For me, one of the saddest things in the automotive world is seeing great concept cars just sitting and collecting dust in warehouses. After the show season is over, most of these things end up languishing for decades, if they’re lucky enough to escape a date with the crusher as was often the case in years past.
Mind you, I’m not talking about those “concepts” which are just slightly massaged production cars shown just before their launch to generate interest from the general public. At the same time, I’m not referring to some silly flying drone thing or supposedly-nuclear-powered dream machine. The show cars that I pour one out for are the functional ones that could rather easily be produced with just a few tweaks.
There’s more than a few of these, and one of the coulda-beens that I especially like is a largely forgotten Mazda machine that would have surely been a wild production car in the 1970s – and even more so in the 2020s, which is how I’m imagining it.
In the late sixties, Mazda was likely looking at “what’s next” as a possible successor to their dramatic rotary powered Cosmo coupe:
The resulting show car was the 1970 Mazda RX-500, a 14,000 RPM, rotary powered bread-van-shaped GT styled to look rather like a LeMans car of the era (or Speed Racer’s Mach Five if we’re being honest about the rather exaggerated nose and tail). Butterfly-style doors for the passenger compartment were joined by gullwing-opening panels over the engine compartment. Pure sci-fi on wheels, the RX-500 was paraded about for a number of years in different paint schemes including orange, green, and the later silver it remains in today:
Somewhat reminiscent of a cartoonish interpretation of the C-111 concepts that Mercedes was showing at the time, this forward-thinking wedge was developed completely in-house to be a technology showcase and worthy successor to the Cosmo that shook up the automotive world in demonstrating what this Japanese upstart was capable of. The mid-mounted rotary engine (and storage for the spare) in back allowed for the impossibly low nose up front, while the Kamm tail was framed by taillights that will get Jason Torchinsky all hot and bothered.
Like those mood rings from the era, the color of the lights changed depending on if the car is accelerating (green), slowing down (yellow) or throwing out the anchor (red, of course). I doubt any jurisdiction would allow these, and for some reason the shapes of the lights seem to have been copied nearly verbatim by later Ford Torino station wagons.
It’s not a very well-remembered concept and I only know about it since I’ve owned one – If you’re a GenXer, you might have as well. I recall it drove rather well, at least on the orange Hot Wheels tracks you’d set up until mom said to clean up the damn room.
As far as a full-sized version, Mazda seems to have done exactly nothing with the concept; instead, the next generation Cosmo was an Olds Cutlass-looking sedan. The RX-7 that came along in 1978 was not a whiz-bang supercar but instead a rather back-to-basics sports alternative to the boulevardier-like Datsun 280ZX of the time. Later RX sports models remained front-engined coupes all the way through the last “four door” RX-8. Mazda has teased up with the RX-Vision, a next-generation “RX-9” and its production possibilities; it’s also the same front engine format as earlier RX sports cars.
This RX-9 thing is pretty appealing, and I’d have no problem with this thing seeing the light of day. Regardless, I want the old RX-500 to somehow come to life fifty years after it stunned showgoers. The RX-500 was to be a proto-supercar and not a Japanese evolution of the long-nosed British sports car that the production RX series gave us. Is there a way that such a car could coexist with that “RX-9” and other front-engined offerings? I would say “yes”, and it could be as unique and revolutionary as the RX-500.
Wankel Off Roader
Here’s one possibility: the revival of an RX-500 could be a way to make an affordable version of that new, emerging breed of lifted, “safari” style supercars. Porsche pulled from their history of actually competing with 911s in such environments with their Dakar model. Lamborghini has no such precedent for their Huracan Sterrato; this odd-looking thing is a bit polarizing but undeniably this trend of high performance sports machines that can go off pavement is not going to end any time soon. The fact that “Mustang Raptor” concepts have seen the light of day seems to prove it.
I’m not sure what to think about these things. My first response is that they’re a bit silly, though based on the fact that most supercars can barely make it over a speed bump without catastrophic consequences, much less go out in the snow or drive on a dirt road, I can’t say that the concept is totally without merit. I would say that, especially in the case of the Lambo, it might be better to start from scratch with a design for this type of purpose instead of jacking up and putting incongruous flares and tires on a street vehicle (not to mention the stuck-on Pep Boys LED driving lights that look like a mustache). These “lifted” otherwise-stock-looking supercars remind me less of something a professional driver would take on the Paris-Dakar rally than they do those absurd Mazda Miata-body-on-a-Jeep-chassis backyard mashups you see people trying to sell on Facebook Marketplace.
Also, I would imagine that anyone with the means to buy one of these not-necessarily-off-road-but-worse-for-the-road supercars that cost as much as an average three bedroom house has the available cash to buy a second car. Why would they not just avoid such a compromise machine and buy an unmolested Porsche or Lambo “street” model and then acquire a Range Rover or Cayenne/Urus for when the weather or roads are poor? Honestly, one of these safari sports machines might make more sense for a more affordable brand of car and people that barely have the ability to shell out for just one new car (like, well, most of us). Average Joes could take advantage of such a duality.
A modern RX-500, oddly enough, might be a good place to start. I was encouraged to see that the “bread van” shape appears to be making a comeback with concepts like the latest Honda Zero electric vehicles.
It’s both a slick and useful form, and one that we haven’t seen the likes of in some time; the fact that it’s a comparatively odd, unfamiliar shape might make it ideal for an entry into an all-new kind of category.
Smooth As An Electric Motor?
The new RX-Cross 500 could be an EV, but I’d want to keep it a rotary-engined car just based on the name alone (like, could you imagine an EV with “turbo” in the name? Oh wait…). In this case, a single rotor powerplant would act as a range extender mounted in front behind the grille to generate energy for the rear and centrally mounted batteries to pump power to the front and rear electric motors. I like how the relative smoothness of a rotary fits in nicely with the hum of electric motors in a way that piston powered plants cannot. Air springs would allow for raised ride height, or normal ground clearance for street driving (meaning ninety nine percent of the time the thing is being driven).
Proportionally, the new RX-Cross would be more rational than the old RX-500 concept, but still pick up on the basic look. Mazda’s current corporate nose and grille would be condensed to fit into the low nose, flanked by driving lamps. You know, with today’s LED lights, there’s no longer a reason to have covered headlamps, but somehow the front end just looks so much cleaner with the primary lights (at the legally required height) hidden beneath covers. Also, I will add motorized headlamps covers or motorized anything to a car for any reason I can find.
Small intakes in front of the flares for the rear wheels provide air to the rear brakes. The prominent slots on the engine cover of the original car are mimicked by similarly shaped window openings and wrap around glass bands over the rear seat area. Here you can see the sort-of-Volvo-like rear view with the suspension lifted to “Dakar” mode and the optional roof rack featuring high intensity lights front and back.
Never Too Many Triangles
There’s a temptation with rotary powered cars to put that Vicks cough drop shape on any and every surface; I am unable to resist said temptation. Please accept my apologies.
I started to use those slots on the rear quarters of the car as a theme inside so the dashboard vents would pick up on this shape. A forward-facing track pad on the armrest would control functions on the touch screen if you’d rather work it that way. I like the idea of putting passenger and driver temperature on the door panels so it’s not impossible to find it on some screen or maze of a dashboard. Main screens are line-of-sight under the giant windshield.
If there was one thing I really didn’t like about the original RX-500 it was that it had a great deal of wasted, void space under that lift-up rear engine cover. This is a real shame considering that it didn’t take advantage of the compact size of the motor. This new model would have the rotary range extender, gas tank, air suspension pump and other mechanicals under the hood so there’d be room for at least occasional rear seating in back that could be folded down for station-wagon like cargo space (headrests fold down first, then seatback folds). The glass hatchback opens to access this expandable cargo space.
Is This Dakar Or Not?
As laughable as an off-road sports car seems, with high end manufacturers getting on board it’s only a matter of time until more mainstream brands do the same. This could be a great opportunity for Mazda to lead the way with a purpose-built offering that takes advantage of hybrid power since a pure EV still isn’t a good overlanding option. Also, it doesn’t look like an AMC Eagle-style regular-car-on-stilts.
More importantly to GenXers like myself, Mazda could finally give people a chance to drive an RX-500 somewhere other than orange tracks on the living-room floor. It’s been fifty years – isn’t it about time?