2021 marks the 50th Anniversary of one of Mazda’s most exciting, versatile, and successful vehicles- the Mazda RX-3. Often overshadowed when compared with the RX-7 coupe or even the earlier and rarer Mazda Cosmo, the Mazda RX-3 created a milestone in Mazda’s history – a vehicle that bonded Mazda’s relationship with the rotary engine at home and abroad. Its export success served Mazda well, stamping Mazda as a serious player in the global automotive world.
The success of the RX-3 on the racetrack also paved the way for the more famous RX-7’s own achievements. In 1978 when the RX-3 production ended, a tally of 286,757 units had been constructed making it the second biggest-selling Mazda rotary after the RX-7.
In 1970, Mazda released the RX-2 Coupe. The start of the new decade for Mazda brought about the first rotaries being exported to Europe and the United States. By the end of 1970 cumulative rotary production had reached 100,000 units, with much of the credit going to the Wankel engine powered coupes.
1970 was also the year that Mazda displayed a radical concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show – the Mazda RX-500. It had a completely futuristic design that merged the rotary engine with safety technology.
It was a wedge-shaped, rear-wheel drive, mid-engine sports car that was equipped with forward-opening butterfly doors. It featured a multi-colored rear strip light that showed when the car was cruising, slowing down, or speeding up depending on the color that lit up.
The gullwing opening engine covers gave access to the rotary 10A engine. This supercar concept car embodied Mazda’s technical ability and bravado as well as its rotary engine technology.
During this idyllic period of the rotary engine, Mazda unveiled the new RX-3 in September 1971. Compared to the Mazda RX-2, it was smaller and sportier. In Japan, they released it as the Mazda Savanna, and it was practically identical to the in-line four-cylindered Mazda Grand Familia that was also launched at the time. Like the previous models, Mazda offered customers the model with either piston engines or rotary-powered variants.
To completely appreciate the overall picture and understanding of the naming strategy of the newest vehicle could be overwhelming. In Japan, the rotary version was given the Savanna name, while their exported counterparts were dubbed the RX-3. The piston engine cars in Japan were called the Grand Familia, while they were exported as the Mazda 808.
As if it was not confusing enough, the Mazda 808 became the Mazda 818 in Europe and the UK, while the US and Australia kept the 808 name. Later on, in 1976, the North American 1.3-liter version was given the name Mazda Mizer. Kia was even given a license to a version of the 808 for production as the piston engine Kia Brisa K303.
In terms of design, the rotary RX-3 and the piston Mazda 818 set themselves apart through different grilles and headlights. The RX-3 sported twin round headlamps, while the 818/Grand Familia had square lamps or single round lights. The distinct rotor-shaped badges seen on the RX-3 left no doubt in people’s minds what type of power unit was hidden under the hood.
With the launch of the RX-3 in September 1971, the coupe, saloon, and estate versions all had the 982cc 10A engine; the US versions though were given the more powerful 1,146cc 12A engine. It would not be until 1972 that with the release of the Savanna GT that Japan would have access to the larger 12A engine. The larger version was also introduced in other markets along with the 10A versions, and this went on until the 10A was eventually discontinued in 1974.
By 1976, the Australia and New Zealand exports stopped, but sales of the units continued in Japan and US until it stopped production in 1978.
The 1971 to 1973 Series I cars had minor visual detail differences from the later 1973 to 1978 Series II and Series III versions. The sharper nose and grille of the later models as one of the biggest obvious cues.
In 1972, the Mazda RX-3 and 818 arrived in the UK which featured a saloon and a coupe for each of the models, with the RX-3 Coupe being an additional £335 more than the piston-engined 818 version.
In 1973, the estate RX-3 and 818 was introduced, although the RX-3 estate was offered only until 1974 before it was removed from the UK line-up.
In 1975, Mazda released an update across the range which included tinted glass and improved upholstery. At the same time, customers were also given the option to get metallic paint for their units. In 1976, sales for the RX-3 in the UK stopped although the Mazda 818 estate remained until 1978 with the final coupes and saloons being offered in 1979.
In 1973, Motor Magazine tested the 982cc 110bhp 10A powered RX-3 coupe where it displayed an acceleration of 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds. After testing the unit for 1,220 miles they averaged 24.9mpg and commended the RX-3 for its solid build quality, nice controls, slick gear change, and overall good performance.
The 1,272cc 4 cyl 81bhp Mazda 818 Saloon displayed a more leisurely time of 15.3 seconds when accelerating from 0-60mph. Its fuel consumption of 32.7mpg showcased the more economical cruising ability of the piston engine. Even though a higher price was commanded for the RX-3 compared to the Mazda 818, the former sold three times more cars than the latter in 1973.
Racing the RX-3
Another important aspect that the RX-3 played in the history of Mazda is its achievements in competitions. After racing the Cosmo and R100 Coupe in Europe at popular events like the Spa 24 Hours and Marathon de la Route, Mazda eventually decided to shift their focus at home, in Japan, going up against the Nissan Skyline.
From the start, the RX-3 immediately made its mark claiming its first victory at the Fuji Tourist Trophy meeting in December 1971. Further success came in May 1972, with the RX-3 making a historic 1-2-3 finish in the Fuji Touring Car Grand Prix.
Even though Mazda’s rivalry with Nissan reached new levels of intensity, Mazda claimed the Fuji Grand Champion Touring Car class championship in 1972, 1973, and 1975 with the RX-3. After their continued success for six seasons, Mazda RX-3 won its 100th domestic Japanese racing victory at the JAF Touring Car Grand Prix in 1976.
The racing success of the RX-3 was not just limited to Japan. It was also making its mark as a successful race car worldwide, being used to compete in the USA, Europe, and Australia.
The RX-3 would show success at the Bathurst 1000 – Australia’s most famous race. The 1973 race saw three RX-2s and three RX-3s entered, with one RX-3 finishing second in class and ninth overall.
1975 was the year when the RX-3 really stamped their authority for the rotary engine when Don Holland and Hiroshi Fushida came first in their class at Bathurst and came 5th overall, having only the V8 Holdens in front of them.
In the US, the RX-3 was also adopted for racing by privateers with the RX-3 finishing 14th overall and 3rd in its class at the 1975 24 hours of Daytona.
The first factory-supported entry was recorded in 1978, where two Gatorade liveried RX-3s entered into the 24 Hours of Daytona. The lessons learned that year with the RX-3 helped them return in 1979 with the new RX-7, where the team claimed victory in the GTU class victory, a first win that would be followed by more than 100 other IMSA victories for the RX-7 during the next 12 years.
In Europe, the RX-3 was campaigned by privateers in the European Touring Car Championship, including the popular Spa 24 Hours. In fact in 1975, a privateer even used a French RX-3 to race at Le Mans.
Today, the Mazda RX-3 is a favorite choice for historic racers worldwide and has even obtained cult status in the tuning, drifting, and even the drag racing worlds.
Thanks to the Mazda RX-3 success in competition, the car successfully promoted the rotary engine and boosted Mazdas reputation to the world.