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Where would you expect to find the finest collection of Mazda vehicles in the world?
In the company’s home town of Hiroshima, perhaps? Or maybe in the capital, Tokyo, to take advantage of the greater footfall?
Guess again, because it isn’t in Japan at all but in the historic university town of Augsburg, Germany, in the heart of Bavaria.
The story of Automobil Museum Frey begins in 1971, in the nearby town of Gersthofen, when entrepreneur Walter Frey began buying and selling Ladas under the banner of Auto-Frey.
Seven years later, he decided to become one of the country’s first Mazda dealers. “I started with Mazda because it was the only company doing rotary engines and I liked the technology,” says Frey.
In fact, Frey has around 100 non-Mazdas, joining some 120 running examples of the Japanese marque and another 80 or so for spares or restoration.
With such a vast collection, the obvious thing to do was to put on a display so he could share his passion with the public.
In 2017 the project opened its doors with the help of his sons Joachim and Markus, who are both key players in the family business.
Housed in an old tram depot, a beautiful building that dates back to 1897 and was acquired with the help of the town’s mayor, the museum can display up to 55 vehicles at any one time, with a strong bias towards the rotary-engined machines that have always been Walter’s passion.
“The museum is my baby,” he smiles. “My best thing is to come here when it’s empty – no music, no people. Then the cars talk to me!”
Joining that conversation is a representative of every model and series launched by the manufacturer, ranging from its very first vehicle, the motorbike-based three-wheeler Mazda-Go truck of 1930, right up to the new MX-30E V.
Frey’s first classic purchase was a 1969 110S Cosmo Sport, discovered and bought in New Jersey in 1980, and he now has several examples of the wild rotary supercoupé, which remains one of the most popular exhibits.
But that Cosmo wasn’t the farthest-flung purchase, and new additions to the collection are often discovered in unusual circumstances – such as the impossibly cute R360 Coupé, Mazda’s first passenger car.
“They weren’t sold in Europe,” explains Joachim, “but we were visiting some friends and one of them had a two-year-old newspaper that had an advert for an R360 in it. My father called and they still had it!
“We buy cars from all over the world – our Familia 1000 came from an Australian auction, and the RX-5 Cosmo AP 60th Anniversary Edition was bought on eBay in the UK.”
Not every car arrives in such good condition, however.
The Autozam AZ-1 with MazdaSpeed bodykit was shipped from Japan in pieces, and many purchases require full restoration. “It’s important for us that every car in the museum runs and gets used,” explains Joachim.
“Our mechanics are kept busy working on new cars for the garage, so a restoration can take up to five years. We are currently working on the original Le Mans Group C car, the 727C: it will be the highlight of our museum when it’s finished.”
Perhaps the greatest surprise comes from the variety that is packed into this one-make collection – from racers to rally cars, kei cars to a 1966 Bongo truck, first of the long-running line of commercials.
There’s even a rotary-engined coach: one of only 47 examples built, the 26-seater 1976 Mazda Parkway once served the schools of Hiroshima, and at 135bhp and 75mph was one of the world’s fastest buses.
Elsewhere, a tiny Carol and two-cylinder Chantez rub shoulders with a rotary pick-up, a pair of 1993 323 GT-R 4WDs – in Group N rally and homologation special road car forms – and Felix Wankel’s own RX-7 turbo, a gift to the great engineer from Mazda in 1984.
There are rows of once commonplace but now scarce 323s, 626s and 929s, along with intriguing versions we never saw in the UK such as the Mk2 MX-5 Coupé, one of 179 built for the domestic market, and the Austin Gipsy-alike 1972 Pathfinder XV-1.
This 90bhp, four-cylinder Land-Rover rival was produced in Myanmar from 1970-’73 in both military and, as here, civilian forms.
You might expect choosing a favourite from the collection to be like picking between his sons for Walter Frey, anticipating something rare and exotic to take the prize such as the works RX-7 that competed in the 32nd Rally Acropolis.
But, as ever, this enthusiast is full of surprises: “The Roadpacer is my favourite because I used to live in Australia and knew all the Holdens, but didn’t know there was a rotary version! It’s not a very good car, but I love it because it’s different.”
Images: Mazda/Christian Boehm/Alastair Clements
- Name Automobil Museum Frey
- Address Wertachstraße 29b, 86153 Augsburg, Germany
- Where In the Senkelbach area of Augsburg, 50km west of Munich
- How much? Adults €5, seniors/students/teens (13-17) €2.50, 12s and under free
- Opening hours Thursday to Sunday, 10am-6pm (subject to COVID restrictions)
- Tel 0049 821 420 607 30
- Web mazda-classic-frey.de