2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Mazda RX-3. Often overlooked when compared to the later RX-7 coupé or the earlier and far rarer Mazda Cosmo, the Mazda RX-3 was a landmark car in Mazda’s history – a car that cemented Mazda’s association with the rotary engine at home and abroad, while its export success helped put Mazda on the map as a global automotive company.
Having introduced the Cosmo 110S sports car in 1967, followed by the R100 Familia Coupe in 1968 and the Bertone-designed R130 Luce Coupe in 1969, Mazda introduced the RX-2 Coupe in 1970. The first year of the new decade also saw the first rotaries exported to Europe and the United States, and thanks to this line-up of Wankel engine-powered coupés, by the end of 1970 cumulative rotary production had reached 100 000 units. The 1970 Tokyo Motor Show had also seen Mazda display the radical Mazda RX-500 concept car, unlike anything seen before; its pure futuristic design was a showcase for both the rotary engine and safety technology.
It was into this halcyon period of the rotary engine that Mazda launched the new Mazda RX-3 in September 1971. Smaller and sportier than the Mazda RX-2, the rotary RX-3 was called the Mazda Savanna in Japan but it was largely identical to the in-line four-cylinder-powered Mazda Grand Familia launched alongside it. As Mazda had done with previous models, offering a choice of piston or rotary-powered versions increased the range and customer choice considerably.
Its success on the racetrack led the way for the accomplishments of the later and more famous RX-7. By the time production came to an end in 1978, 286 757 RX-3s had been produced, making it the biggest-selling Mazda rotary after the RX-7. Additionally, the piston-engine versions, called the Mazda 808, Mazda 818 or Grand Familia (depending on the market), were also popular and added lots more vehicles to the sales tally. And while it was the two-door coupé that was the most popular and is the best remembered today, the RX-3 was offered in coupé, saloon and estate body styles – making it the first Mazda rotary estate car.
Today, the Mazda RX-3 remains a popular choice for historic racers around the globe and has gained cult status in the tuning, drifting and even drag racing worlds. Thanks to its success in competition the Mazda RX-3 was a car that successfully extended the Mazda brand and helped to promote the rotary engine.