|Photos by Ulysses Ang|
Of course, history plays a major part. Two days after founder Jujiro Matsuda celebrated his 70th birthday, the city was leveled by the world’s first atomic bomb. And yet, the people of Hiroshima didn’t surrender their will to live. On the contrary, they sprung to action showing courage and determination. Among the companies devastated during the war was Toyo Kogyo Corporation, the forbearer of Mazda. Just fourteen years prior, it built its first motorized vehicle—a three-wheeler autorickshaw called the Mazda-Go. Though pressed to supply mainly for the Japanese army during the war, Toyo Kogyo Corporation believed that mobility gave a sense of freedom and thus continued to make the Mazda-Go for the general public. After the bomb, scientists declared that nothing will grow in Hiroshima for years due to the radiation and yet, the first plants sprouted a few months after. And the Mazda-Go resumed production just four years after the devastation of Hiroshima.
Although Mazda did well, the fuel crisis during the 1970’s almost brought them to the brink of bankruptcy since they weren’t a large carmaker by any standard. It was only at the eleventh hour that salvation from investors including the Ford Motor Company that allowed operations to continue. By the mid-1990’s, Ford already owned a third of the company. Though cash rich, Mazda designers and engineers lost their innovative thinking; even their “zoom-zoom” philosophy, they thought, was vague.
Still, that didn’t stop Mazda from creating truly wonderful products. As a means to differentiate itself from other Japanese brands, they poured resources into developing the Wankel or rotary engine. By staying true to their engineering vision, they still are the only carmaker to have developed the piston-less engine for mass production. Lesser known, but no less impressive, is the Miller-cycle engine in the 1990’s. With an American serving as its president and Ford dictating powertrains and platforms, Mazda developed fascinating cars like the Mazda3 and Mazda6. By the next millennium though, the two companies soon began to clash on powertrain direction. As Ford sees a downsized powerplant with a turbocharger as its future, they wanted Mazda to do the same. Meanwhile, Mazda, wanting to put a revolutionary high-compression gasoline engine on the table, felt they were being sidelined.
In 2007, almost at the brink of another financial crisis, Ford relinquished control and Mazda found itself being able to develop its technology. There were skeptics who thought Mazda would be too small to survive (they only had a five-percent market share in Japan and two-percent globally). Realizing they had to re-think their business from the ground-up, Mazda created an encompassing approach that spanned not just their products, but their people and production methods as well.
This may seem impossible, but what would you expect from a car company that never gives up. As the only Japanese car company to have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a rotary-powered car no less, Mazda finally introduces its high-compression gasoline: Skyactiv. Representing that “sky is the limit”, Skyactiv is a totally different approach to making a fuel-efficient vehicle without undermining driving fun. This has become the company’s motto ever since: Sustainable Zoom-Zoom.
Creating wonderful products based on a clear-cut vision has led to Mazda’s expansion in a global market. They remain a small player, exporting just 76,000 units last year or a volume equivalent to one-third of Japanese domestic sales. However, they continually pursue their love for creativity, resilience, and courage—the characteristics that embody their hometown of Hiroshima. Though they now have an international audience, they keep a close tab to their local roots. Mazda calls this Ikkitsukan, a mahjong term that literally means “break the wall”. As the brand celebrates its centenary in 2020, it’s Mazda’s hope to have owners of all ages to go to Hiroshima to celebrate the language of driving—a truly universal language of fun that goes beyond language, culture, and belief.