by Johanna Patterson
Ask people today their first recollection of a rotary engine in Australia, and the answer is usually the wonderful Mazda RX2
. But if you go back a little further, the brilliant R100 coupe was the car that helped establish the well deserved reputation for rotary engine deisgn.
In fact, the Mazda R100 Rotary Coupe was powered by the dream engine of the 1960's - an engine so small two would fit into the space of most big sixes, an engine so smooth you needed a rev counter to tell it was going. And the most amazing fact of all - it developed the horsepower of piston engines two to three times its size.
Many years had been spent by Mazda engineers perfecting the rotary engine, their dogged determination to develop an engine that would produce power spinning naturally, round and round, making no unnecessary movement, and requiring no cams, rods, valves or surplus hardware.
Instead the rotary design offered pure, uncluttered power. The Mazda rotary engine was (and many would say remains) the closest thing to mechanical perfection. The two tandem rotors sent smooth, uninterrupted power straight to the wheels.
So, from only 1000cc, the Mazda rotary engine produced 110 hp which was a fair team of anxious ponies in a 17 cwt car. For dress, the R100 used the Mazda 1200 Coupe body shell (which was a clever disguise), and it topped 112 mph and sprints rather urgently across a quarter mile in 16.4 seconds.
Around town, the R100 was so quiet you had to check the tacho (fitted, standard) just to make sure the engine's was still ticking over. Once again, Mazda's quality control men had worked overtime on the interior.
There were two big dials in front (130 mph speedo and 8000 rpm tacho) a central console with gauges, clock, radio with switch for automatic power aerial, 3-speed heater controls, fan switch, light switch, cigarette lighter and ashtray.
And as if that wasn't enough (remember this is the 1960's we are talking about), the R100 was fitted with a beautifully sculpted woodrim wheel.
Outside louvres on the bonnet helped keep the hard-working little engine cool, while standard equipment included radial tires.
The rather small 13.2 gallon fuel tank would allow an operating range of around 300 miles, the Mazda engineers carefully shaping it into the boot, ensuring there was still plenty of room for the groceries, and it could happily swallow enough luggage for holidays or a weekend trip.
To make sure you could stop from over 100 mph, Mazda incorporated large diameter disc brakes at the front, able to cancel speed fast without any trace of fade.
Just to prove you could have a great ride and the convenience of a short wheelbase, Mazda used 14 inch wheels, perhaps in a concession to the dreadful Aussie roads. In any case, the R100 rode with the' stability of a car twice its weight. Its turning circle, by the way, was a mere 27 feet.
Big coil springs at the front (stiffer than the 1200 coupe) kept the front wheels firmly on the road for high speed touring, so all the rotary
engine's power could be used. That so much technological innovation was available in the late 1960's seems amazing, but the best news was the price - $2790 - it was a bargain.