Everybody remembers the Mazda RX-7 as the quintessential rotary-engined sports car. But the car that made the RX-7 possible was the Mazda RX-3, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Introduced in its home market in 1971 and arriving in North America a year or so later, the Mazda RX-3 was a landmark car in Mazda’s history.
The Cosmo 110S was the first rotary powered car
It wasn’t Mazda’s first rotary-powered car. That was the low-volume Cosmo 110S sports car, introduced in 1967, followed by the R100, R130S, and R200 Coupes in successive years. But it was the attractive, adaptable and highly successful RX-3 that solidified the brand’s association with the rotary engine at home and abroad, while its export success helped put Mazda on the map as a global automotive company.
In addition, the RX-3’s considerable success on the racetrack paved the way for the subsequent exploits of the more famous RX-7. By the time production came to an end in 1978, 286,757 RX-3s had been produced, making it the second best-selling rotary of all time behind the 811,634 combined sales of three generations of RX-7.
While it was the two-door coupe that was the most popular model and is the best remembered today, the RX-3 was also offered in coupe, sedan and wagon body styles – making it the first Mazda rotary station wagon. Those models were complemented in various market by parallel piston-engine versions, variously called the Mazda 808, Mazda 818 or Grand Familia, depending on the market.
Confusing the picture somewhat, the rotary-powered car was called Savanna in Japan, while export versions wore the RX-3 moniker.
Externally, the rotary RX-3 was distinguished from its piston-engine counterparts by different grilles and round quad-headlights. Plus, the unique rotor shaped badges on the RX-3 left no doubt as to the type of power unit under the hood.
Mazda RX-3 started with two rotary engines
Launched in September 1971, home-market the RX-3 featured the 982cc 10A engine, while North American-market cars featured the more powerful 1,146cc 12A engine. From 1972 the Savanna GT went on sale in Japan with the larger 12A engine, which was also introduced into other markets alongside the 10A versions, until the 10A was discontinued in 1974.
While it was replaced by a larger RX4 in some markets in 1974, the RX-3 remained on sale in Japan and North America until production ceased in 1978.
Small visual detail changes distinguished the 1971 to 1973 Series I cars from the later 1973 to 1978 Series II and Series III versions, with the sharper nose and grille the obvious stand out feature of later models.
Mazda RX-3 racing prowess
Mazda focused on racing the RX-3 at home in Japan – taking on the Nissan Skyline in domestic racing. It made its mark from outset, taking its first victory at the Fuji Tourist Trophy meeting in December 1971, while equipped with the 12A engine. In May 1972 RX-3s took a historic 1-2-3 finish in the Fuji Touring Car Grand Prix. In spite of the battle for supremacy with Nissan reaching new levels of intensity, RX-3s went on to take the Fuji Grand Champion Touring Car class championship title in 1972, 1973 and 1975. After six seasons of success, at the JAF Touring Car Grand Prix of 1976 the Mazda RX-3 claimed its 100th domestic Japanese racing victory.
It wasn’t only at home that the RX-3 made its competition mark, however. It appeared in the famous Daytona 24 Hour race in 1975 in the hands of privateers, with one car finishing 14th overall and 3rd in class, with only Porsches and Ferraris ahead of it.
The RX-3 was just as popular in European saloon car racing where it was campaigned by privateers in the European Touring Car Championship, including the flagship Spa 24 Hours, and it was also popular in amateur rallying. An RX-3 even raced at Le Mans in 1975, as a private entry.
The Mazda RX-3 in 2021
Today, the Mazda RX-3 remains a popular choice for historic racers around the globe, while the car has gained cult status in the tuning, drifting and even drag racing worlds. Thanks to its success in competition the Mazda RX-3 was a car that successfully extended the Mazda brand, promoted the rotary engine and helped Mazda begin to establish its reputation for being a producer of great drivers’ cars.
The RX-3’s success in competition was a hugely important early chapter in a story that led through the RX-7 all the way to Le Mans victory in 1991. Still loved by owners and tuners the world over, the RX-3 rightly has a cult status amongst rotary aficionados.
Happy Birthday RX-3!