When the Night Owl’s Car Went “Hmmmmmmmm”

January 4th, 2018

Normally I don’t take notice the passing of a long-time auto executive, but I’ll make an exception with the news of the recent death of Kenichi Yamamoto. He once served as president and chairman of Mazda, but he became most famous by being head of the team of engineers that perfected the rotary engine for use in mass-produced vehicles.

Developed by a German engineer, Felix Wankel, a rotary engine eschewed pistons and employed multiple rotors that spun around the crankshaft. He first came up with the concept at age 17.

Without going into technical details that I scarcely understand, the engine’s “note” was much smoother, closer to that of a hum, which became the focus on a popular series of TV ads. They were more powerful than piston engines of similar size. A relatively limited-production vehicle, the NSU Ro 80, was one of the early vehicles to feature the rotary engine, but it was bogged down by reliability problems that resulted in the need to do engine rebuilds as early as 15,000 to 30,000 miles. Today’s Audi luxury brand, a division of Volkswagen, is the result of a merger between Auto Union and NSU.

One of the original Mazdas with a rotary engine was a sporty coupe, the Cosmo, which was produced from 1967 through 1972. But the first mass produced rotary-equipped family car was the two-door Familia, sold outside of Japan as the R100, which was first introduced in 1963.

Mazda didn’t reach the shores of the U.S. until 1970, setting up shop on the west coast and slowly moving east. At the time, I owned a blue-green Toyota Corona. I was between jobs, with time on my hands, and so I visited one of the first east coast Mazda dealerships in Charleston, SC. It was 1971.

The only model on display was the R100, and I took it for a spin. While smaller than my Toyota, it had pretty snappy pickup, and decent ride and handling. Once I was back on my financial feet, I opted to consider buying one.

I soon moved to Coatesville, PA, a steel mill town about 45 miles west of Philadelphia, where I worked at the local radio station for several years. By 1972, the first Mazda dealership arrived in Philadelphia, but they only had demo vehicles on hand. It took several months for the initial inventory to arrive, but I placed an order for a four-door Capella sedan, known in America as the RX-2.

On the surface, the RX-2 closely resembled the typical Japanese-built company family car. In terms of room and amenities, it wasn’t so different from my Toyota. Well, except for that amazing rotary engine.

I bought an RX-2 in yellow, equipped with the manual transmission. The Toyota had just 60,000 miles on it, but its engine needed work, and it was consuming a quart of oil every few hundred miles. I was overjoyed at my “smart” decision, but stay with me.

When I took my new car to the dealer for the first oil change, probably at around 1,000 miles, the service advisor informed me that the rotor seals were leaking oil, and they had to rebuild the engine. Surprised and disappointed, I drove off with a loaner vehicle, and picked up my RX-2 several days later.

The dealership’s owner personally apologized. All seemed well, though my car suffered from occasional water leaks, so I kept antifreeze handy. I just loved the car, so I put up with such irritants.

Now a rotary engine had other shortcomings other than early reliability issues. Fuel economy was noticeably worse than a comparable piston engine. So where the Toyota delivered gas mileage in the low 20s, it was barely 18-20 mpg on the Mazda. You also had to add oil every 1,000 miles or so, another limitation of the technology that sprayed oil on the rotors for proper engine cooling.

While acceleration was no great shakes compared to a 2017 car, a little over 10 seconds from zero-60, I enjoyed racing past larger cars with stunned drivers at stoplights. Well occasionally.

By 1976, my RX-2, with over 65,000 miles on it, appeared headed for another engine rebuild, but this time it was well beyond the warranty period. It was time to get off the rotary train, so I settled on a pure American compact, a blue and white Buick Skylark hatchback coupe, but taking delivery was a real cliffhanger. The Mazda’s clutch master cylinder was failing, and I was barely able to switch gears on the manual transmission during the trip to the dealer.

I left the parked car at a far-way spot at the dealership, entered the showroom to sign the final paperwork, and drove off. The salesman called the next day to ask if I had any problems with my Mazda, since he couldn’t get it to go into gear. I protested ignorance, and that was the end of it.

With the fuel crisis of the mid-1970s, the rotary engine quickly went out of favor, although Mazda persisted in working to improve fuel economy while delivering larger family cars with bigger engines. By the 2000s, the sole rotary car sold in the U.S. was a two-door sporty vehicle, the Rx-7, first introduced in the 1970s, later replaced by the RX-8. It was notable for sharp handling, a relatively stiff ride, with a unique slant on a four-door vehicle concept dubbed a quad-coupe, with a tiny rear door and an equally tiny space for rear passengers.

But compared with piston engines, gas economy was still noticeably lower. Striking a familiar chord, RX-8s from 2004 through 2008 received an extended warranty to cover engine overhauls, the result of premature failures. The RX-8 was quietly discontinued in 2012. While there have been rumors of an RX-9 that may debut by 2020, such rumors haven’t been confirmed.

Yes, it had its problems, but I still enjoyed the time spent behind the wheel of that RX-2. While it’s possible Mazda might resume production of cars with rotary engines someday, the focus nowadays is mostly about electric cars. Talk about going “Hmmmmmmmm.”

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