Mazda RX500

mazda rx500.jpg

I do wish automakers were more innovative. 

The list of failed technologies is far too long…well, who could have picked what won and lost? I can understand that. I can accept that. There are good reasons for, say, bias-ply tires and drum brakes falling out of favour. Same with steam or gazogéne-powered cars. I get that.

But what I don't get is why the shapes have become so homogenized.

This Mazda RX500 is a perfect example: there's no reason Mazda couldn't but a car that looks largely similar into production today. OK, maybe the front bumper is a little low and you'd have to get rid of the pop-up headlights, but otherwise it's pretty much there.

About the same size as a modern Scion FR-S (Subaru BRZ, Toyota GT-86, etc. etc.), the RX500 was introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1970. It was a good time for Japanese concept cars, too.

mazda rx500.jpg

Fuelled by the country's rise as a global superpower, products of all sorts were heavily influenced by themes of space, technology, robots, typography—and, of course the future.

Expo Tower by Kiyonari Kikutake

Expo Tower by Kiyonari Kikutake

There's no place on earth that pushed itself as quickly toward new technologies. Visitors to the Expo '70 in Osaka were treated to the theme of: "Progress and Harmony for Mankind," with Kiyonari Kikutake's space frame Expo Tower as a push pin for both the event and Metabolist architecture.

Sony, Ricoh, Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, and Sanyo fought for billboard space in major cities with the likes of Ultraman, TV show that starred a super-humanoid-powered giant from space. (Seriously.)

Many people see the RX500 and instantly think of the Mercedes-Benz C111, a similar-looking mid-engined, rotary-powered prototype car that the automaker tested extensively.

Here's the difference: while Mercedes-Benz might have been investigating a Wankel-powered sports car may one day be viable, Mazda looked at the same technology and believed that it was the future. (After all, their first rotary-powered sports car, the Cosmo, debuted before the C111 in 1967.)

The more I look at designs of all types from Japan in the 1960s and 70s, the more I think they were guided by the mantra that the best way to be ready for the future is to get there first.

mazda rx500.jpg

With plastic body panels and a weight of just 850 kg (1873 lbs.), this little sports car had a mid-mounted 10A rotary motor for propulsion.

491cc—30 cu. in. for all you old folks ;)—of rotary engine gave 247 horsepower. Top speed was quoted as at least 200 km/h (125 mph), which is fast enough. 

Gullwing doors and a split-opening rear engine cover gave the concept some design flair. I think Ligier ripped-off the car's front end for the JS2, but out back there has been no production car quite like it.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Multi-coloured tail lights tell drivers behind different things. Green lights shone during acceleration, orange at a constant speed, and a series of red lights were illuminated depending on how severe you were braking.

Mazda said the concept was a test-bed for high-speed safety, but apart from the tail lights can't figure out what else is safety-related.

One detail I really like are the Alfa Romeo Montreal-style "pills" on the side of the car. Unlike the front-engined Montreal, however, the RX500's were functional.

After being shown, it was repainted twice, and has been shown in silver, yellow, and green. Thought lost for many years, it debuted again at the 2008 Tokyo Motor Show after a full restoration.

As for rotary-powered cars or futuristic cars, well, this is just the tip of the iceberg. But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading