The Mazda MX-81 made its debut 40 years ago at the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show proudly showcasing its futuristic, wedge-shaped coupe design by Marc Dechamps for the Turin-based coachbuilder Bertone. It would be the first of a long line of models to feature the iconic MX badge.
Bertone used the running gear of the Mazda 323 to build the Mazda MX-81 Aria concept car – a futuristic wedge-shaped hatchback. At the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show, the vehicle stood out from the others with its gold paint, enormous glasshouse, and pop-up lights.
What truly set it apart though was its radical interior. It had a recessed square steering wheel, side swinging front seats, and TV screen cockpit.
The one-off concept definitely embodied the MX model ethos to defy convention, which led to the high-mounted taillights and pop-up headlamps that would be seen in future Mazda production cars in the eighties.
Normally, after being exhibited, many prototypes and concepts are destroyed, but in 2019, Nobuhiro Yamamoto, the previous fourth-generation MX-5 program manager and rotary engine developer, discovered the MX-81 in a warehouse at Mazda’s Headquarters, based in Hiroshima.
Upon its discovery, the car was shipped to Mazda Italy, where they acquired the expertise of SuperStile in Turin to restore the vehicle precisely and painstakingly under the guidance of Flavio Gallizio.
After the restoration was concluded, it was celebrated by recreating the original press images of the MX-81 in front of the Milan Cathedral.
The bond between Mazda and Italian design that was celebrated with the restoration of the MX-81 actually started 20 years prior to its debut at the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show.
Back in 1960, a young automotive writer, Hideyuki Miyakawa, went to Italy for the Turin Motor Show where he met the Head of Design at Bertone, Giorgetto Giugiaro. It was also there that he met a Japanese-Italian translator who was also passionate about cars, Marisa Bassano, who would become his future wife.
In 1961, Marisa came to Hiroshima for a study trip, where Hideyuki Miyakawa met with Mazda chairman Tsuneji Matsuda to discuss the importance of design in the Japanese car industry.
In Turin, Hideyuki and Marisa started to act as intermediaries between the Japanese car manufacturers and the iconic Italian design studios, namely Bertone, Pininfarina, and Ghia.
The partnership that they nurtured between Mazda and Bertone led to Giugiaro designing the Mazda Familia and Luce vehicles in the 1960s.
Even after Giugiaro left and relocated to working at Ghia, Mazda’s relationship with Bertone would continue. The restoration of the Bertone-designed 1981 Mazda MX-81 Aria is a great symbol of their partnership.
However, the Mazda MX-81 only marks the beginning of the MX badge story. It has been used more than a dozen times in production, concept, and even racing Mazdas.
The 1983 MX-02 concept car succeeded the MX-81, being a large flat-sided five-door hatch with generous windows, aerodynamic rear wheel covers, and flared door mirrors. Other distinct features of the vehicle included rear-wheel steering and windscreen head-up display.
The one-off theme of the MX continued with the debut of the 1985 Mazda MX-03, another revolutionary-looking concept car. However, Mazda came up with a model that was powered by a triple rotor 315ps engine. It was purely designed as a concept car.
The low-slung concept coupe displayed an absolute futuristic appearance, with an aircraft-style yoke in the cabin instead of a wheel. It was also featured head-up displays, four-wheel steering, and all-wheel steering. The long, low body of the MX-03 produced an aerodynamic Cd of only 0.25.
Even though the MX-02 and MX-03 shared a few futuristic design ideas,the MX-04 really set itself apart from the previous MX concepts.
The MX-04 was unveiled at the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show and displayed a front-engine rear-wheel drive sports car chassis with removable fiberglass panels. The panels had two different sets to become either a glass dome roofed coupe or a beach buggy style, open-sided roadster.
It was equipped with a rotary engine, and the shape-shifting sports car was never destined for production. However, at the time, Mazda was already working on the MX-5, with the most famous MX vehicle making its debut two years later.
The MX badge was then worn by the MX-3 and MX-6 production coupes. These two models rode on the MX-5’s success and presented very different coupe styles. However, in the 1990s, the most radical MX badge-wearing vehicle would have to be the Mazda MXR-01.
Following the rotary-powered Mazda 787B victory at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, the FIA announced a ban on rotary-powered vehicles. This placed Mazda in a position of finding a new vehicle for the 1992 World Sportscar Championship at very short notice.
The solution to their problem was answered in the shape of the Mazda MXR-01 prototype race car. The vehicle was based on the Jaguar XJR-14 which was used in the previous season, but after the marque stepped away from sportscar racing, Mazda was able to adjust the prototype designed by Ross Brawn and equip it with a Mazda badged V10 Judd engine.
The MXR-01 was known for its incredible grip and downforce with only five units made in total. Unfortunately, the World Sportscar Championship collapsed at the conclusion of 1992, ending Mazda’s international motorsport program and preventing the MXR-01 any opportunity to succeed.
The MX badge would return in the 21st century on more concept cars; this time with the 2001 MX-Sport Tourer concept. It was a revolutionary MPV concept with a sweeping body design and freestyle doors. It highlighted that MPVs did not have to have feature a boxy or dull design, which was proven with the Mazda5.
The 2004 Mazda MX-Flexa was even more closely related to the ground-breaking Mazda5 production car, possessing the same popular sliding rear doors.
The 2002 MX-Sport Runabout concept gave a glimpse of the upcoming second-generation Mazda2, with the 2003 MX-Sportif being the concept that gave a preview of the upcoming first-generation Mazda3.
The MX-MicroSport was a more US-focused hatchback concept that made its debut at the 2004 Detroit Motor Show.
The MX concept that especially propelled Mazda towards success was the 2005 MX-Crossport.
The car was inspired by the Mazda RX-8 sports car and became an SUV concept that featured slender headlamps, sculpted wheel arches, and bold shoulder lines that previewed the Mazda CX-7. The latter being a pivotal vehicle that was first in another line of award-winning SUVs, leading to today’s CX-5, CX-30, and MX-30.
40 years after it made its debut, its fitting that the restored first-ever MX model, the MX-81 Aria, sits beside the Mazda MX-30, a vehicle creating yet another chapter in Mazda’s history.