Interest in – and the values of – Japanese classics of the the 1960s and 1970s are on the up and one of the undoubted stars at the moment is the Mazda Cosmo Sport, an innovative and diminutive coupé that set the company on a path to perfecting rotary engines for its road and racing cars. And the 1967 Cosmo is the car that started it all.
A willingness to confront technical challenges head-on has been a defining Mazda trait for decades, this reputation forged when the firm bought into the rotary concept with NSU in the early 1960s. There were many technical issues to overcome, not least scoring of the combustion chambers by the tips of the rotors turning within them.
Mazda’s engineers referred to this phenomenon as “devil’s nail marks” but after extensive testing they developed a new apex seal that solved the problem. After years of testing in a fleet of prototypes in 1967 they were ready to launch the world’s first rotary-powered production car and the Cosmo Sport was revealed.
Known as the Mazda 110S in export markets, 343 of the first series were built before an updated car was introduced in 1968 with a bit more power, along with a longer wheelbase and a five-speed gearbox.
Only 833 of the latter were built; a total production of less than 1,200 cars underlining quite how rare the Cosmo Sport really is.
In the late Sixties you could have bought one here for about £2,700, equivalent to the cost of an entry-level, four-cylinder Porsche 912 of similar power and performance. That is not an outrageous sum, but convincing customers to take a chance on unproven technology was a challenge and only a handful were sold outside of Japan.
Which is a shame, because it’s a truly delightful little car to drive. Officially the 126bhp, two-rotor engine displaces just under a litre, which was an advantage in tax terms back in Japan but equated to a 2.0-litre engine in conventional terms.
There is nothing conventional in its manners though, the characteristic rotary buzz and free-revving nature both hallmarks of the Wankel engine. As are lots of blue smoke and a whiff of burning oil, issues familiar to anyone who’s owned a more recent Mazda RX-7 or RX-8.
It’s such a beautiful little car though, the odd mix of European and American styling influences and the name all reflecting the space race-inspired optimism.
The bubble-topped cabin is cosy and, wooden Nardi steering wheel aside, functionally trimmed with a large, driver-oriented instrument binnacle.
It’s easy to drive though, the five-speed gearbox positive while the controls are all perfectly positioned and weighted and, once you’re in, it even feels more spacious than the looks would suggest.
Appropriately the character of that Wankel engine dominates the driving experience, be that in sound, smell or sensation. It splutters angrily at low speeds but once out of town the characteristic smoothness and appetite for revs are an utter delight.
The Cosmo thrives on them, the searing howl of the rotary filling your ears as the speeds build. You need to keep it on the boil, too, the (also characteristic) lack of torque meaning there’s a lot more noise than acceleration, while the lack of inertia in the engine means the revs drop in an instant between gears.
Smooth progress therefore requires deft timing and expert footwork, but it’s all part of the fun.
For all its daintiness and reputation for mechanical fragility, the little Mazda feels tough and capable of being driven hard for long periods, a quality demonstrated in some style in the 1968 Marathon de la Routes in an epic 84-hour non-stop drive and fourth place finish.
Beautifully balanced on a twisting road and impressively stable at three-figure speeds on a modern German Autobahn, you can appreciate how it succeeded in this environment.Text here ...