Aside from the Cosmo 110S, Mazda’s rotary-engined cars of the 1970s were generally quick and competitively priced, but ornately styled and unexcitingly engineered. They were also too thirsty for most buyers.
But, having thrown its lot in (almost) with Wankel power, Mazda had to follow through with rotary alternatives in every segment.
The firm’s commitment to the rotary idea was best illustrated by the introduction in 1974 of a Wankel-engined pick-up (the Repu, a one-year-only model for North America and Canada, built to the tune of 15,000 examples) and a 26-seat bus called Parkway.
More mainstream were the little R100 (which proved its reliability by coming a creditable fifth on the 1968 Marathon De La Route and sold particularly well in Australia and New Zealand), and the 1970 RX2 Capella, based on the piston-engined 616.
The more upmarket R130 Luce was a Bertone-styled coupé aimed at the domestic Japanese market. It was Mazda’s only front-wheel-drive rotary model and a genuinely pretty car.
A true oddity, however, and therefore worthy of a guilty pleasure, was the Roadpacer AP, a large saloon intended to be Mazda’s answer to the large, V8-engined Nissan President/Toyota Century/Mitsubishi Debonair formal luxury cars built for the local market.
It was actually nothing more than a Holden Premier bodyshell – shipped in from GM’s Australian outpost – and fitted with Mazda’s 130bhp 13B rotary engine and a column-change automatic gearbox sourced from Nissan, all of this looking rather lost in a space that once housed V8 or straight-six engines.
The fact that both territories drove on the left was a bonus, the shells being right-hand drive from the factory, and the Detroit-inspired sheet metal was not far away from the styling of the local ‘barge’ competition.
American styling was still the international language of big-car design in the ’70s, after all.
Under the skin, the Roadpacer AP (‘AP’ meaning ‘anti-pollution’) was ’70s GM-generic with all-round coil springs, mushy power assistance for the steering, disc/drum braking and a live rear axle.
GM had a dalliance with rotary engines in the early ’70s, but elected to stick with reciprocating power.
This means the Roadpacer has the dubious distinction of being the only GM production model, albeit Mazda-badged, ever to have a Wankel engine.
An encounter with a Roadpacer in the flesh would probably have confirmed the sense in that decision. Slow and thirsty (103mph, 9mpg), the Wankel’s poor low-speed torque struggled with its 3500Ib bulk and the drag of the automatic ’box.
I will take an educated guess that the handling might have been better than the Roadpacer’s Antipodean inspiration, if only because the twin-rotor was much lighter than the V8.
One of the big Mazda’s few distinctive features, engine aside, was a central-locking system that automatically operated above walking pace.
Only 800 were sold through to its official demise in 1977, mostly to the Japanese government.
There were tax-break implications in running a Roadpacer as a company vehicle, because of its small-capacity engine.
But, at twice the price of a Cosmo, few saw this flagship Mazda as a real alternative to the prestigious V8-engined Toyota Century or Nissan President.
Very little attempt was made to hide the outward relationship between the Holden and the Mazda, probably on the basis that neither car would ever be seen outside its country of origin, so it didn’t really matter.
And nobody missed the Roadpacer when it died in 1977. Even in Japan, survivors are said to be few and far between, perhaps because the car became expensive to keep on the road tax-wise once in private, as opposed to company, ownership.
Although some pretty wacky Japanese cars gave found their way to the UK over the years, I think I can say with some confidence that no Mazda Roadpacer touched down on our roads: but if anyone knows any different, I would love to hear from them!
A footnote to all the above is that between 1973 and 1976, Isuzu offered the Stateman de Ville, a long-wheelbase version of the Holden Premier, complete with a 5-litre V8, imported complete from Australia. Only 246 were sold, likely as part of a deal that allowed Holden to import Isuzu commercials into Australia.