The year was 1970: The Beatles released their album ‘Let It Be’ and the failed Apollo 13 space mission inspired the world-famous quote “Houston, we have a problem”. But 1970 was also a busy year for the automotive world. Visionary, wedge-shaped designs dominated the look of supercars, and a wide range of manufacturers were testing the technically sophisticated rotary engine in their concept cars.
It was in this context that Mazda unveiled the radically angular and streamlined RX500 at the 17th Tokyo Motor Show, which also marked the company’s 50th anniversary. The yellow mid-engined sports car quickly became a crowd favourite, captivating the public with its aviation-inspired design and upward-opening doors. Equipped with innovative rotary piston technology, it was hardly surprising that the futuristic RX500 generated strong media interest worldwide.
FROM THE SHOWROOM TO THE TOY BOX
These circumstances provided an excellent backdrop for turning the spectacular vehicle into a model car. Matchbox recognised the potential of the RX500 and included it in its Superfast programme, a response to the 1968 introduction of Hot Wheels by Mattel, which featured thin axles and new wheels that made them faster and more fun to play with.
Why did Matchbox decide to include the Japanese supercar in its portfolio? Hot Wheels designed its products specifically for the US market, Matchbox’s largest sales market at the time, and scored points with various custom cars that appealed to the distinctive American taste. To keep up, Matchbox was also looking for futuristic fantasy and concept cars. The RX500 perfectly matched the requirements of the American market, and there was a lot of interest in Mazda and the rotary engine in Europe as well. No wonder that the orange Matchbox RX500, introduced in 1971 as the MB66, immediately became a global bestseller.
SPECTACULARLY DIFFERENT-THE IDEA BEHIND THE RX500
But how did Mazda come up with such a radical vehicle in the first place? The development of a prototype designed to research the behaviour of plastic vehicle bodies and driving dynamics at speeds of over 200 km/h had been initiated as early as 1968 under the codename X810. The idea was to investigate the harmony between people and speed in a future society, based on possible future intercity traffic scenarios. An experimental vehicle was required – one with a mid-engine, low air resistance and high downforce and, at the same time, the smoothness of a rotary engine. The RX500 was also considered as a potential successor to the Cosmo Sport 110 S, Mazda’s flagship car at the time.
A carefully selected team produced various models and studied their aerodynamic drag in the wind tunnel. Contrary to the original plan of building a coupé, designer Shigenori Fukuda’s streamlined Shooting Brake model, which offered the lowest aerodynamic drag, was chosen. Fukuda-san drew inspiration for the RX500’s design from the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, among other things. The vehicle was to resemble a classic car as little as possible, so a wide variety of design elements from racing and aviation found their way into the RX500. The rear stands out in particular, with its unusual appearance, evoking a mix between a spaceship and a jet fighter. Inspiration also came from Fukuda’s association with Italian car body manufacturer Carrozzeria Bertone. Thus, Fukuda-san added soft curves and contours to the RX500 to avoid creating monotonous lines.
Another distinctive design feature is the wrap-around windscreen. With the A-pillar fully concealed, the vehicle’s glass surfaces appear to be cast in one piece, giving the cabin a dome-like appearance. Entry to the RX500 is gained through a pair of butterfly doors. Even when stationary, the door concept, familiar from motorsport, creates a dynamic impression. Behind these front doors, a pair of gullwing doors, which serve as a longitudinally split cover for the engine compartment, house the spinning heart of the supercar. A detail that escaped Matchbox when designing the speedster for children – here, the engine compartment is concealed under a large rear-opening hatch.
Inside the car, passengers sit in two bucket seats. The eye is drawn to the three semi-circular instruments behind the four-spoke leather steering wheel, which are arranged in a wrap-around dashboard. Entertainment is also provided for in the RX500: The centre console houses an AM/FM radio behind the four-speed transmission taken from the Mazda Luce R130 coupé.
TAIL LIGHTS OF THE FUTURE AND COLOURS THAT FUELLED THE RUMOUR MILL
The RX500 was equipped with a futuristic tail light concept intended to provide additional information to other road users, thereby making traffic safer. For example, the lighting system at the rear of the vehicle included red, yellow and green lights in addition to the standard red brake and white reversing lights. Depending on the braking intensity, the red lights would light up progressively to warn following traffic in the event of emergency braking, similar to today’s emergency braking signal with flashing tail lights. The yellow lights come on as soon as speed is reduced, while the green lights indicate that the vehicle is accelerating.
The RX500 is powered by an upgraded, water-cooled, two-disc Type 10A rotary engine located in the centre of the vehicle, directly behind the driver. With a chamber volume of just 982 cc, it achieves an output of 250 hp. Revving up to 15,000 rpm, more than a Formula 1 car at the time, the RX500 manages a top speed of over 240 km/h. One reason for this is the reduced weight: Thanks to a fibreglass-reinforced plastic body on a tube frame, the RX500 weighs in at a sporty 850 kg, resulting in an excellent power-to-weight ratio of 3.4 kg per hp. With a vehicle height of 1.065 m, the Wankel sports car also ranks among the flattest cars in the world.
Time and time again, pictures of different colour versions of the car caused wild speculation – had several versions of the RX500 been built after all? The restoration of the silver vehicle in 2008 provided answers, as its refurbishment revealed both green and yellow layers of paint. The car, originally green, had been repainted yellow for the Tokyo Motor Show, as all Mazda vehicles on display were to be presented in the same bright yellow with red interiors. The RX500 continued to make a splash at various shows around the world but did not come away from its travels entirely unscathed – which is why the car was given its current silver livery. Any hopes of series production for the RX500 were dashed by the oil price crisis that began in 1973. As a result, the RX500 remains a one-off to this day and can be admired at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima.
FROM TOY TO COLLECTOR’S ITEM
Fortunately, the crisis did not affect the miniature edition of the RX500: After its launch, the Matchbox model remained on sale for over four years until it was reissued as a red Streaker model in 1975. Production was discontinued in 1976. Then, between 1978 and 1985, the RX500 was again available in other colour versions in a number of local markets. Thus, the small, successful homage to the RX500 remained on toy shelves for a total of over a decade and has been sold countless times around the world.
Those hoping to display their own small ode to the rotary sports car in their living rooms should take a look inside their old toy box – perhaps a small 1:59 scale Matchbox RX500 awaits them there. It’s well worth checking out – these days, the small model is a popular collector’s item, commemorating wild races in childhood bedrooms.