Blog: Graeme RobertsBye-bye rotary

Graeme Roberts | 10 October 2011

Mazda doggedly persevered with the Wankel rotary engine long after the VW Group (NSU) gave up and others looked but never put a car into production.

We're told just short of 2m cars have been built since '67.

I'll never forget my first go in one. I was on a holiday job at the local auto radio installer and an RX-2 came in for the then customary AM radio with one speaker and five-pushbutton tuning. Wow. Every car had to be tested to ensure there was no ignition or alternator interference and, well, we tested it.

"How did it go?" asked the boss. "Like the clappers," we said. "And the radio installation...?"

Mazda ran rotary and piston engine models side by side for a while - hence RX-2 and 616; RX3 and 808, RX-4 and 929, etc. If you got to drive both, the piston models were always a comparative disappointment but the rotaries were heavy on fuel which did them no favours during the oil crises of the mid and late 1970s.

And there was also the problem with the rotor tips so the engines lost compression eventually. Mazda worked tirelessly on this and sorted it in the end.

Now the rotary is gone, a victim of noughties fuel consumption and emissions requirements. Who'd heard of CO2 emissions in 1967?

I'll long recall the two-stroke-like snarl under acceleration and the kick-in-the-pants acceleration. But there's just the faintest hint Mazda might return to this intriguing engine design one day.


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