A strange, pistonless engine in a strange-looking sports car proves to be an irresistible combination.
BY JAY LENO
I’ve always been attracted to engineering oddities. You know, things that get the job done in a different way than most. And I’m especially partial to out-of- the-ordinary engines. So it just seems natural that sooner or later I’d own a car with a rotary engine. And I do: a Mazda Cosmo Sport. “A what?” you say.
The two-seat Cosmo is a ’60s-era small sports car powered by a 110-hp, two-rotor Wankel engine. The rotary was the brainchild of Felix Wankel, a self-taught German tinkerer who never went to college. He made the first rotary prototype in the late ’50s for NSU, a German motorcycle and car manufacturer eventually bought out by Volkswagen. For a while in the ’60s, it looked to some like the rotary would be the engine: light, small and only a handful of parts. Several carmakers paid Wankel for the rights to use the rotary. But they all ran into the same problem: The seals on the edges of the rotors didn’t last. As the seals wore, power went down while fuel consumption and emissions went up.
Everyone but Mazda gave up trying to get the rotary to work in the real world. The company spent a great deal of money on the problem and, as the story goes, one engineer looked at the carbon at the end of his pencil and thought, “Maybe carbon seals would work.” It’s an interesting comment on the culture of the company that the engineer who led the rotary team, Kenichi Yamamoto, would eventually rise to be its chairman. The rotary became reliable and a staple of Mazda products. The company is still developing the rotary and is even working on alternate-fuel versions.
But back in the ’60s, the rotary was considered an automotive novelty. So was the Cosmo. Chances are you’ve never even seen one. Very few made it to the United States. For one thing, the Cosmo was built for the Japanese market--that means righthand drive. I saw my first Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S at an auto show. But it was overshadowed by the Toyota 2000 GT, which was featured in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice--complete with a TV in the dashboard. So, at the car show, the poor little Mazda Cosmo sat alone in a corner, with its strange rotary engine and styling that was a mixture of American and Italian with a few Japanese elements thrown in. I was fascinated by it.
When Mazda came to the States, it was with little economy cars. Their ads said “… and Mazdas go hhhmmm.” In the ads Japanese guys were dressed like the Beatles and Japanese girls wore go-go boots and they were playing wild music and jumping up and down.
With no pistons, crankshaft, camshaft or valvetrain, Wankel’s rotary engine seemed destined to be the internal-combustion engine of the future.
My Cosmo is a Series II that was once owned by an American U2 pilot living in Japan. It still has the pilot’s insignia and a window decal that says “Japan Special Forces.” He brought the car back to Florida. And I bought it from the guy who bought it from him. Restoring this car was a challenge. You can’t get original Cosmo parts, at least not over here. Luckily, the car was in good shape, with all the trim. We changed as little as possible, including these two funky speakers in the back window. They look like accessory units that you’d get in Circuit City or Radio Shack--sort of two black tissue boxes sitting on the back shelf. But I looked in the manual and they’re original.
The engine was completely shot. Since we don’t have any experience with these at the Big Dog Garage, we figured we’d consult the experts. So I called Dave Lemon at Mazdatrix in Signal Hill, Calif., who’s been working on rotaries since 1982. We upgraded the Cosmo’s L10 engine to a 12A, with a custom intake manifold and a Weber side-draft carburetor. We updated the brakes and shocks and replaced the gearbox with one from an RX-7.
Amazingly, the Cosmo weighs only about 2200 pounds. So everything in it is exceptionally easy and light. The engine just keeps on revving. It has this motorboat-like wwwrrrwwwrrr at idle. When you put your foot in it, it makes you smile. It revs to 9500 rpm, easily. And the engine dates from the days when taking your MGB to 5200 rpm would cause rods to start popping through the valve covers.
The Cosmo is a uniquely styled Japanese interpretation of what a Western sports car should look like. Face it, it’s curious looking. But I like it. It doesn’t really look like anything else.
And, it was ahead of its time. World War II was only 20 years behind us and the Japanese still had a reputation for making crappy products. What would you rather have? A Corvette? An XKE? Or a Japanese car with an engine that nobody ever heard of? And with a name like Cosmo?
So by the time production ended in 1972 the Cosmo Sport 110S had only had a run of about 1200 units. Mazda kept a Cosmo model in production for many years, but it was a less interesting car.
Mazdas were marketed as economy cars in the early 1970s, right in the midst of the first fuel crisis. But even at their best, rotaries were never noted for their fuel economy. Still, I have to hand it to Mazda. They eventually improved everything about the rotary engine. They were the first to make the rotary work. And they’re still selling them today.