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Known for years for its rotary-type engines, Mazda gained a firm foothold in the U.S. market first with the RX-7 sports car, and later with the cute little Miata two-seater. Until recently, Mazda had a tight connection with Ford Motor Company.
Toyo Cork Kogyo Company was established in Hiroshima, Japan in 1920, but not to manufacture automobiles. After starting off by building machinery, they expanded into small motorcycles, stimulated by the Tokyo earthquake of 1923.
In 1927, the company was renamed Toyo Kogyo Company Ltd. A three-wheeled Mazda DA truck debuted in 1931, exhibiting motorcycle origins. The Mazda name hailed from the concept of harmony between good and bad. Mazda, not surprisingly, represented the "good" side of that equation.
Although a prototype sedan was built in 1940, World War Two curtailed further development. Close to half of the factory was destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Even so, production of three-wheeled trucks resumed within months. Four-wheeled trucks joined in 1950.
Not until another decade passed did a passenger car go into production. In 1960, the R360 coupe appeared, with an air-cooled two-cylinder engine mounted in the rear. More than 23,000 R360s were built in the first year alone. In 1962, the new four-passenger Carol sedan switched to a water-cooled four-cylinder engine. Two models emerged in 1963: the 800 and a Familiar. Both had front engines and rear-wheel drive.
Meanwhile, in 1961, the NSU company of Germany agreed to have Toyo Kogyo manufacturer Wankel (rotary) engines under license. A prototype rotary engine was exhibited at the 1963 Tokyo auto show. Initial problems with rotor sealing were resolved, and in 1964, Toyo Kogyo chose to focus on the twin-rotor Wankel configuration. After bringing a rotary-engine prototype of the Cosmo sports coupe to the Tokyo show, the Cosmos 110S went on sale by 1967-the first production car with a twin-rotary engine.
By spring of 1970, Mazdas were being exported to the U.S., starting in the northwest states. Not many Americans bought Cosmos, but the 1970 RX-2 sedan attracted greater attention. For several years, Mazda offered each model with either the rotary engine or a conventional one. By 1973, Wankel engines could meet the more stringent emissions standards expected for 1975.
On the down side, rotary-powered cars tended to guzzle gas, which diminished their popularity after the 1973-74 fuel crisis. Mazda responded by emphasizing conventional engines for the time being (though rotaries remained available), starting with the subcompact 323. In the U.S., that rear-drive hatchback was known as the GLC ("Great Little Car"). During 1979, a larger 626 sedan joined up.
Then came the first car that changed everything for Mazda: the RX-7 sports car, with a rotary engine no less. Introduced for 1978, the RX-7 hatchback coupe drew plenty of interest in the U.S. for its handling and performance. By this time, Ford was about to increase its ownership of Toyo Kogyo to a 25-percent share.
Front-drive versions of the GLC and 626 arrived early in the 1980s. In 1984, Toyo Kogyo changed its name to Mazda Motor Corp. When the RX-7 was redesigned for 1986, a turbocharger was offered, along with a 2+2 coupe-and in 1988, a convertible. Mazda joined the luxury-car league in 1988 with a 929 sedan and an MX-6 coupe-the latter built in Michigan rather than Japan, in a joint venture with Ford.
Early in 1989, Mazda unveiled its second game-changer: the 1990 Miata two-seater, loosely based on the old Lotus Elan. Miata roadsters were so popular that early buyers eagerly paid well above sticker price for initial models. They remain on sale after more than two decades, now called MX-5.
For 1998, the 626 sedan morphed into a Mazda6. Mazda's subcompact for the 1990s was the Protege, as the 323 faded. A Mazda3 debuted for 2004, redesigned for 2012 with newly available Skyactiv technology. Mazda's Millenia drew notice for its innovative Miller-cycle engine.
When it first appeared in 1989, Mazda's MPV minivan had four conventional pull-open doors, but the second generation switched to sliding side doors. Mazda called its 2006 Mazda5 a "multi-activity sports vehicle," but it was also viewed as a mini-minivan.
Nearly a decade after the rotary-engined RX-7 disappeared, Mazda returned with an RX-8 sport coupe, featuring rear half-door to ease backseat access. Mazda also offered a Tribute compact crossover and B-Series pickups, both derived from Ford products. Crossover SUV cousins debuted for 2007: the CX-7 and a larger, three-row CX-9. Next up for Mazda is the compact CX-5 crossover, scheduled for release as a 2013 model.