NEW YORK: It was 50 years ago Tuesday that Mazda launched the Cosmo Sport 110S, and in doing so put the automotive world in a spin.
It wasn't the first sportscar to come from Japan, nor was it the first production car to be powered by what was at the time considered the revolutionary Wankel rotary engine.
However, it was the first vehicle from any manufacturer that actually showed what Felix Wankel's invention could deliver in terms of driving fun and performance when all of the problems were ironed out.
When the rotary engine went from a patent to a production reality in the early 1950s, it was heralded as the future of the internal combustion engine.
It ditched the conventional bank or banks of cylinders going up and down in order to rotate the drive shaft for a single piston turning each step of combustion and compression directly into drive to the wheels. It meant an absolutely tiny engine block and one that despite a very small displacement - 1.1-1.3 litres - could deliver significant levels of horsepower.
As such, everyone from Citroen and Mercedes to Norton and Suzuki licensed it. However, though rotary engine cars and motorbikes started coming to market in the 1960s, most companies soon decided to ditch the engine as it was not as reliable nor as efficient as they'd first thought, even if it offered electric motor-like torque delivery, a huge rev band and a quieter, low vibration driving experience.
Everyone except Mazda, that is. The Cosmo was the world's first car to use a twin rotor engine - a breakthrough its own engineers had achieved in Japan - and in the years that followed, while everyone else went back to pistons that punch up and down, Mazda stuck to perfecting cylinders that circle, culminating in the Mazda 787B, which in 1991 won Le Mans on the track, and the RX-7 sportscar on the road.
From 1978 until 2002 it was constantly voted one of the world's best driver's cars and even embarrassed the likes of Porsche. For example, the third-gen RX-7 built from 1992-2002 had a tiny 1.3 liter turbocharged rotary engine, but served up 276hp.
"The rotary engine is part of Mazda's DNA," said Philippe Geffroy, the head of Mazda's operations in France. "It has paved our history over the last 50 years."
And yet, since 2010 no car in its current lineup has boasted a rotary engine, even if Mazda used the 2015 Tokyo motor show to tease the RX concept, a sleek supercar that is purportedly powered by a reimagining of the rotary engine.
"Mazda continues to explore and develop this technology with the objective to potentially use it once again in the future," said Geffroy.
Its compact nature could make it the perfect range-extending motor for an electric car, or the perfect low-center-of-gravity foundation for an out-and-out supercar. And there are already whispers that a production version of the RX concept could well make its debut at this October's Tokyo motor show.
However, for now, they're just whispers. "For the moment," explains Geffroy, "Nothing has been confirmed in this area."