engineering has a long tradition at Mazda, dating back to its very first
passenger car. A loveable little coupe launched 60 years ago, the Mazda R360
instantly set a new benchmark for microcars in Japan, outshining the
competition from day one. It also defined Mazda’s DNA as a maker of stylish,
efficient and above all fun-to-drive vehicles. The parallels between then and
now are many.
known outside of Japan, the Mazda R360 was a smash hit at home. The company’s
first passenger car sold 4,500 units on the day it was launched in May 1960 and
captured almost two-thirds of Japan’s burgeoning “kei car” (microcar) segment
by the end of that year, not to mention more than 15% of the entire domestic
was a watershed moment for Toyo Kogyo, as Mazda Motor Corporation was called at
the time. For the truck manufacturer, it was the beginning of a new era
producing unconventional cars.
R360 wasn’t the first kei car on the market, but it immediately became the most
popular thanks to its stylish looks, lightweight design, driver engagement and
affordability – characteristics of today’s Mazdas.
was very efficient, too, featuring a four-stroke engine that was quieter and
cleaner as well as more fuel efficient, durable and user-friendly than the
two-stroke powerplants used by the competition. The R360’s 360cm3 V-twin put
out 16PS, which doesn’t sound like much, but only needed to move 380kg. The top
speed was 90km/h: respectable enough for the class and plenty considering road
conditions in early 1960s Japan.
limiting kei-segment vehicle sizes (3m x 1.3m) and engine displacements
(360cm3), the Japanese government hoped to support the domestic passenger car
industry, encouraging affordable models and putting the dream of vehicle
ownership within reach of the public.
Mazda’s strategy in shedding mass
an appealing car with such limitations called for ingenuity. Restricted on engine
size, Mazda turned its attention to balancing the aspects it could control,
such as design innovation and weight. It was the birth of the carmaker’s gram
strategy, an obsession with shedding mass. Associated most prominently with the
legendary MX-5 roadster, this approach is integral to all Mazda models today.
result was the lightest vehicle in its class and indeed the world’s lightest
four-seater. Mazda looked into every possibility to reduce weight. Under the
boot of the rear-engined R360, the engineers chose aluminium cylinder heads and
magnesium alloy for the transmission casing and oil pan. The bonnet was also
made of aluminium, while the rear window used a specially developed plexiglass.
The frameless monocoque chassis structure, meanwhile, offered additional weight
benefits as well as above-average crash safety. It was an early lesson from
Mazda in lightweight engineering – today a central element of its Skyactiv
Unconventional from day one
enhanced the R360’s driving behaviour, as did other features like its unique
four-wheel independent suspension, whose lightweight setup reduced vibrations
and improved ride comfort, especially on poor surfaces. In addition to the
four-stroke engine, the R360’s four-speed manual and optional semi-automatic
transmission – Japan’s first torque-converter automatic – set it apart from the
competition’s three-speed manual offerings.
a result, the R360 was engaging and fun. Channelling the spirit of Jinba Ittai,
the connection between driver and car, it delivered a superior driving
experience for a microcar of that era. The joy of driving is one thing Mazda
has never forgotten. Another is a focus on looks: While most kei cars at the
time were sedans or wagons, Mazda designed a stylish coupe. Many more stunning
models would follow, from the Cosmo 110S and Luce R130 to the Mazda RX-7 and
RX-8, as Mazda’s design DNA evolved into today’s line-up of award-winning Kodo
despite the innovative engineering and relatively costly materials, efficient
production enabled Mazda to keep the price for the R360 manual down to ¥300,000
(then around US$830). Both attractive and attainable, it dominated the kei car
market from the day it was launched.
R360 helped define Mazda’s unique carmaking philosophy. The focus on innovation, balance, lightweight engineering and driving
fun still prevails 60 years later. And its insistence on putting soul into
its products, even if their primary purpose is merely to serve as affordable