11th March 2021

50th Anniversary of the Mazda RX-3

2021 sees the 50th Anniversary of one of Mazda’s most interesting, adaptable and successful cars. Often overlooked, the RX-3 was a landmark car in Mazda’s history.

The RX-3 was a car that cemented Mazda’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. Not only that, its success on the racetrack led the way for the accomplishments of the later and more famous RX-7.

By the time production came to an end in 1978, 286,757 RX-3s had been produced, making it the biggest selling Mazda rotary outside of the RX-7. Additionally, the piston engine versions, called the Mazda 808, Mazda 818 or Grand Familia depending on the market, were also popular and adding lots more vehicles to the sales tally. And while it was the two-door coupe that was the most popular and is the best remembered today, the RX-3 was offered in coupe, saloon and estate body styles – making it the first Mazda rotary estate car.

Mazda launched the new Mazda RX-3 in September 1971. Smaller and sportier than the Mazda RX-2, the rotary RX-3 was called the Mazda Savanna in Japan but it was largely identical to the in-line four-cylinder powered Mazda Grand Familia launched alongside it. As Mazda had done with previous models, offering a choice of piston or rotary powered versions increased the range and customer choice considerably.

Externally, the rotary RX-3 and piston Mazda 818 were distinguished by different grilles and headlights, with the RX-3 having twin round headlamps and the 818/ Grand Familia using square lamps or single round lights. Plus, the unique rotor shaped badges on the RX-3 left no doubts to the type of power unit under the bonnet.

Launched in September 1971, the RX-3 coupe, saloon and estate all featured the 982cc 10A engine, while US 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. By 1976 exports to Australia and New Zealand had stopped, but the car remained on sale in Japan and the United States through to the end of production in 1978.

Arriving in the UK in 1972, the Mazda RX-3 and 818 range featured a saloon and a coupe for each model, with the £1,633 RX-3 Coupe costing £335 more than its piston engine 818 sibling. In 1973 an estate RX-3 and 818 joined the line-up, but the RX-3 estate only lasted until 1974 before being dropped from the UK line-up. Updates across the range in 1975 included improved upholstery, tinted glass and the option of metallic paint for the first time. RX-3 sales stopped in the UK in 1976, however the Mazda 818 estate stayed in the line-up until 1978, with the last saloons and coupes being sold in 1979.

Tested by Motor Magazine in 1973, the 982cc 110bhp 10A powered RX-3 coupe had a 0-60mph performance of 10.2secs and over the duration of their 1,220-mile road test they averaged 24.9mpg praising the RX-3 for its good performance, slick gear change, solid build quality and nice controls. Testing the 1,272cc 4cyl 81bhp Mazda 818 Saloon they recorded a more leisurely 15.3sec 0-60mph time, while fuel consumption of 32.7mpg highlighted the piston engine’s slightly more economical cruising ability. Yet despite the lower price, in 1973 the UK importer sold three times more RX-3s than Mazda 818s.  

The other crucial chapter the RX-3 played in the Mazda story was its success in competition. Having raced the Cosmo and R100 Coupe in Europe at famous events like the Marathon de la Route and the Spa 24 Hours, Mazda focused on racing at home in Japan – taking on the Nissan Skyline in domestic racing. The new RX-3 made its mark from outset, taking its first victory at the Fuji Tourist Trophy meeting in December 1971. However, it wasn’t just at home that the RX-3 was making its mark, the RX-3 became a popular and successful race car around the world – competing in the USA, Europe and Australia. In the United States the RX-3 appeared in the famous Daytona 24 Hours in the hands of privateers with one car finishing 14th overall and 3rd in class in 1975 with only Porsches and Ferraris ahead of it.

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 to drive cars.

Today, the RX-3s total sales of 286,757 make it the second best-selling rotary of all time behind the 811,634 combined sales of three generations of RX-7. Half a century on the RX-3’s fame may have been eclipsed somewhat by the RX-7, but this hard-working rotary and its less glamorous piston engine siblings did much to feed Mazda’s global sales expansion in the early 70s, while the RX-3’s success in competition was a hugely important early chapter in a story that led 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.

Are you a fan of the Mazda RX-3? Let us know in the comments below!​