Mazda RX500: From concept vehicle to Matchbox best-seller

·2-min read

In 1970, Mazda unveiled a wedge-shaped concept car that butterfly swing doors, gullwing engine covers, multicolored rear strip lights that indicated whether the car was speeding up, cruising, or slowing down by changing color. Dubbed the RX500, the Japanese carmaker’s concept car immediately became a crowd favorite.

Thanks to its space-age looks, the Mazda RX500 generated strong media interest worldwide and caught the attention of Matchbox. The British toy car manufacturer was then looking for a new product to include in its “Superfast Program” as a response to the 1968 introduction of Hot Wheels by Mattel.

Matchbox wanted a model car that would appeal to the American market. It needed a futuristic-looking model car to compete with Hot Wheels’ products. In 1971, Matchbox released an orange RX500 and was named the MB66 which immediately became a global best-seller.

A few more MB66s were produced in the following years. From 1975 to 1976, Matchbox released a red RX500 with orange windows, STP and Total liveries, and featured an opening rear hood.

In 1981, Matchbox released a dark-green MB66 with similarly orange-tinted windows, lime and yellow stripes, and the number 66 painted on the car’s body.

This was followed by two more model cars produced in 1987 — one painted in gold and the other in green with a red stripe.

Mazda says that the concept behind the RX500 was to create an experimental vehicle “with a mid-engine, low air resistance and high downforce and, at the same time, the smoothness of a rotary engine.”

A carefully selected team produced various models and studied their aerodynamic drag in a wind tunnel. Designer, Shigenori Fukuda, took inspiration from design elements in racing and aviation, as well as the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, among other things. Fukuda-san was also associated with Italian car body manufacturer Carrozzeria Bertone, which is shown in the RX500’s soft curves and contours.

One of the more iconic characteristics of the RX500 was its rear. It was unusual in appearance and evoked a mix between a spaceship and a jet fighter. Another notable design feature was the wrap-around windscreen, giving the cabin a dome-like appearance.

It had a two-rotor 10A engine located at the center of the vehicle. The small 982cc rotary mill generated a maximum power of 248hp and revved up to 15,000rpm — higher than the Grand Prix cars of that period.

A fiberglass-reinforced plastic body on a tube frame gave the RX500 a weight of just 850kg giving it a power-to-weight ratio of 3.4kg per horsepower.

The Japanese automaker says that only one RX500 was ever built — originally green but was repainted yellow — which now sits at the Numaji Transportation Museum in Hiroshima.

Photo from Mazda

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