History originally published in AutoWeek May 7, 1984
The thrill was back, they told us, and how right they were. Emissions controls, beginning in the 1968 model year, had gradually turned most new cars into performance eunuchs. But Mazda was different, and the power of its Wankel engine made the phrase “rotary rocket” part of the automotive lexicon. The humdrum sedans the engines came in were tolerated and the poor gas mileage, in part a result of the “rich burn” thermal reactor emissions control system, was considered a necessary evil. Besides, gas was cheap—30 cents per gallon or less—and the rotary would burn the cheapest.
Then came OPEC oil embargo and the first of the energy crises. Toyo Kogyo, which in the U.S. had gone from 649 cars sold in 1970 when the rotary-engined Mazda R100 was introduced to sales of more than 100,000 in 1973, had its entire corporate existence shaken to the roots. Retrenching, the company dumped plans to scrap its piston engines, and offered models such as the Mazda 808, miserly but miserable. But about when it appeared that Mazda was about to become just another small car company, what would appear but the Mazda RX-7. Fast, beautiful, the first affordable sports car in years, it was the company’s salvation. Why hadn’t Mazda thought of it before?
Fact is, it had. Fact is, the first rotary-engined car Mazda produced was a sports car. Fact is, the car—the Mazda Cosmo Sport—was very, very good.
It was the culmination of Mazda’s rotary engine efforts which had begun in 1961, only a year after Mazda’s first automobile, the tiny twin-cylinder Mazda R360, had rolled off the Hiroshima assembly lines. Having bought production rights from NSU, all Mazda had to do was make it work. Only in December of 1959 had the German car and motorcycle maker first displayed a running prototype, and durability, oil control and satisfactory idling were still unsolved problems. There was no guarantee that the rotary would ever be usable as an automotive powerplant.
But it had too much potential to be ignored. It seemed ideal for micro-cars, and the problems were solved one by one. First a new apex seal design, then a new seal material. Dual ignition, side ports replacing NSU’s peripheral ports, and twin rather than single rotor design all combined to smooth idling. The problem of unequal heat distribution was solved by axial, or lengthwise, coolant flow, with the hot coolant sent back over the “cool” side of the engine. In 1967, Toyo Kogyo finally had a marketable engine.
Marketable? It was a firecracker. With twin rotors and a pair of distributors, the Asian Wankel had two intake ports per cylinder and one triple-barrel carburetor. The primary carb throat fed the inner port of each chamber, while each secondary had an outer port to itself. Not only did the engine have progressive carburetion, but the port placement also affected induction timing. Opening the secondaries would have the same effect as changing to a longer duration cam—with the engine running—on a piston engine. Displacing 982cc, the rotary produced 110 hp at 7000 rpm and 96 lb-ft of torque at 3500.
This was just too good (not to mention too much) for a micro-car, so Toyo Kogyo discarded those plans and wrapped the Wankel in a genuine sports car—the 110S—or by another name, the Mazda Cosmo Sport.
It was a true two seater (contrary to Japanese custom), the layout conventional—front engine with rear drive—but sophisticated.
Front suspension was by A-arms and coil springs, while the rear was a De Dion system. Braking was by discs and drums respectively. The transmission was an all-synchro four-speed, and with a final drive ratio of 4.11:1, the Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S promised a top speed of 115 mph.
Of course, the Japanese had a reputation for “borrowing” ideas and, already having gone to Germany for an engine, drew exterior styling inspiration from Italy (though transliterated into Japanese) and interior design from Great Britain. Actually, the styling has been the most criticized feature of the Mazda Cosmo, “Japanese sci-fi” being the most common epithet. In truth, there is nothing wrong with the basic shape—nothing that some sheet metal de-ornamentation wouldn’t cure. The worst part was the front flanks, where the wheel well eyebrow, side vent and waistline sculpting compete for visual interest.
Otherwise the front end vaguely resembles the Mazda RX-7 with a different headlight treatment, while the greenhouse got the ‘60s ubiquitous “Ford roof” and the rear end somehow comes out T-bird-reminiscent. Likin it may be an acquired taste, like sushi, but it’s one that can be learned.
One can probably learn, too, to enter the Mazda Cosmo gracefully, but it won’t be easy. Feet foul the doorway and knees the steering wheel. It’s a small car, riding on an 86-inch wheelbase and smaller than the original Mazda RX-7 in every external dimension by at least three inches. There is about as much room inside as in an MG Midget, and like the Midget, the seat won’t go back quite far enough, and the steering wheel, thought adjustable for reach, always seems too close. The Japanese must also have learned pedal placement from the British, as the foot controls are small and close together, and though there is a thoughtfully provided dead pedal, it often as not is in the way.
One may need the skill of an origamist to get in and the grace of a kabuki dancer to drive it, but once that is down pat, the Cosmo is a delight to drive. The engine revs with a typical rotary eagerness, which is good because not much happens below 3000 rpm. But from there to the 7000 rpm redline, the 2.060 lb car will accelerate faster than one can recomputed the metric speedometer or readjust to the left-hand shift of the right-hand drive car. The Cosmo is a Japanese car, and the Japanese drive on the wrong side of the road and use the six-tenth mile.
It’s actually quite easy to become accustomed to the car. The instrumentation is complete, the dials big and black with white letters, and the dash well laid out. The noises are clearly rotary, the engine sounding like a well-muffled two-stroke triple. But it’s an earnest sound, and honest sound, and if it sounded any different, it wouldn’t sound right. Cornering is flat and handling light and precise, and the whole package is about as Sports Car as you can get with a fixed roof.
(Incidentally this Cosmo belongs to Jim Barricella, owner of Mazda 17 in upper saddle River, New Jersey. He also owns and of the Cosmo, or half the four Cosmos known to be in the country.)
Significance is where you find it, and for the Cosmo Sport it certainly was not in sales. Produced largely as a way to evaluate the rotary engine in the field with owners as unwitting test drivers, Toyo Kogyo produced only 1,100 from 1967 through 1970, when production ended. Nor does significance come from racing exploits, though a few did make it to Europe and enjoy some competition success. Rather the Mazda Cosmo Sport laid the groundwork, proved the concept and proved it could be done. It was father to three generations of RX-7, and the RX-8, and a sports car could hardly have a more honorable ancestor than the Mazda Cosmo Sport.
The detail oriented will point out that there were two versions of the Cosmo (not counting the later RX-5, but that’s a story to be told later), the L10A and the L10B. The L10A production ended July 1968, replaced by the L10B in 1968 for the duration. Mazda made only 343 of the initial iteration.
The L10B followed, produced at about 20 per month until September 1972. A number of the typical detail changes were overshadowed by the wheelbase being stretched by 5.9 incjhes, showing up most between the rear edge of the door and the rear wheel opening.
Revisions to the engine bumped output to 128bhp at 7000rpm and torque up to 103 lb-ft at 5000 ropm. The transmission gained an overdrive fifth gear, the brakes vacuum assist and air conditioning became an option.