The design and development of sports cars began at Mazda alongside the development of its unique rotary engine. Innovation is at the very heart of Mazda’s vehicle design process and its commitment to minimal, no-nonsense, yet stylish and emotional vehicle design is embedded in its culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of Mazda sports cars.
Cosmo Sport 110S (1967) The Cosmo Sport 110S, – often considered to be the most beautiful sports car built by Mazda – was the very first Mazda sports car and the first Mazda to adopt rotary technology. Introduced in 1967, from a concept first seen in 1964, the Cosmo Sport 110S led a revolution in sports car design and not just at Mazda. Its influence was so staggering it became a serious threat to domestic sports car manufacturers in the North American market, who struggled to reply to its groundbreaking two-rotor rotary engine. An engine that many people thought impossible to mass-produce reliably until manufactured by Mazda.
The design of the Cosmo was a long-bonnet passengers-back form with a front engine rear-wheel drive layout. This type of sports car design was very popular at the time. But it was Mazda’s interpretation of a Western sports car that ensured the car’s popularity. Styling-wise the car was a unique Japanese take on classic European sports cars like the Triumph Spitfire. Mazda’s advanced engine inspired futuristic styling: Long and low, the car incorporated a number of aerodynamic elements including faired in, covered headlights and rear brake lights reminiscent of jet engine afterburners. The lightweight Cosmo was seen as quaint, quirky and fun with an easy-going nature.
To prove the reliability and performance of its engine, Mazda entered the 84-hour Marathon de la Route at the legendary Nürburgring circuit in Germany. Not only did the Cosmo finish, it finished fourth, and quashed any doubts about Mazda’s rotary engine technology. The Cosmo was beautiful, reliable and fun to drive and was the first true Mazda sports car. It set Mazda on course to becoming a brand synonymous with lightweight, affordable and spirited sports car design.
RX-7 (1978) It was the introduction of the first generation RX-7 in 1978 that was to have the most profound influence on the sports car market, especially in North America.
Mazda’s 105 PS coupé, with its dual-rotor engine was so successful it achieved ‘cult’ status in the USA seemingly overnight. The reason? For the first time car owners could buy a high quality, attractive sports car with superior performance and do so affordably. This was all thanks to Mazda’s rotary engine, an engine that was physically smaller and lighter than a conventional four-cylinder engine, yet as powerful as a six-cylinder. Such was the engine’s compactness; it could be positioned in a front-mid location allowing its designers greater freedom in creating the RX-7’s beautiful aerodynamic shape, ensuring a near perfect 50:50 weight distribution.
The result was an elegant, comfortable, practical and affordable 2+2 sports car with superior performance and stability, which broke new ground.
Designed by Matasaburo Maeda – father of Mazda’s current head of design and RX-8 designer Ikuo Maeda – the guiding principle underlying the RX-7 design was “functional beauty” in order to create a sports car that was elegant and classical in style. Like its spiritual predecessor, the Cosmo Sport 110S, the RX-7 was shaped by aerodynamics resulting in a low profiled, gently curving form that could slip through the air. At the front retractable headlights reduced drag. The rear, with its jet-like canopy, triangular side windows and distinctive square boot further enhanced the RX-7’s arrowhead-like shape.
MX-5 1st Generation (1989) Unusually, the design of the MX-5 began from a sketch by American Journalist Bob Hall, who drew a two-seat roadster on a blackboard in the Hiroshima office of Mazda’s head of development Kenichi Yamamoto in 1979. Hall was certain there was a place for a small, inexpensive and fun two- seater sports car in the vein of classic British sports cars of the past.
Now, more than 900,000 cars later the little two-seat roadster which rebooted the small, affordable and lightweight sports car segment and ignited the car industry, is an icon.
Mazda’s decision to make its little roadster was a brave one. Penned by design manager Tsutomu (Tom) Matano, the final design of the MX-5 was a true collaborative effort: A global six-man design team all had a hand in its formation. Created at Mazda’s design centre in Irvine, California, the design team was led by Shinzo Kubo from Japan, Mark Jordan in the USA and included Tom Matano, Shunji Tanaka, Koichi Hayashi and Wu-Huan Chin. The final production version also included subtle changes by Shunji Tanaka.
The team employed the principle of Jinba Ittai from traditional Japanese culture. Jinba Ittai means “oneness between horse and rider” and at its heart the MX-5 was engineered so that the driver would feel the fundamental joy of the driving experience by being in perfect harmony with the MX-5 machine.
The little MX-5 had the same extended bonnet, two-passengers back dimensions of its RX-7 sibling but was less angular thanks to its smooth, rounded-off edges. The design of the MX-5’s signature rear lamps were considered so beautiful in their simplicity they were exhibited at the Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
MX-5 2nd generation (1998) For the 2nd generation MX-5 Programme Manager Takao Kijima's maxim was to create a car that had superior vehicle dynamics and was better equipped while adding minimal weight – just 40kg overall.
Despite creating a car that had wider tracks, and which was slightly larger in all dimensions, Mazda’s aim was to have no excessive “visual” mass added to the car. With this in mind, chief designer Koichi Hayashi and his design team created a car with strong shoulders flowing down to a taut waist before merging onto sculptured and sporty rocker panels. The result was a roadster with smooth rounded-off edges everywhere, but with side panels that now articulated a more muscular look thanks to the two character lines on its flanks. At the front, the pop-up headlamps were gone, replaced by almond-shape lamps.
RX-8 (2003) The world’s first four-door, four-seat sports car, the RX-8 represents further insightful innovation at Mazda. The development of the RX-8 again confirmed the validity of Mazda’s rotary engine technology. Its design introduced an entirely new body style: A four-passenger, athletic-looking sports coupé with no central B-pillars, while simultaneously ensuring rigidity and easy rear-seat access for passengers. Overcoming difficult engineering challenges, the RX-8’s designers succeeded in creating a beautiful, lightweight, practical, powerful and exciting sports coupé with perfect 50:50 weight distribution.
Created by Ikuo Maeda, Mazda’s current head of design, the design of the RX-8 was based on an underlying principle of ‘athletic tension’. Design elements including the RX-8 wheel arches and dynamic lines continue to inform Mazda’s entire vehicle line-up.
MX-5 3rd Generation (2005) It would be an understatement to suggest that the first and second generation MX-5 were tough acts to follow. The third generation MX-5 was an all-new, completely redesigned version of the iconic original. First seen as the Ibuki concept at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, Mazda’s designers went back to the drawing board in the creation of the third generation roadster and it shared not one common part with the original (besides its cult, circular side indicator lamps).
Penned by chief designer Yasushi Nakamuta, the genius in the design of the current MX-5 is that it has maintained its iconic heritage while looking entirely contemporary. The result was a roadster that was bigger and more aggressive looking than its predecessors. The wider body provided a wider track and more cabin space, but its clever styling ensured that the third generation MX-5 hid its extra width well. The introduction of a new 16-valve, 2.0l engine increased power further, ensuring that the legacy of Mazda’s sharp looking and easy to drive roadster continues.
Pure and simple, the sporty at-one-with-the-car design of the MX-5 has been constantly improved over the last 20 years while remaining true to its fundamental principle and character. The principle of spirited driving performance, engineered so that the driver can experience the fundamental joy of driving while in harmony with the car, in a lightweight and innovative package has been translated into every vehicle Mazda has designed since. And it will be part of every car that Mazda will design in the future.
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