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Here in the UK, Mazda isn’t a manufacturer we think of as old – certainly not when compared to the more familiarly ‘historic’ names such as Bentley or Alvis.
So it comes as a surprise to learn that the old lady of Hiroshima marked its 100th anniversary in 2020, having been founded on 30 January 1920 as Toyo Kogyo.
Starting out manufacturing cork, it soon moved into machine tools, then motorbikes, before the Mazda name – derived from Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god of harmony, intelligence and wisdom, no less – appeared in 1931 on the Mazda-Go three-wheeler truck.
Of course, a world war and a very large bomb arrested development, and it wasn’t until 1960 that its first true passenger car arrived, the unfeasibly cute R360.
Yet still Europe didn’t learn of the name until 1967, when cars began trickling into the UK – just nine of them in the first two years, via importer Normand Garages – and sales didn’t gather any real vigour until the early 1970s.
That late start, combined with recent stellar successes such as the MX-5, has tended to distil the idea that it’s a relative newcomer, and the cynic in me does wonder if talk of a centenary is just a good way of generating column inches…
After all, the firm didn’t officially become known as the Mazda Motor Corporation until 1984.
Not that I’m complaining, because the celebrations surrounding the anniversary have tempted some rare beasts from the firm’s various heritage collections, and afforded the opportunity to drive what is, for me, its most beautiful model.
When asked to name a classic Mazda, most well-informed enthusiasts will reach into the memory banks for the fabulous 110S ‘Cosmo’,yet lurking in its shadow sits the gorgeous Luce Rotary Coupé, or R130.
Previewed in 1967 and launched two years later, it is arguably more significant and certainly an even rarer sight, with just 976 examples sold from October 1969 to October 1972.
And what a lovely sight it is, too, courtesy of the outrageously talented Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone – who was still not yet 30 when the Luce left his drawing board.
The marriage of Italian design and Japanese engineering has led to some intriguing rarities, such as the Isuzu 117 Coupé (by Ghia), Daihatsu Sport Cabriolet (Vignale) and Hino Contessa (Michelotti), but for Mazda the Latin influence helped the marque enter the mainstream with the 1966 Luce saloon, which was badged as the 1800 in the UK.
Handsome yet fairly unremarkable in sedan and estate form, the Luce really got interesting at the 1967 Tokyo Auto Salon when the RX-87 concept took a bow.
And when the Luce Rotary Coupé went on sale it was, bar a few tweaks around the nose and the loss of the quarterlights, all but unchanged from the handsome show car – even continuing to sport ‘RX-87’ badges on its flanks.
Despite superficial similarities to more humdrum Luces, the R130 was completely re-engineered, too.
Not only did it feature an elegantly pillarless, cab-forward coupé shape, with retractable frameless windows, but it also traded the lowlier models’ four-cylinder piston engines for a newfangled rotary.
Mazda had signed an agreement with NSU to develop and produce its own variant of Felix Wankel’s compact, lightweight rotary engines in 1961, and over the ensuing 57 years the Japanese firm became far more synonymous with the technology than its pioneer as the latter became absorbed by Audi and eventually disappeared.
Almost two million Mazda rotary engines were built before the final unit was produced in 2018, powering everything from buses to a racer that topped the podium at Le Mans (the only non-piston powerplant to do so).
Even today Mazda remains wedded to the technology, and plans to reintroduce a Wankel unit as a range-extender for the all-electric MX-30.
What separates the R130 from every other Mazda rotary, however, was the fact that its 13A engine – developed specifically for it and only ever used by the coupé – drove the front wheels, rather than featuring the rear-wheel drive of not only the firm’s other rotaries, but the other Luces, too.
It was Mazda’s first ever front-driver (it would be another decade until the next, the 1981 Familia), and remains to this day its only front-wheel-drive rotary car.
If that seems like a lot of development energy – and cost – for a car destined to be produced to the tune of fewer than 1000 examples and only for the domestic market, it’s worth considering the statement this flagship coupé was making at its launch in 1969.
At the time this was Mazda’s biggest, heaviest and most luxurious car to date, and would spearhead its assault on the emerging ‘premium’ market of the late 1960s.
Quickly earning the local nickname ‘Lord of the Road’, this was a rapid, refined ‘personal car’ in the mould of the Oldsmobile Toronado and its ilk (albeit on a rather smaller scale), and you suspect that it would have been lapped up in the USA where considerations such as the Wankel engine’s fuel thirst were less of a concern.
Yet it wouldn’t head Stateside, nor even be engineered for left-hand drive.
A few examples have escaped their home nation, usually ending up in fellow right-hooker territories such as Australia and South Africa, but on the Bavarian roads where we encounter the R130 it draws only quizzical looks.
One of around 200 survivors, chassis M13P-10880 was sourced in Japan by a British collector and brought back to UK in 2008.
There it remained for five years before selling at H&H’s Imperial War Museum Duxford sale in April 2013 for a bargain £16,875, snapped up by Mazda Motor Nederland where it was restored before joining its heritage fleet.
In the metal, the Latin link is impossible to ignore. So much of this clean, crisp shape contains Giugiaro’s signature, with strong echoes of his similarly brilliant Alfa Romeo Giulia GT – in particular around the elegant rear window line – along with powerful hints of Pininfarina’s Lancia Flavia Coupé.
Even the badge, a Mazda ‘m’ surrounded by a rotor, looks uncannily like a Lancia shield at first glance.
The European feel continues when you open the door – which, like all of the latching panels on this car, shuts with a delightfully mechanical ‘click’ – and you can immediately appreciate the packaging benefits of the compact drivetrain mounted well ahead of the front-axle line.
With an airy glasshouse and little in the way of a transmission tunnel it feels spacious, and it’s luxurious, too – in Super Deluxe trim this was a costly car when it was new, and that’s reflected in a spec list that includes electric windows all round, air conditioning and the obligatory 8-Track set into the brushed-metal dash.
The trim in this particular car is a rather sober brown tweed, but in the late ’60s the factory was ordering in cloth for a month’s production at a time, so variation was common.
The huge, usefully square boot adds to the impression that this is a proper GT, backed up by rear seats that were clearly expected to be used: there’s plenty of space, and it’s equipped with moulded headrests, grabhandles, a fat armrest and even ashtrays in the front seatbacks.
It’s just a shame that the seatbelts, a later addition to this car, rather spoil the clean line of the pillarless side windows.
The front chairs are large and comfortable, and ahead of you there’s a three-spoke wheel with individual horn pushes in each spoke – à la Alfa Bertone coupé.
But just as those oh-so-Japanese wing mirrors spoil the Italian illusion at standstill, so the Milanese fantasy conjured by that wheel evaporates as soon as you get under way.
It’s not that the experience is in any way negative, more that it’s just so… different.
With its over-assisted steering and over-servoed brakes, it takes a while to achieve Mazda’s famous state of Jinba Ittai, the perfect connection between car and driver, but the more time you spend in the Luce, the more you start to trust it.
Mazda apparently chose front-wheel drive for better directional stability, roadholding and the traction benefits of having the engine and four-speed transaxle mounted longitudinally over the driven wheels.
Yet because the Wankel unit is so light and small it avoids the understeer usually associated with front-wheel-drive cars, and because it’s mounted so deep in the bay the centre of gravity is kept low.
As a result, there’s much less roll than you’d expect from a car with such good suspension compliance, and you can lean hard on the slender 185/65 R15 front tyres.
There’s precious little feedback from the light helm, but as you get accustomed to the car’s inherent balance you can turn in more and more confidently, safe in the knowledge that the Luce will just grip and go.
Even getting hard on the power out of tighter bends there’s not a chirrup from the tyres, but that’s at least in part thanks to the lack of torque – a common criticism of rotary powerplants.
That said, delivery from the R130’s bespoke twin-rotor 13A unit – the ‘13’ being a reference to its capacity, with two chambers each boasting a swept volume of 655cc to give a nominal 1310cc – is remarkably linear, testament to the work the engineering team led by ‘father of the rotary’ Kenichi Yamamoto put in to tune the engine for torque rather than outright power.
There’s never a thump in the back but simply a sustained spell of turbine thrust, with its peak 127lb ft of torque arriving at a very usable 3500rpm and maximum power of 124bhp some 2500rpm later.
Those are hardly low numbers for a late-’60s GT, but they are for a rotary and combined with this layout’s inherently smooth nature they encourage you to stir the rather long-throw wand of a gearlever and keep the engine spinning sweetly.
Try hard enough and the R130 will get most of the way around its 200kph (125mph) speedometer, and cover the quarter-mile in a very respectable 16.9 secs, but this is a sporting car rather than a sports car, and is at its best loafing along dual carriageways at pace, with 75mph registering a shade under 4000rpm and the extra sound-deadening doing a fine job of keeping the coupé’s occupants relaxed.
Perhaps that’s why it’s never been a headline-grabber like its vaunted Cosmo sibling, yet it’s no less important a car.
This quiet revolutionary proved that the still youthful manufacturer could meld magpied ideas of European style and technology into a beautiful and beautifully engineered whole that, just like the similarly packaged NSU Ro80 in the saloon market, was without peer in 1969.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that the R130 never made it further west. Perhaps if it had, Mazda wouldn’t have had to wait for its centenary to seal its status as a truly ‘classic’ marque.
Images: Christian Boehm
Mazda R130 Luce
- Sold/number built 1969-’72/976
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine two-rotor 1310cc Wankel, with twin spark plugs per chamber and Hitachi-Stromberg four-barrel carburettor
- Max power 124bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 127lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear beam axle, trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 15ft ½in (4585mm)
- Width 5ft 4½in (1635mm)
- Height 4ft 6½in (1390mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 5½in (2580mm)
- Weight 2833lb (1285kg)
- 0-60mph 8.3 secs
- Top speed 119mph
- Mpg n/a
- Price new ¥1.75m
- Price now £70,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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