History originally published in Sport Compact Car October 1996; republished by the author.
No matter how fine you hone your products, if the market has moved on to something else, you’re dead. The best widgets in the world are useless if they been replaced by framuses.
That was the dilemma facing Toyo Kogyo , as Mazda was still known in the late Fifties. The company made the best three-wheeled trucks in the world, and there was still a strong demand for these diminutive haulers. Resembling the three-wheeled Harleys once favored by urban traffic cops, these motorized tricycles easily navigated the narrow streets and alleys of the industrial sections of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Thanks to the single front wheel they could turn in their own length but were rugged enough to carry up to 2 tons. The more sophisticated models had steering wheels and enclosed cabs.
Toyo Kogyo was the leading manufacturer of the three-wheeled trucks. The company could trace to history back to World War I, when it was founded as Toyo Cork Kogyo to supply a domestic substitute for Mediterranean cork unavailable because of the war. War’s end, however, brought back the real stuff, so the company needed to find another product or perish. Jujiro Matsuda was brought in as a director and then president, and seeing little future in cork, turned the company to industrial production, mostly subcontract work for steelmaker Nihon Seikosho. But this work, mostly destined for Japan’s growing military, was too dependent on politics. Matsuda saw a more stable market in civilian goods.
To that end, 30 prototype motorcycles were built in 1930, which Japan, still a relatively poor country, had little private consumption of vehicles. The company decided instead to build three-wheeled trucks for which the commercial market was bigger. The company adopted the tradename “Mazda” for its products – also use on GE lightbulbs in the US – after the Zoroastrian God of light and creator of the world. It also sounded very much like the Japanese pronunciation of Matsuda.
Sales of three-wheeled trucks boomed. Toyo Kogyo even built and displayed a prototype sedan in 1940, but with Japanese military expansion already in full swing, a commercial automobile project was doomed. The coming years would be spent in war production. Conventional bombing and even the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima miraculously left Toyo Kogyo’s plant and offices largely unscathed. Production of three-wheeled trucks began soon after war’s and, and four-wheeled trucks followed in 1958. With sales of the workaday trikes, particularly the 1157cc V-twin powered CT of 1950 designed by young engineer Kenichi Yamamoto (later to be called godfather of the rotary engine), were pulled along by the blooming Japanese economy. Toyo Kogyo led not only in production of the three-wheelers, but including the number one vehicle producer in Japan in 1962
But Tsuneji Matsuda, who became president after his father’s death in 1951, could read the ideograms on the wall. The three-wheeled truck thrived in a country that could not afford better; but affluence would mean the end of that market. So in the late Fifties the younger Matsuda ordered the development of an automobile design for private consumption (and not, incidentally, the taxi trade, which to could fade with growing personal wealth). Then new R360 debuted in 1960; the same year-three wheeled truck production peaked and began to slide, proving Matsuda-san’s prophecy.
No matter though as the new R360 sold 23,417 units in its first year, instantly leading Japan’s kei (“light”) car class. The R360 was designed to fit Japan’s tax code which taxed “midget” (sub- 360cc) cars at one-tenth the normal rate while literally taxing over-two and over thigh-three liter cars out of existence. Furthermore, drivers were exempt from licensing and insurance formalities, and Tokyo owners were not required to have parking or garage space. No wonder the cars were popular in the nation just getting its first taste of personal prosperity.
The Mazda R360 was cuter than pigtails on a first grader, with a rounded profile in a bubble of a greenhouse. It had seating for two; undoubtedly more would have overwhelmed its rear mounted and air cooled 356cc four-stroke V-twin. It made all of 16 hp at 5300 rpm and gave the R360 at top speed of 56 mph. That wasn’t as much of a problem as it might seem: Typical cruising speed on Japan’s roads was 35 mph. Buyers had a choice of a manual four-speed transmission or an automatic gearbox with a two-speed converter.
The success of the R360 led to the P360 Carol of 1962. Water cooling and minor changes boosted output to 20 HP at 6800 rpm and raised top speed to 65. A more conventional body shape was available with two or four doors. A hit? It captured 67 percent of the kei class sales. Mazda had a solid beachhead in automobile production. The Rest, as they say, Was History.
But it was the tiny R360 that saved the Mazda from fading away with the three-wheeled truck, and without which the legacy of sports and performance cars never would have been possible.
Addendum: A company being save by a “bubble car” isn’t limited to Mazda. Consider also the BMW Isetta. And if you want to stretch the point, the Ford Model T rescued Ford from potential obscurity that befell so many manufacturers that produced quality automobiles that were too expensive for everyman to buy.