January 30, 2020 marked the 100th years of Mazda. Like fellow automaker, Toyota, Mazda did not start out as an automobile manufacturer. It was a maker of artificial cork and it wasn’t known as Mazda 100 years ago.
It was then known as Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd. As cork became unprofitable, the company, lead by Japanese industrialist and businessman Jujiro Masuda, turned to manufacturing of machine tool and in 1931, introduced its first vehicle, Mazda-Go, a three-wheeled motorcycle with a cargo bed.
But, really, it was not until 1960 that Mazda got into making passenger cars, starting with the lovable Mazda R360. Mazda R360 is the very reason why we are writing this because, it is god damn adorable and sporty.
Mazda R360 was Toyo Kogyo’s bid for a piece of the growing Kei car (microcar) segment that was created by the Japanese government in 1949.
When it was launched, Mazda R360 immediately made a statement because, back then, Kei cars were either sedans or hatchbacks, and here it was, a microcar rocking a coupe styling. It was hard not for the R360 to turn heads.
The coupe formula proved to be a hit as 4,500 Mazda R360 were moved on the day it was launched. And it was just like that, Mazda secured nearly two-thirds of Japan’s growing Kei car segment and 15 percent of the entire domestic car market by the end of 1960. The rest, as they said, was history.
Styling was no doubt one of the key differentiation Mazda R360 offered, but it was not the only. The R360 also stood out as a microcar powered by a four-stroke engine at a time where two-stroke motors were the norm in this class.
The four-stroke motor brought about a few benefits, like quieter and cleaner operations, as well as more fuel efficient. Moreover, the rear-mounted 360cc V-twin was mated to a four-speed manual gearbox and it even had an optional semi-automatic transmission – Japan’s first torque-converter automatic – in market where three-speed manual was the standard.
Granted, it wasn’t a beast when it comes to power output and it most certainly won’t break any land speed record. The motor produces a meager 12 kW (15.8 horsepower) and a top speed of 90 km/h (56 mph). But thanks to the gram strategy in which engineers were obsessed with shedding mass to meet the Kei car requirements of that time, the motor had only 380 kilograms (838 lbs) to haul. Well, that, plus minus a couple of people’s weigh.
The extreme weighing saving measures saw the vehicle getting some premium features, including aluminum cylinder heads, magnesium alloy transmission case and oil pan, aluminum hood, specially developed plexiglass rear window, and a frameless monocoque chassis structure.
And oh, did we mentioned it had a four-wheel independent suspension too?
With so many premium features and for just 300,000 yen, or about US$380 at that time, it is not hard to see why the Mazda R360 was a hit. Just in case you are wondering… adjusted for inflation, the car would have cost around $3,326 today and that is still pretty attractive, if you ask me.
When Mazda picked the 1960 Mazda R360 to underscore its 100th anniversary, I was exhilarated, half-expecting a reboot. Alas, it wasn’t.
All images courtesy of Mazda.