Six Two Six: the unofficial history

These days, Japanese cars are pretty much taken for granted; it's easy to forget that there was once a time when the very idea of Japanese cars on American roads would have induced derisive laughter. Of course, many of those same Japanese cars are now actually built here in the Big PX, and no one wonders about those Camrys or Accords anymore — but what on earth is a Mazda 626? And did they really build them for more than twenty years? This page doesn't even begin to answer all the questions.

R360 Toyo Cork Kogyo Company, Limited, founded in Hiroshima in 1920 to manufacture products from, well, cork, got out of that business and into vehicle manufacture in the Thirties, starting with a three-wheeled truck, duly dropping "Cork" from the corporate name. Their first car, the Mazda R360 coupe, appeared in 1960, demonstrating from Day One the company's intention to push the technological envelope. The R360 was powered by an air-cooled 356cc V-twin, sitting over the rear wheels; suspension was independent at both ends, and steering was by rack and pinion. Why name a car after a Zoroastrian deity? Mostly, I'd guess it's because the last half of "Ahura Mazda", pushed across Japanese palates, sounded very much like "Matsuda", as in Jujiro Matsuda, the former head of the company, and his son Tenuji Matsuda, who took control after his father's death in 1952.

Cosmo More Mazdas followed, with engines as big as 1.5 liters, but the big news came in 1967, with the introduction of the Cosmo Sports, powered by Felix Wankel's rotary engine, previously seen in cars built by NSU in Germany. The rotary was cantankerous, and tended to munch on its own oil seals, but when it was running, there was nothing like it; NSU's Spider, from 1963, produced 50 hp from a mere half-liter of displacement.

RX-2 Anxious to get a foothold in North America, Mazda entered the US market in 1970 with the Capella coupe and sedan, badged for the US as the RX-2, and powered by a 1.1-liter two-rotor Wankel putting out 97 hp. It sold fairly well until OPEC shut off the oil flow in 1973, at which time the RX-2's fuelishness — 15 mpg, if you were lucky — became a substantial liability. Worse yet, the finicky nature of the rotary, combined with the generally lax attitude towards automotive maintenance in the US, meant lots of Mazdas in the shop, a place you simply didn't find Toyotas and Datsuns of the time. (I was driving a 1975 Toyota Celica, which was darn near bulletproof for over 190,000 miles.) Mazda, in the Japanese way, went to work on the problems, got them under control, offered a 75,000-mile warranty on the drivetrain to reassure buyers, but the damage was done.

That might have been it for Mazda's US operations right there, but the company was determined to stay the course. Two piston-engined cars were readied: the subcompact Familia/323, sold here as the GLC ("Great Little Car", they would have you believe) starting in the 1977 model year, and a new Capella, introduced in 1979 as the 626.

'81 626 In US trim, the first 626 was a moderately-upscale compact with rear drive, a 2-liter SOHC four-cylinder delivering 75 hp, and actual space for four if they were good friends. Consumer Guide called it a "bargain-basement BMW", which might have been pushing it. Just the same, shoppers wanting more than the stern economies of the GLC found solace — and decent gas mileage, in the middle to upper twenties — in that first 626. Of course, Mazda found ways to distinguish its product from the general run of compacts, most notably with the divided fold-down rear seat, which added substantially to the available cargo space. I remember my first encounter with a 1980 626; my five-year-old Toyota suddenly looked twice as old and three times as shabby. Mazda sales in the US doubled between 1978 and 1979. And Ford, looking for a way to dispose of a prewar plant in Japan, acquired 25 percent of Toyo Kogyo in 1979.

The second-generation 626, now on a front-drive platform, appeared for 1983, and was named "Import Car of the Year" by Motor Trend. The engine, still two liters, was bumped up to 83 hp, and two trim lines (DX and LX) were offered. While this version would remain in production through 1987, many running changes were made, including a switc