Jujiru Matsuda founded the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd. in 1920 before moving in to automobile manufacture in 1931, with the Mazda-Go DA Type, a three-wheeled truck. The name is derived from Matsuda, though it is also ‘an expression of the early western Asian god Ahura Mazda’ (according to Mazda UK). During World War II, Toyo Kogyo produced weapons. Based in Hiroshima, most of the city was destroyed with the atomic bomb, though the Mazda factory remained standing, and was part of the city’s postwar rebuilding effort.
A truck, the Romper, débuted in 1958, but it was in 1961, when Mazda bought the patent to the Wankel engine, that the company put itself on the map. The engines were smoother and more compact, although thirstier. In 1962, the Mazda Carol 600, the company’s first four-door passenger car, débuted, with room for four. In 1967, its first Wankel-powered car, the Cosmo Sport, was unveiled, reaching top speeds of 185 km/h with the original model, and over 200 km/h with the Series II. Exports followed for humbler Mazda models, with piston- and rotary-powered cars, including the US in 1970.
However, the 1973 oil crisis meant buyers stayed away from rotary-engined cars, hurting Mazda deeply, and if it were not for the intervention of the Sumitomo Bank, the company could have folded. Sensible models followed, with the 1977 Familia hatchback, which helped the company recover, though in 1979, Ford took a seven per cent stake, which increased to 33 per cent by the 1990s. It was during this time that many Ford-badged, Mazda-developed passenger cars emerged, such as the Ford Laser and Ford Telstar.
Mazda continued with rotary-engined models, but only for specialty models such as the Savanna RX-7 of 1978. In 1989, it unveiled the Eunos Roadster, better known as the Mazda MX-5 in export markets, which became a hit worldwide.
Just as Mazda’s unconventional thinking took it in to financial difficulties in the 1970s, its ambitious strategy to grow multiple sales’ channels and brands (Eunos, Autozam, Ẽfini) in Japan in the late 1980s—just as a recession hit—saw the company falter again, and, in the 1990s, it was forced into retreat once more by making very conventional, sensible cars. Again it was a “sensible” Familia and Capella range to the rescue.
Nevertheless, Mazda still found the energy to win at Le Mans in 1991 (the only Japanese car maker to do so) with a rotary-engined car. Ford’s own financial difficulties in the 2000s saw it divest most of its share in Mazda. By the dawn of the 2010s, Mazda, going it alone, though with some OEM tie-ups domestically, developed its Skyactiv engines, with high compression ratios to save fuel.