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July 28, 2016

How the Rotary Engine Saved Mazda

Mazda owes its very existence to one of its most recognizable technology: the rotary engine. Without this breakthrough, Mazda could have very well been swallowed up by Toyota and Nissan.

In a bid to make their cars globally competitive, the Japanese government through the Ministry of International Trade and Industry began to weed out small companies through mergers. In 1957, Mazda produced just 41,504 units and was on the chopping block given the Hiroshima-based car company only began making the Mazda 360—their first four-wheeled vehicle.

Pushed into a corner and with their independence on the line, Mazda sought to make something that’ll put them on the map; something that’ll make them stand out so the Japanese government would re-consider their plans to merge Mazda with Nissan or Toyota. The answer was the rotary engine.

Contrary to popular belief, Mazda didn’t invent the rotary or Wankel engine. This piston-less engine was actually developed in 1951 by NSU Motorenwerke AG by engineer Felix Wankel. However, Mazda did sign a licensing agreement for its development along with other big names such as Alfa Romeo, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Suzuki, and Toyota among others.

Lured by the promise of simplicity, smoothness, compactness, high RPMs, and high power-to-weight ratio, all these companies raced to develop the rotary engine. However, it was only Mazda who came up with a design that proved to be reliable.

Crediting its advanced in-house machining, knowledge of materials (they were an engineering-centric company after all), and supportive suppliers, Mazda solved the rotary’s biggest problem: the leaky apex seals. Using their background in cork manufacturing, Mazda used shell molding—a method that uses resin covered sand to form a mold—to produce an engine with better dimensional accuracy and precision. The result is a rotary engine that could run well past 300 hours at high speed without failure.

With the introduction of the Cosmo 110S in 1967, Mazda’s independence was secured. Though the Series 1 Cosmo sold only in modest numbers, it made Mazda a formidable force. The world was now noticing the little player from Hiroshima and the production volume ballooned to 404,287—a 10-fold increase compared to a decade earlier.

Mazda understood that if they weren’t able to turn around the development of the rotary engine quickly, some other carmaker with deeper pockets could have beaten them to it. But they stuck to their guns, pulled out all the stops, and simply nailed it. The others simply backed off.

Mazda had to do it again in 1973 when the world was gripped by the oil crisis. Critics bashed the rotary for not being fuel efficient and that it was pulling the entire company down. Believing that the technology was still in its infancy and that they weren’t doing their customers any favors for abandoning the rotary, Mazda embarked on “Project Phoenix”. And the end result is the iconic RX-7.

Mazda considers the development of the rotary engine as driving on a dark road. There was no map or path to guide them. Yet, through their challenging spirit, they forged ahead and created their own path. The crowning achievement is the win of the four-rotor 787B at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1991—18 years after they fielded their first entry in the world’s most famous endurance race.

The story of the rotary engine and how Mazda’s very survival hinged on it gave rise to the company’s “Defy Convention” philosophy. By never stopping challenges, Mazda is able to develop technologies which would otherwise be considered undoable by others. Besides, can you imagine a world where there wouldn’t be any MX-5 or RX-7?

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