It’s late 1970. Mazda has been at the rotary engine game for almost a decade, developing the problematic Felix Wankel/NSU design into a formidable, powerful, and futuristic little powerplant. It was the highlight of the forward-looking production 1967 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S. While beautiful, and interesting, the Cosmo Sport merely (albeit expertly) epitomized the now. The RX500 Concept, which took the stage at the 17th Tokyo Motor Show, envisioned a rotary-powered future straight out of a Syd Mead sketchbook.
The RX500’s aesthetic is pure ’70s sci-fi, with a wrap-around windshield that makes it look like a starfighter for the road. The ports on the engine cover and fenders look like exhausts for some sort of fusion reactor, the mirrors look like sensor pods, the large inlets just behind the windows could be jet intakes. Fair in the wheels, and it looks like it could hover, or fly. Pop up the butterfly doors and the impression is enhanced.
But the profile is the most striking. The high, nearly horizontal rear decklid streams backwards from the roof, terminating in a bluff rear flanked by a quadrangle-vented dark ring. Inset is a huge red-painted stripe emblazoned with the words “Powered by ROTARY.” Underneath, two prominent square exhaust outlets are painted red. There’s a loose thematic link with the Ferrari 250 GT SWB known as the “Breadvan,” but the RX500 is much busier in the details, yet arguably more elegant overall.
The shape came from Mazda’s design team, in particular Shigenori Fukuda, who later became head of the company’s design team. The designer admitted some influence from Italy in an interview with Pen, in particular Bertone’s work, but the design is on the whole original. And the spaceship influence is quite overt, directly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fukuda told the outlet.
It wasn’t enough to simply build a futuristic mid-engined supercar, albeit one with a modest (by today’s standards) 247 horsepower from a modified two-rotor 10A engine that revved to a stratospheric 15,000 RPM. As was the trend at the time, the RX500 explored safety concepts, with a taillight cluster that used colored indicators to show whether the car was accelerating, braking, or coasting. That particular concept didn’t catch on, but adaptive brake lights did, decades later.
What did endure was the shape, although not in a full-size vehicle. In 1971, Matchbox immortalized it with a die-cast model, which differed from the fantastic RX500 mainly in the re-imagined engine cover, which opened as one piece (as opposed to the gullwing engine bay doors on the RX500).
The RX500 speaks to a future that never was for Mazda, and one that arguably wouldn’t have worked out very well considering the oil crises that followed shortly after the concept’s debut. While Mazda never built a road car much like the RX500, its mid-engined race program eventually led to an overall win at Le Mans with the legendary 787B in 1991—after which rotary engines were banned from the series. The Autozam AZ-1, a mid-engined kei car with gullwing doors, is perhaps the closest thing to this RX500 to hit production, and it utilized a Suzuki I-3 engine.
Just one RX500 was made, and it was restored in 2008 to display at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima, the home of Mazda. But the 1:59 scale Matchbox model remained on sale for over a decade, with a hiatus of several years in between, giving the RX500 a broad fanbase and a stronger legacy than it might have had otherwise.