Several of the larger Japanese manufacturers were trying to increase their global visibility and perception as innovators in the 1960s. Toyota introduced the 2000 GT to the world in 1965, and Nissan took over the Skyline from Prince in 1966. But before either one of those, Mazda gave the world the Cosmo.
In 1964, Mazda decided to introduce a halo vehicle at the Tokyo motor show. They named it Cosmo - to reflect the global interest in the space race at the time. Mazda used the Cosmo to illustrate their innovation development capability. The cornerstone of that platform was the rotary engine. The model shown at Tokyo was less of a traditional fragile show car and more of a mechanical prototype. Quickly on the heels of the favorable response at the show, Mazda built 80 pre-production cars between 1965 and 1966 for the purposes of market and engineering testing.
They were comfortable enough with the outcomes of the test vehicles that they began full-scale production in May 1967. Each Cosmo was built by hand at a rate of about one car per day. In the five years the first generation car was built, they only produced a total of 1,519 cars.
The first version, the Series I/L10A, was powered by a 2-rotor Wankel engine of 982 cc displacement. It produced about 110 hp. Interestingly, models intended for export were named 110S instead of Cosmo - a reference to the horsepower output.
The Series I car used a Hitachi four barrel carburetor and a two spark plug per chamber dual-distributor ignition. It came equipped with a four speed manual transmission and 14 inch wheels standard.
The front suspension was fully independent with coil springs between A-arms. The rear utilized a live axle located with trailing arms and leaf springs. The Cosmo cost $4100 initially - lower than the price of the Toyota 2000 GT.
Mazda only built 343 of the Series I cars when in July 1968, barely a year later, they introduced the Series II/L10B version.
It was a significantly different car in many ways. The wheelbase had been increased by 15 inches, improving ride quality and creating more usable room. Engine displacement stayed at 982 cc, but output had increased significantly, to 128 hp. They also decided to give the new version power brakes, 15 inch wheels, and an added gear in the transmission. Mazda also included a larger grill and two additional vents under the front bumper.
Mazda raced the Cosmo in 1968 for the purpose of proving the reliability of the rotary engine. They entered two cars in the 84 hour Marathon de la Route at the Nurburgring. The two cars were mostly stock with the exception of a variable intake system that actuated a peripheral port as rpms increased.
In a 60 car field, the cars ran together in 4th and 5th place for most of the race. Ultimately one of the cars retired with axle damage with less than two hours remaining in the race. The other car finished fourth overall, verifying the potential of the rotary.
By the time production of the first generation Cosmo concluded in 1972, they had built only 1176 Series II cars, and it is rumored only six were initially brought into the United States.
Mazda introduced the second-generation Cosmo in 1975. In Japan it was known as the Cosmo AP (for anti-pollution), but the rest of the world knew it as the Mazda RX-5.
At an auction in Monterey in 2014, a Mazda Cosmo sold for $264,000, affirming how much people love Mazda's premiere car of the era even today.