The unique Mazda made famous by Matchbox

The RX 500 has been sold 10 times by British Toymaker Matchbox

In October 1970, Mazda unveiled the radically angular and streamlined RX500 concept car at the 17th Tokyo Motor Show. The start of the new decade also marked the company’s 50th anniversary and the RX500 was a bold statement of Mazda’s engineering and design ambition. It quickly became a crowd favourite, captivating audiences with its futuristic design and technology.

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It looked like a car from another planet than the rotating Cosmo, Luce and R100 production cars on sale at the time – the wedge-shaped supercar had forward-opening butterfly-wing doors, while its engine rotary 250ps 10A was accessible through butterfly-opening engine covers. It was also a road safety dyno that had multi-colored rear light strips that indicated whether the car was accelerating, rolling, or slowing down by changing color.

This matchbox version was a hit in the die casting world

This matchbox version was a hit in the die casting world

Given its stunning design, it was no surprise that the space-age RX500 attracted intense media interest around the world. This exhibition undoubtedly created the inspiration to transform this spectacular vehicle into a model car. Famous British model car builders Matchbox recognized the RX500’s potential and included it in their “Superfast programme” – a response to Mattel’s 1968 introduction of Hot Wheels, which featured slimline axles and new wheels that made them faster and more fun to play. with.

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Why did Matchbox decide to include this unique Japanese supercar concept in its portfolio? Matchbox’s biggest sales market at the time was the United States, and Matchbox was looking for futuristic fantasy and concept cars that would appeal to American children. The RX500 met these requirements perfectly, and with much 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 best -worldwide seller.

But back in the full-size world, how did Mazda come up with such a radical vehicle in the first place? The development of a prototype designed to study the behavior of plastic vehicle bodies and driving dynamics at speeds above 200 km/h had been initiated as early as 1968 under the code name X810. An experimental vehicle was needed – 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 seen as a potential successor to the Cosmo Sport 110 S, Mazda’s flagship car at the time.

A carefully selected team has made different models and studied their aerodynamic drag in the wind tunnel. Contrary to the initial plan to build a coupé, designer Shigenori Fukuda’s simplified Shooting Brake model, which offered the lowest aerodynamic drag, was chosen. For the design of the RX500, Fukuda-san was inspired by the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, among others. The vehicle had to look as little like a classic car as possible, so a wide variety of design elements from racing and aviation found their way into the RX500. The rear stands out particularly, with its atypical look, evoking a mix between a spaceship and a jet fighter. Inspiration also came from Fukuda’s association with Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Bertone. So Fukuda-san added smooth curves and contours to the RX500 to avoid creating monotonous lines.

Another distinctive design feature is the wrap-around windshield. With the A-pillar fully concealed, the vehicle’s glass surfaces appear to be cast in one piece, giving the cabin a domed appearance. Access to the RX500 is through a pair of gullwing doors. Even when stationary, the door concept, familiar from motorsport, creates a dynamic impression. Behind those front doors, a pair of gullwing doors, which serve as a longitudinally divided lid for the engine bay, house the supercar’s spinning heart. A detail that Matchbox missed when designing the speedster for children: here, the engine compartment is concealed under a large tailgate with rear opening.

Inside the car, passengers sit in two bucket seats. The eye is drawn to the three semi-circular instruments behind the four-spoke leather steering wheel, which are arranged in a wrap-around dashboard. Entertainment is also provided in the RX500: the center console houses an AM/FM radio behind the four-speed transmission borrowed from the Mazda Luce R130 coupe. The RX500 was equipped with a futuristic rear light concept intended to provide additional information to other road users, thus making traffic safer.

It was also the RX500’s rotary engine that cemented its concept supercar status. Powered by an improved centrally located twin-rotor 10A motor for perfect weight distribution, the tiny 982cc rotary produced 250bhp and spun at 15,000rpm, more than grand prix cars of the time. With a fiberglass-reinforced plastic body on a tubular frame, the RX500 weighs just 850 kg, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 3.4 kg per horsepower. It was also only 1,065 meters tall – light, fast, low and futuristic, it’s no wonder it’s a dream car in the real world and in the small car world.

A dive into Mazda’s archives reveals images of the car in different colors, leading to speculation that multiple versions of the RX500 were built. In fact, only one RX500 was built, originally green, it was repainted yellow for the Tokyo show, as all Mazda vehicles on display that year were shown in the same bright yellow with red interiors.

After the Tokyo show, the RX500 continued to make a splash at various shows around the world and was painted silver and a restoration in 2008 revealed traces of the previous green and yellow colors underneath. Today, the only Mazda RX500 can be seen at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima.

While the oil price crisis of 1973 dashed any hope of RX500 production, unsurprisingly the crisis did not affect the miniature edition of the RX500. 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. Thus, the successful little homage to the RX500 has remained on toy shelves for a total of over a decade and has been sold countless times around the world.

Those hoping to display their own little homage to the rotary sports car in their living room should take a look inside their old toy box – maybe a little 1 scale Matchbox RX500: 59 awaits them there. Worth checking out – these days the small model is a popular collector’s item, while for more serious collectors Spark Models now offers a detailed RX500 die-cast model. A unique and radical concept car, the bold Mazda designers behind the RX500 could never have imagined how this one-of-a-kind Mazda would become a hit in model car sales around the world.