At the 17th Tokyo Motor Show in October 1970, Mazda unveiled the streamlined RX500 concept car. This unveiling also coincided with a new decade that marked Mazda’s 50th Anniversary and the RX500 was a statement for Mazda’s ambitions. It captivated the public with its futuristic design and advanced technology for the era.
It looked like a car from a different time to some of the production cars on sale at the time - with forward opening butterfly swing doors, while its 250ps 10A rotary engine was accessed by gullwing opening engine covers.
Given its impressive looks, it wasn’t surprising that the RX500 generated strong media interest worldwide. The attention it got played a part in turning this innovative vehicle into a model car. Matchbox, a famous British company, 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.
Some may wonder; Why did Matchbox decide to include this one-off Japanese supercar concept in its portfolio? At the time, Matchbox's largest sales market was the US and Matchbox wanted to find cars with a futuristic, fantasy feel that would appeal to children in America. The RX500 perfectly matched these requirements. With a lot of interest in Mazda and the rotary engine in Europe as well, it was no wonder that the orange Matchbox RX500, introduced in 1971 as the MB66, immediately became a global bestseller.
How did Mazda come up with such a different vehicle to begin with? Research into the behaviour of plastic vehicle bodies and driving dynamics at speeds of over 125mph had been taking place as early as 1968. 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.
To start with, the original plan was to build a coupé, but designer Shigenori Fukuda's streamlined Shooting Brake model, offered the lowest aerodynamic drag, and this model was chosen. He drew inspiration for the RX500's design from the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, among other things. The rear stands out in particular, evoking a mix between a spaceship and a jet fighter.
Inside the car, passengers sit in two bucket seats and entertainment is also provided, the centre console houses an AM/FM radio behind the four-speed transmission taken from the Mazda Luce R130 coupé. The RX500 was equipped with a futuristic taillight concept also, at the rear of the vehicle they 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 taillights. The yellow lights come on as soon as speed is reduced, while the green lights indicate that the vehicle is accelerating.
It was also the RX500’s rotary engine that cemented its supercar concept status. Powered by an upgraded two-rotor 10A engine located centrally for perfect weight distribution, the tiny 982cc rotary produced 250ps and revved to 15,000rpm – higher than the grand prix cars of the period.
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.
Do you have the Matchbox model? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!