Automotive

Mazda celebrates 50 years of the rotary engine

Mazda celebrates 50 years of t...
Mazda is celebrating 50 years of the Wankel Rotary 
Mazda is celebrating 50 years of the Wankel Rotary 
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A collection of rotary engined Mazdas is rare 
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A collection of rotary engined Mazdas is rare 
Mazda is celebrating 50 years of the Wankel Rotary 
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Mazda is celebrating 50 years of the Wankel Rotary 
The Cosmo Sport 110S was the first rotary engined Mazda
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The Cosmo Sport 110S was the first rotary engined Mazda
The 787B won Le Mans in 1991
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The 787B won Le Mans in 1991
Mazda slotted the rotary engine into everything from buses to sports cars 
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Mazda slotted the rotary engine into everything from buses to sports cars 
The Mazda Cosmo Sport debuted 50 years ago today 
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The Mazda Cosmo Sport debuted 50 years ago today 
The RX-8 is the final rotary car to roll forth from the Mazda factory 
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The RX-8 is the final rotary car to roll forth from the Mazda factory 
The quaint proportions of the Cosmo Sport 
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The quaint proportions of the Cosmo Sport 
The Luce Gran Turismo was powered by a rotary engine
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The Luce Gran Turismo was powered by a rotary engine
Turbocharging was used to boost the rotary over the years 
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Turbocharging was used to boost the rotary over the years 
The RX-7 is a cult hero among the Japanese sports car community
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The RX-7 is a cult hero among the Japanese sports car community
Rotary engines with hydrogen have been on the development table at Mazda for a while 
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Rotary engines with hydrogen have been on the development table at Mazda for a while 
The 787B takes on Le Mans 
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The 787B takes on Le Mans 
The 787B is the only Japanese car to win Le Mans 
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The 787B is the only Japanese car to win Le Mans 
The 787B sounds rabid at full noise 
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The 787B sounds rabid at full noise 
The Mazda Cosmo Sport 110 debuted in Tokyo 
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The Mazda Cosmo Sport 110 debuted in Tokyo 
The Mazda Familia Rotary Coupe 
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The Mazda Familia Rotary Coupe 
Rotary power has shown up in a huge range of cars over the years, including the Luce Rotary Coupe 
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Rotary power has shown up in a huge range of cars over the years, including the Luce Rotary Coupe 
The Mazda Savanna is another of the brand's legendary rotary model 
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The Mazda Savanna is another of the brand's legendary rotary model 
Rotary power even showed up in a 26-seater bus 
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Rotary power even showed up in a 26-seater bus 
The body of this car is strikingly similar to classic Holdens 
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The body of this car is strikingly similar to classic Holdens 
The Cosmo name was reused on rotary Mazda models after the '60s original
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The Cosmo name was reused on rotary Mazda models after the '60s original
The RX-7 badge has turned into one of the best known in the motoring world 
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The RX-7 badge has turned into one of the best known in the motoring world 
Mazda bet its survival on making the rotary work 
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Mazda bet its survival on making the rotary work 
The Mazda RX-7 went through a few different iterations, but the last generation is the most famous 
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The Mazda RX-7 went through a few different iterations, but the last generation is the most famous 
The legendary Mazda RX-7
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The legendary Mazda RX-7
The RX-8 is the last rotary Mazda to make production  
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The RX-8 is the last rotary Mazda to make production  
A look at the inner workings of a Mazda rotary 
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A look at the inner workings of a Mazda rotary 
Mazda has labelled the engineers responsible for the first generation rotary engine the 47 Samurai
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Mazda has labelled the engineers responsible for the first generation rotary engine the 47 Samurai
Developing the rotary was no small task
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Developing the rotary was no small task
A look at the inside of a RENESIS Rotary 
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A look at the inside of a RENESIS Rotary 
Mazda has played with dual, triple and quad rotor designs 
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Mazda has played with dual, triple and quad rotor designs 
The rotary died off in 2012 because of emissions controls 
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The rotary died off in 2012 because of emissions controls 
A look at how Mazda has refined the rotary for the RX-8
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A look at how Mazda has refined the rotary for the RX-8
The rotary is on hold for now, but Mazda wants to keep it alive 
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The rotary is on hold for now, but Mazda wants to keep it alive 

Although it showed plenty of promise during development, the rotary engine was never widely used. Rotary (or Wankel) engines are renowned for smoothness, but they chew through fuel and lack torque compared to piston engines. In spite of these flaws, the technology enjoys a cult following thanks to Mazda and its range of rotary sports cars. Today marks 50 years since the Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S launched in Tokyo, and started a rotary love affair in the process.

The rotary engine design was dreamt up by engineer (and notorious Nazi) Felix Wankel, who saw it as a way to deliver exceptional smoothness and power from a small package. Essentially a Wankel engine has just two moving parts – a triangular rotor and an eccentric shaft, which is equivalent to the crankshaft on a piston engine. The combustion process spins the rotor around its (roughly) oval-shaped housing to drive the central shaft. The result is a compact, smooth, valveless engine – but also one that's thirsty and wears out relatively quickly.

The rotary died off in 2012 because of emissions controls 
The rotary died off in 2012 because of emissions controls 

Mazda – then known as Toyo Kogyo Corporation – was famed for its trucks and micro cars in the '60s, but wanted to differentiate itself from the crowd of Japanese manufacturers gunning for the Western market with a new sports car. With that in mind, it purchased the rights to the Wankel Rotary from NSU in 1962, and set about refining it for production.

Having banked their survival on the Wankel, engineers in Hiroshima set about refining it for production. Mazda calls the team behind the development of rotary the 47 Samurai. The twin-rotor Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S made its public debut at the 1964 Tokyo Motor Show, and landed in showrooms on May 30 in 1967.

Although the Cosmo Sport sold in very limited numbers, Mazda stuck with the rotary configuration, eventually using it to power everything from family cars to a 26-seater bus. Most motoring enthusiasts are more interested in the RX-7 or RX-8 though, both of which separated themselves from the crowd of sports cars with an insane appetite for revs. Unfortunately, the RENESIS engine in the RX-8 also had an insatiable appetite for petrol and oil, and simply didn't have the torque to compete with more conventional engines.

A collection of rotary engined Mazdas is rare 
A collection of rotary engined Mazdas is rare 

Beyond its applications on the road, the rotary engine powered the 787B to victory at Le Mans in 1991. Not only does the orange-and-green racer sound like a swarm of angry bees armed with chainsaws, it has the honor of being the only Japanese car ever to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Tight emissions standards means there's no guarantee we'll ever see another Mazda rotary. The company insists the layout hasn't been forgotten, and the idea of a hydrogen-powered Wankel has been floated and tested. The RX-Vision from the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show was "powered" by a hybrid rotary setup, but whether the mysterious powertrain will ever see the light of day is another question.

Just under 2 million rotary-powered Mazdas were sold.

Source: Mazda

8 comments
DaveSpicer
In the US, the Savanna was marketed as the RX-3. I had a '73, then a '77 SP. Great fun, although the 3rd gear synchros were a little weak... guess I was pushing them a little :-)
equator180
60 k miles (+/- a few K either way) seems to be the magic number before a major mechanical investment. It was the magic number twice for me. Fun while it lasted, no more.
William H Lanteigne
They just need to stuff a rotary into a Miata. Or a Ford V8 instead. Just don't call it a Cobra.
Username
"Why go up and down when the wheels go round and round?" Oddly enough also makes a good argument in favor of electric motors!
Dan Lewis
Yes, it's frankly amazing they haven't wised up yet. Those who have owned rotary cars know better than to get another one.
Stephen N Russell
Revive for Today??? Never drove rotory Mazda before.
Tom Lee Mullins
I think that is really neat. I read that it has been improved. I think it would be neat to have a car with it in it. There is a variation of it by Liquid Piston. http://liquidpiston.com/
Jose Gros
a -Felix Wankel, inventor of the Rotary Combustion Engine having his surname, never got an engineering grade, he was a self-taught expert in tightness and holder of some patents; part of the development of his engines was made with cooperation from NSU engineers. b -He wasn't a 'prominent' nazi party member, as a matter of fact, around the days the NSDAP won the elections, he was expelled from party, and past some time imprisoned, because an argument with a nazi of high rank c-The Renesis engine in RX-8 met emissions standards, but was expelled from market in Europe, as being considered in the class of below 1.5 liters, emitted CO2 in proportion to its top power of near 300 HP, Rotaries are not 'oil-thirsty'; oil is added to working chambers to lubricate seals, users add 1% oil in gasoline, oil change is not needed, so, the overall oil use is same or lower than in an ordinary, reciprocating engine. d -The issue with Wankel engine may be that light-load, low rpm efficiency is somehow worse than in a reciprocating, especially a Compression Ignition, Diesel engine, this light-work is the most used zone for car engines, very little time over 25% or 50% of top nominal power, and RCE results suffer from this. When Mazda announced long, long ago a micro-car in the Japanese class of 360 cc displacement, other makers beg for mercy, as the Mazda Wankel micro-car would have expelled them from the business. Mazda never produced it