Home » A Study In Contrasts: 1976 Mazda Cosmo vs 1976 Ford Elite

A Study In Contrasts: 1976 Mazda Cosmo vs 1976 Ford Elite

Sbsd 8 14 2023
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Good morning! I trust you all had a good weekend. We’re in the midst of a heat wave here in Portland, but we won’t let that stop us from checking out a couple of cool ’70s rides from opposite sides of the Pacific. First, though, let’s see how Friday’s runner-up battle went down:

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Interesting… the classics edged out the sofa-on-wheels Buick, but not by much. And the Kia? Yeah, I don’t care about it either.

1976 was a dismal year for cars, all things considered. American cars just kept getting fatter and slower, like the high school quarterback at the twenty year reunion. Engine compartments became an unintelligble tangle of extra wires and vacuum lines, adding insult to the injury of lost power. The last vestiges of the good old designs were either being replaced by newer, fussier shapes, or disappearing under the crushing weight of 5 mph bumpers and landau tops.

Meanwhile, Japan was sending over boatloads of small cars that ran and drove a whole lot better than some of ours, and used about half as much gas, but often featured weird technology that didn’t always work well, and had a tendency to rust if you breathed on them hard. And, in my small town at least, faced the ire of an increasingly vocal group of folks who were convinced that Japanese cars spelled doom for their livelihoods. But they sold, in huge numbers, and changed the vehicular landscape forever.

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So today, we’re going to take a look at two survivors from the Bicentennial year, both personal luxury coupes, both running and driving, both a bit scruffy. (Also, I just noticed, both red, white, and blue, if you count the air cleaners.) One is a Japanese upstart with a bizarre engine that looked and sounded like nothing else, and the other is a jumbo-sized American, clinging to the glory days of the ’60s with a neutered V8. Let’s see which one has aged better.

1976 Mazda Cosmo – $4,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.3 liter 2-rotor Wankel, three-speed automatic, RWD

Location: Coeur D’Alene, Idaho

Odometer reading: 125,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep

I had to look this up – I didn’t realize that Mazda ever sold the Cosmo in the US. But they did, from 1976-78, powered by a 13B rotary and, in this case at least, a three-speed automatic. It’s a larger and heavier car than the early (and beautiful) two-seat Cosmo, but still small by American standards at the time. The American styling influence is clear, from the upright waterfall grille to the not-quite opera windows in the rear pillars. It works, though: this is a sharp-looking car.

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Inisde, the feel is more European than American, with bucket seats, a center console, and an almost Alfa Romeo-like steering wheel. The Mazda Rotary logo on the horn button is a nice touch. Unfortunately, this car seems to have been parked out in the sun for a great many years; the upholstery is faded to pink, where it isn’t worn out, and the dash pad looks like someone attacked it with a machete.

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Outside, things are better, with only a little rust, and a couple of dings and scrapes to add character. The original alloy wheels are present, and a great ’70s design. The American design influence was so strong with Japanese automakers in the ’70s that some US-market Cosmos apparently even came with vinyl roofs; this car has been spared that indignity.

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The seller says this rotary-powered relic runs well, and it looks clean under the hood. The automatic is a bummer from an enthusiast’s point of view, and is certainly the wrong choice to back up a rotary, but as a period piece, it fits the car well. There aren’t many nice Mazda rotaries of any style left from this era, and this has got to be one of the rarest. Restoring it would be an absolute nightmare, but if you left it as-is and enjoyed it as a scruffy conversation piece, I think it could be a fun car.

1976 Ford Elite – $3,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 351 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD

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Location: Des Moines, WA

Odometer reading: 132,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

Meanwhile, at Ford, Lee Iaccoca had pointed the shrink-ray at the Mustang, and apparently zapped that extra size into all the rest of their cars. Personal luxury coupes were all the rage, as was taking up as much space as possible with them. This eighteen-foot-long monster, believe it or not, was a mid-sized car; the ’76 Ford Thunderbird was even bigger, and the not-much-smaller Granada was considered a compact. Those size categories, of course, are based on interior volume, not exterior dimensions, which shows just how much wasted space there was in these designs.

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What interior volume there was, however, was absolutely stuffed with comfort. Deeply padded seats worked in concert with the soft suspension to make sure no pothole ruined your ride, and the illusion of opulence was everywhere. I mean, when was the last time you saw a car with button-tufted door panels? And if I recall, these even had a very thin strip of fake wood embedded in the steering wheel rim. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but wonderful at the same time.

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Part of the reason for the overwrought interior style, I think, was to distract buyers from the dismal performance. Ford offered two completely different 351 engines in 1976, and I don’t know the differences well enough to tell which one this is under all the bric-a-brac, but it hardly matters; both of them were in the 150ish horsepower range, and the 0-60 time in seconds was roughly equivalent to the fuel economy in miles per gallon – both around 13.

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The seller says this Elite runs and drives fine, though they suspect a vacuum leak somewhere, and note that it could use a front-end rebuild to fix some play in the steering. It also has some telltale bubbles in the vinyl top, indicating rust underneath. Aside from that, however, it looks like a disco-era time capsule.

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Let’s be honest – both of these cars are absolute crap compared to even the least-expensive new car today. Every aspect of automotive design and manufacture has improved since 1976: engineering, metallurgy, build quality, everything. But these cars represented the best that automakers could accomplish with what they had, within the constraints imposed upon them. And hey, they’re still here, still alive and kicking, so that’s saying something. Which one has stood the test of time better?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Myk El
Myk El
11 months ago

Oooh, good arguments to be made for both. Not going to see either often. Went with the Ford and mostly because of the color combo.

ScottyB
ScottyB
11 months ago

Loving the Mazda but went Elite because

  • It’s so bad it’s good, and
  • I think you’d be pretty high and dry (and extremely broke) trying to bring back that poor Mazda’s interior

Many people would probably disagree, but to me this particular Elite is too nice to be a shitbox showdown candidate

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
11 months ago

I want both!

Fords from that era were the best looking of the domestic makers, IMO, ahead of Cadillac and Buick. And we don’t talk about Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth. It’s rude.

Ronald Pottol
Ronald Pottol
11 months ago

My dad had a 1975 Granda and a 1976 Pinto. Mazda all the way. Hated those Fords (4 speed manual in the Pinto was good though).

Snoopy Chrysler
Snoopy Chrysler
11 months ago

If it were anything else, I’ll take both the Cosmo and the Torino Elite, and you sir, are an British IDIOT!

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
11 months ago

I didn’t even know Mazda made the Cosmo in the 70s, much less sold them here, and wow is that one strange-looking machine! That window/beltline styling looks like nothing else, and while I can’t decide if it looks good or bad, it’s certainly unique and distinctive. Plus, rotary car I’ve never heard of before is always interesting.

I also happen to be in the market for a car, and that’s actually close enough to me and within my price range… but unfortunately I actually need some semblance of reliability and preferably a not-shredded interior. Maybe someday when I’m in the market for another silly fun car, that Cosmo will resurface. I dig it.

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
11 months ago

The Mazda Cosmo reminds me of my first car. 1976 Mazda 808. Four door, four speed manual, and it even had a choke. It was a great little car for my family during some hard times. It was passed to me when I turned 16. A mere 3 months later I dove that poor thing into a very large ditch. That crash(it was not an accident, I was stupid) taught some valuable lessons about driving beyond my own skills.

1961ford
1961ford
11 months ago

The Mazda would be fun until you had to tune it up. Replacing 3(!) sets of points and setting the timing is a royal PITA. And have fun with that Hitachi 4 barrel carb.
Meanwhile, the Ford at least has electronic ignition. And a 2 barrel carb.
I’m going with the smaller carburetor car (Ford). It has to get better fuel mileage, right?

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
11 months ago

While an auto behind a rotary is not the ideal, it is still a lot of fun – I had an auto RX-3 some years back, and it would do fantastic burnouts…..
Some Cosmo trivia – they had a different stud pattern to all other Mazda rotaries for some reason. And even the manual Cosmos had a torque converter – in between the engine and clutch to smooth drivetrain vibrations, since this was meant to be more of a ‘luxury cruiser’ than a sport car.

Bob Rolke
Bob Rolke
11 months ago

I want the Mazda and the Lancia Beta sitting behind it too.

Marc Fuhrman
Marc Fuhrman
11 months ago

Why I think the Mazda is the cooler car, that Elite appears to be absolutely mint. So the Ford gets the win for me this round.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
11 months ago

Mazda > Malaise Brougham

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