Cars bearing the Mazda name have been around since 1931. One of the most famous and influential names in the automobile manufacturing business, Mazda became a world-class force in the industry post-World War II, after it adopted the use of the rotary engine.
The rotary engine
Creating a practical engine that uses a rotary motion to more efficiently accomplish the four stages of internal combustion -- intake, compression, combustion and exhaust -- has been an elusive dream of inventors since the 16th century. The dream became a reality in 1957 when Felix Wankle, inspired by a dream he had 38 years earlier, finally created the first practical working model.
But Mazda would have to go through a lot of changes and make a lot of vehicles before that marriage of technology and assembly-line manufacturing could take place.
Mazda began in 1927 in Hiroshima as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. Originally a tool manufacturer, the company branched out and made its first vehicle in 1931. Although the company's cars bore the Mazda name from the start, the company did not change its name to Mazda until 1984.
According to the company website, the name Mazda "derives from Ahura Mazda, a god of the earliest civilizations in West Asia ... the god of wisdom, intelligence and harmony."
Throughout the 1930s, Mazda manufactured "three wheeled trucks" for China and India. These were essentially motorcycles with a back axle to support a trailer bed. The trucks ironically bore the three-triangle logo for Mitsubishi -- a company that would later become one of Mazda's top rivals -- on the component gas tank. During the war years, the company supplied hardware for the military, most notably the series 30 through 35 Type 99 rifle.
The bombing of Hiroshima put an end to the Japanese involvement in the second world war. Mazda loaned part of its headquarters building to the Hiroshima prefecture to handle its business until 1946. In 1949, Mazda was again ready to resume production on its three-wheeled trucks.
Mazda was the major company to show the most interest in developing the rotary engine after Wankel perfected his practical model. During the 1960s, Mazda put a great deal of effort and money into developing the engine for use in a commercial vehicle. That came to fruition in 1967 with the limited run of Mazda's first rotary engine vehicle.
Its innovation and effort put Mazda on the map, and the company began exporting both rotary and piston-driven vehicles around the world. The models with the efficient, powerful and lightweight rotary engines became the most in-demand. Continuing its reputation for innovative engine technologies, Mazda also adapted the four-stroke Miller cycle engine for use in the commercial automobile in 1994.
Mazda and Ford
However, the late 1990s were a time of struggle for the company, partially due to the Asian financial crisis of the time. Ford, who already owned much of the company, bought out the controlling interest. The match was particularly fruitful, especially in terms of development costs, which could now be shared by the two auto-making giants. Mazda became profitable again.
During the American Great Recession that started in 2007, Ford sold 20 percent of its stake in Mazda. As part of the same deal, Mazda bought back controlling interest in its own stock. Now Japanese controlled again, Ford and Mazda still enjoy a reciprocating relationship in joint ventures and technology exchange.