The Zoom-Zoom Evolution: Mazda History

In the dynamic tapestry of the global automotive industry, few tales are as fascinating as the history of Mazda. From humble beginnings in the 1920s to the makers of the world’s best-selling two-seat convertible sports car, Mazda’s story is one of expansion, style and technological innovation.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

Today it’s recognised as one of the world’s best known motoring marques, yet the story of Mazda is not just about cars, but a narrative of transformation that’s as astonishing as it is exceptional.

In fact, this automotive giant’s origin was rooted not in the roar of engines, but in the quiet crafting of cork manufacturing. It’s a tale that spans decades, weaving through the fabric of technological advancements and global challenges. From these modest beginnings, Mazda soared into the automotive stratosphere, fueled by visionary leadership and a commitment to revolutionise the way people experience driving.

This transformative journey began with the development of autorickshaws, marking Mazda’s first foray into motorised transport. These three-wheeled vehicles, known for their simplicity and economy, became a cornerstone in the early stages of Mazda’s evolution, setting the stage for a future rich in automotive engineering.

The 1960s was a breakthrough decade in the history of Mazda. The company developed a revolutionary rotary engine characterised by its smooth operation and compact design, which became a defining feature of Mazda’s engineering prowess. This coincided with another milestone in Mazda’s history. their first passenger car – the R360 – in 1960. This debut confirmed Mazda’s transition from producing small-scale commercial vehicles to a formidable player in the global passenger car market.

This is the tale of Mazda, a saga of evolution from simple cork to complex carburetors, embodying a legacy that’s still pushing boundaries today. This is the history of Mazda cars.

The Birth of Mazda

Mazda Motor Corp. Museum (Credit: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The son of a fisherman, Jujiro Matsuda was already a successful businessman when in 1921 he was asked to take over the running of Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. Ltd, a floundering artificial cork manufacturing business in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The market dried up after World War I, so he set his sights on making tools. But the company’s transformation didn’t stop there.

In 1931, Mazda’s entry into the automotive industry began with the launch of the Mazda-Go auto rickshaw. This innovative vehicle, a hybrid of a motorcycle and a truck, featured a lightweight, three-wheeled design powered by an air-cooled, one-cylinder 482cc engine. The Mazda-Go marked a significant milestone in Mazda’s journey, remaining a staple in production until the late 1950s.

Like almost all carmakers at the time, Mazda slowed production during World War II in favour of the war effort. However, the company returned to its automotive mission after the war and, in 1960, the history of Mazda cars was about to head on a steep trajectory to worldwide success.

The Kei Car Revolution

A 1960 R360 coupe (Credit: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Introduced in 1960, the Mazda R360 captivated the automotive world as a pioneering kei car. Weighing a mere 380kg, this four-seater coupe was ingeniously designed with a rear-mounted, air-cooled 356cc engine, achieving speeds just over 50mph.

Emblematic of its era, the R360 embodied the essence of kei cars – road-legal vehicles characterised by their compact dimensions and modest engine sizes, akin to what we now refer to as ‘city cars’.

By the mid-1960s, Mazda had cornered much of the kei car market and added to the range with the P360, known as ‘Carol’, of which over 266,000 were built in an eight-year production run from 1962 until 1970.

What’s in a Name?

Symbol of Ahura Mazda, Persepolis (c.500) (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector via Getty Images)

Lots of car companies were named after their founders – Suzuki, Honda, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce to name just a few. Mazda took an altogether different route.

According to the official Mazda company history, the name comes from Ahura Mazda, literally ‘lord of wisdom’, the Zoroastrian god of the sky. They also state that the name also derives from the surname of the founder, Jujiro Matsuda.

Other names that made it to the shortlist were Sumera, meaning ‘god’, and Tenshi, which translates as ‘angel.’

From the Cosmo to the MX5

1967 Mazda Cosmo (Credit: Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Between the late 1960s and the start of the 1990s, the history of Mazda is a story of solid success.

Launched in 1967, the Cosmo was Mazda’s halo car and the first to use the company’s revolutionary rotary engine. So-named for the global fascination with the race to space, it was a stunning one-litre two-seater that took design cues from the American Corvettes and marked a significant technological achievement for the company.

Throughout the 1970s, Mazda continued to expand its lineup of rotary-powered vehicles. This era saw the introduction of several celebrated Mazda models from history, including the RX series (like the RX-2, RX-3, and RX-4). The piston-engine lineup was also expanded with models including the Familia, marketed internationally as the Mazda 323, and the Capella, sold around the world as the 626.

Mazda & Ford

Old Ford logo (Credit: JOKER / Alexander Stein/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

In 1974, Mazda entered into a partnership with Ford, marking the beginning of a relationship that would significantly influence both companies’ futures.

This alliance, initially driven by Ford’s acquisition of a minority stake in Mazda, evolved into a deep collaboration spanning almost forty years. The partnership was mutually beneficial, allowing Mazda to leverage Ford’s global reach and financial resources, while Ford gained access to Mazda’s expertise in small-car engineering and manufacturing efficiencies. This collaboration led to the joint development and sharing of platforms and powertrains, as well as the co-production of vehicles in various global markets.

In the history of Mazda the company’s relationship with Ford stands as a notable example of successful cross-company collaboration in the automotive industry.

Mazda RX-7 & The 1980s

Mazda RX7 (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1978, the RX-7 was launched. A sports car with a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, it became one of Mazda’s most iconic models, known for its unique styling, lightweight design, and rotary engine. The RX-7 played a key role in establishing Mazda’s reputation as a maker of fun-to-drive sports cars.

During the 1980s, Mazda continued to diversify its vehicle offerings and this era also witnessed Mazda’s commitment to innovation with the introduction of new technologies and improvements in engine performance and fuel efficiency. But in 1989, the history of Mazda changed irrevocably with the launch of one of the world’s most iconic cars.

The Mazda MX5 Miata

2017 Mazda Mx-5 Rf Sport Nav (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The debut of the Mazda MX-5 Miata in 1989 marked a transformative moment in the automotive world. This iconic vehicle reimagined the very concept of a modern sports car, leaving an indelible and enduring mark on the industry as a whole. It captured the essence of classic roadsters — lightweight, nimble, and incredibly fun to drive — while avoiding the mechanical complexities and unreliability that often plagued older sports cars.

Mazda hit the perfect sweet spot at exactly the right time, offering reliability, affordability, and pure driving enjoyment which struck a chord with enthusiasts and casual drivers alike. It wasn’t just another of the Mazda models from history. It became a phenomenon that single-handedly revived the concept of the small, simple sports car just when it seemed it was going out of fashion.

The MX-5’s popularity was also bolstered by its accessibility. Compared with rivals from Porsche, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Morgan, the MX-5 was relatively cheap and easy to run, service and maintain, giving it an incredibly broad appeal.

The MX-5’s impact on the history of Mazda cars transcends just design and engineering. Captivating a global audience, it has earned the distinction of being the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car, a clear reflection of its widespread allure and significant role in Mazda’s history.

The MX-5 remains in production today, each iteration enhancing the original formula with modern advancements, while staying true to the ethos of a lightweight, fun-to-drive roadster.

The Zoom-Zoom Generation

Mazda’s history has come complete with some great marketing straplines. ‘The more you look, the more you like’ was from the 1970s and 1980s, ‘It just feels right’ emanated from the early to mid-1990s and since 2000, ‘Zoom-Zoom’ has been used to describe what the company calls ‘the emotion of motion.’

Ford began to reduce its stake in Mazda in the early 2000s and by 2015, it’s believed the Americans sold off the majority of their holdings and Mazda again operates independently, although it maintains various partnerships and alliances within the automotive industry.

The current line-up includes hatchbacks, saloon cars, a selection of compact and larger SUVs and crossovers as well as the iconic MX-5. In 2020, the MX-30, the first all-electric car in Mazda history was launched.

The History of Mazda: From Cork to Cars

Mazda Iconic SP concept car (Credit: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mazda’s journey, from humble beginnings to a global powerhouse exemplifies a relentless pursuit of innovation and an unswerving dedication to the joy of driving.

Through milestones like the introduction of the rotary engine, the launch of iconic models such as the Cosmo, RX-7, and MX-5 Miata, and a transformative partnership with Ford, Mazda has consistently pushed the boundaries of automotive design and engineering.


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