production model available with a Miller cycle engine, which combines delayed intake valve closure with a supercharger to produce more power while increasing efficiency. Mazda’s experience here would later flow into the Skyactiv powertrain programme.

Featuring extreme compression ratios, among other things, today’s Skyactiv-G petrol and Skyactiv-D diesel engines deliver an exceptional combination of output and real-world fuel efficiency, which also means lower emissions. They are part of the Skyactiv Technology range – including transmissions, car bodies and chassis technology – introduced in 2011 with the first-generation Mazda CX-5. The Skyactiv development process was textbook Mazda: relentlessly exploring ways to avoid conventionally accepted trade-offs, such as output vs. fuel efficiency or handling vs. comfort, to deliver the best possible driving and ownership experience.

More recently, the carmaker took efficient driving fun a step further with the Skyactiv-X launched in 2019 on the CX-30 and Mazda3. A genuine breakthrough for internal combustion, it’s the world’s first mass-production petrol engine to use compression ignition like a diesel, thus uniting the advantages of both. The reception among car buyers has blown away expectations. In May the company started the production of the Mazda MX-30, a full-electric compact SUV slated to go on sale in Europe in fall featuring the new e-Skyactiv drive.

Continually building upon its experience at forging new paths: It’s central to the story of Mazda and how it has survived and indeed flourished over the decades as a small carmaker under often-turbulent conditions. After 100 years, these experiences have shaped Mazda’s character – innovative, ambitious, determined, and of course creative – and are what make the carmaker so uncompromisingly unique.