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Rotary Thunderbird: Mazda’s Cosmo/RX-5

November 4, 2011 by Matt

Mazda RX-5 RX5 Cosmo Green Early Old First 1st Gen Generation

Having just finished reading the recent, excellent Ate Up With Motor article on early Mazda rotaries, I feel suitably inspired to discuss an obscure, short-lived but very cool late ’70s Mazda import: The Cosmo, or RX-5.

In the beginning of the ’70s, Mazda made an initial ambitious push to standardize the rotary across their model range, with the eventual goal of dropping piston engines altogether. To that end, they installed their Wankel engines in everything from family station wagons to sporty coupes to their pickup trucks. The cars were initially moderately successful, but just as the automaker was hitting its stride, the early ’70s fuel crisis arrived, and the rotary’s mostly undeserved reputation for thirstiness (especially compared to the gargantuan big block V8s of the day) caused buyers to shy away from Mazda’s lineup. The company felt the downturn acutely, and pulled the novel powerplant from all but a few of its cars, even those selling in tiny numbers.

Mazda had totally committed themselves to the Wankel engine, so they couldn’t simply euthanize the venture and revert to conventional engines; they had to find a “home” for the rotary. They needed ideas, and in the years between the engine’s initial fall from grace and the runaway success of the first-generation RX-7 in ’79, where Mazda finally hit on the formula that would make the Wankel financially viable, they tried a few different things.

Mazda RX-5 RX5 Cosmo Red Early Old First 1st Gen Generation

One experiment that sadly never took off is the coupe featured in this post, the Mazda Cosmo, or RX-5 in international markets. The idea was to harness the incredible popularity in the ’70s of the “personal coupe” concept—think Cadillac Eldorado, Ford Thunderbird or Olds Toronado, among a myriad of others. So rather than give the rotary engine a completely distinctive wrapper to reflect the unconventional engine, they decided to “American-ize” the concept and ape current market trends, albeit on a smaller scale (the Cosmo tipped the scales at a welterweight 2,500 lbs).

Mazda RX-5 RX5 Cosmo Early Old First 1st Gen Generation Interior Inside Cockpit Steering Wheel Dash Dashboard

Unfortunately, it didn’t catch on. Mazda dropped the car after the ’78 model year, when it was clear Americans just weren’t buying the recipe, apparently preferring their giant domestic land yachts or dedicated sports cars like the 280ZX to a nicely-styled but smaller personal coupe with a smooth, flexible engine and crisp handling.

I love the Cosmo. It’s incredibly obscure, which is always appealing; I love having the “What is that?” conversation in parking lots and at gas stations. Besides, as much as Mazda tried to emulate the larger American cruisers of the time, what they actually hit upon has a sort of pony car swoop and dynamic to its profile. And details like the side windows, grille and taillights, while still exhibiting some of the fussiness Japanese designs have always been notorious for, are remarkably clean, especially considering the era in which it was produced. Best of all, if you know anything about the family of Mazda rotary engines, you’ll be aware of the fact that it’s a very modular powerplant, and with a little mixing and matching of components produced over the years, it would be relatively simple to assemble a much more powerful rotary to drop right into the Cosmo chassis. So it’s eminently upgradeable. As unloved as it was in its day, to me here and now, those qualities add up to a winner.

Editor’s note: It’s understood there were two Mazda cars that shared the name “Cosmo:” The pioneering 110S and later line of personal coupes that complimented the automaker’s RX-7 sports car line and concluded with the stunning JC Cosmo of the early ’90s.

Filed under: Mazda, Rotary


  1. Aaron says:

    Quite a history – will the rotary tradition continue at Mazda?

    • Matt says:

      I certainly hope so, but I’m pessimistic. Mazda let the RX-8 linger for far too long, and near the engine of its model run its engine was completely outgunned by the 370Z’s and the 135i’s, or even the V6 Genesis Coupe’s. I really think it did harm to the rotary’s reputation, and fuel economy being the priority that it is nowadays… It’s not that the engine can’t survive; I just don’t see how Mazda has the development money to continue to push it forward. Sad.

  2. Matt Haisch Peregrine says:

    Hey that’s my dash picture- you are welcome to it

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