Kinder, Küche, Kirche. This now grossly dated German slogan, which translates to children, kitchen, church, at best might suggest that harmony in life is important.
Jinba ittai roughly translates to "horse and rider as one." It's one of many slogans used by Mazda to illustrate the importance that the automaker places on the harmony between car and driver. Back in the '90s, Mazda spoke of "Kansei engineering" as a long-standing and deeply-held design philosophy that goes beyond computer printouts and mechanical specifications into the realm of human feelings and emotions.
Harmony might be absent in traditional stereotypes of what Germans value; but if the German fondness for Mazda is anything to go by, then harmony remains a concept popular among German car buyers. Indeed, you might imagine that the land of the Autobahn would appreciate an automaker's every attempt to inspire confidence at speed.
But Mazda's special relationship with Germany goes back much further. The rotary engine which brought Mazda to prominence, and which has been described as among the most harmoniously synchronized powerplants ever to live under the hood of a car, has German origins.
Mazda started out in 1920 as "Toyo Kogyo" ("Far-Eastern Manufacturing"), founded to make corks for wine bottles. Around that time, a gifted seventeen-year-old German mechanical engineer was excitedly telling his friends of his dream to make a car with "a new type of engine, half turbine, half reciprocating." He conceived it in 1924, even winning his first patent in 1929. But Felix Wankel would soon be relegated to developing seals and rotary valves for BMW and Daimler-Benz aircraft.
Germany and Japan were devastated during World War II. In the aftermath, Mazda began building three-wheeled commercial vehicles to help rebuild the country and, in particular, its hometown of Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb had been dropped. Meanwhile, Felix Wankel never forgot his engine or the smoothness promised by its non-reciprocating design. His fight to license the technology to the automotive industry culminated at German automaker NSU, who in 1959 built a car with the "Wankel" or "rotary" engine.
Tsuneji Matsuda of Hiroshima has been called a Western-Japanese Soichiro Honda: vaguely eccentric and always searching for unconventional solutions. This forward-thinking adopted son of Toyo Kogyo's founder installed at Mazda among the first computer systems in vehicle manufacturing.
As Mazda grew from three-wheeled and commercial vehicles into building cars, Matsuda (third from left in the above photo) in 1961 approached, via a German friend, the German ambassador in Japan. He sought and acquired a license from Germany's NSU for production and further development of rotary technology.
It was not an auspicious start. In its first test at Mazda, an imported Wankel engine seized within twelve thousand miles on the test bed. Mazda noted that the tips of the rotor kept scoring the combustion chamber walls. The company's chief engineer, Kenichi Yamamoto, assembled a team of Mazda's most talented engineers - known as the "47 samurais" - to troubleshoot the problem.
Mazda would quickly take the German rotary concept to new heights. At the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show, it exhibited the world's first birotor engine, whose second rotor helped with low-end torque, second spark plug stabilized combustion, and graphite apex seals prevented the rotor tips from ruining the inside of the engine surface.
Eighty test cars later, the 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110 S made history as the world's first production car with the two-rotor design. NSU's Ro80 sedan of the same year won Europe's "Car of the Year" award.
Still, the days of homegrown rotary development would quickly grow numbered. Volkswagen purchased NSU in 1969. Even as the Ro80 had won acclaim for the sweet, velvety nature of its operation, NSU's development of the rotary would not be allowed to continue. The Ro80 had suffered terrible teething problems, often in the hands of early customers. VW and Audi engineers, led by Ferdinand Piëch (who would lead VW in the '90s), felt that the rotary had inherent thermodynamic flaws and could not be made reliable. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz, which had also dabbled in rotary experimentation, never released a production model.
Undeterred, Mazda would spend the next forty-five years attempting to prove that the rotary could work - although the technology would soon become more of a boutique specialty.
For the moment, every second Mazda featured a rotary engine.
European sales of Mazda cars had begun not in Germany, but in Norway, in 1967. Mazda's first appearance at a European auto show was in Frankfurt, in 1968. While Mazdas trickled into Canada that year, and to the U.S. market in 1970, not until four years after Frankfurt did the Japanese company make its official German start.
On the night of November 23rd, 1972, Mazda Managing Director Masayuki Kirihara checked-in to the Düsseldorf Hilton. Legend has it that he spent the night in Room 323. The following day, Mazda Motors Deutschland would be interred into the commercial register — and "323" would, of course, soon become a very important Mazda for many years.
The German media quickly took to Mazda's line of rotary coupes, sedans, and wagons. Pistonless, with a handful of moving parts, this was an entirely different design to most every car save for Germany's own NSU, whose days under Volkswagen were numbered. It made a futuristic "hum" as it went, and for those who enjoyed mechanical innovation, most every other car seemed a bit dated. There was a synchronized harmony to the musical way a rotary engine went about its business.
The gas crisis of 1973, and the resulting paranoia in America, led to a rethink at Mazda. Much was done to reduce the CO2 emissions and inherently high fuel consumption of the rotary. When questions were raised about the rotary's reliability, the Japanese answered with a five-year/ fifty-thousand-mile warranty that was unheard of at the time. But it seemed clear that only a traditional piston engine could assuage the market.
With demand for rotary engines down and demand for economy cars up, Mazda made the obvious move — to a new economy car. There was no time to waste and no mistakes could be tolerated.
After just eighteen months of development — virtually overnight in automotive terms — the 323 (dubbed GLC or Great Little Car in America) debuted in 1977. It was conservative, driving its rear wheels and using carry-over parts wherever possible. Germany's Volkswagen Golf, which had debuted in 1973, was considerably more modern, with its front-wheel drive and sharp, Italian lines. But Germans took to the 323 and it would, in 1981, become the first Mazda - and one of the first Japanese cars - to be sold in both West and East Germany.
The rotary engine was to become more of a Mazda trademark than a mainstay. The Cosmo Sport evolved into the RX-7 of 1978. Much though it paid homage to Porsche's 924, the rotary powerplant made it very much its own car and it was well received.
Cars like the RX-7 were niche products. Mazda's third new car in two years, the 626 family sedan of 1979, launched a serious attack on Europe. The efficiency-minded German market, whose Autobahn emphasized stability at speed, appreciated the aerodynamic achievement it represented.
There's no doubt that focusing on aerodynamics brought forth a more international aesthetic, with strong German (and Italian) influences. Equally, someone had sweated the details. Window moldings were flush, the angle of the C pillar matched the angle of the rear of the trunk lid, and the taillights were protected so that nothing sliding around in the trunk would break them. A coupe model had its own, less formal and inch-lower greenhouse, for a sleeker profile.
The 626 featured a low, sloping front hood, a front spoiler, a slanted grille, flush windshield pillars, and integrated front indicator lights and taillights. Mazda claimed that reducing the coefficient of drag from 0.45 to 0.39 on a car of the 626's size increased top speed by approximately six miles per hour — the equivalent of adding an extra ten brake horsepower — and that fuel economy at sixty miles per hour improved by nearly two-and-a-half miles per gallon.
The 626 handled better than most Japanese cars of the era, and it was dubbed by the media the "German from Japan." Its export success led Mazda to permanently place a priority on making its cars as good to drive as possible.
Mazda was proving to be quite flexible. Just as the company had easily switched from rotary to piston engines in most of its models, it now made the move to front-wheel drive. Mazda's interiors grew even more spacious, while retaining the visibility and steering feel that had characterized earlier models. The 1981 323 compact and 1982 626 sedan both made use of the new layout, with the 626 drawing particular praise in Germany for its efficiency, wind-cheating drag coefficient (just 0.34 in the coupe), and unusually clean, tasteful lines. The grip that the 626 was able to muster - some magazines measured it better than Porsche's 944 - was little short of astonishing for a family car, and owed partly to Mazda's insistence on using wide rubber. 626 became the best-selling Japanese car in Germany.
Notably, Mazda did not fall into the same trap as Mitsubishi. Unusually for a relatively niche Japanese automaker, it did not use gimmicks for gimmickry's sake; rather, new technology was applied only inasmuch as it fit Mazda's mission to inspire driver confidence.
Mazda landed ninth among Germany's top-selling car brands - the highest-placed Japanese automaker - in 1985. Its reputation in Germany soared through the late '80s, when turbocharged engines and four-wheel steering saw its 626 models threaten far more expensive machinery from BMW, and four-wheel drive gave its 323 the feel of a rally car for the road. When in 1990 the German magazine Auto Bild asked its seven hundred thousand readers to evaluate their new cars during the first year of ownership, the winner was neither BMW, nor Mercedes-Benz - but the 626. "The most satisfying car in Germany isn't German," boasted Mazda.
Mazdas had always been agile and well put together, but now the company was making strides in ergonomics and finish, as well. Germany's ADAC and TÜV began reporting that Mazdas were among the least likely cars to break down. Three-way catalytic converters, adopted from U.S. models, showed that Mazda cared about the environment. Six-year rust-proof guarantees were the longest in the industry.
The little 323 won the country's prestigious Goldenes Lenkrad or "Golden Steering Wheel," is a much-coveted automotive award, established in 1976 and organized by German Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag and automotive magazine Auto Bild. Mazda has won the influential accolade four times, for the 323 (1985 and 1989), the 626 (1992), and the Mazda2 (2014).
When Mazda in 1989 established its regional headquarters for the European market, Germany was a natural choice. The Leverkusen facility and its two hundred employees are located on the banks of the river Rhine. To celebrate this, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans, Russians, and Japanese drivers took turns to pilot six Mazda vehicles fifteen thousand kilometers from Hiroshima to Leverkusen, across the former Soviet Union.
Mazda's European research arm, too, is located in Germany. Roughly a hundred engineers, designers, and technicians work out of Oberursel offices built in 1990.
The MX-5, which Americans know as the MX-5 Miata, launched in 1989. It was a sensation, bringing back the open-air sensation of the British roadster, but without the reliability woes. America, as the world's largest car market at the time, bought almost thirty-six thousand copies in 1990. Canada was second - and Germany, third. German magazine readers consistently voted the MX-5 the "best import cabriolet," and the "most fun car on sale." Indeed, when in 1997 the figures were tallied for the first-generation model of a car that would become iconic for Mazda, Germany had bought almost thirty-three thousand - more than all the countries of continental Europe put together.
Meanwhile, cars like the Xedos 6 and Xedos 9 (Millenia, in the United States) appealed to the German sense of value. They offered Jaguar-esque style for considerably less money than even the new crop of Japanese luxury from Toyota's Lexus. In contrast, the Mazda badge on a luxury car put many other markets off.
Mazda went through a tough time in the mid '90s. A lingering sales slump in its home market hit the company particularly hard. Moreover, while its competitors opened plants in Britain, in a stepping stone to quota-free European sales, Mazda stayed true to its home base. Eighty percent of Mazda's export sales were vehicles assembled in Japan, leaving the company vulnerable to the effects of a strong Japanese yen. By the end of the decade, however, Mazda had regained its place as the top-selling Japanese brand in Germany.
Germany celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Felix Wankel in 2002. He'd once called Mazda chief engineer Kenichi Yamamoto among his most important friends, for having made the rotary work.
For his part, Yamamoto has suggested that, in persisting with rotary development against the odds, Mazda pursued a strategy of identity and independence, rather than profit - figuring that success would follow. Today, Consumer Reports affirms Mazda as a brand that "understands itself and replicates its sporty DNA in every new car it makes."
Germans continue to be appreciative of Mazda's focus. In 2015, the brand was outselling Toyota, Peugeot, and Fiat in Germany, and closing in on Nissan. Mazda ended 2016 with almost sixty-five thousand cars sold in Germany, a two-percent share of the market and a good result for an import manufacturer with no rich parent company, no manufacturing plant in Europe, no hybrids, and no electric vehicles.
Felix Wankel died in 1988. Four years earlier, Mazda had given him a silver RX-7 GSL-SE sports car as a note of their appreciation. You can see it today at the first Mazda museum in Europe - and indeed the only one outside Japan. It opened in Senkelbach, Augsburg on May 13th this year, in a historic, nineteenth-century tram depot. There's an events area, restaurants, and a gift shop.
An hour's drive from BMW's Munich home, the museum is run by Auto Frey, a German Mazda dealer since 1978. Frey has a collection of more than one hundred and twenty vehicles, which will rotate regularly in a display of about forty-five. Plan your trip at http://mazda-classic-frey.de/en/.
Since 1977, and for almost thirty-five years, virtually uninterrupted, Mazda was the only automaker to offer cars with rotary engines. Its RX-7 and RX-8 sports cars were enthusiast favorites for their unique, brave engine technology and their eager appetite for high engine speeds. Almost two million were sold before production of the RX-8 ended in 2012. "Without the rotary engine, there would be no Mazda," admits the company, in a recent celebration of fifty years of rotary evolution. Indeed, you could argue that it was the rotary that gave Mazda, effectively a niche manufacturer, a big sense of identity. In recent years, rumors have persisted that the rotary engine may make a comeback, owing to the ease with which it can apparently be hybridized. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, the Frey Mazda museum even has the very bench that once sat outside Felix Wankel's German residence.