Compared with compatriots Toyota, Honda and Nissan, Mazda hasn’t had the sheer amounts of resource the others have had at their disposal for the development of their cars. With its early years of manufacture focused upon small cars, vans and work trucks, its breakthrough with mass-producing a new engine design came nearly 50 years after the company’s founding.

Mazda’s first rotary engine-powered model, the Cosmo Sport 110S was unveiled on May 30, 1967. However, it was in 1961 that Mazda licensed the then-new engine design from NSU Motorenwerke – the Wankel engine was named after German engineer Felix Wankel, who was an engineer at NSU.

Motorsports fans may remember the quad-rotor 26B engine-powered Mazda 787B which, at the hands of Volker Weidler, Johnny Herbert, and Bertrand Gachot, won the Le Mans 24 Hours race in 1991. Following the 787B’s success, regulations were changed to limit entries to reciprocating (piston) engines of up to 3.5 litres, effectively ruling out further rotary engine participation in what was then the IMSA-GTP category.

The rotary-engined Mazda sports prototype racer actually dated further back to 1983, when development for the then-newly defined Group C Junior (later Group C2 in 1984) category, which resulted in the 717C. Two were entered in Group C Junior, and took a one-two finish at Le Mans.

The production turbocharged Mazda rotary 13B units started in the 1982 Cosmo RE Turbo with 187 hp, peaking at 280 hp in the 2002 FD3S RX-7 (Efini). With the arrival of the RX-8 along came the naturally-aspirated Renesis rotary engine, which was Mazda’s approach towards squeezing more efficiency from the rotary engine.

Fast forward to the present day, and the rotary engine endures in enthusiast circles, perhaps most well publicised by ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett and his – among others – tri- and quad-rotor beasts, Badbul and Radbul – the latter packing a twin-turbo 1,500 hp four-rotor engine in an MX-5 chassis.

The Hiroshima-based Japanese manufacturer has experimented with alternative fuel rotary engines, too. Mazda trialled a hydrogen internal combustion rotary engine in the RX-8 Hydrogen RE, which was temporarily leased to government bodies, energy-related businesses and organisations in Japan.

The RX-8 Hydrogen RE produced 109 PS in hydrogen mode and 210 PS in petrol mode with 100 km and 549 km of hydrogen and petrol range respectively, and could run petrol once its hydrogen stores have depleted. There was also the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid, which paired an electric motor with the dual fuel-capable hydrogen rotary engine.

A generator converted the engine’s output to electricity, which then drove an electric motor to drive the wheels. This series hybrid system grew the hydrogen fuel range to 200 km, while maximum output grew by 40%, according to Mazda. Like the RX-8 Hydrogen RE before it, the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid was also leased to government bodies and energy companies, in 2009. This would also later spawn a range extender EV model, which added a high-voltage battery in place of petrol.

Mazda isn’t counting on past glory and legacy models such as these to keep the rotary engine alive, though. A patent filing for a new rotary engine design was sighted following the unveiling of the RX-Vision concept at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show. However, the new rotary engine has been rumoured to assume a range extender role for a future, unspecified electrified model.


GALLERY: Mazda RX-Vision concept at Tokyo 2015