1970 was the year that ushered in a new age for Japan, with its hugely successful Japan Expo ’70 it signalled the country’s rise to becoming a technological superpower. It was also the year of the 17th Tokyo Motor Show. There, Mazda unveiled its radically angular and streamlined RX500 concept car. It was a special year for Mazda because it was its 50th anniversary and they came up with the RX500 to reinforce the brand’s bold statement of its engineering and design ambitions. The concept car became the event’s crowd favourite, showcasing to the world that Japan was ready for the future.
Just a year before, the Americans made history by sending the first men to walk on the moon. And the year before that, the Hollywood sci-fi film “2001 : A Space Odyssey” hit the silverscreens worldwide. When Mazda organized a carefully selected team to do the design and build, Mazda built and designed various models and studied their aerodynamic drag in their wind tunnel. But instead of coming with a traditional coupe concept platform, Mazda designer Shigenori Fukuda’s streamlined shooting brake model was chosen because it was tested to have the lowest aerodynamic drag for the RX500 concept. Fukuda said he drew inspiration for the RX500’s design from the film among other things.
The design was also a radical departure from its Cosmo, Luce and R100 current models and production cars. Just like the Cosmo, it is powered by a rotary engine and its engine bay access is by a pair of beautiful gullwing style covers. The wedge-shaped front and butterfly swing doors completed its supercar looks. But what made this car stand out was its rear design, which probably took inspiration from a spaceship or jet fighter. It was said that many of the styling cues were from Fukuda’s association with Italian car body maker Carrozzeria Bertone.
Right after the unveil in Tokyo Motor Show, British toy car brand Matchbox got the license to produce die-cast toy cars of the RX500 and included it in its ‘Superfast programme’ which was a response to the 1968 introduction of Hot Wheels by Mattel. Hot Wheels introduced car toys which had thinner axles and newly designed wheels that made them faster and more fun to play with for the kids. Matchbox chose the RX500 to be part of its line up and casted this car in its 1971 offering as model number MB66 and was in the market for most of the decade. With its futuristic appeal, kids went for it and many of those who spent their childhood in that generation fondly remembers this model. In 1970 was also the year when Japanese die-cast toy car brand was established, and in later years also included the RX500 as model Tomica 34-1 and was introduced and stayed in the market from 1972 to 1978.
Rated at 250PS power, the rotary engine-powered RX500 prototype could reach to about 125mph and was seriously considered to be the potential successor to the Cosmo Sport 110 S, the flagship car. With a fiberglass-reinforced plastic body and a tiny 982cc two-rotor 10A rotary engine, it had a tremendous power-to-weight advantage. With the engine placed mid-ship, it also resulted in a perfect weight distribution for handling.
Sadly, only one model was built and underwent several color changes and was fully restored in 2008 and now sits at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima, the hometown for Mazda. Because of the looming oil crisis in the early 70s, the RX500 never saw production. We are thankful though the memory of the RX500 is still kept alive with vintage Tomica and Matchbox models that still pop up once in a while at swap meets and virtual marketplaces.
Alvin Uy wears many hats, foremost among them being an executive for a home improvement chain and real estate developer and part of a family-owned chemical business. Aside from writing about motoring news and car reviews, he loves to write about traveling, food and wine reviews, mechanical timepieces and classic cars.